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The Thermals

Now We Can See

Rating: 4.0

Label: Kill Rock Stars

There is something infectious about the Thermals. With Now We Can See, the band’s fourth album, the band’s songs continue their march to sunnier power pop, a long cry from the scratchy kitchen sink sound of More Parts Per Million the group’s first album of lo-fi recordings released by Sub Pop. If the band found a winning formula of big choruses, Hutch Harris’ vocals, and loud guitars on 2006’s The Body The Blood The Machine, a powerful song cycle taking dead-aim at religious zealotry, the idea of companion piece Now We Can See is to push these elements to the forefront and create danceable pop with a message.

Of course, things change. Since the breakthrough success of TBTBTM, there is a new president in office and the Thermals have a new home on Kill Rock Stars. There isn’t as much to be pissed off about and the mute button on anger has been pushed with this new set of songs. True, Harris does not have a charitable worldview on humanity. He thinks the human race is arrogant and destructive. So, how does one write luminous pop music with such a bent?

Album opener “When I Died” is the archetype of the type of songs on Now We Can See. Filled with images of water, drowning and returning to the sea (all tropes inherent on TBTBTM), “Died” chronicles the story of someone who’s tired of the human race, but feels he can force his own evolution. Such haughtiness amuses Harris and when he kills his protagonist off in a wave of salty distaste, the song comes off as a warning to those who think they can cheat biology.

The power of Now We Can See is that Harris and bassist Kathy Foster frontload the disc with some killer tunes. “We Were Sick” is a powerful three-chord invective about indifference, while the title track features the best use of onomatopoeia so far this year. Both songs are infectious, the type of pop music that coils into your mind and you find yourself singing hours later. But nothing is better than “I Let It Go,” three and a half minutes of the manic, four on the floor, two in the air pop that Thermals do best.

There is a lot at work on this album. Sure, the songs can be taken as incendiary confections of muscular pop and not closely examined. Even on the fiery TBTBTM, Harris and Foster made sounding pissed off like a party. But this new album is much sneakier in its intent. Whereas the religious right make a pretty big, and obvious, target, it’s all of humanity’s weaknesses that Harris skewers this time around. Harris believes that humans are inherently craven, neurotic and savage. What better to deconstruct this myth of civilization than a pop tune?

Which brings me around to the water imagery. On TBTBTM, Harris had his characters returning to the sea and Noah escaping death from a giant flood. Water flows on Now We Can See, and as a literary device it’s quite obvious. While water acts as the great destroyer, it is also the symbol of rebirth. Perhaps Harris isn’t as cynical as his lyrics portend. There is never an end to anything, just new beginnings. From this baptism, much like Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises when he jumps from that skiff into the ocean off of San Sebastian, Harris also allows a new lease on life for the survivors of his tale. While TBTBTM ended with holocaust and destruction, there is a streak of optimism here that matches the music’s bouncy pop. Just like their characters, the Thermals have continued to evolve from those lo-fi days of Million. Let’s hope their next flood of creativity will bring on even more exciting changes.

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