“Unjustly ignored.” “Overlooked.” “Slept-on.” Those descriptors don’t even come close to describing what happened to Born Ruffians’ excellent Warp debut, Red, Yellow and Blue. The album was a triumph in using empty space to as devastating an effect as guitar riffs, and Born Ruffians came off like a group of the twitchiest nerds Canadian public school had to offer. It was a dream concoction of Devo’s paranoia and the Feelies’ outsider musical art, yet it got nary a notice in the mainstream press, and Born Ruffians are arguably less known now, as they release their solid sophomore album, Say It. At least back then they had a little hype — their self-titled EP was hot for a while in 2006. Now all they’ve got is their sublime music.
Beyond their tinkering deconstruction of rock music — a guitar riff here, a bass figure there, a drum here — lead singer Luke LaLonde is the band’s calling card. He hollers his anxious poetry in a way that suggests he’s nervous as hell and would like to get out of the booth as quickly as possible. Lyrically, he focuses on wanting to talk to and fool around with girls and on his increasing desperation with the world around him. To that end, here he yelps about his sister getting off easy in the chores department (“Sole Brother”), wanting to be satisfying for his girl (“Retard Canard”), never wanting to have a relationship again (“Come Back”), and struggling to find the right words (album highlight “What to Say”). He may no longer be the nerd who shouted, “I need to get laid immediately,” on the band’s debut EP, but he’s still indie-rock’s most nerve-frayed singer.
That said, Say It is something of a back peddle for Born Ruffians, as they slowly try on more conventional, and roundly forgettable, songcrafting here. Their ventures into balladry, like “At Home Now” and “Come Back,” are as aimless as they are unremarkable, and as a whole, the band seem less willing to be as totally idiosyncratic as they were around Red, Yellow and Blue. Their tics are still here — just listen to how they build the payoff of “Nova Leigh” from a variety of angles — they just aren’t the exciting focal point anymore. That’s probably better in the long run for the band, who have all quit school to rep Born Ruffians full-time, but doesn’t lead Say It to the mountaintop it could have shared with Red, Yellow and Blue.