I began my review of the Constantines’ sophomore album Shine a
Light with a two-paragraph exposition about how I fell in love with the band, so I’ll try not to be redundant this time around. It does bear repeating, though, that hearing “Arizona” (the opening track of their self-titled debut) once on a broken car stereo was enough to keep the Canadian quintet at the forefront of my mind for two years until I finally got my hands on one of their CDs. Pacific Northwestern labels Sub Pop and Suicide Squeeze have been kind enough to release their subsequent material on these shores.
This, combined with the band’s reputation for raucous live shows (which I can confirm, having seen them at last year’s South by Southwest and this year’s Village Voice Siren Festival), means that the Constantines are no longer one of our northern neighbor’s best kept secrets.
Now that the band has a respectable American following, Sub Pop has
seen fit to capitalize on it (the band’s not quite popular enough to call this move a “cash-in”) by reissuing their heretofore hard-to-find debut. Usually, reissues of obscure debut albums are intellectual curiosities for preexisting fans to dissect, searching for glimpses of future greatness. When removed from their chronological context, these albums don’t hold up well enough to be recommended to people who aren’t already familiar with the
band or artist. The Constantines is a glaring exception in that it’s a Classic Debut Album in every sense of the word. This isn’t the kind of record that “shows promise,” or "showcases raw talent.” This album finds the band firing on all cylinders straight out the gate with a fully formed aesthetic, confident musicianship, and a synergy that takes most bands an entire discography to develop. The music on this record is so effortless and cocksure that on one song they literally DARE you to “Steal This Sound,”
even though you already know it won’t be easy.
“Arizona” sounds as fresh now as it did three years ago, a perfect
introduction to the band’s fusion of Fugazi’s angry post-punk and
Springsteen’s romantic arena rock. Bry Webb and Steve Lambke form a
messy but expressive twin-guitar attack that blurs the line between lead and rhythm guitar. The brash, sturdy rhythm section of Doug MacGregor and Dallas Wehrle is miked in such a way that it sounds both in your face and halfway across the hall. Webb’s terminally hoarse voice hollers out a call to arms for every hedonist within the sound of his voice: “As long as we are lonely, we will dance! As long as we are dying, we want the death of rock and roll!” The entire album is a survey of “ghost town” youth “stuck between the wars” (“The Long Distance Four”), using sex, drugs and rock
and roll as a distraction from their inability to find a purpose in life. It’s the same cry of boredom that fuels almost every great basement punk album. (Unwound’s Fake Train instantly comes to mind.) “It’s the boredom of a bitter age,” Webb sings on “No Ecstasy,” “that drives them to the arms of a punk rock stage.”
However, none of Webb’s rants come across as contrived or clichéd.
Even when he explicitly speaks for an entire generation, not a whiff of self-importance creeps into his tone. On many songs the other
Constantines holler behind him, as if to let him know that he isn’t fighting his causes alone. When the band repeatedly spells out the word “overdose” on “Hyacinth Blues,” inattentive listeners will think that they’re singing about drugs. They’re actually singing about marketers and advertisers who shove new trends down our throats to the point of saturation. “The retail mob is
bleating at the latest dead sensation,” he sings. Every song on this record that isn’t instrumental has at least one line like that. This album’s lyric sheet is a marvel of concise, unpretentious poetry, but both Webb’s voice and his band’s music are coarse enough to keep most listeners from noticing. The lone exception is “Saint You,” an acoustic ballad from a dangerous man
to an equally dangerous woman that I wish Johnny Cash was still alive to reinterpret.
The rest of the album is a series of barnstorming screeds that suck you in so quickly that by the time a cheesy organ announces the beginning of the fifth song “Justice,” you’ll feel as if you’re in a sweaty bar with the Constantines, and Bry’s singing directly to and about YOU. If you aren’t jumping around the room like a moron by the time the eleventh song “Steal This Sound” reaches the one-minute mark, then the stereo’s simply not loud enough. On that song Webb shouts, “It’s some missionary complex that keeps me testifying!” If rock and roll really is the agnostic’s church of choice that this album says it is, then the Constantines are the most compelling preachers I’ve heard in quite a while. When he asks “Can I get a witness?” during the climax of “Young Offenders,” the titanic monochord lurch of his backing band could make even an atheist shout “Amen!”
As much as it pains me to admit it, this album is actually better than Shine a Light by a small margin. In retrospect, the songs on Shine a Light occasionally suffered from trying TOO hard to be anthems, and whether the increased presence of keyboards helped or hurt the songs is still up for debate. Not only that, but whenever Steve Lambke took the microphone, his comparatively atonal voice made the songs drag. Although Lambke actually sings more on The Constantines, his songs are sequenced in a way that maintains the album’s momentum, which can’t be said about his contributions to Shine a Light. This band’s debut is a more cohesive listen from start to finish, which is probably good for newer, less knowledgeable Constantines fans who might pick this up thinking that it’s the FOLLOWUP to Shine instead of its predecessor. If you know one of these people, though, don’t spoil the surprise for them. Let them figure it out on their own.
Artist Website: http://www.constantines.ca
Label Website: http://www.subpop.com