[21 August 2003]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Back in 1992, on a television interview with Leonard Cohen, he was asked if he had any advice for struggling young artists. Now, normally, when an already-famous luminary is asked such a question, they more often than not drag out the same old, tired cliché: stick to your dreams, don’t give up, and so forth. But Cohen, being the master wordsmith that he is, uttered something more simple, as the Buddhist monk-in-training said simply, “Ignorance and arrogance.” Nowhere is that quote more applicable than in rock ‘n’ roll. Young bands have been ripping off older bands over the decades, in an effort to find their own unique sound out of the same chord structures, epitomized perfectly when a certain, all-too-often-quoted writer named Bangs noticed that such highly influential songs as Ritchie Valens’s “La Bamba”, The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie”, The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”, The Stooges’ “No Fun”, and The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” all possessed the same three chords. Nothing in rock ‘n’ roll is sacred; often the best music comes out of musicians who are young, brave, and stupid enough to take something obvious and overdone, and tweak in a way that makes it seem you’ve never heard anything like it before.
The Constantines hail from Guelph, in Southern Ontario, and have been steadily gaining notoriety as a superb live act, emerging as the latest version of Canada’s Next Big Thing. Heavily influenced by post-punk legends Fugazi, the quartet’s 2001 self-titled debut roared with youth and ambition, their charmingly blatant Fugazi sound offset by some genuine wit, best exemplified in the standout track “Young Offenders” which stole a line from Rod Stewart’s songs “Young Turks” and “Can I Get a Witness” (“Young hearts be free tonight / Time is on your side . . . Can I get a witness?”), and was sung with such vigor and intensity, as if it was about time someone reiterated just how important such simple lines like those still are. After an excellent three-song EP (2002’s The Modern Sinner/Nervous Man) that had The Cons stretching out their sound further, thanks to the addition of a fifth member on keyboards, the guys scored an American distribution deal with Sub Pop, and finally, their important sophomore record is here for us to experience. 2003 badly needed some loud, raw, rock ‘n’ roll, and now we’ve got it, big time.
Shine a Light is just as boisterous and energetic as their first album, but this time around, The Constantines are even bolder. That same, ferocious, two-guitar assault that would have fitted perfectly among the great Dischord releases of the early Nineties is still there, and the new album sounds great, with its piercing, yet warm tones and its loose feel; however, now, they up the musical ante considerably, showing some remarkable range at times. The band tries to bring something new to the table, incorporating cool little twists to that aggressive sound (background harmonies, keyboards, hints of a dub influence, and at times the post-punk soul of The Afghan Whigs) while still packing a monstrous punch. The Constantines manage to sound considerably more musically adventurous than the majority of their peers, as each track brims with ambition.
All through Shine a Light, singers/guitarists Bry Webb and Steve Lambke tear away with their angular riffs that slice through each song, while the rhythm section of bassist Dallas Wehrle and Doug MacGregor don’t just keep pace, they cement each track, Wehrle delivering fluid, grooving bass lines a la The Clash’s Paul Simonon, offsetting the aggressive guitars with a slick helping of pure cool. Webb, the band’s primary vocalist (Lambke provides lead vocals on “Scoundrel Babes”), sounds like a mix of The Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli, a young Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer, and Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard, bringing a raspy, rough-edged soul to the songs. Keyboardist Will Kidman is hard to notice at first, but his contributions are just as valuable; instead of centering their sound around the organ (like labelmates Hot Hot Heat), The Constantines opt for a different approach, an almost jazz-like style, as Kidman just lets loose and does his own thing, weaving in and out of the guitar chords and drum beats, an unobtrusive musical commentary.
“More and more neglected hands / Judgement ripe / They’re starting bands,” screams Webb on the ferocious album-opener “National Hum”, a searing call to arms for the younger generation that reflects a rebellious passion we haven’t heard since Ian MacKaye’s prime: “Working on a new solution / Youth is not absolution . . . The State ain’t my shepherd!” “Nighttime/Anytime (It’s Alright)”, the first single, is spectacular, an intense, thunderous manifesto. With its dark, jarring, Gang of Four-meets-Afghan Whigs sound, you’d expect plenty of angst, but instead, Webb implores all the hipsters in the crowd to just cheer up and dance, shouting, “It’s hard not to surrender to the bold and comely words / What sway the bloody minded / What hang above the graceless herd / It’s hard not to surrender, but I will dance down through the alleyways / With one foot in the gutter.” “Insectivora” boasts a dub-infused, Clash style bass line and a great addition of a horn section that echoes the bass notes. “Goodbye Baby & Amen”, with its layers of saxophones and Webb’s sleepy delivery, greatly resembles Morphine, and “Tiger & Crane” sounds similar to Guided By Voices’ more progressive efforts. The band go from being young Turks to “Young Lions”, as the uplifting song showcases even more of Webb’s poetic talent (“Make your love too wild for words”), while “Tank Commander (Hung Up in a Warehouse Town)” is one of the album’s most blistering, cathartic tracks.
Music and lyrics come together in stunning, unabashedly romantic fashion on “On to You”, the one song on Shine a Light that brings the album to a higher level. Here, the loud, angular guitar chords are gone, in favor of more a more subtle (yet still potent) riff, letting Kidman’s modest keyboards carry it instead. Webb then chimes in with some of the best lines about being young and alive that we’ve heard in a while, as Webb does his best Springsteen imitation, gruffly singing, “Come let me under your veil / They might say love is only trouble, we’re both too drunk to steer it / We may never be angels, but we’re lousy with the spirit.” The song avoids sappy, whiny emo sentiment, and wears its drunken, bleeding heart on its sleeve.
It’s The Constantines’ pure ignorance and arrogance (Who cares if it’s been done before? We can do it better, or die trying) that make this such a good album. Why not emulate Fugazi, only with keyboards and horns this time? Why not sing songs about teen love? Why not dance in the street? Why not write oblique poetry? The band brings a sense of celebration to a style of rock music that is either exceedingly angry, political, morose, or all of the above. When they sing, “When we dance, the night belongs to us,” they mean it. On the title track, Webb sings, “All a man can build is his vision / And I love my man for trying.” It’s clear these guys have lofty aspirations themselves, and with Shine a Light, they’re well on their way to achieving them. This is the kind of indie rock record you wait all year for.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/constantines-shine/