On "St. You," a beautifully soulful acoustic number from the Constantines' debut, Bryan Webb sang "I'm soaked in kerosene / this is no gentleman's blues." That was a lie at the time, even more so now. The Constantines are very much gentleman's blues. They're a gentleman's rock band, a gentleman's punk band; a group with so many history-conscious romantic sensibilities that they extrude class on everything they've released.
Shine a Light featured a band driven, from the opening blast of "National Hum" through the moody cacophonies of the title track and single "Nightime." However, it laid its deepest hooks in uplifting, rootsy tunes like "Young Lions," "On to You" and "Sub-Domestic." Like many of their Three Gut contemporaries, this is a group raised on the Band and Neil Young as much as they were Fugazi and the Clash. Tournament of Hearts is a child of the former, if not in sound than in its pulse (to say nothing of its unashamed Canadiana title). This is a calmer, more relaxed outing, with the band focusing on subtlety, finding ways to force their fire into an unassumingly quiet package. This leads to long buildups with a burst of energy escaping its restraints in the last half-minutes of songs. Witness this in the retooled "Hotline Operator." The track, sharing a name and organ pulse with its B-side predecessor, has been completely refocused around this model. Listen for how the propulsive rhythm section is reined in for the chorus. It creates a pensive, controlled feel that lashes back in the last 40 seconds with Webb's raw-throated shout and an ever so brief outburst of guitar and drum.
Several ideas from Shine a Light come to greater fruition here. The mid-tempo, inspirational "Young Lions" finds its sequel in the album opening anthem "Draw Us Lines." The country sensibilities of "Sub-Domestic" become a stomping chorus in "Soon Enough." Savour the sincere, feel-good moment when Webb croons "Soon enough work and love will make a man out of you," proving himself one of the most effective vocalists in Canadian rock. "Love in Fear," "Lizaveta" and "Good Nurse" are songs that exemplify the band's current songwriting approach and form the emotional core of the record. "Working Full-Time" is perhaps closest in spirit to their prior album, and as such provides a propulsive, populist rock centrepiece for the album. Guitarist Steve Lambke contributes vocals to two songs, the moody "Thieves" and the fragile closing track "Windy Road." This is the most effective his unique, wispy singing voice has ever been. He adds a ghostly, ethereal quality to the latter half of the record and holds his own alongside Webb's work.
The concept shines through that this is a rural record. Shine a Light was decidedly urban, reflecting a paranoia bred on the streets of Toronto and a pace that kept up with the city. Its artwork featured a sea of cars and buildings twisting towards the sky like tentacles. Tournament of Hearts takes its time, finding its charm in open spaces and the piece-of-mind found in nature. Its liner notes reflect this as well: rocks, wolves, polar bears. The band has a preoccupation with the imagery of helicopters this time out. Is this the bridge between their two worlds? Their escape?
The fact that we can ask these questions proves the band is doing their job: Creating albums that stand as cohesive, captivating, substantial works of unpretentious rock art in an age where that's clearly an anomaly. We're better for it.
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