Even for a well-prepared musician, assembling a song that responds to current events is a long process, lagging far behind the speed we've grown to expect in the Internet era. Unless you're Prince, penning New Year's Eve soundtracks years before they occur (remember the genius of releasing "1999" in 1982?), the best you can hope for is that changes in the world will make one of your songs unexpectedly topical and timely. Which is exactly what's happened with the Constantines song "Credit River."
Over an interstellar synth reminiscent of fellow-countrymen Rush, the Canadian five-piece locks into an insistent, frantic rhythm. "So you're decided to declare bankruptcy / You say that lease it brought out something bad in me / You say I feel like half the man I used to be," sings Bry Webb, the sense of defeat palpable in his Strummer-esque rasp. "Friend, I know the hounds of debt they do get hungry / and desperate times will set you often wondering."
"It's become more topical than maybe initially it was intended to be," says guitarist and occasional vocalist Steve Lambke. The song, written, road-tested and recorded well before the current market crisis, appears on the Constantines' latest album, Kensington Heights, released in April on the Toronto-based Arts & Crafts label. "It was probably written from a much more personal experience," says Lambke, "and maybe before, people weren't so terrified of their debt." But since then, "it has become a universal failure, universally talked about and worried about."
Just this week, the band rushed out a "no-budget" video for "Credit River," comprised of FDR-era public-domain footage, to capitalize on its timeliness. "There was the inspiration to do it now and do it quickly, and in sort of a format that [reflected] the state of the world right now," says Lambke.
The Constantines formed in 1999, in Guelph, Ontario, though the band members hailed from other southern Ontario towns. "We kind of ended up in Guelph -- that's where we were practicing out of, and hosting shows and stuff when we first started to get any kind of attention," recalls Lambke. "I kinda think starting bands in small towns is a good thing, as opposed to a big city," he says. "We were kinda doing our own thing ... without any of the pressure of making the big debut or something."
Moving to Toronto, they released their self-titled debut in 2001 on the Three Gut Records label; their subsequent albums Shine a Light (2003) and Tournament of Hearts (2005) were released simultaneously in the U.S., on the powerhouse indie Sub Pop. Since 2003, the lineup has consisted of Webb, Lambke, Doug MacGregor (drums), Dallas James Wehrle (bass) and multi-instrumentalist Will Kidman.
Kensington Heights is the band's first on Arts & Crafts, which has also released three 7-inch singles for it this year: the churning album-opener "Hard Feelings," the folky strummer "Our Age," and a cover of "Islands in the Stream" performed with labelmate Feist.
"They're really ambitions and they've achieved a lot of things for a relatively new label," says Lambke of Arts & Crafts. "We had a great relationship with Sub Pop and think the world of those people as well, but it was nice to do something different," he says. "It's also nice to be working with a Canadian label, through sheer patriotism."
Another patriotic gesture -- if a subtle one -- is evident in the guitar tones on Kensington Heights: The band used Garnet amplifiers, made in Canada by Gar Gillies, which also provided the horsepower for Canadian classic-rockers The Guess Who and BTO.
"It's not a big concept or whatever," says Lambke. But "It's sort of fun to talk about -- it's a weird little piece of rock 'n' roll history, Canadian rock history." The band dedicated the album to Gillies, who recently passed away. "Up until the very end of his life, he was still making amps and stuff, in Winnipeg, which is essentially in the middle of nowhere," Lambke says. "And they sound great -- it's a really cool piece of gear."
While Lambke primarily handles axe duties and harmonies for the band, he also steps up to the mic on "Shower of Stones," his higher, Steve Wynn-style vocals riding a wave of Crazy Horse distortion. Lambke's also released solo albums under the name Baby Eagle. "Sometimes it's nice to sing a song without a bunch of other dudes around you," he says. "But then sometimes that's exactly what a song needs -- you need your bros, sometimes!"
And with its alternating visions of doubt and hope, its credit crises and affirmations that "come living rites / come desperation / you are not your generation," Kensington Heights sounds like nothing less than the work of a band of brothers.
Constantines with Obits. 8 p.m. Thu., Dec. 11. Thunderbird Café, 4023 Butler St., Lawrenceville. $12 ($14 day of show). 21 and over. 412-682-0177 or www.thunderbirdcafe.net
- "You need your bros, sometimes": Constantines