Uncle, Duke and the Chief, the latest offering from Toronto-by-way-of-Midland, Ontario's Born Ruffians, truly feels like a return to form. It welcomes back original drummer Steve Hamelin (who had taken leave from the band to pursue a degree), and with the original line-up back in play, it seems inevitable that the charm and youthful energy of their debut Red, Yellow and Blue would also surface. Though the Ruffians' palette has expanded greatly since their primary-coloured start, on Uncle, Duke and The Chief — a title charmingly made up of each members' (singer/guitarist Luke Lalonde, bassist Mitch Derosier and Hamelin) father's nicknames — their past peeks through, exuberance and all.
Opening tune "Forget Me," reportedly written through tears on the day Bowie died, starts with an acoustic strum as Lalonde begins to sing, handclaps working as initial percussion before Hamelin and Derosier join in. The lyrics, largely dealing with death ("Someday / a white light / will come for you / to comfort you") are certainly some of the Ruffians' darkest (see "waiting on a sun that's never rising" in "Fade to Black"), but there is sweetness still. It's a warm welcome to the album, and immediately seems to boast the familiar boisterousness of the Ruffians of old. The doo-wop-ish "Miss You" follows, with all three Ruffians harmonizing as the song gains momentum and the energy increases. "Side Tracked" is a standout, softening the pace a bit and allowing Derosier to play a delightful scale-skipping bass line.
You'll want a hand to hold during the simple and sincere "Love Too Soon" as it swims in a sea of warm bass, gentle tambourine taps, organ swells and just the sweetest addition of whistling that threatens to make it all too much (but doesn't). It certainly feels like a companion to much-loved tune "Little Garcon," but without the foot-stomping shout-along ending. The Ruffians even somehow get away with a millennial whoop, found throughout "Tricky" — thank Lalonde's very fun vocal delivery (asking "When are you gonna come hooooome?" in that exaggerated deep register) and the song's terribly infectious energy for that.
It's the pairing of melodies that comfort, and lyrics that threaten to take it away, that really make this album. Where 2015's RUFF spoke of being disheartened and disillusioned in the creative world, Uncle, Duke and the Chief is honest about life — its ups, its downs, its changes and rearrangements, procrastination and stress, and certainly its inevitable end. The simple production, with Lalonde's untamed vocals clear as a bell and Hamelin's homecoming, lets the joy that played a part in the process of making the short and sweet Uncle, Duke and the Chief shine evidently through. (Paper Bag)