Constantines Kensington Heights

[Arts&Crafts; 2008]

Styles: pummeling blue-collar Canadian rock ‘n’ roll
Others:  Springsteen

When Kensington Heights hits, it really sparks up that eternal flame of guitar rock. And when it doesn’t hit, it fizzles. That’s sort of an obvious statement to make, being that it’s one that could apply to virtually any rock record with both high and low points. But maybe that’s Cons’ problem. This, their fourth full-length and Arts&Crafts debut, lacks the permeating sense of immediacy and understated power present in their previous efforts, leaving Kensington Heights sounding something like what any other rock band could churn out. Constantines never broke a lot of new ground, but the skillfulness in which they could make you forget that was pleasantly begrudging. They played the sort of purified rock ‘n’ roll that’s been woefully absent in this new decade, reminding fans of music’s past while also rolling on forward into some uncharted future. It’s not always necessary to fault a band for remaining static, but Kensington Heights not only lacks the ability to evolve: it’s actively regressing backward.

The baffling part is that the Guelph, Ontario quintet clearly hasn’t forgotten what makes them so freaking good in the first place. The absolutely massive “Million Star Hotel” would attest to that with its thundering axes and crushing lulls. The brilliant “Trans Canada” sounds the most like something the old Cons would have recorded: an unrelenting, sparse grind steadily building up into an eruption, the band arriving together in glorious conjunction. “Our Age” is a stellar marriage of the louder and folksier sides of the band, making it a clear highlight and the natural next step. And then there’s a song like “Credit River,” which pulls itself off the banks and blindsides you with its breakneck onslaught. But songs like these aren’t the majority. Kensington Heights finds the band altering their sound to one less inventive on a slew of other tracks, finding derivation in the roots of Americana and blue-collar blues.

Never has The Boss’s influence been more apparent than in this new array. Constantines have always had a working-class influence in their songwriting, and frontman Bryan Webb’s raspy growl is easy to place next to that of the big man’s. However, here the comparison is nearly inescapable. On tracks like “Brother Run Them Down” and “Time Can Be Overcome,” they may as well be the E Street’s doppelgangers. Besides the fact that these songs bear too large of a thumbprint, they also serve to highlight Kensington Heights’ biggest weakness: the overabundance of the ballad. Here the band often lapses into drawn-out country rock epics. It’s a brand of song that they already perfected with Tournament of Hearts’ “Soon Enough,” and these new tracks often feel like half-strength attempts to recapture that passing glory. It just doesn’t work.

Kensington Heights matches up each spectacular moment with an equally mundane one. And for that reason, and the high quality precedent set by their career so far, the album is a disappointment. It might be misleading to say, because as it stands, there are no truly bad songs on it (with the questionable exception of clunker “Shower of Stones”). The real problem is that Constantines sound far too comfortable. Where’s the frenzied energy, the nervous explosions? The band has settled down into rocking chairs. They’ve got their guitars in their laps, and they’ll be fingerpicking out on the porch until the moon rises, but all they’ll really be doing is rocking back and forth.

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