The best concert I’ve seen in the past five or so years was the Constantines, hands down. It was at a small club in San Diego, and within a minute of the set opener “Draw Us Lines” (from their 2005 album, Tournament of Hearts), I was completely captivated. Everything about the show spoke to the unyielding urgency of their songs, the way they bounce off each other and a live audience. Even the quietest moments — a whispered middle of 2003’s Shine a Light standout “On to You” — were full of gruff glory, barely reined in.
On record, however, the five-piece, bare-bones Toronto rock band hasn’t fared as well. Certain bands don’t translate as well as you’d hope, and the Constantines’ uneven albums have only done them partial justice. Singer Bryan Webb’s Springsteen-ian delivery always sounds too muddy, and, in its recorded form, the propulsion — and rarely mentioned technicality — of the songs lose a great deal of steam.
On their fourth LP, Kensington Heights, the Constantines make a concerted effort, on the album’s heavier tracks, to harness that onstage energy. The grimy, hard-worn aggression and dynamic drama of the first three tracks, “Hard Feelings,” “Million Star Hotel,” and “Trans Canada,” set the bar high in that regard. What is difficult to discern in Webb’s vocal delivery is made up for by tasteful, but heavy, blankets of guitar. The songs are straightforward, explosive, and, most important, don’t sacrifice the plaintive, emotional current — angry here, desperate there — coursing through.
Despite talk of the band’s live bombast, however, much of Kensington Heights is introspective and quiet. Like the most attuned songwriters, Webb knows — and demonstrates on “I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song,” “Our Age,” and the slow-burning standout, “Time Can Be Overcome” — that rock ‘n’ roll is nothing without the blues. And the blues is nothing without convincing emotion. When he sings, “No need yield to caution/ No need worried head/ Yesterday will break your heart/ Tomorrow will kill you dead,” his words, framed by the band’s subtlety — silence is as important an instrument as any — hit twice as hard as the loudest cymbal crash.
While they don’t necessarily re-create the power of their live performance, and songs like “Credit River” and “Brother Run Them Down” speak loudly but say very little, and “Shower of Stones” sinks like its title would imply, on Kensington Heights, the Constantines have managed to successfully bridge the gap between their stellar live show and their unimpressive albums. And in highlighting the more tasteful, nuances of their sounds, they’ve emerged with a more cohesive whole, a representation that better captures their classic-rock heart while simultaneously stripping the fat away and revealing the core behind the chaos.