“Where’s my black water?” demands Bryan Webb on the furious “Million Star Hotel”. “Where’s my loving cup?” Dreams of Jagger and Mississippi moonshine notwithstanding (or, perhaps, purely accidental), Webb’s frustration is palpable, and engrossing. His voice is pure rock ’n’ roll; all sexy growls and dusty gravel. Think Paul Westerberg, Roger Daltrey, Britt Daniel. He’s got that thing where, when he screams his pain, we care. It’s a simple formula, but impossible to imitate. This is one of those elusive rock’n’roll deals that you’ve either got, or you’ll never have. If the Constantines were lousy songwriters, they’d still be able to move you. This guy can fucking sing.
Since their emergence from the small farming-community-cum-University-town of Guelph, Ontario (about 40 minutes west of Toronto), the Constantines have been steadily building up a reputation for their alarmingly powerful live act. Everyone wants to see them play, and for good reason. However, the parallel criticism of their stuff, from my end anyway, was that while they had nailed the angry, kinetic rock ’n’ roll performance thing, they hadn’t found melody amid the noise just yet. For all the bluster and passionate intensity, I never left a show humming a tune. I never found myself unable to shake the need to put on one of their records. I’d go to every show they played near my house, and I’d secretly fantasize about one day being even halfway as cool as they manage to look on stage, but then I’d forget about them till the next time they came through town.
On this, their second record since Shine a Light (their uneven, but promising, 2003 breakthrough LP), Webb and his bandmates have put together their first complete album. Beautifully recorded, and alive with the unpredictable energy that drives those killer live shows, Kensington Heights demonstrates the band’s maturity, and their well-earned confidence. Emphasizing melody over racket, the band pushes into some new territory with triumphant results. Some fans may feel a bit put off by the paucity of blistering rockers here—apart from the opening track, most tunes follow medium tempos and stubbornly refuse to push into the stratosphere—but they’ll have to admit that the Constantines have rarely sounded so diverse. Nowhere in their catalog have we heard anything as downright beautiful as “I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song”; rare has been the purposeful slow-burner with the fervor of “Shower of Stones”; and the left-field attack of the campfire ballad “New King” is thrillingly unexpected.
In fact, “Hard Feelings”, the opening barnburner, is the least successful track on the record, perhaps because it’s the only one that sounds like it could’ve been on their last LP. Less fresh, even a bit boring, it is an easy song to skip. But, from “Million Star Hotel” to the end, the record is all about intensity, tension, aggravation, alienation, and timely release. In the diversity of approaches, the Constantines have found (not unlike their friends and occasional tourmates the Weakerthans) a way to tell their story with a bit more gravitas, a bit more verve, without losing their compass points.
It’s in this new diversity that comes the richness. Exploring many moods, allowing them to flourish, refusing to focus the record into any one narrow approach, the Constantines have announced the breadth of their collective vision and ability. They sound less like a one-note rock band and more like career musicians, artists full of spite and hurt and vision. Quite simply, “I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song” is the best thing they’ve ever recorded, with its perfect balance of roughness and beauty, tunefulness and clamor. “Trans Canada” is steeped in darkness, while “Brother Run Them Down” is alive with light.
Finally, on the fantastic closing track “Do What You Can Do”, the band builds tension towards an anthemic release that never comes, all pounding drums and vocal fury. It’s the anti-Arcade Fire: no massive climax, no hugeness of sound and fury, just burning, seething, rock ’n’ roll dissatisfaction. “You do / What you can do / With what you got”, sings an insistent Webb. In all its pent-up ferocity, its frustrated emotion, it is the Constantines at their best, which is pretty goddamn good.
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