Album Reviews

The Thermals – Now We Can See

(Kill Rock Stars) UK release date: 6 April 2009

Now We Can See draws striking parallels with a certain television advert featuring a haggard, half-naked rock star shamelessly attempting to flog insurance: it’s loud, it’s brash, and it’s pretty rough. The question is: be this the result of conscious musical stylings, or just a lack of talent?

The Thermals, a guitar/bass/drums three-piece from Portland, Oregon, formed in 2002. Now We Can See – a moniker which perhaps reflects a sense of new beginnings with a new label and a new drummer – is their fourth studio album and sees the band diligently ramming themselves into a scuzzy pop-punk canon whose trajectory is set for mainstream musical recognition.

The canon, however, fails to fire, and as The Thermals’ anticipation yields to a crushing sense of anti-climax, the listener empathises exactingly, for with all of Now We Can See’s attempted high-energy/ lo-fidelity charm, it is in reality a bit boring, a bit generic, and a bit aggravating.

The Thermals’ principal formula is pretty simple: grungey guitars playing catchy three chord pop-punk; simple structures, anchored by a steady beat. But this formula grows tiring quickly, and is further fettered by the incessant annoyance of vocalist Hutch Harris, whose urgent shoutyness is nauseous. It has slim variation in dynamics or timbre, and his melodies are boring and unadventurous, evidenced early by When I Died and I Let It Go. The problem is compounded, and frankly becomes overpowering, when bassist Kathy Foster joins Harris on the vocal front-line (We Were Sick).

Lyrically too, Harris is unrelenting in spewing tired clich�s of “time running out” and “calling your name” – his musings self-indulgent, his rhymes like the predictable couplets of a primary school poet.

It is the recent single and title track, however, that is the best example of The Thermals’ deluded idea of a pop masterpiece. Built around a vocal hook that is instantly life-alteringly annoying, this Satanic incarnation is three minutes of hackneyed, school-disco twee that manifests the manifold issues with this album.

As if that weren’t enough, it’s further impaired by a massive lack of variation in songwriting, with all the songs baked from the same bland ingredients. The one exception is At The Bottom Of The Sea, which is far more considered in its down-tempo, stripped-back meanderings. The lazy guitar is luscious, but as the song limps toward the five minute mark it seems as if it’s aimed for epic, but hit laboured.

Production-wise, John Congleton (Polyphonic Spree, Explosions In The Sky) has done a fine job of turning Harris’ guitar into a frothy-mouthed, bestial animal (When We Were Alive) and has captured the abrasive but accessible (if they had any decent songs) sound that nestles into the pop-punk furrow that The Thermals are ploughing.

But with such generic, toothless pop-punk and stoic resistence to varying their songwriting, it’s ironic that with Now We Can See, The Thermals are blindly wrapping themselves in cotton wool.

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More on The Thermals
The Thermals – Desperate Ground
The Thermals @ XOYO, London
The Thermals – Now We Can See
The Thermals @ Water Rats, London