Canada takes a lot of flak for being next to the United States. It’s always “aboot” this and “ice hockey” that, from their obnoxious neighbors, let alone the unavoidable “U!S!A!” chant breaking the noise curfew. But it’s likely only some misguided projection — Canadians seem to have their shit together on the whole. They have public health care, lower crime rates and a thriving pool of indie rock musicians at that. Hot Hot Heat and The Red Light Sting represent the spastic new wave sounds of British Columbia, while Toronto holds its own with bands like Stars and Broken Social Scene.
And then there are The Constantines, who trump every other Northern band in sheer volume. The Cons’ self-titled debut was an impressive collection, combining punk rock with Bry Webb’s soulful vocal style. Most accounts have equated his pipes to Bruce Springsteen singing Fugazi songs. And for the most part, it’s a pretty accurate statement.
The Constantines new album, Shine a Light turns the dial a notch to the right, changing the band’s sound from loud to fucking loud. The opening track, “National Hum,” charges at the listener like a wild moose, as vocalist Bry Webb shouts “More and more neglected hands/judgment ripe, they’re starting bands” as an anthem to the punk rockers.
The title track is where the band begins to truly shine, no pun intended (okay, pun intended). Some feedback opens the song, which leads into a rolling bass and kick drum groove. Guitars chime in, building tension, but right when it seems like things are going to go apeshit, the wacky Ontarians ease into a jazzy verse. The third time around, however, the chords played in the verse become loud and ominous, much the opposite of how they began.
The first single, “Nighttime Anytime (It’s Alright)” is a peculiar choice for a radio track, as there’s no clear-cut chorus, and it’s certainly not the catchiest song on the album. But it definitely rocks — `nuff said. The following track, “Insectivora,” is a badass narration that alludes the apocalypse, Webb singing verses of subsisting on a diet of earthworms and houseflies. During the chorus, the guitars create a screechy wall for bass and saxophone to climb over. It’s an awe-inspiring thing to behold. So is “Goodbye Baby and Amen,” a bluesy slow-burner that won’t immediately pummel you, but good luck picking your jaw up off the floor after its groove runs out.
On “Young Lions” and “On to You,” the Springsteen comparisons ring ever more true, as the band plays E Street Band and Webb sings about “wild ones” and “wild boys” in a way only a Jersey native could. Yet these two tracks take a much-needed diversion away from the more explicitly punk-sounding songs, which makes them all the more intriguing in context.
The Constantines make a hell of a ruckus on Shine a Light, maintaining an earthy sensibility while kicking up a lot of dust in the process. Canada has a pretty long history of turning out amazing songwriters, from Neil Young to Joni Mitchell, but The Constantines have made great inroads to carving out their place in its hall of fame.