Music

Young Lions, Old Lions

The Constantines Get Older, and Better

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Years back the Constantines sang the words, "Oh, young lions, this is your kingdom," and I believed them. I put faith in those lyrics in a way that I seldom do with any other musicians—living, dead, or Canadian. My adoration for this Toronto-based band transcended, and trivialized, any other relationship I have had with another musical act in the past decade or so. If the Constantines sang it, I believed it.

But they're not young lions anymore. The same band that I swear changed my life during a reckless set at Nocturnal years back is now older. Kensington Heights, their new album, is still rigidly post-punk and sharp as a shimmering blade, but the pace of the record is deliberately restrained and the band's gnashed-teeth anger is more focused, and less wild, than ever before. "It's definitely our fourth record," says gravel-voiced frontman Bry Webb. "I think at this point we have figured out how to let space exist in the songs, and how to make sure everybody is present."

That space is most evident on the introspective "Our Age" ("I was not up for saying grace/Hung up before our love had faced/A table set with spinning plates/Only our age between us") and "I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song," which just might be the strongest song in the band's nine-year history. With a simple refrain—"I will not sing a hateful song, though it's in me to sing"—over a reverberating guitar note, minimal drums, and the pained voice of Webb, the growth of the Constantines is evident. There was a time when this livewire ensemble—young lions, after all—could scorch the earth with the sheer anger of Webb's words, but not anymore. "When I was younger, a lot of the songs were written out of an angry state of mind," says Webb. "Those things are fleeting, the sentiment isn't nearly as lasting as something written in love."

But it's not the songwriting or the gritty post-punk hooks that have cemented the Constantines' legacy. Oddly enough, it's their work ethic. Much like the Minutemen before them, the band is widely known for their no-frills attention to details, a raw blue-collar punk band with the vibrant soul of the working class. It's not an angle they play up, but their humble existence only heightens the longtime description of their sound; Springsteen fronting Fugazi. And much like their iconic pillars of influence—both indie and mainstream—the Constantines showcase a fiery passion for being the best live band on the globe. Which Webb speaks fondly of: "One of the best things in my life is being able to relate to the people in an audience. It's a good kind of communication, and the energy that I need in my life." He continues, "Anytime we're not traveling, I start to feel really imbalanced. It's a vital part of my life now."

This devotion remains so intense that Webb's rough singing voice—which, at its worst, sounds like a violent mix of razorblades and grain alcohol—seems to cause the man a great deal of pain during shows. His grimaced face portrays a level of sacrifice not usually associated with most casual performers. "I think I've been singing wrong for the past 15 years of my life," he admits. "I tried to write songs that weren't me yelling at the top of my lungs as much, but they just don't come out as well."

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