This Canadian band has been slowly but surely seducing me over the last three years. I remember first hearing them sometime in 2001 while driving through Houston. My Nissan Altima’s stereo had only one working speaker, and that speaker had a blown sub-woofer. Even through the trebly sound of my radio and the whir of the wind blowing through my windows, I could feel the pulse of the rhythm section and the husky rasp of singer Bry Webb struggling to be heard. I was listening to “Arizona,” a song from their self-titled debut. I had the song stuck in my head for months and months, but I couldn’t find the album anywhere. A year later, I read a review of their 2002 EP The Modern Sinner, Nervous Man that also contained a mp3 of its opening track “Dirty Business.” The guitar riff hooked me within the first few seconds of the song, and by the time the rhythm section came in I was already jumping around the room. This was even before Webb’s vocals came in, before the hard-panned guitars started running circles around each other, and before the organ interrupted everything to add a bit of Stax grit to it all. That song alone was so good that I bought a used copy of the EP for three dollars more than the new copy I could’ve mail-ordered from Suicide Squeeze, simply because I wanted it NOW.
Then, I saw the band play live at Emo’s during this year’s South by
Southwest. They jumped on speakers, committed grievous and lustful acts against their instruments, and passed tambourines around to the audience. That night, they were preachers of the gospel of rock, and the audience was the congregation, testifying and exhorting the band to “Turn it up!” Hearing “Arizona” was the initial flirtation, Modern Sinner was my first date, and their SXSW set marked the moment I pledged my undying love to the Constantines. Now they’ve finally released their sophomore album, Shine a Light, and by the end of my first listen I felt like I’d just had honeymoon sex. Before you think that I’m about to proclaim the Constantines the new saviors of rock, let me add a disclaimer. First of all, everything you’ve read about them in other reviews is true. Yes, Bry Webb is a vocal dead ringer for Bruce Springsteen, and yes, the rest of the band sounds like Fugazi. However, the Constantines rock much harder and with less obvious pathos than the former, and they have a smokier, more soulful sound than the latter does. Put simply, they’re a bar band for punk rockers, which isn’t the most innovative concept, but it IS something music has needed for a very long time.
The first and final songs on Shine a Light provide the album’s
conceptual frame, in which music is celebrated as a kind of political
resistance. Opener “National Hum” is the fastest and angriest Constantines song to date. Against the rat-a-tat snares and sloppily strummed guitars, Bry Webb sounds so angry that he can barely enunciate his words (or even sing in tune)! “More and more neglected hands, judgment ripe, are starting bands,” he screams “and working on a new solution.” The final song, “Sub-Domestic,” posits that “if sanctuary still exists, it’s among the shaking fists seeking out a living free of the postures of politics.” These are probably the most direct political statements on the record. The songs in between serve more as a romanticized chronicle of rebellious and outcast youth. The title track is sung from the point of view of a woman whose boyfriend is suffering for an important yet unnamed cause. The protagonists in “Poison” commit robbery and break hearts without remorse. Images of light and darkness, devils and angels pepper almost every song. “Take the city as a sister,” Webb commands on “Nighttime/Anytime,” “and the nighttime as a lover.” “Tiger and Crane” suggests an atmosphere of actual physical combat, where “we spread the finer linens for warriors and dog-like gods.”
Musically, every song begins as a rollicking anthem and only gets MORE bombastic as it goes along. “National Hum” sounds as if the band’s about to spontaneously combust at any moment. Horn sections chime in at crucial moments on the record, adding a little bit of Morphine flavor to the stew. “Young Lions” is all chiming guitars and propulsive tom-toms, the same kind of danceable disarray that Sonic Youth perfected on Daydream Nation and Trail of Dead manages at their very best. “On to You” starts off as bouncy Motown pop, but segues into a slow, brooding waltz that ushers in the most impassioned singing on the entire album. “In the fire of my youth,” Webb sings, “we were racing with the sun. Kissing in the churchyard, I knew a righteous woman.” You can tell that when he sings “know,” he means it in the Biblical, sexual sense, and that isn’t the only song in which blasphemy and transgression are given an almost erotic character. The album’s only misstep is “Scoundrel Babes,” which would actually be the hardest-rocking song on the album if it were for guitarist Steve Lambke’s tone-deaf vocals. I know that Canadian bands like to be democratic and all, but in this case Webb should ALWAYS have the microphone.
In a music scene in which most punk bands are either too cerebral or too emotional for their own good, a band as balanced as the Constantines is a breath of fresh air. (Keep in mind that I use the terms “cerebral” and “emotional” loosely, for playing in 13/8 doesn’t make you smarter, neither does whining off-key about your last breakup make you more sensitive.) You can get lost in the dances that the scabrous guitars and keyboards do around each other, or you can let Bry Webb sing you into a state of manic activity, ready to make love and break stuff just because you can. Even though the band is exactly the hybrid of Fugazi and Springsteen you’d imagine, you have to admit that before they came along, no one EVER thought such a hybrid could exist. Because of such, their music has a strange newness to it. If Shine a Light was honeymoon sex, it would be with a partner who manages to make even a standard five-minute missionary romp feel like an hour-long bout of tantric yoga. I hope that this marriage lasts a very long time.