Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Review: The Thermals - Now We Can See (* * * *)

Fighting the powers that be isn’t exactly a new idea, but rock trio The Thermals have made a solid musical career out of it. Of course, it took much more than anger to bring upon the wash of critical acclaim that accompanied such releases as 2006’s The Body, The Blood, The Machine. The Portland rockers have become known for their rough, garage-rock sound, clever lyrics and catchy melodies-- all of which they've used in the past to express their dissatisfaction with Bush-era politics, religion and certain aspects of American ideology. With perhaps a little less to rant against, the band return with a new collection of 11 expressive, punk-inspired tunes dealing with the excitement of youth and the eventuality of death. Their (slightly) more hopeful outlook and less politically-charged approach are certainly welcome and produce some solid results on the group’s appropriately titled fourth disc, Now We Can See.

The first four tracks on the album contain what we’ve come to expect from The Thermals: brief blasts of pop-oriented punk rock that immediately grab hold of the listener, though the production is a little smoother and the feeling a little less sinister this time around. Opener “When I Died” is probably the strongest of the bunch, with talk-sing verse and a killer guitar hook that kicks things off spectacularly, though the title track is also undeniably great, including an unconventional, wordless chorus that shakes things up a bit. Fortunately, the band follow a consistent, albeit fairly predictable start with gentler ballad “At the Bottom of the Sea,” which continues frontman Hutch Harris’ trend of writing incredibly compelling lyrics that have always elevated his music above the typical low-fi indie rocker, this time in a more reflective and quite moment.

The second half of the record is similarly even, providing several more standouts. “I Called Out Your Name” is an earnest and fun pop-rock tune that’s impossible to resist, while closer “You Dissolve” ends things with one of the album’s strongest cuts, and an ode to the continuation of life through death, or, as Harris puts it, “just another way you exist, it’s just another way you survive.” A couple tunes add less to the overall appeal of the album, but there really aren’t any missteps here, and Now We Can See feels not only consistent, but also cohesive in its sound. As a result, there might not be a great deal of variation, but the songs actually become quite distinct and memorable after only a couple listens.

Making my way through the record, it quickly becomes clear that The Thermals are maturing, but rather than slowing down and mellowing out, they’ve found a way to evolve, making music that continues to be fresh and relevant. Featuring excellent lyrics, a tremendous sense of melody, and direct, no-frills rock ‘n’ roll, Now We Can See is another solid addition to the group’s catalog. It’s remarkable that a band still relying on a very straightforward and simple musical palette can avoid becoming tired or worn out, but The Thermals are anything but past it. Quite the opposite, in fact; the band feel just as energetic and determined as they ever were, they’ve just become a little older and wiser-- and they’re better for it.

Last Word: The Thermals return with a consistent and enjoyable rock album that retains the energy and attitude of their past releases while showing some maturity as well.


Anonymous said...

I'll take you down the only round I've ever been down.