Release Date: Apr 7, 2009
Record label: Kill Rock Stars
Genre(s): Rock, Alternative
Every Thermals record contains a handful of moments that shine with insane euphoria, moments where the group’s careening jubilations arrive at a wild peak of unhinged spirit and glee. These moments are the great Thermals songs within great Thermals songs, a few precious seconds of pure ecstasy that sound more conjured than performed (choice epiphanies in Goddamn the Light, How We Know, When You’re Thrown, Returning to the Fold, and St. Rosa and the Swallows come to mind; there are many, many others).
The previous album from the criminally underrated Thermals, the stellar The Body, the Blood, the Machine, imagined a dark version of America over-run with evangelicals and fascists who took away everyone’s rights. On their fourth album, the fine Now We Can See, the band tackle lighter fair: death and all that comes with it. Instead of songs full of angry political piss and vinegar (like on 2003’s More Parts Per Million and 2004’s Fuckin A), Now We Can See has songs about darkness closing in, fear over living a less than satisfying life, leaving the ones you love, and the nature of death from the perspective of a few corpses.
Portland’s self-proclaimed purveyors of “post power-pop” remain pessimistic Hutch Harris, leader of Portland, Ore.’s The Thermals, doesn’t sing so much as he projects. Like a raving indie-rock preacherman with a delivery that falls somewhere between Craig Finn and Ted Leo, Harris hollers with a finely tuned melodic sensibility. Last time out (on 2006’s The Body, The Blood, The Machine), he announced over crunchy power chords, “Here’s your future!” with the pessimistic verve of a sandwich-board lunatic predicting the end of the world—or at least his country.
Four albums in, and the Thermals are still writing the same song. Fortunately, it's a perfectly good song - a reminder that meat-and-potatoes guitar rock can mean a decent steak frites, not necessarily some grizzled and indeterminate cut served with runny mash. Given that the Thermals come from the right-on indie hotbed of Portland, Oregon, and are signed to the none-more-righteous indie label Kill Rock Stars, it's no surprise that their stock-in-trade is earnest passion.
Question: if it weren’t for imminent economic catastrophe, would the world be sat on its collective hands right now with a sense of emptiness bouncing off the walls? After all, now Dubya’s gone, and with King Obama safely crowned, what else would the fractured masses have to galvanise them? In a musical context, The Thermals find themselves in a similar situation post-previous LP The Body The Blood The Machine, which recast America as a troubled land ruled with iron fists by religious neo-con demi-fascists (at the time, not much of a re-imagination, granted). The record culminated in a nuclear apocalypse. After all that, what now for the Portland, Oregon trio? The answer, within Now We Can See, is an overwhelming sense of learning to live again, via the conflicting medium of retrospectively looking back on life after dying, begun with strangely upbeat opener ‘When I Died’.
With an economical use of language, a keen sense of the rhythms of repetition, and a sly, unobtrusive way with the reoccurring images that interest him (the sea, eyes/vision, the earth), the Thermals' Hutch Harris has always been able to ponder life's big questions without being ponderous. It helps that his words are always set against such sublimely sloppy pop riffs. But on Now We Can See, his band's fourth full-length, he takes advantage of a newfound musical maturity, buffing his fuzzy riffs into polished power-pop, which finally casts a much-deserved spotlight on his lyrics.
Now We Can See is not a sequel to The Body, The Blood, The Machine, but it is the perfect record to follow the fire and brimstone and slouching-towards-apocalypse tension of its predecessor. This new album is, without a doubt, a post-crisis record. And while one can guess that the crisis we are past is the eight-year reign of the Bush administration, the Thermals aren’t necessarily interested in casting stones after the fact.
The days of the lo-fi, rambunctious Thermals are firmly put to rest on their 2009 album Now We Can See. The almost violent youthful energy of their first records has slowly changed into something more measured musically, more thoughtful lyrically. The duo's (Hutch Harris on guitar, vocals, and words, Kathy Foster on drums and bass) previous album The Body, the Blood, the Machine was a political, passionate album that successfully accounted for the growing maturation of the band's sound with fire and fervor.
Mini music reviews Lady SovereignJigsawPop (Midget/EMI)The female face of U.K. grime goes pop on her sophomore disc, singing as much as rapping and, in ”So Human,” jacking the groove from ”Close to Me” by the Cure. B- — Mikael Wood Billy Ray CyrusBack to TennesseeCountry (Walt Disney/Lyric Street)Who is Cyrus 17 years after ”Achy Breaky Heart”? Depending on the track, a poor man’s Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney, Trace Adkins, or Neil Diamond.
You can read, “Either way, the story continues…from beyond the grave! With catchy choruses!” and suddenly, everything The Thermals has made makes perfect sense. This is how the press release for The Thermals’ latest, greatest, new album, Now We Can See reads. It’s been well noted and detailed that breakthroughs can change bands and when you are responsible for one of 2006’s most accomplished and best albums, you have some expectations.
Pop-punk as predictably great as the Thermals’ hardly needs a critic to make a claim for it or provide an entry point. This is a dubious little pre-emptive parry, and I’m aware of the other situations where people might trot out this little tautology: it’s good because it’s good, that’s all good, etc. But when you’re on the business end of a song like “A Pillar of Salt,” from The Body, the Blood, the Machine, being whiplashed around by the enthusiasm Hutch Harris uses to throw his voice into his snaky melodies, the band’s eager punk can feel like a metaphysical ideal.