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Austra – Olympia album review

With a sound that recalls the dance beats of Cut Copy mixed with the vocals of Florence Welch, Austra is a Toronto based band led by classically trained pianist Katie Stelmanis. Along with drummer Maya Postepski, bassist Dorian Wolf, and some recently added auxiliary vocalists, Stelmanis and her bandmaters have managed to create a record of neon nostalgia that occasionally dips into the past while still retaining originality. Olympia is most definitely engaging, and though there are some lulls in the action, there is much to enjoy about Austra’s sophomore offering.

The album itself contains a myriad of vocal as well as instrumental textures, and Stelmanis can oftentimes swing from a Bjork-like wail to a coy coo within the course of a single song. Olympia begins quietly with “What We Done?” featuring heartbeat clicks and thick bass synthesizer before settling into a giant colorful groove. Even during the more subdued sections of music, Austra does a masterful job of building anticipation for the next crescendo. Second and third tracks, “Forgive Me” and “Painful Like” highlight the lead female vocals while also providing hooks to grab on to, whether it be with the bubbling bass of the latter, or the breezy chorus of the former.

Later on “Sleep” the beats per minute slow down, but the atmosphere is dialed up. There is an almost middle-eastern sounding synth intro and thump to underscore the singing of Stelmanis during the verse sections, and when the chorus beat hits the percussion is augmented by metallic clangs and enthralling echo.

Though the middle section of Olympia begins to lose the steam established by the earlier highlights, there is still some particularly good music to be found at the record’s conclusion. “We Become” is possibly the greatest track on the album, utilizing a tropical beat and keyboard phrase that wouldn’t be out of place on the Scarface sound track. The chorus references islands, and the whole vibe of the song definitely puts one in the mood for the strolling the Miami boardwalk in a white suit.

As I have a vested interest in dance bands that dish out ear worm jams while feverishly playing their own instruments, (see the aforementioned Cut Copy, LCD Soundsystem, or The Rapture) Austra has a great deal of appeal to me. Olympia served as a truly interesting introduction to the group, and I will be investing some time in listening to their debut album as well. Try it out on a humid night near the beach and see what kind of dance party ensues.

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oOoOO – Without Your Love album review

What’s in a band name? I personally think that the name of a group can have direct influence on said musicians appeal to the listening public. Singular entities such as Queen and Radiohead seem monolithic and mysterious, while collectives such as Arcade Fire and Polyphonic Spree are inviting and joyous. A tendency towards pastoral ideas can be implied with an animal name like Fleet Foxes or Grizzly Bear, or a feeling of intensity and edge in the case of Nine Inch Nails. All of the aforementioned musicians have attained some sort of fame, and I would surmise that many casual listeners have been enticed by the words that these artists have chosen to represent their singular ideals. Because of these stated feelings about the importance of band image and language, I find it difficult to become entranced by a musician titled oOoOO. What is the meaning of the o’s in the name? Why are some capitalized while others are lowercase? Are they zeros instead of letters? These are all questions that run through my mind as I began to absorb oOoOO’s most recent record, Without Your Love.

Falling into the category of ‘Witch House,’ a genre of music that I have heard of but never intentionally sought out, oOoOO is the creation of Christopher Dexter Greenspan, a San Francisco based artist. In checking the Wikipedia page describing ‘Witch House’ I was intrigued to discover that is an avenue of music not only associated with occult subject matter, but also chopped and screwed hip-hop beats. The page also suggests that ‘Witch House’ artists oftentimes use symbols or strange characters in their band names in order to make them more difficult to Google or find information on (perhaps the reason for the seemingly random string of o’s that serve as Greenspan’s moniker). With these genre signifiers and ideals in mind I returned to Without Your Love listening specifically for eerie lyrics and off time rap beats.

This new ear approach to the album most definitely served me well, as tracks like “Mouchette” and “The South” snapped into focus within the aesthetic of the aforementioned ‘Witch House.’ Both tracks in particular could easily be utilized as the basis for hip-hop songs. Later on “Misunderstood,” Greenspan even adds some catchy guitar to the synthesizer and sampled female vocals that are present throughout the record. It is definitely the album’s most immediately striking song, and warrants repeated listening for full appreciation of the array of sound being played.

In the end, my listening experience with oOoOO was a surprisingly pleasant one. Although I still find the name of the project to be somewhat ridiculous, and difficult to type, I definitely understand how the music of Christopher Dexter Greenspan fits within the ‘Witch House’ genre. It is at times formless and sonically uninviting, yet occasionally there are glimmers of groove and beat to pique the interest of the listener.

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Guy Challenger – Melancholy Kick album review

How many tracks should your record be? This is a question that comes to mind as I make my way through the sprawling indie folk monstrosity that is Melancholy Kick by Guy Challenger. This album consists of a massive 18 songs, all of them consistently using similar sounds, and many of them undistinguishable from the previous. I’ll admit I had difficulty making my way through the entirety of the record, not because the music was particularly bad, but because there was so much content to absorb. However, determined to press on, I trudged through all of Melancholy Kick, and found that I emerged from its clutches wishing that Mr. Challenger had been a bit more diligent in editing his work.

Although we currently live in a time period where instant musical gratification and singles are the most appealing to the masses, there are still albums being created. Musicians want their work to be consumed as a whole, rather than just a one-time download on iTunes. Yet, there is value in birthing a concise musical statement, rather than one that is epic and unkempt. While listening to Melancholy Kick I found myself constantly checking the track listing to determine how many more songs were left, and oftentimes was unable to determine the transition from one track to the next. Guy Challenger is not a poor musician by any means, but his choice of musical expression is not necessarily new or compelling.

The album begins with “Liquify,” a sort of prologue to what is to come, all softly strummed acoustic guitar and harmonics. Later there is a proper album opener with “MK 1 (Welcome).” Seemingly the MK in the title stands for Melancholy Kick, and its lyrics lead me to suspect that the title refers to a fictional place rather than a dejected flailing of the foot. Challenger intones, “Welcome to Melancholy Kick / Where time is slow and joy exists.” There is almost a suggestion of a concept album with this introduction, perhaps even one with two sections, as track 11 is entitled “MK 2 (Panic).” Thinking that there would be a shift in tone partway through the record I carried on listening, determined to unearth some sort of pleasure from the admittedly already very dull recording.

Yet, save for a change to a more minor and somber key on “Loneliness,” and a pretty decent twang guitar solo on “The Storm” there was no pay off for my listening dedication. Guy Challenger’s songs are all similar, and whereas the record might have been bearable at 10 or 11 tracks, eighteen is simply far too many. If you are interested in acoustic strumming try listening to The Tallest Man on Earth, or perhaps some acoustic Dylan. Melancholy Kick is, unfortunately, not an album I will be revisiting any time soon.

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Baths – Obsidian album review

I think one of the most interesting things an electronic artist can do is create a beat that makes you say, “there is no way they could possibly figure out a way to fit vocals over that.” While listening to albums such as Strawberry Jam and Merriweather Post Pavilion by Animal Collective I have oftentimes expressed this sentiment while sitting in awe of the artists ability to craft songs around seemingly atonal noise. Many of the tracks on Radiohead’s Amnesiac also fall into this realm of awe inspiring vocal wizardry. Working under the moniker Baths, Will Wiesenfeld has created Obsidian, a record of electronics driven songs with a touch of real instrumentation. It is a dark album, meant to be played on a fast paced, drug sniffing, big city night, and while it’s beats are not always necessarily complicated, Wiesenfeld deftly enters his voice into the conversation of neon funk, blocky synth, and video game noise that is the life blood of the record.

The album itself begins with “Worsening,” a track that most definitely stands as the thesis of the record. It has a stuttering beat that pops and sputters before erupting into a chorus of clinking metallic percussion and tribal vocals, and within this swirl of sound Will Wiesenfeld sings about dying and God. His voice is reedy and thin, not necessarily as strong as the sweeping falsetto of Thom Yorke, or woozy Beach Boy bray of Panda Bear, but fitting for the musical accompaniment. As the track comes to and end, one would not be wrong in thinking that perhaps Obsidian will consist solely of songs much like this, heavy on the atmosphere, but not danceable beats. However, I was pleasantly surprised when track two, “Miasma Sky” began. It not only has a throbbing thump that steadily moves forward, but also contains one of the most ear-wormy synthesizer lines that I have recently encountered. Wiesenfeld begins Obsidian on a strong note, and the record only grows further after this early electrifying tandem.

Elsewhere on the album there is even more icy electric sound to be found, and Baths continues to navigate the glitchy beats with aplomb. A song such as “Incompatible” is compelling because of it’s strange noises, and even stranger lyrical content. Wiesenfeld sings about sharing a toilet seat with a new boyfriend, and then asks him to “nurse this erection back to full health.” It is an interesting sexual innuendo to introduce, but executed expertly. Later on “No Past Lives,” a personal favorite, Baths uses a staccato piano line to introduce a hard-hitting bass beat. The song threatens to spiral out of control several times, but is saved from total collapse by the repeated pattern of natural piano noise. There are layers upon layers of sound to be unearthed here, and some of the fun of listening to Obsidian is derived from discovering new instruments within tracks that may have gone unheard on previous listens.

In the end, Baths has birthed an album of electronic pop that could be played in your bedroom, or during a nighttime stroll through crowded city streets. Allow the musical intricacies of Obsidian to cascade over your eardrums, and give yourself time to absorb its dark majesty.

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Dikembe – Chicago Bowls album review

In listening to the recent EP, Chicago Bowls, by Dikembe, I was immediately struck by the basketball references implied not only by the name of the band, but also the weed pun track listing of the album. Each song is named after a former Chicago Bulls player, and they consist of “Scottie Spliffen” “Luc Bongley” “Michael Jordank” and “Tony Kukush” respectively. With the NBA finals starting this evening, it seems only fitting to be reviewing an album that refers to James Naismith’s famous game. Yet, upon placing my headphones over my ears I was surprised by the content of Chicago Bowls. Whereas I had expected some sort of stoner epic that was a tribute to the mighty Bulls teams of the 1990’s, what I got was a pop punk record without any lyrical reference to the four dudes that are named in the song titles. While this was not necessarily a bad thing, I’ll admit that I was thoroughly excited at the prospect of hearing a song about marijuana and MJ.

Chicago Bowls begins with the aforementioned “Scottie Spliffen,” and while it most definitely has a great title, the track is nothing special. It begins with some gently played guitar, before transitioning into a crashing verse that very much fits into a loud / quiet dynamic that holds true throughout the album. Later on “Luc Bongley” the band continues their giant thrashing while occasionally slowing down to add some more distortion and sing, “I’m afraid / I’m afraid / of making any sound / when anyone’s around.” These were unfortunately some of the few lyrics that I could decipher during my listen, as the vocals on the album are very low in the mix, and are sometimes difficult to hear. Understanding what a singer is saying during a song is not always necessary, but when I’m hoping to hear a post rock ganja jam about the first Australian player in the NBA, it would be nice to be able to hear the vocals.

Rounding out the end of the EP are “Michael Jordank” and “Tony Kukush.” The former name checks the best basketball player ever, and is fittingly the best track on the record. It begins with some intriguing drum fills and plaintive guitar strumming before erupting into cymbal bashing verse. Later around the 2 minute mark there are some sloppy flourishes of distorted sound that are the most promising musical offering of the Florida based band.

Chicago Bowls is a somewhat mediocre EP, but Dikembe definitely has a future. They are a band that could pack small venues, and perhaps even score a hit with the alternative rock crowd. Yet, this initial offering would have benefited from a few more hooks for listeners, and perhaps more carefully considered lyrical content. If a song is named “Scottie Spliffen” I want to hear about one of the greatest small forwards of all time puffing a gigantic doobie, not some unintelligible emo howling. I know the titles are meant to be funny, but wouldn’t that be awesome?

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Indevotion – Heart album review

I’m sitting in the bedroom of my third floor apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts listening to Exile on Main Street on vinyl. Mick Jagger is singing about ripping joints to save his soul, and I’m drinking rum from a tiny airplane liquor bottle. It’s 90 degrees outside, and probably 100 in the house. I’ve just sweated through my second shirt of the day. Why am I listening to the Stones and perspiring in front of my window fan? The activities described above are serving as a palate cleanser after absorbing the greasy turd of an album that is Heart by Indevotion. This short EP is, simply put, a piece of hot trash. However, I will now review it.

Though my musical tastes tend to drift towards more independent artists, there has always been a place in my heart for great pop songs. I like “Party in the USA” by Miley Cyrus. I thoroughly enjoy “Locked Out of Heaven” by Bruno Mars. Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” gets stuck in my head every time it blasts through my car speakers (which seems happen just about every hour on the hour). Yet, I simply cannot get behind a band like Indevotion. The music contained on Heart, which was thankfully only four songs long, is slickly produced and sounds like a mash up of any of the pop rock artists that are currently famous (See Paramore or the aforementioned Taylor Swift). The album is so finely tuned, in fact, that it lacks any of the soul or grit that could have made its creators endearing. There are no flubbed notes, no edge to front woman My Helmner’s voice, and certainly nothing but perfectly on-time drum fills. Even listening to lead-off song “Heartripper” right now (is that Heart-Ripper, as in someone who rips your heart out? Or heartripper, as in someone who accidentally falls over a bodily organ?) has sent me running back over to my turntable to flip to side two of Exile. Perhaps Indevotion are incredibly popular in their home country of Sweden, but their schtick has most definitely been done here in the U.S. and sounds recycled in comparison to current top 40 songs.

According to the Wikipedia page, it took the Rolling Stones almost 4 years, between 1968 and 1972, to record Exile on Main Street. During its creation Jagger and company moved to the South of France in order to escape stringent tax law in the U.K. They practiced in the basement of a French villa, sweating and strung out on smack, trying to get the most raggedly perfect takes for their double LP. It is a far cry from the saccharine sheen of Heart. The record has an unoriginal sound that has been heard many times before, and is certainly not worth your time or money.

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Beacon – The Ways We Separate album review

Recent popular indie music has seen a trend towards creating electronic, or seemingly electronic compositions, that use minimal instrumentation and R & B influences to convey warm or sometimes icy artistic vision. James Blake, for instance, croons over big beats and subtle guitar and keyboard work, creating interesting space in the crevices of his songs. On their newest record, The Ways We Separate, the Brooklyn based pairing of Thomas Mullarney and Jacob Gossett, better known as Beacon, attempt to create a spaced out and ever evolving series of tracks that convey a distant future, yet have immediate impact on the listener. Their approach is largely successful, and during it’s 37 minute running time The Ways We Separate continues to present subtle and interesting variations on the theme of minimal electronic composition.

For fans of acts such as Four Tet, Purity Ring, or Grimes, Beacon provides an enticing menagerie of sound and reverberating vocals. There is faint harmony between Mullarney and Gossett throughout the album and the background beats often build to what would seem to signal bombastic crescendos. However, oftentimes on The Ways We Separate, Beacon will build to these peaks only to draw back, leaving the listener to only imagine the joyous dance explosion that might have come. It takes a certain amount of restraint to craft songs like these, as the easy and most accessible route would be provide the listener with release. Yet, even though most remain in the quiet vein, it never feels as if Beacon is neglecting their duty to create engaging grooves. This is a record that is about atmosphere and immersion, rather than one to be absorbed song by song.

The Ways We Separate begins with “Bring You Back,” a rim-clicking track that is accompanied solely by vocals and intricate keyboard work. It is a nice introduction to the music that is to follow, especially when the chorus of “don’t turn around / to the other side” begins. Its faint harmony and snare snap are definitely indicative of what a listener can expect from Beacon. Later on track two, entitled “Feeling’s Gone” the band builds yet another scaffold of processed noise that breaks into one of the few all out rave moments on the record. Beacon’s biggest asset in these circumstances is their ability to constantly unfold new sounds. Just when one thinks that they have heard all that one of these tracks has to offer, there is yet another layer of piano tones or bass added. “Drive” in particular benefits from this method, and most definitely could be an outtake from the soundtrack to the identically named Ryan Gosling film. A hip-hop beat and big synth slabs make it one of the album highlights.

Combining the sex and warmth of R&B with the cold production of electronica is a interesting preposition. When the two genres are placed next to each other a strange and wonderful mixture is created. Although The Ways We Separate does not necessarily break any new ground musically, it still provides an engaging listening experience for those seeking something to add to their James Blake collection. Play it through your best headphones on a rainy day.

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Deerhunter – Monomania album review

Bradford Cox is an interesting character. Most recently I encountered his singular rock and roll persona on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” when Deerhunter stopped by to play the title track from their most recent album, Monomania. Previously Cox has been quoted as saying that he doesn’t “like the idea of going on stage in jeans and a t-shirt,” and the Fallon appearance was definitely in line with this sentiment. The band itself (consisting of longtime collaborators Lockett Pundt and Moses Archuleta, and newcomers Josh Mckay and Frankie Broyles) was dressed smartly, in button up print shirts, but it was Cox, as usual, that was the most visually arresting. Wearing an obviously fake black wig, and a strange bloody bandage covering his hand, Cox reached for the ceiling of the studio, his voice cracking with the strain of bellowing the words to “Monomania.” Even before the song has concluded he leaves the stage amid a screaming wall of distortion, and the camera follows him down the NBC hallway to the elevator. Once there he proceeds to press the button for his floor, and leans against the wall to wait.

For a lover of all things noise and indie rock, it is a compelling image. Bradford Cox does nothing by chance, as evidenced by his onstage garb and previously painstaking album arrangements. Yet, with Deerhunter’s newest release, previously mentioned as being titled Monomania, he seems to be more interested in pure volume and abandon, rather than the carefully controlled sonic landscapes of Halcyon Digest or Microcastle. The album stands as a cohesive whole, and the new image of Deerhunter as a leathered and grimy garage band holds true throughout.

The record begins with “Neon Junkyard,” a song that takes the typical components of the band’s sound and adds in super distorted vocals and guitar. It is instantly recognizable as a Deerhunter song, but manages to distance itself from past work with the addition of unadulterated noise. Monomania’s second song, “Leather Jacket II,” stays in this same arena of sound before transitioning into the more melodic third track, “The Missing.” All of these songs are catchy in their own respect, but are mere appetizers before the main course provided by “Pensacola,” “Back to the Middle,” and “Monomania.” These three tracks provide are the most easily accessible on the record, a most definitely reward repeat listening. The treble- turned- all- the-way- up lead guitar on “Pensacola” is particularly catchy, “Back to the Middle” features a prominent bass line from recent band addition Mckay, and “Monomania” is a crushing declaration of Deerhunter’s new direction. Bradford Cox wants rock, he wants punk, he wants epic guitar squall to envelope the listener, and this mission is accomplished in the unending repetition of the album title.

Though some have pegged Monomania as one of the lesser Deerhunter releases, it is the opinion of this author that there is true staying power contained in the raw compositions contained within. It may not be the most easy entry point for new listeners, (folks looking to get into Deerhunter should check out their previous release, Halcyon Digest) but for fans of the band it is an orgy of sound and garage rock fury. Enjoy.

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Lilacs and Champagne – Danish and Blue album review

Making a purely instrumental album that is enjoyable from beginning to end is an incredibly challenging concept. When you make an album of songs without lyrics, it is the responsibility of the music to solely carry the message and tone of the record throughout. This can be done in three ways. In the case of an incredibly talented musician, such as Jeff Beck, there is ample to time to show virtuosity and mastery of an instrument, while simultaneously creating passages that will stick with listeners. Persons that are particularly obsessed with instrumental style and composition will be enamored with these recordings. The second method of releasing an all-instrumental album is to create a computer generated production. In the case of an artist such as Four Tet, these electronically generated albums generally have a central theme and feel, and can be played from beginning to end while one is washing dishes, writing an essay, or reading a book. The third method of creation involves digging deep into crates of known and unknown records in order to procure samples that can be pieced together into a cohesive whole. Artists such as The Books have previously attempted this feat, and when done correctly, the results can bring new meaning and scope to previously unknown material.

The third sample-heavy method is the medium of choice for Lilacs and Champagne, a collaborative duo made up of Alex Hall and Emil Amos. On their latest release, Danish and Blue, the two Portland Oregon based producers wade into a menagerie of sound and try to create new songs with the remnants of old. Occasionally, listening to the fruits of their labors reveals interesting new noises, and makes a case for Lilacs and Champagne to be included in discussions with Ratatat, or even the aforementioned Books. However, as previously stated, truly outstanding instrumental passages are necessary to carry a whole album without lyrics. Although there are some sections of Danish and Blue that use spoken samples, there are only a few highlights.

The album begins with “Metaphysical Transitions,” a spoken word introduction surrounded by layers of strange chanting and a descending piano phrase. It is one of the songs that is most easily compared to The Books output. When the track is completed, Hall and Amos proceed to roll out a string of tracks that have the sound of a dusty vinyl record. The beats never hit particularly hard, and although there are some interesting guitar parts (especially in “Le Grand”) the album seems content to remain in a down-tempo haze of white noise and strings.

One could be forgiven for dismissing Danish and Blue before a full listen is complete, however, to do so would be to miss the two high points of the record. Tracks 8 and 9, entitled “Honest Man” and “Refractory Period” respectively, are simply the best offerings. “Honest Man” simmers with an off-time bass and drum intro before bursting into a raw hip-hop beat, and “Refractory Period” is rhythmically enticing while tactfully dispensing some distorted guitar heroics. It is a shame that more of the record is not as captivating as this duo.

In the end, Danish and Blue is not a particularly great album. Nor is it an exceptionally bad one. It is simply a musical work that seems content to exist without necessarily testing new boundaries or musical avenues. Sample based albums can be intriguing, but this one was purely vanilla.

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Born Ruffians – Birthmarks album review

What a gorgeous day. Spring has sprung here in Boston, and I am currently seated on the porch of my apartment overlooking the patchy green backyard of my nearest neighbor. I am also currently listening to Birthmarks, the latest musical offering of Midland Ontario’s own Born Ruffians. It is an album chock full with musical ideas, some that work, and others that are perhaps slightly more ill advised. However, much of the listening experience is pleasant, and can oftentimes induce furious bouts of head nodding with its big beats, jangly guitars, and sing along vocals.

To begin with, Birthmarks does not break any new ground sonically. It opens with “Needle” a song that starts off sounding exactly like a Fleet Foxes outtake. This is not necessarily a problem, as I was once an avid fan of said band, but my impression of Born Ruffians was one of a jittery start-stop indie group, not a pastoral folk collective. Thankfully, “Needle” quickly introduces a bouncing drumbeat, along with chunky guitar chords and a syncopated rhythm. Aside from its somewhat tired beginning, it is song that is nicely representative of the content that is to follow.

One of the best things about Birthmarks is that Born Ruffians have wisely spread the best tracks throughout the record, and in doing so have created a nice balance between the more upbeat songs, and those that dial the tempos down. “6-5000,” coming directly on the heels of the opener, continues the trend set forth by employing even more shout along vocals and an admirable energy. Luke Lalonde and company are not simply satisfied to sit back and let these songs passively unfold. They are much more interested in yelling together until their voices crack, and the snap of a well-hit snare. “6-5000” also even briefly introduces a slowed down section with steamy jungle reverb added to the guitar.

On track three, “Ocean’s Deep,” one of my personal favorites, Born Ruffians keep the catchy tunes flowing. Bassist Mitch Derosier shows off his considerable ear for enticing low end, laying out a liquid smooth instrumental line that carries throughout the piece. Later on the record, his no-frills bass work lays the foundation for many of the more experimental tracks. Songs like “Rage Flows” and “Too Soaked to Break” benefit greatly from the interplay between the slashing guitars and Derosier’s expert playing.

As was previously stated, Birthmarks is by no means a totally original work, nor is it a great one. “Golden Promises” and “Never Age” have a more introspective sound than much of the rest of the album, but are just a little boring. They utilize some electronic noises that don’t necessarily fit with Birthmarks theme of a frenetic four piece, and definitely aren’t a necessity for the recording.

In the end, Born Ruffians have created a solid musical statement with their third release. Listening to Birthmarks isn’t life changing, but it is an album that is definitely worth your time. Check it out.