Constantines – [Discography]

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

If it can be assumed that popular music (and specifically rock 'n’ roll) has functioned to date as a sociological model, it stands to reason that the evolutionary progression of it would mirror that of the art form’s human component; those that make the music will, whether intentionally or not, follow a similar progression of development. Under that rationale, what the public bore witness to in the 1950s was not the “Golden Age Of Rock ‘n’ Roll” but, rather, the figurative birth of a new species. After centuries, the human race had produced a new creature that, if nurtured, would grow, develop, adapt and mutate in its quest for survival. Of course, the list of iconic moments and figures available to the public is enormous (many are catalogued in Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) but taking those images into account only offers a portion of the story. The timeline continues as does the refinement and redevelopment of the iconography and values inherent to it.

Operating under the assumption that 1951 (the year Ike Turner released “Rocket 88”—the first rock ‘n’ roll song—and planted the seed) marked the birth of and year zero for the most enduring musical movement to appear after the industrial revolution, it can only be said that when the Constantines released their self-titled debut in 2001, they were acclimated to playing the role of Algerian-born French philosopher and developer of the Deconstruction movement, Jacques Derrida.

Deconstruction is a term used in philosophy, literary criticism and the social sciences defined by The Oxford English Dictionary as “A strategy of critical analysis… directed towards exposing unquestioned metaphysical assumptions and internal contradictions in philosophical and literary language.”

Sound a little far-fetched to attribute such a quality to a rock 'n’ roll band? Maybe for the uninitiated, but when the first thing that singer Bryan Webb does to introduce the band is call for the death of “that great gospel jest called rock 'n’ roll,” it sounds awfully revolutionary and it’s difficult to not want to both believe and follow him, and there aren’t many that didn’t. While Canadian rock is now an equal holder in the global music community, Guelph, Ontario’s Constantines were the first of the new breed to sign on with an American record label (Sub Pop) and make new inroads to capturing the attention of a larger, intercontinental audience. While dozens of Canadian bands and solo artists (including The Guess Who, Neil Young and dozens of others) had made such a transition before, the Constantines helped to lay the groundwork for what would eventually be the validation for an entire country’s musical community and they did it without bowing to a single convention. From the very beginning, the band found a way to avoid typical pop song structures (verse/chorus/verse seemed so gauche and wouldn’t have fit with the band‘s angular style anyway) and even conventional hooks yet, even so, the songs would stick in a listener’s head for an indefinite period of time, but they would stick and they were arranged in such a way that no matter where your interest might lie in rock 'n' roll, you'd find something to take away and call your own. It was a very heady moment at the time, but in true code-fucker fashion, as soon as the band had torn down the musical conventions that so many artists and listeners had relied upon for decades, they also took on the task of rebuilding and recasting it all along their own evolutionary line. It’s difficult to tell, at this point, if the band’s changes and mutations since have compelled the band to move in a more conventionally rockist direction or if the changes that the band instigated were adopted by so many other acts that, while still obviously unique and powerful, the rest of the artistic community at large has made moved to more closely emulate The Constantines (just ask The Arkells). Either way, their presence is still most definitely felt and, each time they release a new record, people are watching, listening and paying very close attention.

Constantines[Buy it on]
(Three Gut, 2001; Sub Pop, 2004)

With a scruffy and sinewy rhythm backed by the most powerful and simplistic beat performed since anyone thought to listen to the one emanating from their chests, the Constantines stampede forth into “Arizona”—the opening salvo on their self-titled debut—with such power, commitment and passion that even those familiar with the band run the risk of being upended; it’s just that powerful. So energetic is it, in fact, and such an exertion does its performance require from singer/guitarist Bryan Webb, guitarist Stephen Lambke, drummer Doug MacGregor and bassist Dallas Werle, that at the two-minute mark in the song, the band members take half a minute to collect themselves before methodically restarting the engines and firing on. As odd as it might sound, that dramatic pause might be the most compelling and stimulating silence ever recorded in popular song; while that introductory blast might be the one that put listeners on the floor, the pause seems to function as the moment where the band makes sure everyone’s okay, no one got hurt and they’ve got your attention because they’re only just starting.

After that, what follows is a sound that utilizes every classic image of rock rebellion (The Doors in “Hyacinth Blues,” Abbie Hoffman in “Steal This Sound,” the classic “Can I get a witness?” plea repeated over and over in “Young Offenders” and more) reduced to ironic turns of phrase uttered to illustrate that while the band has called for the death of rock 'n’ roll, there’s still life in the old bitch yet. Using mathy and modal progressions, the Constantines simultaneously condemns everything that came before it but use it as a beginning point to incite a fabled reconstruction of the whole sound and ethos from the ground up. While each of these thirteen songs has an obvious beginning and end, what happens in between begins to sound like the best-organized free-for-all on record as song structures so trite as verse/chorus/verse cease to have any meaning and instead the winding guitars encircle attempting to hold the overpowering rhythm section. At the same time, Webb stands outside it all commanding, calling and cajoling  them all on but escaping them unscathed each time. In that way, the proceedings often sound as if they’re only being held together by the band’s iron will but, once every so often, the sparks of chaos do escape (the best example of this lies in the mania of “No Ecstasy”) and threaten to burn the whole thing down.

The band does occasionally slow down to let the demons they’re driving rest and those reprieves (“Saint You” sparkles), when contrasted against the bombast of the edgier tracks, become glorious, transcendent moments because that modesty articulates another angle to the Constantines authoritative voice.

As Constantines winds to a close and the seemingly rudderless, half-spoken “To The Lullabies” gives way to the surprisingly melodic and sweet “Little Instruments,” the band illustrates how versatile they can be. While continuing to use the same basic instrumental textures that also drove the most boisterous songs on the record, they manage to invoke a tremendous tenderness that’s totally unexpected but gives more insight into the band’s muse than earlier, harder tracks like “The McKnight Life” can muster. That epiphany—that the same basis can yield spectacularly different emotional builds and relieve such tension as well comes dangerously close to inciting an epiphany in listeners that might have mistakenly believed a group must appear aggressive to be an imposing force and melodic to be introspective; the Constantines follow none of those established clichés, yet manage to cover every point in the spectrum from pole to pole their first time out.

Shine A Light[Buy it on]
(Three Gut/Sub Pop, 2003)

After the release of their debut on the Guelph, Ontario-based Three Gut Records (founded by Lisa Moran and Tyler Clarke Burke, the label was named for local indie institution Jim Guthrie) and an EP that found them slowing down to a simmer with Suicide Squeeze (the now out-of-print Modern Sinner Nervous Man), it didn’t take long for indie rock aficionados to take notice of the Constantines. With a live show that would often turn on a dime from the most bombastic thing to be orchestrated since The Who took Tommy to the stage to a disarmingly cathartic exposition that could make a concert theatre feel as intimate as a bedroom set, the Constantines began to get a significant buzz behind them. Emboldened by that reception, the band’s first release for Sub Pop (the label went back later and elected to take on their debut when Shine A Light blew up) was a highly anticipated release. With that information in hand, the band decided to take the basic concepts of their debut and turn the volume up on the in order to take the proceedings to another level at the same time.

In spite of the fact that Shine A Light was recorded at Chemical Sound in Toronto (aka nowhere near their new label’s home base in Seattle), it’s difficult not to hear a little grunge residue on the proceedings as “National Hum” kicks over and shocks the daylights out of listeners yet again with its incredibly rough delivery. Unlike the Constantines’ debut, with the additional decibels and muscular, more self-assured delivery comes a bit of mud in the mix that instantly contrasts against their still-mathy dynamics and puts both into sharp relief as well as adding a better-than-healthy amount of tension when they really get going in songs like “Poison,” “Tank Commander,” “Scoundrel Babes” and “Tiger & Crane.” By the same token, in the two years between full-length releases, Constantines had learned to ease off of the throttle on Shine A Light and those moments when they do (the mellow and melancholy “Goodbye Baby & Amen” most notably) prove to be as scintillating as the harder and more textural moments.

All that praise and, really, while history would dictate that Shine A Light would be the record to break the band on a larger scale and begin the chorus of critical fawning that would follow the band for every release that would follow it, in retrospect the album did leave a lot to be desired. While Shine A Light would find the Constantines beginning to reach in more adventurous directions (perhaps due to the addition of keyboardist Will Kidman who really adds a certain cinematic grandeur to songs like “Tank Commander”) and beefing up their sound to leave a lasting and unique mark on the indie-verse, there are people who (rightly) contend that the Constantines might be reaching in too many directions at once here. The rhythm section isn’t so contained by the guitars this time because those guitars occasionally take a moment to wax heroic and there are moments here that anyone can tell fall a little on the earnest side as a result. Shine A Light then, for all its strength (and “Sub-Domestic ranks as one of the greatest songs they’ve ever written—certainly within the top four), really does leave no doubt that it is the Constantines’ sophomore effort that falls as close to a slump as the band has ever experienced. Shine A Light is pretty good but, in retrospect, they’ve proven that they’re capable of better before and since.

Tournament Of Hearts[Buy it on]
(Three Gut/Sub Pop, 2005)

Only months before the release of Tournament Of Hearts, venerable Canadian indie rock record label Three Gut Records (home of acts including Jim Guthrie, Gentleman Reg, Cuff The Duke, Oneida and The Constantines) announced that it would be closing its doors following the release of and promotion for the Constantines’ new record. After six years, the label had developed an incredible reputation for the acts that called it home as well as experiencing a significant amount of critical popularity for the stable as well, Whether that was the reasoning for the tenor of Tournament Of Hearts or not is unclear, but there’s no doubt that, for their last release with the label, the Constantines decided to send the label out with a bang.

The word that best defines sound of Tournament Of Hearts is “bigger.” Now with a significant fan base upon which to stand, the record is the first to sound totally self-assured and swaggering as each track on the record boasts a more assertive and confident sound that occasionally ventures into the realm of pop insofar as the drums drive songs including “Working Full-Time,” “Draw Us Lines,” “Hotline Operator“ and “You Are A Conductor“ hard and the band ventures into the realm of conventional songwriting (read: in addition to there being a beginning and an end to each, the dynamics in between progress from point A to B to C with no confusion on the directions in between) with no trepidation and a very clear vision of what‘s to transpire. The beefier production and Doug McGregor’s newfound penchant for martial rhythms give a new sense of urgency to songs like “Draw Us Lines” and the “Eye Of The Tiger” vamp “Hotline Operator”; a sense that the songs are unstoppable. Like a freight train going by late at night, the band chugs through the ambient keys of “Love In Fear” (bolstered by Steve Lambke’s guitars) and the film noir tension of “Working Full–Time,” Tournament Of Hearts sees the Constantines finally realizing their potential with a raw sense of emotional intensity and sympathetic song dynamics as the band conducts a rabid course through a record that is certainly a stylistic step out, but solid and even anthemic.

Kensington Heights[Buy it on]
(Arts & Crafts, 2008)

The Constantines have, to date, built a career upon the idea that making solid and enduringly interesting music is possible even if the only changes made on an album-to-album basis are a series of small alterations that ultimately renovate the face of their music. Confused? Look at it this way: the band first started out making very modal song cycles that, while sinewy, felt expansive. With Tournament Of Hearts a couple of years ago, they broke the mode and, with songs like “Draw Us Lines” and “Working Full Time,” tried their hands at walking the line as the songs proceeded in a linear fashion from point A to B to C. The result was an incredibly lucid album that once again re-imagined The Constantines as a martial rock outfit. On Kensington Heights though, the band discovers the greatest success by splitting the difference between the two and augmenting their earlier, more modal craft with anthemic Tournament bombast.

From the opening skitter and shake of “Hard Feelings,” The Constantines ring in their return with Stephen Lambke and Bryan Webb’s dueling razor wire guitars and Will Kidman’s keyboard hysteria that is the most rousing moment for the instrument in a rock context since The Who first made jaws drop with “Baba O’Riley,” The song hits the ground running—there is no build—and with its point made the band just struts through “Million Star Hotel” before sounding the charge with “Trans Canada”’s oddly Cure-ish guitar bustle.

The Constantines honestly do go for broke in a lot of ways and places on Kensington Heights; “Shower Of Stones” envisions playing a transcendent and majestic mountain summit before “Credit River” ushers in crushing waves of synths that send the band to the tranquil, aquatic depths of “I Will Not Sing A Hateful Song” and singer Webb finds absolution in the stripped down candlelight introspection of “New King” that mutates as the tape rolls into a wry smile by the time the song eventually fades into the ether.

After nine years, even the most diehard and rabid fans would have to concede that while Constantines have had a celebrated career so far and the praise has been deserved, no one saw Kensington Heights coming. While their career has been marked by small innovations and improvements that have always added up to Constantines totally recasting the face of their music, what occurs on this album goes far beyond a simple, day-surgery facelift; somehow in making those small changes and infusing the anthemia of Tournament Of Hearts into the thematic and instrumental urgency of albums like Shine A Light and the Modern Sinner Nervous Man EP, the Constantines have realized their full potential on this album. They’ve found the one thing that they’ve been missing but everyone listening knew was possible: Kensington Heights has a beautiful sound about it that’s knee-buckling in its disarming and intense delivery, but it could also fill a stadium.


“Credit River” – Constantines – [mp3]
“Our Age” – Constantines – [mp3]
“Hard Feelings” – Constantines – [mp3]
“Blind Luck” – Constantines – [mp3]


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