by Hannah Levin

The Constantines

w/the Weakerthans, Roy Fri Sept 12, Graceland, 10 pm, $10 adv.

One of the most frustrating facts about music journalism is that comparing bands to each other is pretty much inevitable. Sure, in Rock Critic Utopia, all depictions of artists we love would be carved out of sturdy, lucid prose and devoid of teeth-grinding, hybrid-based phrasing ("It's like a two-headed punk-prog baby birthed by the Dead Kennedys and King Crimson!")--but back here in reality, both fans and critics need reference points to illustrate what something sounds like. And while such comparative references can be maddening, they're also sometimes dead-on accurate. Case in point--the Constantines, a Toronto-based quintet that sounds an awful lot like a playful tug of war between Fugazi and Bruce Springsteen. There's really no other way to describe it, and as a result, every journalist who's reviewing their new disc, Shine a Light (Sub Pop), is drawing these legitimate parallel lines.

I had assumed this pervasive comparison would be irksome to a young, punk-minded band trying to forge a name for itself, but when I spoke with vocalist/guitarist Steve Lambke via phone last week, he was more flattered than irritated. "It's really not that annoying. I think that we do sound like Fugazi to a certain extent, and I love Fugazi--it's a nice thing to be compared to. People can say whatever they want."

The primary cause of the comparison to the Dischord crowd is clear as soon as you hear the angry, angular guitar work of Lambke and fellow vocalist/guitarist Bryan Webb, a Siamese pair who tether themselves tightly to the cohesive clang of bassist Dallas Wehrle and drummer Doug MacGregor. Webb channels the Springsteen element, handling the majority of the vocal duties with an impressive level of poetic maturity, allowing the hoarseness of his voice to veer effortlessly between a resigned grumble and an ecstatic roar. Webb's grizzled delivery works especially well when his lyrical talents start shining through, showing off a heartbreaking mix of youthful aggression and world-weary sadness--a stylistic fusion that is as beautiful and confusing as it sounds.

The current band lineup grew organically out of the high-school friendship between Lambke and Webb (Wehrle and MacGregor also played together throughout their teenage years). In 1999, the four met in their hometown of Guelph, Ontario, and collectively migrated to Toronto shortly afterwards. A reputation for kinetic live performances was rapidly built and their eponymous debut on Three Gut Records in 2001 garnered them heaps of praise, including a nomination for Best Alternative Album at Canada's Juno Awards. With the release of the EP The Modern Sinner Nervous Man on Suicide Squeeze Records in 2002, they began attracting attention south of their border, including the ears of Sub Pop A&R reps Chris Jacobs and Shawn Rogers, who began courting the group and successfully signed them in late 2002.

Shine a Light, the Constantines' debut for Sub Pop, is a triumphant example of what happens when a band manages not only to avoid the sophomore slump, but actually inverts it. While some fans of the group's rawer-sounding debut might find fault with their choice of refinements (cleaner production, tighter arrangements) and additions (a sparkling horn section, the strong presence of keyboardist Will Kidman), the broader picture that emerges is one of a band learning to articulate its sound and show off its influences without sounding apish. After all, Fugazi and Springsteen are admirable, passionate starting points, but an honest homage to such artists eventually must move toward screaming with a voice of one's own.

Despite the fresh flush of success and their recent signing to Sub Pop, the band remains fiercely loyal to the Three Gut label, a close-knit community collective that also includes their manager and publicist, Lisa Moran. Their arrangement with Sub Pop insures their Canadian home will continue to be Three Gut. "The legal language in our Sub Pop contract says that they are our label 'in the universe excluding Canada,'" laughs Lambke. "Three Gut have always been supportive of our band and it's really important to us to keep going with that here [in Canada]. When Chris and Shawn approached us, it was really awesome that they were all right with that. It's okay if they are our 'Masters of the Universe'--as long as it's the universe excluding Canada!"