Playing God
Constantines: Shine A Light

every critic has reviews they would like to take back. If they're dishonest and circumspect enough, maybe those reviews just disappear, never to be noticed; but most of us are willing to let a wince-inducing piece of writing stand in the name of honesty. The error doesn't have to come from a moment of disingenuousness—just as all listeners do, writers have opinions and feelings that can shift with time and context. It's just that most don't have their old ones hanging around, accessible to all.

Constantines' second album Shine A Light is (to date) my personal albatross. I don't recall rushing to finish the piece, but I do recall listening to the album just after it went up on Stylus and knowing that I hadn't been listening properly. Bunches of songs that I hadn't found anything in and thus hadn't even mentioned in the review were now clearly highlights. Couple that with some misplaced snark and you have serious embarrassment on my part.

I do maintain, however, that Shine A Light is flawed. As good as parts of it are, there are a couple of real clunkers. Worse, the sequencing shoves all the bad bits to the back and ends the album on a sour note. Even before that the pacing seems off; their recent Tournament Of Hearts stands as Constantines' best effort despite never quite hitting the heights of some of the tracks here simply because it works better as an album.

And make no mistake: A rearranged Shine A Light has the potential to be one of the best Canadian albums of the past decade or so, right up there with Left And Leaving, Twice Removed and The Dramatic Balanced By. It's likely that the band will never truly be able to capture what they're capable of live on disc, but that aside this version of Shine A Light shows what they can do at their best. It's almost entirely the same songs, but you might be surprised at how different an album feels when you move things around.

01. Blind Luck (3:43, from The Modern Sinner Nervous Man EP)
Part of my inclusion of “Blind Luck” is simply favouritism—I remember hearing this song live just after their self-titled debut was released and hoping devoutly it would be on the next album. Instead it was released on a stopgap EP and has been mostly forgotten, but it's needed here to start things off on the right foot. Beginning quietly with pointillist guitar, it quickly builds into a fevered Cons rave-up, Bry Webb barking “tell the truth, tell the truth, you like me have knelt before” like he's about to fall over.

02. National Hum (2:49)
The unusually distorted and urgent “National Hum” served as a fine opener to the original Shine A Light, but it works even better right after “Blind Luck,” keeping the energy level high. Just as the first track is grinding to a halt this leaps in, drums pounding, guitars flailing, keyboard surging towards the redline. Whoever is singing, it sounds like their throat is beginning to shred.

03. Insectivora (3:56)
Time to bring it down a little, with the hiss of tambourines and an opening that sounds a little bit like the end of Spiritualized's “Cop Shoot Cop.” Soon enough this builds into one of the Cons' best songs, thick fuzz bass and hectoring, dead horns, Webb howling “I'm learning to survive” with all the desperation of growing up. The chorus is every flophouse you've ever lived in/been afraid you might have to live in/drove past in your car. It's every petty betrayal you give and receive. It's selling another piece of yourself to another job you don't want. It's the slow, deadening realisation that in some ways, you don't get to be who you want when you grow up. But “Insectivora” isn't about defeat. There is desperation in Webb's voice, but it is the stress and strain of a conflict won, of a precarious balance. Not of despair. And that sort of thing, all shoved into a rock song that makes you want to punch the ceiling, is why Constantines are the finest rock band of their generation.

04. Shine A Light (4:47)
But you've got to move on; the title track does so with clarion guitars, handclaps, crimes of passion and cardiac arrests. The extra length gives them some room to stretch out, anchoring the verses with loping bass and late-night organ. The joyously exhausted chorus is a wide-eyed recognition of salvation; Webb's voice always sounds tired, no matter what he's singing about, but part of his genius is that he can modify it from weariness to the blissful exhaustion of the just, and the music never partakes of his enervation. “Shine A Light” ends in the middle of a firestorm, but Webb doesn't sound out of place.

05. Poison (3:36)
Every time they play this live, they point out that it is a dance song. And it is; just listen to that bass. After the cataclysm of the end of “Shine A Light,” this ode to resilience (“no dart you trigger will poison us / No sinister blade will poison us / When we dance the night belongs to us”) feels like relief, especially when the almost-muttered chorus kicks in. It's aimed at the hips as well as the heart, and hits both targets square.

06. Nighttime/Anytime (It's Alright) (4:13)
This song is where the keyboard work of then-newish member Whil Kidman are most felt. Their piercing drone underlays a monster of a track, one that sounds like buildings being erected. Webb hollers “it's hard not to surrender” as he fights to be heard over everything else; the chorus is just him yelling out the title until it means something, but the verses feature some of the most blistering guitar of the album and the middle eight walks a razor before a girl commands us to “turn it up!” and the band lurches back into overdrive. At their best, the Constantines play at the point of total collapse; this is some of their best.

07. Scoundrel Babes (2:44)
Steve Lambke's songs were, until Tournament Of Heart, all about fire over subtlety, and the convulsive mayhem of “Scoundrel Babes” is so exception. This ratchets up the energy level a little, sending us into the second half of the album on a high note.

08. Tiger & Crane (3:13)
The best of the weak batch of songs at the end of the original Shine A Light, “Tiger & Crane” returns to the more distorted atmospherics of “National Hum,” but without the propulsion. It's not quite as astounding as the highlights here, but even Constantines' second-tier material beats most other bands' singles. It's also a good segue from “Scoundrel Babes” to what comes next.

09. Young Lions (3:50)
“Young Lions” got a lot of the ink shed about Shine A Light directed its way, for the way Webb most clearly channels Springsteen if nothing else. But it deserved all that attention; it has the kind of conviction that reminds me why I listen to rock and roll, whatever accouterments it happens to be draped in. The guitars are as fierce as ever, but there's a roll to the drums and a sway to the bass that makes this less aggressive, more fitting for the end of an album. There's always been a strain of modern myth-making in the Cons' writing, and “Young Lions” valorizes without falling into whimsy or saccharine.

10. Goodbye Baby & Amen (4:57)
As the feedback from “Young Lions” dies down, you hear the guitar starting to ping out again, single notes, clear as a bell and sharp. Shine A Light lacks songs as quiet as the debut's “St. You” or Tournament Of Hearts' “Windy Road”, but “Goodbye Baby & Amen” comes close. As Webb starts to whisper, the guitar sounds like it's crying long steel tears, but it all just keeps simmering, even when the drums and horns start. It's the kind of 4am reflection that only really works after so much hard work, so much catharsis and sweat. But it's not quite the end.

11. On To You (4:36)
This is partly where it is because I can't think of anything fit to come after it. One of the things that we all really want is just for someone to understand us, or at least for someone to make the effort; the fact that “On To You” is the sound of someone telling us they care enough to try is only part of its greatness. A valedictory for all of us still alive, the end of “On To You” is still one of the most rousing things I can think of a few years later.

By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2005-11-21
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