Not too long ago, being Canadian was more of a liability than a selling point for a band. Constantines guitarist and backing vocalist Steve Lambke remembers those days well. Around the time the band started playing shows in 1999 and 2000, he recalls: "Other Canadians, as a compliment, would come up to us and say, 'You guys are great! You don't sound Canadian at all!'"
With the slick post-grunge of Our Lady Peace and I Mother Earth dominating the airwaves in their native Canada in the late '90s and the country's indie-rock landscape consisting of laughably absurd bands like Tricky Woo, the Toronto-based Constantines provided a welcome relief. The band looked to the States for inspiration, releasing their self-titled, Fugazi-indebted debut on Three Gut Records in 2001. The Constantines was arguably the album to usher in Canada's indie-rock golden era, which has seen a remarkably diverse group of bands release albums to international acclaim this decade—from Hot Hot Heat's Make Up the Breakdown to Arcade Fire's Neon Bible.
But despite the increased profile of Canadian artists, Constantines have remained curiously underappreciated and unheralded, a band that has yet to bask in the limelight that their fellow Canucks have enjoyed. "Most [of those bands] came after we were already doing our thing," says guitarist Steve Lambke. "We were already playing shows and had made a record. Sometimes I feel like we're from a different era." To a certain extent, Lambke may be right. By the time the press and fans had really begun to take notice, Constantines had already shifted gears. 2005's Tournament of Hearts, the follow-up to their well-received Sub Pop debut, Shine A Light, showcased a more subdued, considered sound. Where The Constantines, their terrific 2002 EP, Modern Sinner Nervous Man, and Shine a Light were all propelled by drum fills and serrated guitar lines, Tournament slowed the pace and put the focus squarely on Bryan Webb's weathered, hoarse rasp. According to Lambke, the album was criticized by some as a "slow, boring rock record" and worse, was pointed to as evidence that the band had "lost the fire."
Owing perhaps to their obstinate nature, Constantines, rather than heed the calls for a return to the scrappy sound of their earlier recordings, have headed even further down the path they first cleared on Tournament. The album's first track aside (an obvious and misguided throwback), Kensington Heights, named for the neighborhood where the band currently practices, testifies to the band's unshakable self-belief in their present course. And while it isn't a complete success front to back, Kensington, even at its most pensive, dares not bore. Whether it's the ominous bass line on "Trans Canada" or the simmering drum beat on "Shower of Stones," the Constantines find ways to engage besides simply adding speed and force.
Kensington may not placate the band's harshest critics, but for Constantines, persistence has always been its own kind of vindication.
CONSTANTINES perform with Red Pen and the Millionth Word on MONDAY, JUNE 16, at the 7th ST. ENTRY; 612.332.1775