Maybe it’s different in Canada. From my Midwestern American vantage point, Constantines were not mythologized into the indie rock canon anywhere close to the extent of their more successful peers, so it’s easy to forget how amazing they were — so easy that I almost did not remember to write a 20th anniversary tribute to the band’s sophomore LP Shine A Light, one of those records so powerful and enthralling that it sends my adrenaline flowing and seems to breathe fresh life into my lungs. That would have been a major oversight and a terrible injustice. Fortunately, someone mentioned in our Discord this afternoon that the record is turning 20 years old this Saturday, and now the crisis has been averted. Those seeking a deep dive on Constantines would do well to revisit Stuart Berman’s piece on the band’s self-titled debut, but there’s no time left to give that treatment to Shine A Light. Instead of a carefully considered essay about the album’s splendor, you’re getting a bloggy, first-thought-best-thought geek-out session. Let the plaudits commence!
Constantines stood out in the early aughts. At a time before Arcade Fire made Bruce Springsteen a popular indie-rock influence, when Fugazi disappeared into hiatus and seemingly took their strict punk ethics along with them, the Guelph, Ontario combo was out there hybridizing the two acts in genuinely refreshing fashion. (Sorry, the tired Springsteen-meets-Fugazi descriptor is too accurate to forgo here.) This was a band who covered “I’m On Fire” before it was cool, who fit into a tradition of rugged populist punk delivered with straight-faced conviction, who wrote lyrics like “Loosen up the collar, shake off the wire/ Run like a river, glow like a beacon fire.” Their merger of hearty workingman’s rock ‘n’ roll with jagged, discordant post-hardcore bore only a passing resemblance to the reigning dance-punk of the moment (though the shout-along “Scoundrel Babes” could pass for early Liars) and had even less to do with the soft, poppy indie fare that was about to find an audience through The O.C. But anyone with a taste for hard, gritty rock music with a noisy experimental edge heard this band and immediately fell in love.
That’s how we ended up with paragraphs like this one from Chris Ott’s embarrassingly edgelordy review of Shine A Light for Pitchfork, which the site deleted along with the rest of Ott’s work for reasons we won’t get into here:
Nailing fashion victims to the wall, these tireless, traditionally bent cads effortlessly reclaim the sexiness and sexuality of rock rhythms, wresting abandon from effeminate black-and-dayglo pretenders, righteously reacquainting us with the filthy, sinister roots of the medium. Theirs is the sound of craven, drunk friend-fucking, of smoky, dead all-night bars and wondering how to keep the party going.
Sometimes I wonder how much brain damage I inflicted upon myself by religiously reading Pitchfork reviews from that era. But if the language and emphasis there feel a bit off, the passion is well-earned. Shine A Light is truly spectacular — a bigger, louder, more anthemic update on the formula that made Constantines’ debut an IYKYK instant classic. On song after song, Bry Webb howls with gravelly gravitas over some of the most inventive visceral clatter ever released on Sub Pop. The guitars slice and flicker and glow and combust. The bass rumbles along like a sonic battering ram, sometimes locking into grooves that verge on funky. The drums hit so fucking hard. It’s like industrial factory equipment came alive and started writing earnest, explosive rock music.
Constantines accomplished a lot of different feats within that sonic palette. “National Hum” kicks off the album with breathtaking speed and clamor, while “Goodbye Baby & Amen” pares back the bombast to a somber slow-drift while only barely dialing down the intensity; even at their quietest, you suspect the song might rip open at any moment. The album boasts anthems that almost feel like pop songs, like the gliding “Young Lions,” and anthems that absolutely throttle you, like the bass-walking, hand-clapping shout-along masterpiece “Shine A Light.” There are smart little touches, like the shaking tambourine that resembles chirping bugs at the start of “Insectivora,” and unbelievable shows of force, like when the same song is swallowed up in regal brass and searing cacophony as Webb exclaims, “I’m learning to survive!” Even a deep cut like “Poison” is a perfect convergence of rhythmic mastery and harmonic shading.
Of all the “holy shit” moments I enjoyed upon revisiting Shine A Light this afternoon, maybe the most overwhelming of them all was when the razor-sharp tangle of guitars kicked off “Nighttime/Anytime (It’s Alright)” and the band began to construct the frame that would eventually tip over into thrilling collapse. “It’s hard not to surrender!” Webb yells amidst the chaos. But Constantines kept on fighting the good fight for many more years, carrying the flame for their particular cocktail of passions and influences. They were never trendy, but they found their cult, and we’ll take any chance we get to, um, illuminate their accomplishments. So stop what you’re doing and put this record on before this endorsement slips your mind; Shine A Light is simply too good to be forgotten.