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Though they actually hail from Toronto, the Constantines purport to come from “a planet that’s held together by power chords and safety pins”and for roughly a third of the new Shine a Light, you can believe them. Guitarists Bry Webb and Steve Lambke don’t play their instruments so much as slap ’em sillyseeing, I suppose, if they can’t bang some heretofore unknown postpunk pleasures out of them.
And, lo and behold, the boys do manage more than a few. Admittedly, this band of ‘Tines, who bear only the slightest of musical resemblances to U.K. pop-punk maestros the Libertines, don’t quite sustain the spastic fury across their sophomore long-player. Still, the group does construct a pretty impressive indie-rock edifice, one that’s clearly been designed for maximum aesthetic impactwith extra emphasis on “designed.” The ‘Tines’ music doesn’t seem focus-grouped, exactly, but there is something vaguely market-tested about the band’s raucous but studied sound.
For starters, it’s obvious that the band has cherry-picked its top-shelf influences with all the snobbish precision of a record-store geek. The disc’s opener, “National Hum,” is fast and manic but also halting, sounding suspiciously like Hüsker Dü and Gang of Four lurching their way through a traffic jam somewhere along Toronto’s fabled Queen Street. Meanwhile, Webb comes on like a local activist with an Orwellian take on urban planning: “Your mayor is raising fences to keep bodies off/The Don Valley Parkway,” he barks. “Send your praises to the mechanics of the state.” Those lines aren’t exactly what you’d call catchy phrase-making. But set to the song’s spring-loaded rhythm, they do make for some pretty pogo-worthy poetry.
That’s true of most of Shine a Light, in fact. The disc’s title track continues the Constantines’ grand sonic theme of ominous, overwrought, and hyperactive bashing, leavening things early on with a little radio-ready New Wave along the lines of, say, the Fixx. But before anyone gets saved by zero or anything, the staggering verse section arrives and the song morphs quickly into a Spoon B-side, all staccato rhythm, stabbing high-end guitar, and hot but low-in-the-mix organ.
And that, unfortunately, is where the album’s troubles begin. “Shine a Light” is a cool song, sure. But the track also points to the way the Constantines’ strengths are wrapped up in their considerable weakness for their musical idolsespecially a certain little ol’ indie band from Texas. Me, I like Spoon well enoughespecially the stuff from back when frontman Britt Daniel was bitter about being underappreciated and maltreated by his manager. But even for true-blue aficionados, one Spoon is definitely enough, right?
Wrong, apparently. “Nighttime/Anytime (It’s Alright)” continues the Constantines’ hot pursuit of Spoon’s sound, right down to the chant-along refrain (see song title for details) and tunefully gruff vocalizing. That said, when Webb and Lambke duke it out over Doug MacGregor’s slam-bangin’ drums and Dallas Wehrle’s overdriven bass, it’s a pretty pure rock ‘n’ roll moment. And just after the song grinds to a complete stop, the guitars jolt it back to life with a fierce and demented crunch that belies the ‘Tines’ cerebral approach to noise-mongering.
Not so “Goodbye Baby & Amen,” which opens with the aural equivalent of a calculus exam. A soulfully slurred horn section kicks in along the way, as does a Beatlesy guitar riff, but there’s no getting around the song’s Mensa-rock aspirationsor its calculated feel. At least until Wehrle uncorks a hot ‘n’ bothered bass line, “Goodbye” sounds like an ingeniously programmed Pro Tools plug-in, one that combines laptop chill with indie-rock heat. For good measure, the song draws to a close amid a chaotic saxophone symphony that sounds lifted from a long-lost Morphine outtake.
“On to You,” by contrast, is a brash, straight-ahead, and oh-so-Spoon-y pop tune, fast and bright and powered mainly by MacGregor, who plays as if he loves the chorus so much he can’t wait for it to arrive. “Poison” is similarly effective, a beach-party lust song decked out toward the end with Who-like power chords and vaguely psychedelic harmonies that conjure “I Can See for Miles.” Elsewhere, the band checks in with “Tiger & Crane,” wherein Wehrle taps out a manic SOS on his bass while Webb chimes in with vocals that sound lifted right from someone’s well-worn answering-machine tape. The lyrics, meanwhile, get all metal on your ass: “Gun the engines, droll militiamen/Blade to blade/Tongue to tongue/Run, run, run, run, run, run, run.” Funny thing is, it’s just weird enough to work.
But even on Shine a Light’s strongest songs, the ‘Tines’ stable of influences looms large, a trait that makes the disc a good but never great album. There is, however, one exception: “Tank Commander (Hung Up in a Warehouse Town)” is a truly remarkable tune, one that hints at what the Constantines might be capable of if they ever shake their heroes’ long shadows. Decked out with a kinetic, ticking verse section and a swerve-driving chorus sure to cause whiplash if you try to dance to it, the song comes with words torn from the phrase book of classic-rock idioms: “Hung up in a warehouse town,” Webb chants, later adding the time-tested “howling at the moon” and, apropos of who knows what, “night after night.”
The lyrics, admittedly, signify more for sound than for any sense they might make. But their sound is just about perfect, meshing seamlessly with the anthemic noise-rock the band performsfor oncewith genuine reckless abandon. Even better, there’s not a trace of Spoon to be found: Here, at least, Shine a Light damn near cuts like a knife. CP