[19 July 2009]
In these harsh financial times, etc., bands and labels are striving harder than ever to give you a reason to actually pay them for their music. Hell, a good chunk of the reason why vinyl records are coming back as much as they are is because most of them come with a free digital download of the album; if you’re going to skip the CD anyway, why not have a handsome, fancy-seeming keepsake that you can play on a turntable (if you have one), and that displays the album art in a nicer ‘resolution’ anyways?
Constantines’ very fine 2008 release Kensington Heights shouldn’t need the help. It’s the fourth strong album in a row for a band that have yet to make a significant misstep, and maybe the most muscular evocation yet of the band’s greatness as one of the few rock qua rock bands out there worth following. But that was a year ago, and so to coincide with the Cons’ cross-Canada tour with the Weakerthans (a combination known as the Rolling Tundra Revue), Arts & Crafts have augmented the album with a digital EP to sweeten the pot for late adopters.
To be honest with you, at first glance Too Slow for Love doesn’t look all that appealing. Four songs from Kensington Heights itself are given the stripped-down treatment, along with one each from Tournament of Hearts and Shine a Light, and a bonus cover of Jon Langford & the Sadies’ “Strange Birds” rounds out the release. Unless you’re a bigger fan of MTV Unplugged than I am, the notion of some acoustic versions of songs you already know isn’t enough to get you intrigued. But these aren’t just acoustic versions—and not just because there’s electric guitar all over them—and the result is striking enough, revelatory even, in a way that means Too Slow for Love is necessary listening for Constantines fans, as well as a decent entry point for those who haven’t been quite convinced by the band’s intense, blustery charge in the past.
The fan-beloved “Young Lions” begins proceedings not with the rollicking, widescreen Springsteen surge of the Shine a Light version, but with a gently lilting electric guitar treatment of the song’s riff. Bry Webb’s voice isn’t as gnarled as it was the album version, and the drums splash gently along instead of propelling the song. Like I said, it’s not an acoustic version, but it’s soothing in a way that even the ballads on Constantines albums aren’t. The versions on this EP aren’t different because of instrumentation so much as emphasis and atmosphere. One of the things that makes the band’s albums so great is that every song, loud or quiet, sounds ferociously wrested out of the very air by dint of hard, painstaking work. Constantines’ normal milieu is one of astounding effort, of songs thrust forward via sheer willpower. Here they’re soothing, calm, introspective—all qualities you might have suspected the band couldn’t summon.
Where Steve Lambke’s “Shower of Stones” and Webb’s “Our Age” surged forward on record under a scree of noise, here both are softly reflective; the former with a full band arrangement that retains the momentum but not the harshness of the original, the latter a solo acoustic rendition that lays bare just how pretty the song is. Lambke and Webb sing the same words, about the torments of love and the confusions of history, but the setting means that rather than coming across as the hard-won triumph of people who’ve gone through hell, they sound wiser, more settled. It’s less the red-hot, vital transmission of a struggle that’s still going on than old friends telling you what they’ve been through.
And as great as all four Constantines records have been, it’s both a revelation and a relief that they work so well in this other mode. “You Are a Conductor” from Tournament of Hearts is well chosen for this EP because it’s the closest the band have previously gotten to the graceful sweep of these stripped-down versions. Here called just “Conductor”, its organ-lit glow is the only song that retains the same emotional tenor when the noise surrounding it has been scaled back. And the “Strange Birds” cover, similarly buoyed by Will Kidman’s ebbing organ, is a good match for the band’s mood, with Webb calmly intoning “Strange birds sing of frightening things too obvious to mention”, the song’s warning less panicked but no less foreboding. But Too Slow for Love finishes with its strongest choices, taking the two best songs from Kensington Heights and altering each in illuminating and compelling ways.
“I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song”, which closes the EP, was fairly stripped-down in its album version, consisting mostly of some clipped drums, a phased guitar line, and Webb’s vocal. But that vocal was sufficiently full of venom and strain that the song seemed rougher, even as its message was reinforced—this wasn’t someone who found it easy to resist singing a hateful song, and that made Webb’s vow all the more powerful. It was a song of restraint, one that recognized the need to rise above our own lesser impulses. Here “I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song” is drumless, just some subtle guitar burbles and again Webb’s voice. But here he sounds despairing and a little plaintive. Instead of an angry man striving to master himself, he’s the voice of sad experience, only too aware of what singing a hateful song costs you.
But the real pinnacle is the version of the Kensington Heights-closing “Do What You Can Do”. Originally it builds to a raging climax, the apotheosis of the band’s focus on longing, hard work, and love. The version on Too Slow for Love never quite breaks open in the same way—it’s more like the moments just before a summer thunderstorm, nothing but tension in the air. The band’s sonic restraint makes this “Do What You Can Do” almost more powerful than the album version, the drums building endlessly in the background, things inching closer and closer to some sort of catharsis. Webb’s got weariness in his voice rather than effort when he sings “You and I, we’re gonna break even / Two animals on the road to animal heaven”, but it only drives home the song’s message even more. With about a minute left, the skies finally open, and even then it’s kept tightly reined in, but it’s a glorious moment nonetheless.
Unlike most alternate renderings, then, the ones found here are more than just curios or sops to devoted fans. Constantines have managed the terrifically difficult task of making stellar versions of already great songs, ones that don’t take anything away from the originals, but that do subtly alter your perception of both takes and the band behind them. They’ve never seemed particularly one-note, but the way Constantines have been able to embrace such a relaxed, gentle attitude on Too Slow for Love in a way that you might have thought was antithetical to their sound—and to the way their songs have worked so superbly in such a setting—indicates just how good this band is right now. It remains to be seen whether Too Slow for Love is a temporary diversion or a sign of things to come, but either way the mastery of form and tone shown here suggest that Constantines are still very much at the top of their game.