This is reactionary: the necessarily retaliation following a siege of soundalike critical responses intent on sucking the individuality from Constantines' previous albums, most particularly their last, the rapturously received, if commonly one-dimensionally analysed, Shine A Light. That album was their first for Sub Pop, the label that's widened their vision beyond the borders of their native Canada; this, their third full-length release, is the one that will steady the quintet's footing both overseas and at home, as melodiously majestic as it is infused with punk spirit and rich with the immediacy of classic rock and roll.
In early 2004 I sat down with Bryan Webb and Steve Lambke, both of whom contribute guitar and vocals to the band, and discussed those regular comparisons to a select few artists, the ones that have plagued the band since their earliest dalliances with the mainstream music media. So repeatedly regurgitated are references to said acts that there's no need to mention them here - read issue 14 of Comes With A Smile magazine, where the aforementioned encounter's subsequent interview appeared, if you're interested. The avoidance of such name-dropping is absolutely justified here, though, as Tournament Of Hearts is a considerable progression from the band's past efforts.
The obvious shift in sound - in both instrumental dynamics and the band's approach to vocals - would be expected if this was the Toronto outfit's second record, the one so often (wrongly) tagged difficult. Only a handful of songs are characterised by the echoes of recordings past: 'Soon Enough' could have slipped from the Shine A Light blueprints, missing the final cut through pure chance rather than any considered selection process, the incessant urgency of Bryan Webb's vocal delivery absolutely in tune with a number of tracks from album number two; 'Working Full Time', too, is similarly frantic, its chorus screamed with all the ferocity that a soul-sapped nine-to-fiver can muster come clocking off. Although Webb's voice - still somewhat reminiscent of million-sellers despite its increased range and maturity here - remains a talking point to those unfamiliar with the band, it's the deviations from the accepted template that comprise this record's finest moments.
For one, Lambke leads many more songs here: 'Thieves', the one song that's comparable to the current glut of post-punk revivalists courtesy of its delicate but precise drumming and minimalist guitar lines, benefits immensely from the hushed near-whisper of the band's second singer. It's Lambke that closes the record, too: 'Windy Road' is an unexpected and adorable song of acoustic introspection, its comforting warmth welcomed immediately after the equally sombre but extravagantly bombastic 'You Are A Conductor'. The penultimate song might just be the greatest four minutes Constantines have ever committed to tape: both sorrowful in tone but aggressive in amplification, its melancholic organ notes mould the contrastingly muscular guitar chords into a quite epic-feeling song full of both otherworldly grace and carefully monitored and controlled reservedness. Cutting to some sort of proverb that long since lost any meaning, it's the kind of song your CD player's repeat button was invented for.
This_ is reactionary: the necessary reinvention born of a thousand interview questions prefixed by the names of singers whose time has been and gone, by bands that played little to no part in the creative process of these songs and those before them. Reference to yesterday is nothing but a convenience held dear by writers too lazy to listen with open ears; memories are forever rose-tinted by circumstance, whatever their standalone merits. Today, meanwhile, is ripe for capture, as are the hearts and minds of a whole new audience. If _Tournament Of Hearts is appraised as it should be by those in the higher echelons of this industry - by the taste-makers, media movers and shakers and the voices most often heard by the impressionable - then Constantines will finally be able to stand proud, without the assistance of never-requested crutches provided by carbon-copy coverage. The hearts and minds will be theirs. Should we meet again, I shall shake their hands with the enthusiasm born of absolute awe.
This is a great rock and roll record. Buy it and rock and roll. Simple, really.
This review was originally written for CwaS
8Mike Diver's Score