The one thing that separates The Constantines from their balls-to-the-wall punk rock peers is restraint. They got it, and everyone else doesn’t. That doesn’t mean that The Constantines don’t know how to get crazy and crank out heavy post-punk of the most explosive variety. They just happen to know how to balance the two extremes, letting the quiet parts sound quieter, the melodic parts more melodic and the heavy parts even heavier. On their self-titled debut, the Cons injected E Street Band earnestness into DC punk rock rhythms, while its follow-up Shine a Light found the band delivering even more soaring anthems, all the while making their more “punk” sounding songs sound all the more dissonant and chaotic. On Tournament of Hearts, however, they aren’t so much concerned with filling any specific niche so much as they aim to make an awesome rock `n’ roll record.
Like their Toronto brethren Broken Social Scene, The Constantines deal heavily in layers and textures, but unlike that massive group, The Cons take a grittier approach, swapping the ethereal and dreamy for something more pummeling. This album, however, is a much more subtle effort than their previous two, pummeling a little less directly than they did before. Feedback and stomping bass drum begin the album on the incredible “Draw Us Lines,” but it takes a good minute or so before the jagged guitars kick in and the song blasts full force into The Cons’ immense fury.
The incredible “Hotline Operator” is a much more subdued track, beginning with sparely ringing guitar chugs that catalyze into a dreamy breakdown. Bry Webb’s vocals go from a sweet falsetto, singing “I believe this life is blessed, when against your hand, my pulse can rise and rest,” (that’s a great line, by the way) to a neurotic howl, shouting “You’re a way! An unchainer! You’re a hotline operator!” The song that follows, first single “Love in Fear,” lines up the unlikely combination of jazzy keyboard, punk guitars and disco beats, resulting in one of the most triumphant punk anthems of the year, doing so without being showy or overly aggressive.
On “Lizaveta,” the band exchanges their quietly intense sound for a bluesy stomp, one of the heaviest on the record. It could be their “When the Levee Breaks,” though not nearly as long and placed in the middle of the album, rather than the end. But the brass that kicks in during the chorus takes it to even greater heights of glory and soul.
One aspect of Tournament of Hearts that sets it apart from the band’s other albums comes after track five, “Soon Enough” — this is an album that was written for vinyl. It’s broken up and sequenced immaculately for turning the record over; observe the transition from the jangly “Soon Enough” to the explosive “Working Full-Time.” One is clearly an ending, while the other is most certainly a beginning. Rarely is sequencing that much of a big deal when it comes to enjoying an album, but the way the tracks line up on Tournament of Hearts is so perfect, the band should be awarded for their meticulous arrangement.
The remainder of the second side (and there is a vinyl version, so I could be right on the money) is, likewise, stunning. “Good Nurse” injects a little twang into the band’s routine, while “Thieves” is a late night, whispery, understated track packed with tension that could have doubled as a closing song, but is placed, again, in the middle, as to break the stream of rockers. And speaking of rockers, “You Are A Conductor” is a doozy: huge, anthemic and soaring, like U2 with more Big Muff and less digital delay. The gentle “Windy Road” wraps it all up with a low-key acoustic melody, showing yet another side of the band’s personality, suggesting, or rather proving, that there’s very little this amazing Toronto outfit can’t do.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.