Tournament of Hearts

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More about refinement than reinvention, Tournament of Hearts gives the Constantines' sound just a few tweaks that add up to even more impact. While Shine a Light gave a better grasp of the band's ability to span combustible rock and lighters-aloft ballads, Tournament of Hearts focuses their aggression and beauty into a set of songs that are slightly more accessible but still formidable. The life-and-death urgency that has characterized the Constantines' work from the beginning is still here, most notably on the fantastic, charging opener, "Draw Us Lines" -- which does with a few, artfully placed guitar blasts what legions of other bands try to do with their amps continually cranked to 11 -- and its stealthy but just as hard-hitting follow-up, "Hotline Operator." And, with its "Sweet Child O' Mine"-like guitar breakdown and lyrics like "we won't be undersold," "Working Full-Time" touches on the band's common-man roots (unlike too many indie rock bands, the Constantines never sound elitist). However, during most of the album, this intensity is channelled into slower, but still tensely coiled, songs that make Tournament of Hearts the Constantines' subtlest work yet. Fortunately, the band is as good at quietly anthemic ballads as it is at loudly anthemic rockers -- and the brass that colors "Love in Fear" and "Lizaveta" has nearly as much kick as the band's guitars. "Soon Enough" is one of the rousing, slightly rootsy songs that seem to come to the Constantines effortlessly, while "Thieves"' cool electric pianos and whispery vocals underscore the late-night tension that runs through all of Tournament of Hearts. However, the album's finest moments might be its final two songs: the soaring, massive-sounding "You Are a Conductor" and simple, delicate "Windy Road" are a study in contrasts from a band that excels at being anthemic, romantic, brooding, and world-weary at the same time. Classic without being too traditional or contrived, Tournament of Hearts is the sound of the Constantines operating at the peak of their powers.

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