With their upcoming Sub Pop release Tournament of Hearts, the Constantines deliver a remarkable album that should serve to push them over the top. The recording, while in many ways a significant change from 2003’s Shine a Light, builds on the sound that the Constantines have cultivated through nearly three years of non-stop touring.
Melding rock and soul with jazz and experimentation, it is an album in which no two songs sound the same, yet all hit hard and retain the musical integrity that make the Constantines so unique.
Singer Bry Webb’s vocal melodies reach new heights on Tournament of Hearts, recalling the glory days of Motown and Stax. The guitars quickly veer between melody and noise. The rhythm section consistently lays down a low-end groove that makes speakers tremble. It is a record that finds the band sounding both confident and proud, reveling in a sound that no one else in the current roster of rock can attempt to mimic.
“We worked really hard on these songs,” lead guitarist Steve Lambke said. “We wrote bits and pieces of them on the road and then we all got together in the studio to try and make everything work. It was a long and sometimes trying process but I think in the end we were able to pull it off.”
One needs to look no further than the penultimate track on the record, “You Are a Conductor,” to see just how loose, yet precise, the Constantines have become on Tournament. It is an epic, ghostly song that sounds different from anything they have ever done before. Webb’s vocals hover and float above the mix as a solid bass line and light, open drumming attempt to contain the feelings of possibility and hope contained within the lyrics.
“That’s a song that I’m really proud of,” Lambke said. “We tried to create a sound that we had never been able to get before. We went for more of a room-mix, in the attempt to capture the electricity that’s in that song.”
However, sharply contrasting the quasi-pop that “You Are a Conductor” embodies are tracks such as “Lizaveta” and “Working Full-Time,” which rock harder and with more soulful power than the band ever have before. “Working Full-Time” has a Born to Run-era Springsteen-meets-present-day-Atlantic City feel to it, while the former is constructed in a style that would make Neil Young proud.
And, speaking of the evergreen rocker, the Constantines will be releasing a limited-to-1,000 12-inch LP featuring four Young covers.
“We were playing ‘Tonight’s The Night’ at the end of the last tour. And we just decided to go ahead, have some fun, and cut some of our favorite Neil songs. So we are teaming up with another band, Unintended. They’re doing a couple Gordon Lightfoot covers, and we’re just going to put it out on a small run and get it out there,” Lambke said.
As for the change in the band’s sound, Lambke believes that, in the long run, it’s for the better.
“It’s not like most of our songs don’t still rock; they do. But, you know, we’re all influenced by different things. So yeah, there is some Motown in there. And yeah, there is some Neil Young. And it just came out when we were recording. But I think that what we eventually ended up with was a record that is going to be able to stand on its own in five, ten years and not sound dated or contrived,” he said.
It turns out that the band, in sticking to its guns, was right. Tournament of Hearts is possibly the most distinct, passionate rock record of the almost-finished year. It is a record that finds the band that created it at the top of its game. And the Constantines have never sounded better. Their music has become a soundtrack for the daily urban decay/renewal that goes on all around us. On Tournament they top themselves, sounding powerful yet at the same time, vulnerable and aware.
“We all went through a lot this past year,” Lambke said. “And it came out in the recording and ended up on the record. We just wanted this record to be able to stand on its own, and I hope that it does.”
The Constantines’ Tournament of Hearts will be released on Oct. 11 and the band will be playing at Berbati’s with the Hold Steady on Oct. 16.