In their latest release, Uncle, Duke & the Chief, Born Ruffians continue to do exactly what is expected of them: yodel out jangly, catchy indie rock tunes. Whether or not you’re fatigued by the lack of substantial evolution from the band who released their first full-length album almost 10 years ago is for you to decide. In 2008, the three-piece outfit felt aligned with their indie contemporaries in a genre that was making waves, but unlike many other bands, stuck to their guns and their signature sound regardless of indie rock’s peak and plunge from the spotlight. Miraculously, however, their steam-engine mentality has landed them back in an era that once again appreciates safe, feel-good indie rock, and that brings us to Uncle, Duke, & the Chief.
Title track “Forget Me” kicks off the album with stripped-down rhythmic guitar strums supporting Luke Lalonde’s twangy vocals that often enter into The Black Lips’s Jared Swilley territory in their visceral screechiness. Lalonde’s distinct voice is the puzzle piece that elevates Born Ruffian’s fifth LP into more interesting territory. Listening to the second track, “Miss You,” might lead one to the conclusion that Lalonde is a robot who has been studying human behavior for years and has boastfully published his thesis which reads, “I really miss you / I miss you so much baby / I miss you now / but do you miss me the way I miss you baby?” But the disconnect between the lyrics, the upbeat, heavy instrumentals, and Lalonde’s emotional yet lighthearted singing somehow works in the context of the album. Born Ruffians are masters of melody and composition, assuaging their listeners with an almost-indistinguishable warbling synth note here and there, nostalgic whistles, and euphonic cascading guitar riffs as on “Side Tracked,” crafting a lulled atmosphere that makes the blasé lyrics fade into the background. In other words, Born Ruffians sufficiently compensate for their weaknesses.
Uncle, Duke & the Chief maintains variety in its 9 songs clocking in at about the 30-minute mark. The soft rock rhythm section underscores the soulful pop vocals on “Side Tracked,” which is followed by a driving reverbed drum beat on “Fade to Black,” which is immediately followed by the nostalgic ballad “Love Too Soon” containing Mac Demarco-esque hazy guitar effects. Born Ruffians understands that the middle of the album is where listeners tend to get lost and deplete their arsenal of creative tactics on tracks 3-5. Unfortunately, past track 5 they weaken with four stale (and almost awkward in the case of “Tricky”, which seems like a desperate attempt to jar listeners into paying attention with its harsh marching-band drum beat and mechanical guitar screeching) indie rock tunes that don’t have much to offer save for Lalonde’s enduringly pleasing vocals.
Overall, Uncle, Duke, & the Chief reinforces the fact that Born Ruffians knows who they are and will never change, for better or worse. Listeners who are craving more catchy, melodic tracks from the indie group will without a doubt enjoy the album, which is lush and well-crafted with a few missteps. As long as no one is desperately craving some deeper emotional vulnerability from the band, whose generic lyrics continue to frustrate (mentioning masturbation on “Love Too Soon” is about as gritty as it gets), there’s enough to like about this album to give it a listen.