Review of The Thermals album Now We Can See released through Kill Rock Stars.
Portland trio The Thermals have always been a bit of an anomaly to these ears. Sure, there's no denying the band's integrity when it comes to that whole DIY punk rock ethic of self-production, home recording and socio-political inspired lyrical asides, but musically there's something about The Thermals that just falls a little short. OK, so as far as powerpop three pieces go, a wheel reinvention is always going to be out of the question and there's also the fact that no matter how seemingly generic The Thermals sound when placed alongside their many peers, they're still light years ahead of pretty much every other of a similar nature you care to mention on this side of the pond. No, the real problem with this record is that for the most part, 'Now We Can See' doesn't sound significantly different to a certain other trio from California, and while bands like Green Day should be commended for at least sustaining some kind of longevity, is this really the kind of band that punk rock set out to create three decades ago?
Maybe I'm being a little harsh here. After all, The Thermals aren't exactly new kids on the block; 'Now We Can See' is their fourth long player and their first since leaving long term paymasters Sub Pop, but whereas 2003's 'More Parts Per Million' with its angry early Manics style rants like 'No Culture Icons' and 'Born Dead' genuinely excited, this seems like an exercise in going through the motions at times, which for a band with such a highly respected cult status as these, surely won't do. That doesn't mean 'Now We Can See' is all bad of course; it isn't, and the production skills of The Paper Chase's John Congleton immediately come to the fore here, the more thorough, denser sound, particularly from the rhythm section, providing greater levels of sonic amplification that would excuse anyone previously unaware for thinking The Thermals number far more than just the two band members (singer/guitarist Hutch Harris and bass player-cum-drummer Kathy Foster) that actually recorded the bulk of the album.
Opener 'When I Died' is possibly their most tongue in cheek vignette thus far while 'When We Were Alive' contains a menacing aura that harks back to the halcyon days of the aforementioned 'No Culture Icons' et al. Elsewhere, the drawn-out angst of 'At The Bottom Of The Sea' finds The Thermals attempting to write a ballad, and while it doesn't quite hit the spot in the way their more frenetic moments succeed, their ambitious efforts should at least be applauded. Unfortunately, a lot of the record moulds into one continuous formulaic stream of sameness, and at times it is hard to differentiate between songs, or pick out moments of genuine greatness as a result.
All in all, 'Now We Can See' feels like something of a crossroads for The Thermals; their last line-up disintegrated after a bout of heavy touring, and maybe what was initially a labour of love for Harris and co. turned into something of a chore in the wake of the aftermath? Whatever, for all the self-proclaimed statements of intent coming from Camp Thermals that 'Now We Can See' is their best record, those comments seem hollow having heard the finished product, as this album rarely goes beyond the level of ordinary, which for a band as outspoken as The Thermals, surely won't do.