The Constantines

at the Empty Bottle

If it were possible to master a surefire formula for picking the next big thing, lots of rock writers would be out of work. Even in the absence of that formula, the big media conglomerates are working hard to render us irrelevant, making an end run around the usual guesswork by flat-out creating new stars themselves. I imagine new Simpson sisters incubating in glass tanks, ringed by purple spotlights–so that when they emerge, wet and shivering, to take their first awkward try at lip-synching, they’ll already be used to the glow of the stage.

Even if I could put a stop to this nonsense, I’m not sure I would–we get the pop culture we deserve, after all, and there’s something to be said for letting people learn their lesson the hard way. Besides, the good citizens of Indieville can pick out the vat-grown clones by smell–for these folks the most sought-after high comes from spotting the genuine article in the wild, a spontaneous uprising, a band with word of mouth like a brushfire. It’s even more gratifying if you make your call before the buzz has even started.

Lord knows I’m not especially good at that kind of prognostication. Maybe I’m just not organized enough–my office is crammed with an ever-growing pile of CDs that all end up separated from their cases sooner or later. Sometimes I feel like I could listen to this stuff 24 hours a day without a single galvanizing jolt of unexpected pleasure–it’s like sifting through all the sand on a beach because you think you spilled a packet of heroin there a couple years ago. When the glossy magazines trot out their stories about the Death of Rock every few years, it’s hard not to laugh. Death? There’s not even a shortage. Come on over and help yourself. Bring a truck.

I do remember exactly when I first heard the Constantines, even though at the time I was sitting in that same office, among all those forgettable CDs. I’d gotten a copy of their second album, Shine a Light, released by Sub Pop in 2003, and as I listened it seemed possible that something good might’ve come from all the nasty, joyless, ennui-sodden rock of the past 12 years. Much of that stuff was dark and decadent in the most boring possible way, and even its challenging, angular rhythms kicked ass only in spite of themselves. The Constantines had stripped away the layers of tedious self-indulgence–they not only kicked ass but sounded thrilled to be kicking it. The charmingly absurd keyboard lines atop the pissed-off, crashing-and-burning guitars gave the songs a freewheeling audacity–and though you suspected there might be some Fugazi-style righteousness lurking underneath it, these guys weren’t about to hobble their swagger with any of that chastity-belt crap. The record was like the sound of a weight being lifted from someone’s shoulders.

Writers like me may be obligated to wonder if a band is poised to break out, but the band itself doesn’t have to give the question a second thought. If the Constantines had been serious about riding the momentum from Shine a Light into some kind of Spin magazine sunrise, I imagine they would’ve gotten around to making another record by now–instead they’re only just preparing to go into the studio next month. (As a stopgap Sub Pop reissued the Ontario quintet’s self-titled debut in August–it was new product to most Americans anyway.) Touring is their main game: they spent most of 2004 on the road, including two trips to the UK and another to Europe.

The band’s stage presence is giddy in a way that augments rather than undercuts their earnest, disciplined intensity: front man Bryan Webb stays calm at the center of the storm, but all around him the other guys seem fiercely elated, like surfers riding out a hurricane. It’s as though Webb’s focus keeps the clouds of sound whirling in their orderly pattern, while the second singer and guitarist, Steve Lambke, acts like a devil over his shoulder, urging him to just let it go. It’s an honorable impulse to be sure, especially in rock, but in this case the band’s energy seems to come from hanging onto the reins.

What’s missing is any element that’s awe inspiring in itself–there’s no secret weapon, no unprecedented innovation. The music is more like fine brickwork: familiar, mundane elements in sturdy and ineffable combinations. Doug MacGregor’s tight, urgent drumming drops out at all the right moments, but that restraint–precious as it is in a rock drummer–is hardly what makes this band work. Webb’s hoarse, soulful vocals are a perfect match for the band’s weary anthems, but Springsteen covered that territory decades ago. And without Webb’s voice to animate them, his sentimental, hard-boiled Beat-poet lyrics are as lifeless as bugs stuck on pins: “A crime of passion / A cardiac arrest / I hope a little rest / Comes to you / You shine a light / A light on me.” The first “light” is the downbeat of a rousing chorus, but you’d never guess it from seeing those lines on the page. If there is a secret here, it’s that the Constantines have mastered the art of convincing live audiences–and themselves, I imagine–that there really is no safety net out there, and that every hand clap and sing-along matters as much to the people on the floor as it does to the people on the stage.

Keyboard player Will Kidman’s contributions might be doomed to footnote status (despite his high-quality chair dancing), but I found myself appreciating them more than the flashier foreground stuff: his lines ground, underline, and emphasize the shapes of the songs, churning along under the spiky postpunk guitars. When a sudden transition cuts him off and he finally lifts his fingers from those keys, his absence rings out like a bell. These guys may be perfectly happy to work inside their comfort zone, rather than going out on a limb, but their comfort zone is awfully wide–and all the parts click together so snugly that every dropout, every twitch, every stiff hop or rattlesnake strike manages to feel like a surprise while at the same time persuading you that it had to happen at that exact moment.

The Constantines would’ve been an easy band for me to slight–so much of their appeal is frustratingly hard to communicate, arising as it does out of a just-so combination of meat-and-potatoes rockisms. When you’re constantly bombarded with music, it’s tempting to make the same mistake bird-watchers often do: you stop noticing the sparrows and spend all your time looking for flashes of color, for rare specimens. The trick is to stay open to the delight you can feel when a common crow takes a stone in its beak and shows you its startling brainpower.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.