The night before I was set to interview Steve Lambke, guitarist and songwriter for Toronto rock quintet Constantines, a friend and I had some drinks and mused about all things Canadian. We mostly covered go-to topics like hockey, Mounties, Bob and Doug McKenzie, the interjection “eh” and the decriminalization of pot.
Eventually, perhaps mercifully, the conversation boiled down to a single question: Aside from Neil Young—automatically disqualified due to the sheer volume and variance of his work—who is the best Canadian band/musician working today?
Subjective? Sure. But a question that nevertheless takes some thought. Confronted with the wide variety of choices—from Broken Social Scene to Rufus Wainwright and Arcade Fire to Cowboy Junkies—I couldn't commit to just one. Instead, I regaled my friend with the story of how I was first introduced to Constantines.
Just before my honeymoon, I visited a local record store and asked the clerk to pick out three records that would make a good soundtrack to our road trip. I bought all three without knowing anything about the bands. One of them happened to be Shine a Light (Constantines' 2003 second release).
The record store clerk was right on the money. My wife and I listened to the album over and over again throughout our two-week vacation. We loved Lambke's driving guitar and lead singer Bryan Webb's raspy voice. Still, despite the fuzzy memories that experience invoked, I was noncommittal about my choice for top Canadian honors.
Lambke was in good spirits when we spoke the following day. The band was fresh off playing the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in England and prepping for their U.S. tour supporting Kensington Heights, their first album since leaving Sub Pop for the Canadian label Arts & Crafts.
“We were pretty excited about the option to deal with people back home in Canada,” Lambke says. “Arts & Crafts is right down the street, really. It's been wonderful. Sub Pop is a great label and it was an honor to work with them… but it's nice to have some new excitement around the band.”
Much of that excitement comes from Kensington Heights, a collection of straightforward rock that, upon closer inspection, is arguably the most thoughtful album of the band's career. The songs here seem more fully realized than on previous efforts while still drawing comparisons to The Clash and Bruce Springsteen—comparisons that don't make Lambke feel entirely comfortable.
“It's very flattering—those are the records we grew up with and have loved for a long time,” he says, “but that's some of the most exciting rock music ever made. Whether or not we live up to that, I don't know.”
But even Lambke admits that Constantines put on one helluva show. The band takes pride in living up to a reputation for being a stellar live act, whether it's playing in a small club or in “hockey” arenas with bands like Foo Fighters.
“We're really excited to get out and play all of these new songs for people,” Lambke says. “We're really focused on that and want to do it right.”
Doing it right by Constantines standards includes constantly changing the set list in order to keep their show as fresh and lively as possible. Lambke says the band finds it nearly impossible to play the same songs night after night and they frequently throw a cover song or two into the mix, even going so far as to occasionally grant drunken requests from the back of the room.
“Sure, sometimes we'll play a request,” Lambke says, matter-of-factly. “If we think we can manage it, we'll try to work it in.”
I had no choice but to believe him. But the fact that Constantines periodically perform as a Neil Young cover band called Horsey Craze adds credence to the idea. Wait, did I just say Neil Young? Not long after I hung up with Lambke, the phone rang again. It was my friend from the night before. I reminded him of our conversation and told him I finally had an answer to that burning question.
It had to be Constantines.
Constantines perform on Friday, July 4, with Ladyhawk and Modern Rifles at The Casbah, 619-232-HELL. www.myspace.com/constantines