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Born Ruffians' members leach electricity from a long line of wily, wiry art-rock weirdoes, from historical markers like Talking Heads and Violent Femmes to present paragons Animal Collective and Vampire Weekend. So many seeming allusions fly by in a typical Born Ruffians song that a sense of orientation can be hard to come by — until frontman Luke LaLonde swoops down and makes sure the spotlight is set in his own unswerving direction.
That takes all of one second in "Don't Live Up," when he gets going on vocals in a burst and starts panting through a series of blurted words ("dry eyes, blue skies — overrated") that steer through spare guitar, drums and horns like a skier on a slalom course. Everything is staccato and tightly wound, with a sense of David Bowie-like élan lending LaLonde an air of voguish preening while he seethes. "You're living a dream," he sings, "but it don't live up, don't live up!"
Falling apart with style is a big part of the Born Ruffians manner, which on the Canadian band's fourth album Ruff cruises through spells of twitchiness and hyperventilation with total composure and control. "Stupid Dreams" takes shape over jittery new-wave guitar chords strummed with vein-straining intensity, while the pounding of the band in the background makes sure the pace never falls too far out of line. "Yawn Tears" slows down and speeds up in fits and starts, with LaLonde vamping like a live wire who really likes having a microphone with which to commune. In the short "Don't Worry Now," he reiterates those three seemingly peaceful words as if he might be meaning to say, "Actually, now that I really think about it, definitely worry now."
Born Ruffians' shiftiness and intensity place the group squarely in a post-punk lineage that traces back to rock rantings of the '70s and '80s. But LaLonde's vibrant voice, somehow brash and bratty and bright and chirpy all at once, sounds ever-present while keeping an overbearing sense of history at bay. These are urgent, churning songs that sound like they needed to happen, like gurglings from some nervous and squirmy place deep inside that had to be placated or purged.