Thermals

There are only a handful of bands that continue to release consistently good material after their moment in the spotlight has come and gone. Having had their big breakthrough, groups like these don’t exactly feel the need to continue to prove themselves, rather they are content with refining what works, and continuing to grow as musicians. Such is the case with The Thermals, the Portland based trio whose third album, The Body, the Blood, the Machine, was seen as their crowning achievement by many critics and  their loyal fan base. Despite the immense amount of acclaim, the group never seemed to break into the mainstream conscious, as the album was an emotionally charged questioning of religion. However, this has not deterred the band in the slightest. After enduring the split of two different drummers, they are back with Now We Can See, a record that stands gracefully alongside the rest of the Thermals impressive back catalogue.

There are several differences about this album that are almost immediately noticeable. From the moment that he opens his mouth on album opener “When I Died”, one of the strongest songs on the album, it is apparent that front man Hutch Harris has dramatically changed his style of delivery. His voice sounds freer than it ever has, and it makes him sound like an entirely different person on some of the tracks. However, this is not at all a bad thing, as it shows Harris is willing to expand his vocal capabilities; and this is done to largely good effect. Another difference that most close listeners will find is that the production for album number four is vastly different from second album Fuckin’ A and The Body, the Blood, the Machine. While it’s not a return to the band’s low-fi sound of their debut, More Parts Per Million, the sound is more distant and raw compared to their last two efforts. This may have something to do with the fact that the Thermals are now on Kill Rock Stars instead of former label Sub pop. The difference in recording quality may only noticeable to audiophiles, but the difference in production is an aesthetically pleasing one, even if it is in not superior.  

Perhaps the most major departure for the Thermals since their last album is that the lyrics have lost almost all of the political and religious undertones of TBTBTM. Most people will be slightly taken aback by this fact, as the band has an undeniably edgy, visceral quality when discussing those subjects. However, the words on Now We Can See have a more universal appeal to them, as most are sung outwardly, using the collective “we” to illustrate inclusion. A good majority of the album revolves around reflecting on earlier days, such as “We Were Sick”, the title track, and “When I Was Afraid”. However, several tracks take on the notion of love, such as the excellent “I Called Out Your Name”.  Even then, though, songs like these are more outward than aggressive, thereby staying in tune with the overall lyrical shift of the album. The fact that an album that revolved around questioning religion can be followed by one that does a complete 180 is no small task. That the Thermals can pull it off so well, and so effortlessly, highlights why they’re among the most consistently good bands going in their genre.

Of course, the album is not without its low points. “Liquid In, Liquid Out” is perhaps the most forgetful song on the album, as there are no major sticking points that make it stand out in an album full of hooks. In addition, some may find that “At the Bottom of the Sea” is overly long. Clocking in at almost six minutes, this down tempo track may turn off those who prefer the Thermals at their fastest or when they are more upbeat. At the same time, others may find it a nice departure from the rest of the album. Additionally, there seems to have been a bit more of a drawback on the presence of Kathy Foster’s bass lines, which were particularly strong on Fuckin’ A, something that could have easily provide a bit more punch to some of the songs here. Instead there is a bit of an overwhelming presence as Hutch’s guitar, although he is pretty damn good with that instrument. Neither of these criticisms are enough to hurt the album in any major way.

At this point in their career, the Thermals could have chosen to walk a myriad of different paths. However, they decided to tone things down lyrically, and to play it a bit safer. Of course, when you are a band with as much talent as the Thermals, this is hardly a step in the wrong direction. While the band has not broken any new ground here, if one approaches Now We Can See as a work in and of itself, they will be pleased to find a very solid record, one that displays a group who is confident in their abilities and in their identity. This is an album that can be enjoyed long after its first run through, and is therefore easy to recommend.

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