To see the Constantines perform live is to be reminded of exactly why you loved rock ‘n’ roll in the first place. Guitar riffs slice through the air around you. Basslines thrum through your body, while each bass drum kick hits you like a punch in the gut. Tambourines rattle, first by the band members, then by folks in the audience. The sweat-drenched keyboard player leans on, tips over, and climbs on the Moog or whatever it is he plays, while delivering impassioned background shouts, eyes closed because he believes that every word is the gospel. And the ringleader of the band, the tall, lanky guitarist, screams in his gruff, Joe Strummer-esque voice, down into the microphone, spouting poetry that veers from rock ‘n’ roll testimonials to surreal, ‘shroom-induced bursts of Kerouacian spontaneity. He presides over the latenight congregation, screaming as his neck muscles strain, “Can I get a witness?” sans irony, making dramatic leaps off amplifiers, something nobody seems to do anymore. The Constantines are complete, shameless throwbacks, immersing themselves in everything that’s fun about rock music, and bringing it to the people, making instant converts along the way.
The pride and joy of Guelph, Ontario, the Cons have been critical darlings in their homeland for three years now, but really made their biggest, and most important splash in the United States in 2003, thanks to the Sub Pop release of their highly anticipated, and might I add, brilliant, sophomore effort Shine a Light, which received nearly universal praise. South of the Canadian border, however, the band’s eponymous debut album, released on Three Gut Records in 2001, has been a collectors’ item among American Cons fans, as those who saw the band live for the first time were left wondering, “What was that killer song with the ‘O-V-E-R-D-O-S-E’ chant?” Well, since no new Constantines album is coming to whet our ravenous collective appetites any time soon, Sub Pop has taken it upon themselves to do the American public a great service, by issuing the debut album domestically for the first time.
The timing couldn’t be better, as this reissue serves as a timely reiteration of just how phenomenal this band was, right from the beginning. Sounding like a collection of ardent Fugazi fans who probably wished they were signed to Dischord Records fifteen years earlier, the Cons were much more obvious in their Ian Mackaye adoration on the first album (keyboardist Will Kidman had yet to join the band), their no-frills approach, the tight, aggressive rhythms and that distinctive guitar sound with that adjective all critics love to use every once in a while, “angular”, epitomizing every great characteristic of late ‘80s/early ‘90s D.C. punk. Instead of becoming just another empty exercise in cliches, though, the pure earnestness, the unrelenting passion of The Constantines is what continues to win over listeners to this day.
“As long as we are lonely, we will dance,” declares singer/guitarist Bry Webb in the opening track, “Arizona”, “as long as we are dying, we want the death of rock and roll.” That song, an homage to the late Danny Rapp, he of Danny & the Juniors fame, has Webb brilliantly comparing his own young band with a tired old ‘50s rock ‘n’ roller who dies by his own hand, singing, “Here’s the hunger of a generation, and another ritual surrender.” In this song, the Constantines step in to reiterate what Rapp once sang in the late ‘50s, that “Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay,” and you get the feeling that Webb and his cohorts mean it more.
The rest of the album steadily builds steam as it goes on. Webb encapsulates the feeling of ennui among today’s young adults in “The Long Distance Four” (“For those stuck between the wars, it’s boredom beyond measure”), while the exuberant, eloquent “Some Party” depicts “a tired ex-rocker looking to get laid”, young rockers “just hoping to get paid”, and ordinary punks just getting their kicks. “Young Offenders” ingeniously swipes ideas from Rod Stewart’s old hit “Young Turks”, including the line, “Young hearts be free tonight,” and makes it their own, a jittery, blues-drenched hybrid, punctuated by Webb’s preacher-like refrain. The acoustic ballad “St. You” is a stunner, as Webb’s combination of gentle acoustic guitar, sensitive-guy poetry, and his low, raspy voice, bears a striking similarity to his fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen, as he croons lyrics that are rife with imagery: “Baby bled on all my keys, she set my strings ablaze.” The album’s true highlight is the live favorite “Hyacinth Blues”, a tense, brooding number, with lyrics so laced with enigmatic symbolism, that you’re at a complete loss to what the hell Webb is meaning, but you’re hooked for the entire ride, one that builds and builds, exploding in that memorable, aforementioned, “O-V-E-R-D-O-S-E” chant. The song is only three and a half minutes long, but has the overall scope of an epic.
If The Constantines has a flaw, it’s that it slows down during its last third, following “Hyacinth Blues” and “St. You”, as guitarist Steve Lambke contributes his Mac McCaughan-style vocals to the proceedings. The brief lull doesn’t derail the album at all, it’s merely a slight valley after the first peak and the subsequent exhilarating freefall, and by the time you get to the album closer “Little Instruments”, you’re back on top again, as Webb concludes the festivities with the simple declaration, “We got an amplifier.” Few bands get more out of their amplifiers than the Constantines, and as their first album proves, simplicity is often all a band needs. Some plugged-in guitars, plenty of poetry, and a mission to save rock ‘n’ roll.
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// Notes from the Road
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