Birthmarks is a curious title for Born Ruffians’ third LP. What is a birthmark– an inconsistency, a blemish in the skin that forms at or around birth and doesn’t go away, stays with that person for life. They are generally harmless; in different cultures there are a number of myths about what causes the unusual marks on the skin, but there isn’t a concrete scientific explanation for them.
Born Ruffian’s frontman, Luke Lalonde, has a small birthmark on his back, and his girlfriend has a matching one on her stomach, thus being the initial inspiration for the album’s title. However, in a recent interview with Bearded Gentleman Music, Lalonde further explains the Birthmarks title: “…it just kind of made sense. We were like ‘this feels like a new step,’ like a lateral and forward step at the same time.” Born Ruffians’ 2006 self-titled EP along with their debut album, Red, Yellow & Blue included fun, catchy songs ranging from frantic and feverish to beautiful and serene. Coinciding with Lalonde’s album title explanation, Birthmarks very much feels like a reawakening of the same Born Ruffians spark found on their early releases—an embracement of their musical characteristics and distinctions that won’t go away. The result is a fresh, varied and energetic third album.
What Birthmarks has most in common with Red, Yellow & Blue is the immediacy of likability regardless of a track’s pace or rhythm. “With Her Shadow” is slower, folk-tinted and channels the charms of Simon & Garfunkel. “Cold Pop” attractively tangles a doo-wop melody with Lalonde’s familiar yearnings for the girl with a boyfriend. “6-5000” is loud, bottled-up anxiousness with the abrupt yells that were a common occurrence on Red, Yellow & Blue. Album closer, “Never Age,” is atmospheric and even haunting, but is also soft and gentle, and the closing vocals gorgeously stand out. No matter what type of song it is, Born Ruffians know how to create the melodies and hooks that stick with you. Their second album, 2010’s Say It, did have its own of share appealing tunes, but many songs lacked that instant listener’s engagement of “What song is this? Who sings this?” Birthmarks revitalizes that promptness.
As reminiscent as Birthmarks is, it does not come without its signs of growth. Most notably on the pop-drenched, beat-friendly “Permanent Hesitation.” About two-thirds of the way through, the song breaks; Lalonde tip-toes vocals over a minimal bass, and, knowing the Born Ruffians, an abrupt, cathartic yell release is expected to be on the tail end. Not the case. Instead, the song takes on a fuller, slow-build bridge, and it’s better for it. The track may lose some of its edge, but “Permanent Hesitation” isn’t that type of song, and it doesn’t have to be.
“Needle” highlights Lalonde tackling a watermelon simile, but the Born Ruffians make it work—being insightful without taking yourself too seriously. “So Slow” is different, maybe the most dissimilar track on an album full of diverse songs. It has a grand, R&B feel and even includes Lalonde throwing down some sparse rap-attitude verses, including the confessional and poignant “I’m not scared to die, I’m scared to be replaced.” It’s a heartbreaking look at the despairs of a moment against the fears of a lifetime. Lalonde can sing pop songs about stealing your girl, but he can also delve into the more profound and honest human emotions.
Birthmarks fits as the title; the album is definitely not perfect, and it’s by no mean ordinary. But it’s the Born Ruffian’s being the Born Ruffians. They could’ve tried to make a third album showboating development and musical changes and maturity. Thankfully, they didn’t. Instead, they made an album that embraced themselves for who they are and the music they make. And that, in itself, reveals significant growth.