Arts & Crafts, 2008
Toronto’s Constantines have tirelessly flown under the radar for many years now. Fiercely independent and untied to any particular scene or movement, their sound is punishing blend of brittle punk and impassioned rock and roll. They’re like a true modern day blue-collar rock band. Endlessly compared to Bruce Springsteen and Fugazi, they’re one of the few redeeming acts that belong in these fractured times.
Kensington Heights is Constantines fourth album and named after the area in Toronto where the band write and rehearse. Produced by Jeff McMurrich who worked on their previous album Tournament of Hearts, Kensington Heights has all the regular hallmarks of a Constantines record, but it’s the first time the band have sounded so focused and confident. First single “Hard Feelings” could be considered the call of the Constantines. Jagged guitars intersect with stabs of keyboards over a driving rhythm section, singer Bry Webb “You can tell by the way I talk/I’ve got hard feelings”. Much like Tournament of Hearts tour de force “Working Fulltime”, this song positively sizzles.
A commanding presence on stage and on record, Webb has noticeably refined his lyrics and reigned in his fever on Kensington Heights. Where once he’d disguise his message in vagaries and analogies, he’s now more open and distinct with his words and intentions. There’s a noticeable over-riding theme of hope and positivity that begin with tracks like the country-rock ballady of “Our Age” and the bluesy “Time Can Be Overcome” that show the band maturing beyond their punk roots and not drowning their sound in torrents of angry guitar.
The muscular rock of “Credit River” is a timely slice of brooding intervention. With the collapse of the financial markets and governments trying to salvage their debts, Constantines have risen up to send a word of warning to the debt-ridden and bankrupt. “Gonna live on credit river/gonna kiss up to the great misgiver”. “I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song” is Constantines riding a new creative peak. It’s with this track that the Spingsteen comparisons fall squarely on target. Webb delivering the chorus “I will not sing a hateful song/though it’s in me to sing” in his gravelly rasp that out-Boss’s the boss.
Of all the tracks, it’s the first (“Hard Feelings”) and the last that serve as the obvious signposts into Kensington Heights. The impassioned plea to a friend, “Do What You Can Do” with its simple message “You do what you can do with what you got” lifts Kensington Heights to a purposeful finish. Like a conductor, Webb’s vocals direct the song and the Constantines follow his lead, coming together to build the song into an intense slow-burning epic. To place this song on any other point on the album would’ve been wasted.
Kensington Heights is almost the sound of a new day rising for Constantines, and this isn’t to suggest they’re any less full of fire and fight than you’ve come to expect. That determination and spirit that has embodied all of their releases is still present, they’ve just musically outgrown the small club stages into becoming a world-class act. One day they’ll be recognised as one of the great Canadian bands of the twenty-first century. Hopefully this will be happen before they become a footnote in the history books.