Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Album Review: The Thermals - Now We Can See

The Thermals: Now We Can See
[Kill Rock Stars 2009]


Kudos to the Thermals for not sticking with what works. After three albums of gradually less lo-fi, more fiery political punk, a detour into newer environs is an admirable, interesting move. With a catalog of religion and politics-obsessed rock, vocalist and guitarist Hutch Harris and bassist, drummer Kathy Foster decided to set a new course after 2006’s breakthrough The Body, the Blood, the Machine based on “the classic themes of songwriting and music,” namely love and death. Unfortunately, in a break from their usual political firebombing, the Thermals play it safe, almost generic, in the ultimately sub par outing that is Now We Can See.

For its treatment on “classic songwriting themes,” Now We Can See actually suffers most from its lack of focus. While musically on point, in that the band’s punk sneer and energy remain somewhat intact, the album is lyrically wishy-washy, with few of the lasting impressions or resounding choruses that have characterized the Thermals up to this point. Even the song titles, which usually reflect unmemorable choruses, do not inspire much individuality: “When I Died,” “I Let It Go,” “When We Were Alive,” “When I Was Afraid,” etc.

Despite a secondary objective of the band to vary tempos and experiment with changes of pace, the album begins rather flatly. Although “We Were Sick” features a fun, Foster-assisted chorus, the first three songs of the album are set at frustratingly similar tempos, making for many repeated listens before the songs distinguish themselves, if they ever do. The rest of the album finds the band shifting pace with mixed results, slowing it down on the delicate ballad “At the Bottom of the Sea,” reaching faux-hardcore speeds on the forgettable “When We Were Alive,” and reducing the guitar fuzz and simplifying the drums on the decent “Liquid In, Liquid Out.” The album’s clear highlight is its namesake, “Now We Can See,” which features a basic chorus (“owayowwhoa…”) that is nevertheless extremely catchy and engagingly youthful.

As much as I’ve wanted these tunes to ring in my ears after each listen, Now We Can See features song after song that, in the moment, are energetic, melodic punk numbers, but are utterly forgettable minutes later. For a band that isn’t the Thermals, a product like this would make for an impressive debut. But no, this is the Thermals of The Body, the Blood, the Machine fame.

The common mantra is to not expect a band’s previous album in later work, as this only leads to disappointment with a change of style, theme, etc. Nevertheless, fans know that the band is capable of more, and comparisons in this respect are unavoidable. The politics-fueled ferocity of the band’s prior efforts, namely the violent concept album The Body, the Blood, the Machine, are far more compelling than the muddled messages of Now We Can See. Harris as a vocalist sounded more impassioned, raw, gripping, and on the brink of insanity in 2006 than he does here, where he sounds boxed into overly tight, over-produced compositions.

Beyond Harris’s vocals, the whole band’s sound seems limited, its power muffled by safe, however hook-driven melodies and an unwillingness to surprise and take chances. The Thermals are best served by letting their punishing yet catchy punk energy reek havoc at full force. Whether or not the Thermals can tap that unrestrained energy from a non-political source, especially now in the post-Bush era, remains to be seen. Whatever the Thermals have next up their sleeve, hopefully it will involve a detour that’s more worth taking than Now We Can See.

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