Am I the only one around here who doesn't get why Born Ruffians' last album received such a mixed response? I thought Say It was better as a whole than 2007 debut Red, Yellow & Blue; in fact, I still do. Birthmarks, meanwhile, is undoubtably the Canadian group's best effort to date. They're not the off-kilter band many had them pegged down to be, at least not anymore; the modus operandi has changed, and it seems that they're most concerned with writing brilliant pop songs, not wanting to appear odd for the sake of it. The debut was an acquired taste - it took me four years to fully come around it - while its follow-up was a definite step in the right direction, but on Birthmarks, everything falls into place. Even if you press play and wonder if the disc has possibly been mislabelled, and it's possibly Fleet Foxes's third album you're listening to instead (seriously, Luke Lalonde sounds so much like Robin Pecknold during the album's opening bars that it's not even funny), by the time 'Needle' ends, there's no question that it's definitely Born Ruffians.

Lalonde's (almost) unmistakable voice has improved considerably, less reliant on vocal tics and his sometimes thin higher register, and more versatile - certainly as versatile as a band like this needs, anyway. The band have diversified their sound as well; there was a time when they never would have gotten away with, say, the bridge of '6-5000', or even a song like 'Permanent Hesitation' which displays the band at their danciest - interlocked guitars, upfront bass, the works. Their biggest hit, 'Hummingbird', was six years ago, and even if there are songs here which are cut from similar cloth (the infectious, syncopated pop of 'Ocean's Deep' is them doing what they're best at), they've tried to push themselves, and it shows. "I guess that's why they call it moving on," Lalonde opines on the latter track, and progression is all over Birthmarks.

'Cold Pop' and the surprisingly delicate-sounding 'Golden Promises' slow things down somewhat, and it's on these songs that we hear how the band have matured. Even in the fuzzed-up chorus of 'Rage Flows', and Lalonde doing his best Paul Simon impression on lead single 'With Her Shadow', there's a clear sense that the band's tiny footsteps have turned into leaps. Rather than move their sound along at an unhurried pace, they've done a U-turn and gone in a rather different direction to the Born Ruffians we used to know, but it suits them well. Closer 'Never Age' is a rather sparse way in which to finish the album, but its tender chorus of, "Stay with me, never age / Stay with me, never change, stay the same" wraps things up on a high note. Overall, Born Ruffians have done the exact opposite, and there are many different places they could go from here.