Kensington Heights

(Arts & Crafts; 2008)

By David Greenwald | 9 May 2008

CMG’s own Conrad Amenta said it best earlier this week: “Man, fuck people who don’t like the Constantines.” Since releasing a debut album incendiary enough to burn down national parks, the Ontario post-punk band has blazed across North America on seemingly endless tours that somehow keep getting louder. The complaint, of course, is that the band’s studio recordings have done the opposite, with polished third album Tournament of Hearts (2005) wiping away most of the blood and sweat of their live incarnation. Kensington Heights, the band’s fourth full-length and first for Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts Records, reopens the wounds.

Opener and first single “Hard Feelings” is a statement of purpose, lyrically and sonically: the keyboard that riffs through the song is as gritty as the distorted guitars that chug around it. If that doesn’t brush worries of perceived softness aside, singer Bryan Webb has never sounded more red-eyed and furious, bellowing to anyone who’ll listen that he’s “got hard, hard, hard, hard, hard feelings.” It’s not a new comparison, but his ragged vocals still best recall a post-punk Springsteen. His lyrics here are evocative in much the same way as the Boss’ blue-collar narratives, tapping into the heavy universality of familial bonds and the inevitability of age and death.

The album’s first half keeps the engine running, with the band revving up through Steve Lambke sung “Shower of Stones,” perhaps the guitarist’s best song yet. It’s clear from the grimy production and the album’s divided pace that it’s meant to be listened to on vinyl, one side at a time, though even “New King,” the slower second side’s quietest moment, has feedback and power chords bubbling up under its acoustic surface.

The sparse, brooding “Time Can Be Overcome” has the patience of Tonight’s the Night (1975)-era Neil Young by way of Jason Molina or Wilco, letting guitars drift like puffs of cigarette smoke during the waltzing verses before they erupt for the titular chorus. Young once titled an album Time Fades Away (1973); the Cons are inclined to disagree. “Time can be overcome!” is the kind of impossibly rock ‘n’ roll proclamation you imagine a crowd chanting at the end of a long encore; most bands would be content to let the song close an album, but here it comes before the similarly climatic “I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song,” “Life or Death” (a track hair-raising enough to make lesser men prematurely bald) and the album’s actual closer, the particularly Bossy “Do What You Can Do.” If anything, there’s a glut of these would-be closers, inevitably sacrificing some momentum. Still, the only thing remotely approaching a dud is “Credit River,” a shot in the arm burdened with a mood-breaking keyboard part straight out of “Rock Lobster.”

The album’s front end carries a little more heft than the slow-burning back half, but the Constantines never lose sight of their vision. In many ways, Kensington Heights is what maturity sounds like, done right: too young to relinquish their punk energy and too experienced to let it limit their songwriting, the band has combined their twin urges into a single path. As such, the album is an exciting step forward for a band that could’ve been caught at a crossroads. Still, like Tournament of Hearts, it’s not going to make everybody happy. For better or worse, the Cons have always been also-rans, never capturing the hype spoon-fed to bands such as BSS or ex-labelmates Wolf Parade, and per usual, Kensington Heights hasn’t generated much buzz. Indie rock is full of pretenders to the throne; the Constantines are still the kings, whether people like it or not.