Constantines are the most under-appreciated rock band in Canada, if not all of North America. Since 2000, the Toronto quintet has been shelling out muscular gems of guitar-driven, straightforward rock 'n' roll. And it’s this very same forthright approach that has led to its perpetual status as a band on the brink. While those fellow Canucks in the Arcade Fire have the multi-instrumental grandiosity, Broken Social Scene the expansive membership and sound, and Feist the cabaret-meets-mainstream marketing appeal, Constantines’ utter lack of quirks leave them as the brawny oddballs of the Canadian independent music scene precisely for being so sonically upfront. Meanwhile, the group's current biography is penned by John K. Samson, frontman of the other most-under-appreciated group in Canada, The Weakerthans. He calls Constantines his "favorite band."
Kensington Heights, Constantines' fourth full-length release, named after the Toronto neighborhood where their basement rehearsal space is located, may be their best yet. On “I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song,” vocalist Bry Webb’s raspy cry (“I will not sing a hateful song / I know to drink the blood is wrong”) over drummer Doug Macgregor’s up-tempo plodding creates a push/pull sense of urgency equally close to euphoria as it is catastrophe. Constantines are more than adept at mining this tension even in song choice, pairing prickly ballads (“Time Can Be Overcome”) with poignant rockers (“Our Age”).
While for the most part Constantines craft gritty songs augmented by brilliant guitar tones, it’s Webb’s Springsteen-like delivery that creates the really remarkable moments. Webb’s enunciation isn’t spoken so much as it is howled. When he laments, you lament with him, and when he cheers, you cheer with him. His vocals are buried low in the mix on many tracks throughout the album, creating a shadowy perspective that hangs over Kensington Heights. The result is a batch of songs that are as direct and deeply personal as they are fist-pumpingly universal.