4 out of 5 stars
The Constantines – for all intents and purposes – were a punk band. They played big, noisy rock music heavily influenced by the likes of Fugazi and The Clash, and their live shows invariably found the Ontario-based group funneling all of their energy into an earnest, yet intense spectacle. But The Constantines also transcended punk, infusing their intense and fiery anthems with an earthy, Springsteen-esque melodic quality on albums like 2003’s Shine A Light and 2005’s Tournament Of Hearts. Deep within their heavy sonic makeup was a classic rock band just yearning to break free.
Much of that heroic, rootsy quality was thanks to vocalist Bry Webb, whose soulful baritone seemed fit for music even broader and bigger than punk. That proved especially true on the band’s more subdued tracks, like “Sub-Domestic” or “Windy Road.” And on Free Will, Webb’s sophomore album, he seems to have settled comfortably into his new role as a solo troubadour, offering up a dozen selections of gentle and affecting chamber folk.
Where once Webb used his pipes as an instrument of raw power, here his delivery is softer and more restrained. He still sounds like the same guy, but a little older and less driven by angst or unrest. Which isn’t to say that everything is necessarily all roses and cupcakes on Free Will, but Webb conveys a kind of comfort and hope that feels much more intimate. “The more fucked up things get,” he sings on “Let’s Get Through Today,” “the more I love you.”
The closest analogue to what Webb crafts on Free Will is Bill Callahan after dropping the Smog name. Webb has a similarly rugged and masculine sound, albeit one that feels extremely vulnerable. Stripped of the beefy, full-band arrangements of The Constantines, Webb loses none of his potency. He’s just found a way to channel it without cranking up the volume.