Light Amid the Dark
The Thermals Balance Bright Pop and Serious Themes on Their New CD
By Dan Miller
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 8, 2009
On the opening track to the Thermals' 2006 album, "The Body, the Blood, the Machine," singer Hutch Harris burst out of the gate forecasting apocalyptic visions of cleansing floods a la Noah's ark. The critically hailed album was the band's high-concept response to the social climate during the Bush administration, fusing biblical imagery with political commentary against a backdrop of energetic pop-punk guitars.
Now it's 2009. Bush is out of office, and a new party controls the White House. What's a punk rocker to do?
If you ask Harris, it's no big deal for his band.
"People were starting to see us as this activist band, and that's really not what we're about," he said. "The record was supposed to be a work of fiction, but I think people started taking it as that was who we were and that was what the band was about."
That the band wanted to change directions is evident on the Thermals' new release, "Now We Can See," a bright-sounding rock album pretty much devoid of any mention of politics or religion.
"We felt really challenged after 'The Body, the Blood' -- the whole response to it. We felt like the lyrics were really respected and people really got what we were saying," Harris said. "So, really, the challenge was to make the lyrics as intelligent as the last one, but we wanted no politics and no religion because we felt like it was enough on that [previous] record."
Instead, Harris has turned his attentions to the more eternal concepts: life, death and the state of humanity. For instance, he says, "When I Died" has to do with devolution and being ashamed of humanity.
More than anything, though, there's a lot of death. With song titles such as "When We Were Alive" and "When I Died," Harris has made death a recurring theme on the album without sounding excessively dark or obsessed.
"In the books we read and the movies we see and the music we listen to, there's always a lot of death in there, and it's not always morbid. It's just a fact. It's something that most of us are really scared of. I think it makes for good writing," he says.
Not only has the band done an about-face lyrically, the music has also shifted into a more pop-rock direction. Rather than resurrect the punk snarl found on the band's earlier albums, such as the scrappy, caffeine-charged "More Parts Per Million," "Now We Can See" features bigger choruses, female backing vocals and a more relaxed sensibility.
There's an almost jubilant vibe on many of the songs, breaking with the band's history of fast-paced, passionate rock. According to Harris, going pop was a conscious decision.
"We were starting to feel pigeonholed as a punk band. For this record, we made a conscious step to be more of a power pop band or more of a rock band."
Harris is pleased with the way the new musical direction complements the sometimes dark lyrics.
"It works with the lyrics really well. It's more of a celebration of death. If the music was really dark, it would be a real downer of a record. But the combination of these really upbeat, poppy songs with the kind of heavy lyrics make it feel something like a victory over the fear of death."
When the Thermals come to the Black Cat this week, Harris will be joined by founding bassist Kathy Foster and newbie drummer Westin Glass. (Foster played drums on the new record.) Harris says the new songs are simpler, thus easier to play live.
"They sound closer to the recorded version, whereas with 'The Body, the Blood,' there was a ton of overdubbing, so you were getting much different versions live."