In an age where bands earn plaudits for Ivy League educations, wearing cardigans embroidered with pheasants and flaunting their knowledge of English grammar, the Constantines can seem mighty ol’-fashioned. Their concerns are blue-collar; their beliefs small-town. They live hard (‘Hard Feelings’), fall in love (‘Shower of Stones’) and agonize over money (‘Credit River’) — all while struggling to maintain their good humor (‘I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song’). “You do what you can do with what you got,” Bry Webb growls on the quintet’s fourth LP, Kensington Heights. The Upper West Side this is not.
Our swarthy Canadians have dealt with these issues before. Hence the endless comparisons to Fugazi and Springsteen that greeted 2003’s Shine a Light and 2005’s Tournament of Hearts. Kensington Heights ups the ante even higher. Webb’s got more advice to dispense, more world-weary tales to tell — and now they’re front and center. The Constantines’ frenzied rock classicism has been tempered to compensate a newfound maturity, and though we may (rightly) miss the fire of their youth, there’s much to celebrate.
Album opener ‘Hard Feelings’ comes on hot and fast, but don’t be fooled — Kensington Heights is a mellower beast. Doug MacGregor’s beats are slow and heavy, with Webb snarling atop a mélange of Crazy Horse guitar and warm bass. And it’s these dirges that suit the Constantines’ grizzled wisdom best. Now more assertive, more soulful, Webb wrenches real drama from ‘Time Can Be Overcome’ and ‘Do What You Can Do.’ When he chides — tired and drunk — “What do you know / still living so young / Tomorrow’s no burden / Time can be overcome,” it isn’t patronizing. Webb’s voice shows us he’s earned the right.
Still, Kensington Heights is neither as triumphant nor as memorable as its predecessors. It is, much like its creators, solid — solid and reliable. But it takes few risks. The songs — even the best ones — do much as we expect. Maturity is all well and good, but if the Constantines know what’s good for ’em they’ll keep that fire in their belly.