Artist / Band / Musician
One of the more slightly awkward questions asked in the course of small talk is often, “Who’s your favourite band?” -You’re supposed to answer, “I don’t have one favourite, but I like…” which will lead to a discussion of genres and tastes. I am one of the few with a definitive answer: Constantines.
I can’t recall the first time I heard them, but it would have been on CD, their first, self-titled 2000 release. It came in a beautiful hand-made package that contained a wooden match, an appropriate way to light a long creative fuse that led to 2002’s brilliant Shine a Light, through to the even stronger Tournament of Hearts in 2005, and culminating now in the explosive Kensington Heights.
I love that they are a real band—five distinct and original musicians working together to produce this democratic roar of music. Primary vocalist Bry Webb has a beautiful, distinct voice—rasping, plaintive, yet powerful and fluid. His lyrics are just as unique—a strong, observant writer full of feeling and whimsy and insight, a writer who gently distorts the world and makes us hear it in a new way. This unique voice is set to equally unique music—drummer Doug MacGregor and bassist Dallas Werhle split open the seams of regular rock patterns and stitch together something surprising and distinct, while multi-instrumentalist Will Kidman, along with Webb and Steve Lambke (who is also brilliant in his role as sometime vocalist/lyricist) on guitar, embroider something challenging and instinctually melodic.
The Constantines are the best live band I have ever seen, entirely dedicated to communicating with an audience. Able to produce moments of sustained and complicated quiet, they are also one of the loudest bands I have encountered. Yet the volume is never used to repel the listener. Instead, they co-opt the sometimes aggressive conventions of rock to express the overwhelming parts of being alive, to explore the themes of community and struggle, to remind us we belong to something larger than our individual selves. The decibels tell us we are not alone.
This new record might be my favourite simply because it best captures the elements of the live show that has so often moved and inspired me. Named after the street in Toronto’s vibrant Kensington Market area where they practice in a basement, Kensington Heights, like the neighbourhood itself, is a vibrant maze of histories and sounds. The album is fittingly dedicated to the late Gar Gillies, the Winnipeg amp-maker who designed and built the Garnet amplifiers that defined the overdriven classic Canadian-rock sound of the Guess Who and BTO. Gar was building and refurbishing amps right up to his death last year at the age of 85, and some of his last work was used on Kensington Heights, a familiar sound finding a radically new voice.
From the massive opening number, Hard Feelings (“Some people’s love isn’t strong enough”) to the gorgeous thudding close of Do What you Can Do (“You do what you can do with what you got”), Kensington Heights is a tour of original themes and multiple genres, full of infectious hooks and evocative lyrics. It is the sound of my favourite band at the height of their considerable powers.
– John K. Samson
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