Shine a Light

(Sub Pop; 2003)

By Amir Nezar | 23 August 2003

Some bands are pulling back into it. Even Radiohead went so much more substantially “rock” with Hail to the Thief that their concerts (especially when they reach back to the days of “My Iron Lung”) bring about the dancing, thrashing exuberance of the olden days. Fugazi is still of course deeply rooted in it though they’re aging. Sonic Youth ditched the jack--off experimentalism that they stuck under fans’ noses with releases like NYC Ghosts and Flowers, and rocked once again with Murray Street. Slowly but surely more than a couple bands seem to be making it back to the room labeled “guitar rockers.”

The Constantines, meanwhile, have been amping up in there all along, and, looking up with cigarettes in their mouths, are probably thinking, “Well. What took you so long.” Though more likely, they just don’t care about what other bands have been doing.

Through a number of aggressive EP’s and their criminally rare first release (unless it sees a re--release you or I will probably not see it, period), The Constantines managed to recreate the primal guitar fury of our favorite DC punk boys along with the earnestness of the Boss in his best days. Not to mention a tinge of his vocal style is certainly to be found in their stuff. The Constantines are just about everything we love about rock condensed into raw, no--posturing loveliness.

Basically, Shine A Light is one of the most awesome (in the literal sense, inducing awe), tour--de--forces of pure rock that I’ve heard in months. Its gamut of intensity and emotion is so clearly unforced, so natural and raw that you want to put a yellow tape around their album that says, “Hipsters keep away.” The savage rattle of “National Hum,” beating you to a dizzied pulp with its sharp percussion and cymbal destruction, is loaded with Fugazi--esque lyrics, abstractly political but timeless, with lines like “More and more neglected hands, judgment ripe, they’re starting bands, working on a new solution." Ian MacKaye would've been proud, the earnest outpourings from frontman Bry Webb initially bearing a tinge of his grating vocals, not to mention that the pouncing distorted guitars cutting back and forth like rusty razors bear the Fugazi imprint almost to a "T."

But the band's supreme wonders come from their more subdued tracks, with peaks and valleys of sound that achieve outstanding emotional and visceral impact. "Shine A Light," the second track, is the perfect example. Starting with a nasty, fat bassline to start you shaking your ass, it slips into fighting guitars and a distorted, maintained wail in the background before spilling its guts into a gentle bass and light guitar movement, as Webb says "Don't talk to me about simple things / There's no such thing..." smoothing the songs way into the guitar attack that follows, slipping back into that first lull, and back into more imposing guitars, this time with extra guitars building on the bassline. Everything cuts out, and then it's just a keyboard bleeding the melody (a gorgeous one), and then those awesome guitars, before they all recreate that soft movement with more intensity and angst, in a beautiful, moving rush of sound, as Webb sings "My man is sleeping naked with a fire under his feet." The song cuts out on a dime, and you're left stunned, prepared for the slow--building attack of guitars and mean bass that will comprise the intro to one of the album's many highlights, "Nighttime/Anytime (It's Alright)." These two, among a number of other tracks, are beautiful songs that hark back to Fugazi's The Argument and even Red Medicine, when their softer, more controlled moments landed killer moments that always brought you back for more.

The guitars here are flawless, fighting and then joining and constructing fantastic structures of rhythm and melody with the constantly appropriate bass. They are angry, resigned, conflicted, and in a word, great. The percussion doesn't jump out at you because it doesn't need to. It's well--placed, knows its place, and lays down the rhythmic backbone perfectly for all of these tracks.

In an album with unspeakably glorious highs, there are inevitably some not--so--freakin'--awesome moments. The flaws of "Insectivora," a not--as--stellar melody being the main fault, is followed by the blisteringly beautiful "Young Lions," a hard--edged Bruce Springsteen--touched track with emotional heft to throw around. It makes Insectivora seem like an idea that wasn't fleshed out enough. Not to mention that the following tracks, "Goodbye Baby and Amen," and "On To You," are emotionally and melodically huge.

Basically, you're looking at, minimum, a top 10 album here. Maybe even top five. The Constantines have taken Fugazi's torch and made something their own, gritty, raw, and rending. It's quite a fucking album. When Webb sings, "All a man can build is his vision," he's damn right. And if you've got any sense, you should be following the Constantines' vision.