Born Ruffians have made some pretty bad albums. It’s not a secret. For a band whose debut record was so promising, it was difficult to see them fall into a vicious cycle of weak songwriting and amateurish musicianship. They’re far from the only band to have failed to live up to the promise of a strong first LP, but the spark of Red, Yellow & Blue still begs to be built upon. And while Uncle, Duke & The Chief, the band’s latest LP, is pretty far from perfect, it does recapture some of that initial glory that made them a band to watch a decade ago.
It would be easier to dismiss Uncle, Duke & The Chief as a last ditch effort to get back into indie rock’s good graces if it didn’t try so many new things — the album’s spirit is one of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Surprisingly, most of it does. The folk rock of opening track “Forget Me” plays like Mumford & Sons, except not terrible. “Spread So Thin” is a blissful slice of dream pop that sees vocalist Luke Lalonde show some unexpected restraint. The soulful slow burn of “Side Tracked” is just ironically detached enough to work. The band feels more in sync than ever, with Steve Hamelin’s rickety drum sound trading off effortlessly with Mitch Derosier’s singsong basslines. And the album’s forgiving half-hour length ensures that the band never overstays their welcome.
Where Uncle, Duke & The Chief has hooks and inventive performances in spades, it often falls short in the songwriting department. The bait-and-switch time signature changes of “Ring That Bell” mask a lack of follow through, as the song dawdles through a perplexing structure that never seems to fully resolve itself. “Tricky,” with its grating whoops and heys, stomps its feet fruitlessly without much in the way of purpose. “Fade to Black” has its moments, but overall it feels more like a demo than a finished song.
The pleasures of Uncle, Duke & The Chief are more often found in individual moments than in whole songs — a piercing yelp from Lalonde, a catchy chorus, a woozy guitar tone. There are flashes of brilliance here, more than enough to make the album worthwhile, but it still feels like the band is grasping at the qualities that made their early work so infectious.
Still, detached from the inevitable comparisons to the band’s debut, Uncle, Duke & The Chief is a solid indie rock record. It’s not going to change anyone’s life or restore faith in rock and roll as an ailing genre. But it doesn’t need to — all this album really needs to accomplish is to reinstate Born Ruffians as a band with the creativity and competence to say something fresh and exciting, and Uncle, Duke & The Chief accomplishes this handily.
Words by Max James Hill