w/ Shaky Hands, Point Juncture, WA
Fri. May 15
1977 Maybank Hwy.
Six years, four albums, three drummers, and a label change into the band’s career, the essence of Portland, Ore.’s the Thermals remains. With their new album Now We Can See in tow, the songwriting duo of multi-instrumentalists Hutch Harris and Kathy Foster is still playing fiery punk power-pop with the same grit and determination that got them started.
“Sonically, we like to play music that’s loud and fun to rock out to,” says Foster, “but it just kind of comes together that way.”
They’ve played in bands together since 1997, including releasing an album of folk-pop under the name Hutch & Kathy. “We’ve written a lot of music together, and we’re really comfortable playing music that way,” says Foster. So they haven’t been fazed when lineup changes — losing two drummers, namely — have forced the core duo of the Thermals to survive, switching instrument duties as needed to make records and bringing a drummer on board in time for touring.
The band got a precocious start with their Guided by Voices-style kitchen-as-recording-studio debut album More Parts Per Million. “The first album was made on a four-track, and it was made before we were even a band,” says Foster. “We were just recording it for fun. It just ended up that people were super into it, so we ended up making a band to play those songs.”
One early fan was Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard, who was into it enough to put the Thermals in touch with über-indie record label Sub Pop, home to some of the band’s influences, like Nirvana and Sebadoh. Despite offers from Sub Pop to re-record it, they released the album nearly as-is in all its chaotic, lo-fi charm in the spring of 2003.
Fuckin’ A came next, but it was 2006’s The Body, the Blood, the Machine, with its step up in sonic fidelity and bold, near-conceptual album narrative, that earned wider acclaim. As the band’s lyricist, Harris had explored political and religious themes before, but this album faced those topics head-on with greater gravity. In short, TBTBTM’s narrative arc imagines America in a science-fiction future taken over by a Christian-fascist regime. It’s a vision that begins in terror — “God reached his hand down from the sky/He flooded the land, then he set it afire” starts the lead-off track “Here’s Your Future” — and ends in an apocalyptic squall of noise.
The Thermals didn’t intend Now We Can See (Kill Rock Stars) to be taken as a thematic follow-up, but it ended up happening anyway. “This one picks up where that one left off — it’s written from the perspective of someone who’s died and is reflecting on what happened on this planet,” says Foster. “But it’s not about the religion or politics; it goes off in a different direction.”
Looking backwards over time, the album’s “narrator” has perspective on all the chaos of human history on earth: “Yeah baby, we were savage/We existed to kill/our history is damage/At least it was a thrill/But now we can see,” Harris declares on the self-titled track. But it’s not all guilt and remorse: with this new-found perspective comes reflection and acceptance, and even a chance to start anew. “I looked my fear in the eyes/I looked at the water below/I knew I could love or die/I let it go,” he asserts on the ecstatic chorus of “I Let It Go.”
Complementing the thematic shift, the new album’s melodies lean a tad farther toward the Matthew Sweet-side of the pop-punk spectrum, but the band’s chunky three-chord riffs remain potent. The positive feedback from recent audiences confirms the careful balance of the weighty lyrical themes and frenetic rock energy.
“I love playing for people, exchanging that energy, and us all kind of feeding off of each other,” says Foster. “That’s such a great feeling, and I love that people enjoy that feeling too. It’s great to connect on that level.”
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