It’s easy to see why the indie community has embraced The Constantines. Personally and politically, the Ontario five-piece embody the same kind of earnestness grass-roots musicians and fans alike can rally behind: no complacency for these guys, no Clear Channel radio or wishy-washy mainstream politics. Tournament Of Hearts, like the two Constantines records which came before, is music that means Something – it almost doesn’t matter what that “Something” is. Opening track “Draw Us Lines” is nothing short of a call to arms, Doug McGregor’s drums pounding out a tribal rhythm, while vocalist Bryan Webb chants his peculiarly bolstering, quasi-mystical lyrics: “Starhawk in a street ritual, pleas from Herald Square to the heavens, earth and seas. Let the land move its people, and draw us lines from our fiery designs.” He lets loose with a strangled yell and the song shifts into high gear. Power chords dart into the mix, only to pull back just in time for the next verse. The intensity builds to a fever pitch; waves of guitars and cymbals lap over McGregor’s insistent tom-toms, and by the time it’s all over it becomes clear: perhaps self-conscious, perhaps not, this is the kind of music the word “anthemic” was invented to describe.
But does Importance (or self-importance) alone make a good album? Yes and no. Certainly, the epic scope of The Constantines’ vision does them more good than ill. Songs like “Lizaveta,” awash in brass and fuzztone, are so heavy with portent that their cryptic lyrics are elevated to an almost prophetic level. “It’s good…we desire disorder,” sings Webb. “Be sensitive. You were born to live.” Musical icons are invoked left and right: U2, Pearl Jam, Springsteen. The beginning of processional blue-collar rocker “Working Full-Time” – a repeating synthesizer motif, a series of thunderous drum rolls, another masculine, hoarse-throated yell – even calls to mind one of the more famous moments from the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” But listening to such a tailor-made modern classic can tire a guy out, and ultimately Tournament Of Hearts feels longer than its 36-minute running length should allow. It’s all just so serious. Even temporary reprieves, like the tightly wired “Hotline Operator” (something like a more impassioned, less sexy Kills outtake) and the light touches of electric piano that color “Thieves,” are more concerned with heaviness than headiness, and that’s a shame. It’s like a healthy, hearty dinner with no dessert: good for you, sure, but where’s the fun?
Like Fugazi before them, The Constantines make music as stone-faced and mirthless as the politics they represent. And maybe they should: in this age of irony, a good dose of gravity could be just what we need. But Tournament Of Hearts takes itself almost too seriously. It plods rather than struts. It proselytizes, but only rarely gives the listener anything resembling transcendence. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine album; meticulously crafted, performed with firm-handed control and startling chops. One just can’t help but wonder how much greater the Constantines could be if they learned to lighten up.
Reviewed by Zach Hoskins
This review is also posted on The Modern Pea Pod.