February 07, 2006

The Constantines "Tournament of Hearts"

Three years before the Arcade Fire set the indie-rock world ablaze, the Constantines represented hard for the Great White North with a distinctive Springsteen-meets-Fugazi sound, a near-classic debut album and a raucous live show. Two years later, followup Shine a Light turned up the energy level and successfully integrated Stax-style keyboards into the mix. The only thing that kept them from making their second consecutive masterpiece was perennially tone-deaf lead guitarist Steve Lambke’s occasional stabs at singing. In 2005, the Constantines gave us their third album, Tournament of Hearts, which found the band further tinkering with its sound to mixed results. This time around, the band curbed its tendency to make every song explode into a fist-pumping climax, opting instead to craft songs that build up a lot of tension, but don’t always offer release.

Opening track “Draw Us Lines” is constructed from one chord, a mammoth tom-driven rhythm and a woozy guitar drone. Like most great Constantines songs, it’s a hedonistic clarion call for listeners to throw caution to the wind and take life into their own hands. “Seeking strength in misery,” lead vocalist Bry Webb croaks, “let us feel the air inside the clothes we wear.” Unlike most great Constantines songs, though, “Draw Us Lines” never gives us the kind of chorus that could rile us into taking Webb’s advice. This frustrating trick is repeated on the second song “Hotline Operator.” During the third verse, Webb starts wailing in his upper register and the band starts rocking out behind him. Unfortunately, the song ends just four bars after Webb and Lambke finally step on their distortion pedals. Two years ago, they would’ve given us another minute or two of music to jump around to.

Just when you think that they’re going to spend the whole album giving you the aural equivalent of blue balls, the Constantines throw in a batch of songs that at least come close to the rabble-rousing rockers of old. On “Love in Fear,” bassist Dallas Wehrle and drummer Doug McGregor lock into a lopsided groove that would give Sandinista-era Clash pause. This song has an actual CHORUS, with a four-on-the-floor disco rhythm that is sure to get crowds moving during their live shows. “Lizaveta” is a distortion-drenched crawl with horn bleats that are just as lurid and boozy as the protagonist Webb sings about in the lyrics (“Attraction lures the sot to drink, to all his troubles drown/But when his legs give way, he falls, and attraction keeps his down”). On the next song, “Soon Enough,” Webb sings the chorus like it’s a threat: “Soon enough, work and love will make a man out of you.” The band plods and jangles behind him with the weariness of men who suffer from broken backs and broken hearts. “Working Full Time” beats listeners upside the head with staccato organ chords, while Webb admonishes listeners not to let the nine-to-five grind steal their zest for life: “Vigilant people on the cult of enterprise/Lean into the day with all your heart and mind/We were not meant to fear the morning.”

As usual, the songs that Steve Lambke “sings” end up being the weakest. “Thieves” escapes mediocrity through an excellent horn arrangement and Steve’s decision to recite the lyrics instead of singing them. On the other hand, the solo acoustic ballad “Windy Road” ends the album on a very sour note due to cliched lyrics and crappy singing. It’s what a Boy Named Thor would sound like if he didn’t have cuteness on his side. Bry Webb doesn’t have the smoothest voice, but at least he can carry a tune. Between the decline in energy and the spottiness of Lambke’s contributions, Tournament of Hearts ends up being the Constantines’ weakest album. Nonetheless, the strong batch of songs in its middle section make it a worthy purchase.

-Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.constantines.ca
Label Website: http://www.subpop.com

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