The title of the New Constitution‘s debut album, On 4, signifies the traditional rock-and-roll count-off; picture the Ramones screaming 1-2-3-4 before every song, or think of how two out of every three rock bands in America has a song that starts with the drummer counting off with his sticks. Thinking about that will give you a solid idea of what the band’s all about, as will the album’s opening notes. The first song, “Shook Last Night”, opens with a lone guitar playing in a sustained but choppy way that should be familiar to anyone even slightly versed in rock, as it’s one of the two ways that Chuck Berry songs begin. As with a Chuck Berry song, with that opening sound the New Constitution kick-starts a bluesy, amped-up rocker that’s likely to get people up and moving. They kick out a song driven by guitars, a thick rhythm section, hand-claps and vocals that are very British Invasion (with that Midwestern version of a British accent, à la Guided by Voices), and then cut it off before the two-minute mark, AM-radio-style.
The energy behind the opening song runs through all 12 of the songs on On 4. The New Constitution are pros at tapping into the rock ‘n’ roll mainline, channeling the force and freedom behind every great rock song while still sounding fresh and modern. They play typical rock instruments (guitar, bass, drums), yet they wield them like they’re certain the instruments’ real power has yet to be tapped. They sound like they’ve spent many a late night and lazy afternoon blaring rock ‘n’ roll records, but also like they were always keeping an open place in their record collections for those they’d someday create on their own. In other words, they sound reverent but confident.
Hailing from the suburbs of Chicago, the New Constitution’s four members are old friends who’ve banded together to rock the world. Three of the four members once played live as Mathlete, and one of them, Mike Downey, was that group’s singer/songwriter, plus a member of one of my favorite pop-rock bands of recent years, Wolfie. Downey’s other current band, the National Splits, is a one-man band that mines the roots of American music, from folk to blues to rock, and casts it within a newer brand of DIY indie-rock. Even when he’s singing a more country-fied song, there’s a certain carefree, slightly rebellious rock ‘n’ roll attitude inherent in his personality. The five songs he’s written for On 4 play that up, drawing on his unabashed love for classic rock. They finish the thought Downey expressed on a National Splits song once, when he warned, “Don’t make me rock you.” And they’re just as impressive as those on the great Splits albums, even as they have more of a singular focus, to rock you like you’ve never been rocked before.
On 4‘s other seven songs are written by bassist/singer Dan Brown. While to my knowledge he has less of a profile in the indie-music world, his songs are just as catchy and exciting as Downey’s, and betray an even wider array of influences from rock history. While the aforementioned Berry-meets-the Brits rocker “Shook Last Night” and the ‘70s-sounding crunchers “Lies About It” (sort of Skynrd by way of Sloan) and “Hot Flashes” (the Who meets early Kiss) all rock things up nicely, some of his other songs follow a softer, more pop-oriented route. “Country Life” is a Kinks-ish pastoral trip, “Let’s Make War” is like a somewhat twisted McCartney ballad, and “Don’cha Take It So Hard” even throws a little Rod Stewart into the mix, at least in Brown’s vocal delivery.
“Saved some money cause I worked after school / I bought a Telecaster I think they’re cool,” Downey sings on “No Easy Way”, a refutation of the idea that playing in bands is a difficult way to make a life. The New Constitution’s songs are both ace rock anthems for today and tributes to every rock musician who’s come before. On 4 is a great defense of the power of straight-ahead rock and roll. It’s an album driven by the same feelings that have led so many teenagers to pick up guitars and plug them into amps over the last 40 or so years. It’s that notion that rock ‘n’ roll will set you free, that turning music up loud and jumping around is a healthy way to live, that a worn-out Stones album is sometimes worth more than 100 diamond rings.