Sometimes rock-based musicians are better off scaling back and stripping down the instrumental expanse to work in an intimate acoustic setting. This live-in-the-studio approach allows for greater up-front emotionalism and deeper lyrical compassion to shine through. MTV’s revolutionary Unplugged Series exploited this toned-down roots-based idea with acclaimed artists such as Nirvana, R.E.M., Alice In Chains, and Korn, all of whom totally prospered in the crystalline acoustic environment. Similarly, Born Ruffians believed the best way to advance their latest batch of songs was to cut back the electronic noise (including some wailing sax) for understated masterstroke, Say It.
Hailing from a small town north of Toronto, Born Ruffians first made waves with ‘08s fully formed entrée, Red Yellow & Blue. That’s when singer-guitarist Luke Lalonde, long-time childhood pal, bassist Mitch Derosier (who’d been jamming together since high school), and drummer Steven Hamelin moved to Toronto and toured with several big name acts, garnering an impressive fan base along the way. Joined by ex-Caribou bassist Andy Lloyd, who’ll supply keyboards, guitar fills, and backup vocals on tour, the friendly foursome hit the road again, this time to promote their eagerly awaited follow-up record.
But life wasn’t always so cushy. At the start, Born Ruffians often got dissed in favor of the trendy emo bands making the local club scene. It seems sniveling suburban white boy blues were more popular than the Strokes upbeat Classic rock-derived subterranean pop nearly a decade ago, at least in the Great White North.
“When we formed the band in 2001, we were fifteen. The Strokes Is This It came out. That polarized us. We realized the reason we weren’t into new music was because emo was so big. Whiny screaming stuff we didn’t like. We got laughed at and booed in Midland for being different, but we felt as if we were probably snotty about it,” Lalonde recalls.
Sticking to their guns, Born Ruffians also learned the ‘less-is-more’ approach to arranging could truly benefit a song’s enduring power. One of Lalonde’s inspirational bands, the Beatles, prospered by taking that risk on the archetypal Rubber Soul.
“It’s all about the groove and feel, getting across an idea in a simple way,” he claims. And he’s out to prove it.
Sprightly rudimentary jingle, “Oh Man” (which approximates the Strokes clever styling), neatly sets up Say It’s easygoing flow, relying on a good hook and tribal tom beat to captivate underground pop heads, new folk rockers and mainstream taste-makers alike.
Scurried six-string spangling juts out of jittered flitter, “Retard Canard,” a quirky bass-slapped drum-tapped military march interrupted by the declaratory “I just wanna set the world on fire’ refrain and probably inspired by the Talking Heads fidgety new wave eccentricities or, perhaps, the Violent Femmes resultant elementary scruff.
Effortlessly syncopated percussive patter underscores the minimal guitar-bass frenzy consuming half-spoken reflection, “The Ballad Of Moose Bruce.” Its made-up superhero from a bygone era looks back and gives advise to weary minions, channeling the ‘stop and smell the roses’ adage in a diligent manner.
Skittering along a little faster and louder, “Blood, The Sun & Water” anchors gently strummed guitar lucidity with dotted drum dollops and a booming bass bottom. Beseeching sax-sulked slow roller, “Come Back,” and swiftly galloping stroller, “Higher & Higher,” make the grade as well.
I spoke to the head Ruffian via phone before his band hit the road for an autumnal 2010 US tour.
How and why did Born Ruffians scale back Say It’s tracks to their sparsest acoustical auspices?
LUKE: It was a case of not wanting any ideas to go unchecked. In the studio, if someone had an idea to try an overdub, we’d get it on tape. But a good chunk of that stuff, when it came to the mix, didn’t make it. The less cluttered it was, the better it sounded. It came out sounding like a 3-piece record like the last one. Aesthetically, it’s similar sounding. The difference was in time and songwriting. It wasn’t a big production. A lot of saxes were toned down. There’s prominent sax on “Come Back’s” introduction, but the rest is hardly audible and sounded like synths.