Friday, October 3, 2008

Constantines. Kensington Heights (Arts and Crafts, 2008)

"We've been told pleasure kills/ We don't get nervous/ You can tell/ You can tell by the way we walk/ We've got hard feelings."

When the Constantines first surfaced out of Guelph, Ontario in 2001, the common rock crit analysis of these guys was that they sounded like Fugazi with Bruce Springsteen on vocals. With their cranky post-punk racket -- heavy, semi-angular rhythms and scorched earth guitars -- fronted by singer/guitarist Bryan Webb's raspy voice and literate lyrics, that seemed an accurate enough shortcut to describing their sound. And hey, who wouldn't want to hear "Born to Run" played by the guys who brought us "Waiting Room"? That would rule. And rule it did.

And even if a few records on I think that the Fugazi-cum-The Boss comparisons are wearing a bit thin, I still think the Constantines rule. I fell in love with their second LP, 2003's Shine a Light (the stunning "Nighttime, Anytime" is one of the best tracks of the decade, no question), and my affection for them only grew with 2005's Tournament of Hearts, where the Constantines tempered their fiery immediacy with occasional touches of almost folky delicacy, all the while keeping their sights set on "rawk." Their latest, Kensington Heights, is another winning entry, finding the band exploring the quieter aspects of Tournament of Hearts and churning out another round of epic burners.

"Hard Feelings" starts things off in fine style, a nervous keyboard line matching the slashing guitars and driving drums nicely, adding to the tune's desperate paranoia and hopped-up energy. At the 2:15 mark, the band breaks into full-gallop breakdown mode, and it's a thing of beauty. "Million Star Hotel" is next in the rotation, and arrives with crash and bombast before settling down to smolder and smoke, Bryan Webb crying, "I'd just like to see you in a natural light" before demanding, "Where's my black water?/ Where's my loving cup?" as the twin guitars scream and cry. "Trans Canada" finds the bass and drums steadily stalking the melody while the guitars trade off between crunch and chime. "Brother Run Them Down" is another amazing charger, steadily pounding snare setting the pace for the rest of the band, the defiant "You are not your generation!" of the chorus a rousing call to arms. This might be the most Bruce-esque track of the record, combining working-class anger ("Days of doubt can ruin men") with a faith in stoic perseverance ("Live and let your hand undo them/ Brother run them down") in a way that makes you want to throw a brick through a window.

As I said, the Constantines have been getting better and better at the quieter stuff, managing to tone it down while keeping things interesting and even exciting. "Time Can Be Overcome" is a perfect example. Webb turns in a wistful, soulful vocal over a slightly behind the beat drum plod and thick, slowly strummed chords, sounding weary and hopeful all at once, declaring, "What do you know?/ Still living so young/ Tomorrow's no burden/ Time can be overcome" with a triumphant bellow. "I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song" is another softer, top shelf turn, country guitar twang grounded by Webb's gravelly delivery.

But of the quieter tunes on Kensington Heights, "New King" is the clear winner. Over a light acoustic progression bolstered by easy organ lines, Webb delivers a beautiful ode to parenthood and family without falling into preciousness. And when the rest of the group steps in at the 1:51 mark, the songs develops into a gorgeous, punchy, loose-limbed charmer. "Your mother and father/ Walked out of the city/ Bound together/ As they were bound to be."

I first heard the Constantines when they played a short set at South by Southwest in 2004, and got that thrilling feeling you get when you realize you've just discovered something great. Four years and several albums further on, these guys have never let me down. To my ear, they just keep getting better, and Kensington Heights is the latest in a series of amazing collections of indierock inspiration. On "Life Or Death," Webb recounts a near-fatal experience, crying "I was lucky to get out alive!" And we were lucky he made it, too.