The Constantines - Kensington Heights (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

The Constantines

Kensington Heights (2008)

Arts & Crafts

There's a very Canadian notion that underscores the Constantines' entire body of work. While most of us live in cities, urbanites by birth and habit, we take great pride in portraying ourselves as rural creatures. We've romanticized the pioneer, that ideal of the rough hewn, nature conscious, working class figure that's at the heart of the Canadian myth. We'd like to think that deep down we're all Voyageurs out there in the hinterlands, even if we're only ever pulled north on summer weekends to fight off Muskoka black flies. There's a lingering sense of loss, a worry that we're sacrificing some nobler heritage for the comforts and tensions of city life. Perhaps by adopting the weary yet wise demeanor of this (largely fictional) woodsman, we'll at least keep our wits about us. Thematically this dynamic has absolutely everything to do with the Constantines.

Kensington Heights is a more dynamic album than it's predecessor, but Tournament of Hearts' lessons in restraint and subtlety are far from forgotten. The Cons long ago embraced the sense of weight that comes with a slow burn. The lumbering chorus of "Million Star Hotel" is perhaps the best example of this. The passion's there, but the song stomps and trudges where a younger, greener Constantine may have defaulted to frenetic dissonance. "Hard Feelings, "Trans Canada" and "Credit River" are the album's anthems, never reaching the chaotic freshness of past singles ("Nighttime / Anytime" in particular) but efficient, driving and well crafted. Since their sophomore full length each Cons record has included a handful of astonishingly wise and downright life-affirming rock songs. We saw it in peerless cuts like "Young Lions" and "Soon Enough," and Kensington Heights clocks in with three, if not four contenders. "New King," "Brother Run Them Down," "Our Age" and "Time Can Be Overcome" each strive to carry on this legacy and are positively beautiful. Bryan Webb is stronger in his role of elder statesmen than he is a rock star and the gravitas he lends these songs can't be understated. It's taken some time for the band discover the best way to apply Steve Lambke's contrasting vocal style, but "Shower of Stones" is one of his better works.

As the Constantines matured they've incurred something of a backlash. There's scattered criticism that as the band moved on from their Fugazi weaned origins they grew too comfortable. If Kensington Heights proves anything it's that while Fugazi is hardly lost they are fighting for stage time with Young, Lightfoot and Cohen. That's the dynamic. "Waiting Room" is too tense for cottage country and alienated kids on the subway probably don't blow off steam to the "Canadian Railroad Trilogy." The Constantines straddle both worlds, but those looking for tension and rebellion are going to come up short and will undoubtedly find the record overlong. There's a tipping point where one becomes confident enough in their worldview that they stop having to nervously scream about it, and the Constantines crossed that line two records ago. Your mileage will vary if that's what you're seeking.

There's the faintest hint of a subgenre emerging in Canadian rock that runs parallel to the indie rock boom but is really something else entirely. It may not be self-aware yet, but there's a commonality of spirit and priority shared among an increasing number of bands. You can hear it in punk acts like the Weakerthans and the recently emerged Attack In Black. You hear it in folk groups like FemBots and alt-country bands like Cuff The Duke and Elliott Brood. It underlies the acclaimed indie rock of Apostle Of Hustle and Jason Collett. You find its sensibilities on stage with Ladyhawk and in the catalogue of our dearly departed Deadly Snakes. I can't give it a name, but the Constantines are its standard bearers.