The first thing that strikes you as you step into Birthmarks, the third album from Midland, Ontario’s Born Ruffians, is the staggering stench of Exactly What The Label Asked For. The honed vocal tics, pitched directly between Noah Lennox, Marcus Mumford and Fleet Foxes. The enormous production so eminently pristine you glimpse your own reflection in the vocals, causing momentary nausea. The image of soiled interns being sent to the company gallows because ‘Oceans Deep’s cymbals 'just don’t sound massive enough!!'
But to judge Born Ruffians on that point would be unfair, not least owing to the fact the label in question, outside Canada at least, would be the entirely respectable Yep Roc Records. (That said, the band’s domestic label Paper Bag do have a history of rejecting commercially-deficient masterpieces - see Slim Twig’s kaleidoscopic A Hound at the Hem - which might put the frighteners somewhat on would-be pioneers...) The likely conclusion then is that Birthmarks bears a pretty close resemblance to the album Born Ruffians would make if left totally free to their own devices.
From this we can infer one of two conclusions: either the four-piece have personally taken to streamlining their music for maximum radio-play and profitability, or Born Ruffians are genuinely expressing themselves here - they are overall vibrant yet amply troubled chaps who happen to possess excellent wardrobes and, arguably, slightly defective imaginations, which leads to the spiritual pallor that niggles as we watch Birthmarks put its face on.
Still, more often than not they nail their washed-out colours to the right mast. Opener ‘Needle’ is big, cavernous, a mirage of reverb-dripping chords speckled with curious, winding melodies like tiny waterfalls finding their way down the cliff-face. Certainly it’s meatier, more diverse than the average and lyrically - well - in the spectrum of songs prominently featuring the phrase “yummy as can be”, it’s probably one of the more substantial. Sure, the cymbals splash, the handclaps pow, the guitars try to sound a bit afrobeat and god, does every verse and chorus and chorus and verse occupy the exact structural, textural and emotional dimensions you expect. And yes, ‘6-5000’ occasionally burns its anthemic-rock wings, and yes, ‘So Slow’ overplays its soulful-longing hand. But equally ‘Never Age’ has a delicate subtlety as harmonious as it is melodically wrong-footing, and any spotty teen who hears whichever of these gets commissioned for the biggest ad-spot and promptly falls in love with every single song on Birthmarks could probably do a lot worse.
See, Born Ruffians are simultaneously the pinnacle of and problem with certain strands of Canadian music. They apply a marginally authentic-sounding guitar-based tweak to a pop music formula, but ultimately fall into a category of Canadian bands that sound like passable misunderstandings of the concept of an American band. (It should be noted that plenty of American bands sound like passable misunderstandings of the concept of an American band, too.) Following the Can-rock revolution of ’85-’95 (Blue Rodeo, the Rheostatics, Sloan - not exactly seismic to us, but this was like punk to those guys) Canada instilled some confidence into its own music industry. Now Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire have banished the country’s musical taboo once and for all, and in 2013 we can guiltlessly expose Born Ruffians for the highly competent songwriters of slightly etiolated stock that they are. Birthmarks is probably the most impressive Born Ruffians record to date, but it’s a shame they travelled so far without straying from the middle of the road.
6Jazz Monroe's Score