Monday, September 1, 2008

The Thermals. The Body The Blood The Machine (Sub Pop, 2006)

"God reached His hand down from the sky/ God asked Noah if he wanted to die/ He said 'No, Sir. Oh no, Sir'/ God said 'Here's your future/ It's gonna rain...'"

My disdain for overtly political bands can be neatly summed up in this anecdote I heard about a U2 concert in Glasgow: At one point during the show, Bono steps to the edge of the stage and, clapping along to the beat (I don't know which song, but I always imagine it to be "Bullet the Blue Sky") announces to the crowd, "Every time I clap my hands, a child dies in Africa," to which a dude in the front row shouts, "Stop fuckin' clappin' 'em, then!" Too right. In the words of the Hold Steady (a band that could never be accused of being too political), "This was supposed to be a party." Lighten up.

Of course, there are some bands whose overwhelming rockingness more than makes up for their occasional preachiness. The Clash, of course. Fugazi. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. And add to this list the Thermals. Man oh man, can these guys kick ass. 2006's The Body The Blood The Machine is a record about 1) God, and 2) Republicans. The Thermals have a lot to say about both, most of it (you guessed right!) critical. But the message comes drenched in some of the most energetic, jagged, hook-filled punk I've ever heard, so I swallow it every time. Spoonful of sugar and all that, I suppose.

The Thermals, a three-piece from Portland, Oregon (which somewhat explains the lefty leanings), fill The Body The Blood The Machine, their third LP, with religious and political themes and loads and loads of catchy, bouncy tunes. I've always been a fan of the power trio approach (to include early ZZ Top. I'm serious. Ask my wife), 'cuz I think it forces bands to do more with less. And the Thermals definitely do more. Singer/guitarist Hutch Harris strums his guitar furiously, picking out solos catch as catch can from between the thrashing chords. Lots of single note riffing and wailing sustain, nothing too fancy. "A Pillar of Salt" and "Here's Your Future" offer perfect examples of this brilliance-through-forced-simplicity phenomenon. The rhythm section pushes everything right along, the drummer not taking it too easy on the snare or the cymbals. Harris sings in a nasally whine, sounding like a pissed off radical librarian, or maybe a deranged street prophet.

Fugazi's Brendan Canty manned the boards on this one, and his production captures the rushed urgency of the music real well. The whole record's got a compressed, pressurized sound, with lots of punchy midrange, especially on the drums and bass. The vocals are right up front, too, so the music connects like power pop. It's not exactly a Cars record or anything, but still.

And now, the Message. The Thermals are pretty preoccupied with the Bible here, and use Biblical stories (Noah's ark, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah) to comment on the American political scene, as they see it, in the first decade of the 21st century. Christianity as a tool used by the haves to keep the have-nots down, essentially. Lines like, "We are old as hell/ We are old and tell the children/ When to kill, when to sit still," from "Power Doesn't Run on Nothing," or "Good luck getting God on the phone/ Good luck getting even a tone" from "An Ear for Baby" sum it up pretty well. That said, these guys seem to disdain a complete rejection of religion, as well: in album highlight "Returning to the Fold," Hutch laments "I regret leaving at all/ I forgot I needed God/ Like a big brother." Complicated!

Bono is annoying. He's insufferably self important and his band is nearly 20 years past its prime. The Thermals have a lot to say, too, but their music -- stripped down, vital, endlessly compelling -- is the utter antithesis to U2's bloated dad rock. So if you want a political lesson, look to Oregon, not Ireland. You won't be sorry.