Crashing into your local record store with a fire in its belly — sans the solitary matchstick it once contained and stuck in the plastic jewel case every CD ends up in after one pressing or another — is Sub Pop’s reissue of the 2001 self-titled debut by Canada’s reigning rock ‘n’ roll kings, the Constantines (take that, Hot Hot Heat). The band’s sophomore record, Shine a Light, was one of last year’s best; together, the Constantines’s two albums announced the arrival of a major force in music, poised to take their place as one of the few truly important rock ‘n’ roll bands of the young decade.
The band’s biggest strength is lead singer Bryan Webb. With a voice somewhere between Bruce Springsteen’s, Joe Strummer’s and Tom Waits’s, Webb is a unique and memorable front man. He shifts easily between Fugazi-like punk on stand-out rockers like “Young Offenders”; poetic crooning on “Arizona” (where he says, “As long as we are lonely, we will dance/ As long as we are dying, we want the death of rock ‘n’ roll”); and the mournful balladry of “Saint You.” The latter’s simple arrangement and bare production provides the band’s songwriting with its strongest venue to fight doubters: Behold rock ‘n’ roll heartbreak at its finest.
“The Long Distance Four” and “Hyacinth Blues” chug along smoothly, with “Hyacinth Blues” reaching a pinnacle with an “O-v-e-r-d-o-s-e” chant. It matches the earlier energy of the strong finish of “Young Offenders” (“Can I get a witness?”) and brings to mind Pearl Jam when they were at their relevant, rocking best. “The Mcknight Life,” the instrumental that leads them out of “Saint You,” is a great transition. That a track lacking the brilliant lyrics found on every other song here cannot be called disposable is a testament to the band’s music: These songs aren’t just pretty words.
But as good as The Constantines is, Shine a Light is better. Some of the melodies were recycled ever-so-slightly into what were, on the whole, stronger songs for the band’s sophomore effort, where Webb’s gives an even stronger performance. Still, The Constantines contains some of the best music you’re likely to hear any time soon, particularly “Saint You,” “The Long Distance Four,” and “Little Instruments.” The last of these songs, the final track on The Constantines, ends with a simple statement: “We got an amplifier.” This could have signaled, in the type of subtle and hope-filled metaphors that young music was constructed upon, the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, but instead it represented something we can all bear witness to: the birth of a great band.