(Three Gut/Sub Pop; 2001/2004)
By Amir Nezar | 25 August 2004
A claxon call from the underground bar hazed by cigarette smoke and steaming with sweat: can I get a witness? It crawls down the fogged windows. The shout from the stoic sufferers of the inexorably renewed beat generation, tonight‘s beat generation. We heave home with beer on our breaths and empty packs in our pockets, bereft of glamor, ground-level grime on clothes without designer labels, the question becoming wordless: can I get a witness?
It sounds almost naive. Deprived of context, we might laugh uncomfortably at the words; what do they mean, “can I get a witness?” Fashionable suits chuckle and sweep away the words, the sentiment, into less shimmering corners. We are distracted by the glow and flash of the latest Britster-hipsters, panache oozing out of disaffected, hanging mouths, lazy words about lazy lovers over lazy basslines, one lazy homo-erotic tune per album: Andy, you’re a star, come dance with me Michael, etc. Suddenly, the growing shadow of swept-aside real regret and desperation falls upon our shoulder and a raspy voice whispers: “We want deliverance.” We turn with a quick quip on our lips: “What d’you want, a spiritual?” But when we actually look, we see the amps, powered by an electric lust for meaning, yes, massive neglected spirituality, yes, conviction. The barrage comes, and the stunned crowd of paper men flattens on the floor, leaving the lonely, substantial, the new lost generation kneeling, whispering “Amen.”
Do we forget that rock was where entire generations found their heroes – not models? The righteous voices of great artists of The Clash and U2 and Springsteen, the real-man’s anguish of Joy Division and Nirvana, the great modern fear channeled by Radiohead, the great modern furor yoked into squealing guitars by Fugazi—where are they now, when politics are at their most paltry and sanctimonious, when we seem to ride the mechanical horse of convenience and false comfort to the edge of nihilism? When the soundtrack to a troubled and unsure age is shot through with style, where is the substance, the healing, spiritual power of rock, to patch the holes?
Naturally, there’s no shame in enjoying bands like Franz Ferdinand or The Strokes—they’re two of my favorite bands. But disaffection and studied cool tend not to be the qualities of bands that really mean something to you. Relative to the modern man with his modern, pressing travails and existential worry, they exist in a removed make-believe sphere where the most immediate concern is whom to go home with. Par contre he Constantines’ forceful, gritty conviction, filthy and furious guitars, and their embrace of lyrics that describe the ground-zero man’s predicament—these are the raw elements we can identify with. This debut has them in spades, and its re-release for those of us outside Canada gives everyone the chance to see the incendiary beginnings of a band ferociously in love with rock, so consumed in its sancitifying flames, that you cannot help but be consumed, too.
By the time opener “Arizona” barrels into its second verse, the Constantines’ obscured hope and smoldering rock spirituality gleams through their rough production aesthetic, flecking an elegant bassline with melodic guitar shards to form two raggedly beautiful hooks. Bry Webb’s Springsteen-reminiscent, cigarette-wracked delivery is tattered and genuine; here, as on Shine a Light, it imbues his words with an ineffable authenticity as the guitars behind him tear into the steam-breathing night. Every one of his emotive wheezes only augments the power of simple lines like “As long as we’re alone / we’ll keep dancing / as long as we’re dying, we want the death of rock and roll.” Webb’s lyrics are bursting with poeticism and insight, emotional violence and physical wear, and ultimately, hope. When he shouts, “We don’t want no saints/ We want the death of rock and roll,” it’s as much a call for the phoenix to rise again as it is for the ashes to settle.
The brutally beautiful musical accompaniment to Webb’s incisive words clinches the album’s greatness. The band’s chiming and thrashing guitars are their biggest weapons, the heavy cannons mounted on a swinging bass support. Mingling simple, visceral, repetitive lines with subtle and complex melodic strains, the group’s axes chop and stab through each tune with ravenous hooks. On “Young Offenders,” a single pulsing note is overlaid with a slippery hook, before giving way to Webb’s lyrics and intricate, downplayed fretwork. Finally, as the track accelerates to its fist-pumping conclusion, both guitars take one chord and ravage it before moving into a final, roaring duel, as those mantric words careen into the heaving crowd: “Can I get a witness?” Webb and Co. then prove their versatility with “Justice,” an alternately delicate and violent anthem that moves back and forth between guitar and bass hooks before it catapults into its howling guitar-attack finale. Only “Saint You” gives up those furious guitars, as Webb turns out a completely unexpected, delicate acoustic ballad, brimming with beautiful lyrics about a damaged lover, “Saying, ‘Sweetheart you ask too many questions/ It’s never just a pretty face.’” It works perfectly as the comedown to the “O-V-E-R-D-O-S-E” chants of “Hyacinth Blues,” whose bleeding intensity threatens to crush the album after so many similarly powerful pieces.
Ultimately, when the gorgeously melodic closer, “Little Instruments,” finally finishes on lovely progressions and the defiant determination of the words “We got an amplifier,” a palpable feeling of conversion descends upon you. Listening to hipster-darling bands becomes impossible, even anathema—even if just for a little while. In an impossibly ambitious 43 minutes, you’ve heard rock destroyed and recreated again, then held to the light as the still-hopeful voice of those who suffer underneath the radar. Is the album perfect? No—but excepting the occasional weak hook, it’s damn close. And viewed in the context of their nearly equally brilliant follow-up, Shine a Light, one thing becomes clear: if there’s one band that can save rock and roll, it could very well be the Constantines. And if you believe that rock can save you, that there is a salvation in this gritty music, then you believe, with your heart and soul, in the Constantines.