I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, but whether or not you like the Thermals may well depend on how willing you are to put up with Hutch Harris’s voice. I am more than happy to put up with it (I know he’s dramatic, sometimes Shatner-esque, but goddammit, I can’t help liking the guy. Maybe it’s because part of me thinks that punk music should be obnoxious and the Thermals are probably the best punk band going today. Hell, throw in Titus Andronicus and I’d say they’re among the only real punk bands going today) and so I can sit back and enjoy Thermals albums as much as the next guy and, often, more than the next guy.
Histrionic vocals notwithstanding, Hutch Harris wields verbal razor blades (listen to The Body, The Blood, The Machine if you don’t believe me: “God reached his hand/ out from the sky/ he flooded the land and set it on fire/ He said ‘Fear me again/ know I’m your father/ remember that no one can breathe under water'”) and also has wicked awesome guitar tone, with minimal effects. The newest Thermals record, Now We Can See is packed with melodic guitar solos, pounding drums, and Harris’s lyrics are still sharp as ever. Those virtues come together nicely on the title track when Harris points out “Now we can see/ Now that our vision is strong/ we don’t need to admit we were wrong” before bouncing into a positively Beatles-ish chorus and a lilting guitar solo that may be his best since “Ear for Baby”.
But enough about Harris – there’s another Thermal who plays bass and drums on Now We Can See and also adds her vocals to the mix. Of course I’m talking about Kathy Foster, whom you may have heard on last year’s All Girl Summer Fun Band album Looking Into It (which took over the niche that Dressy Bessy used to fill in my life). The Thermals always seem to find a drummer to tour with but the last two albums have been entirely recorded by Harris and Foster. What we learn on Now We Can See is that Kathy Foster is a badass drummer and that her backing vocals help to offset Harris’s more strident moments.
I have seen people on the interweb accuse critics of not liking an album before they’ve given it a fair shot and while I don’t dispute that this happens (come on kids, I was never gonna like Chinese Democracy. But I’ll admit it surprised me…. ’cause it sucked even more than I thought it would) but I find it funny that it’s treated like some sort of crime. You see, critics – especially internet critics – don’t owe anybody a goddamn thing. We’re spitting our dumbass opinions into a void here and, as I’ve said before, the fact that anyone ever reads it is astounding to me. But thanks. And, it goes both ways: Axl Rose doesn’t owe me a goddamn thing, which is why I’m not personally offended that his music sucks and why he shouldn’t be personally offended that I think it sucks. On the flip side, I will cop to being predisposed to liking certain things. If Tom Waits or The Hold Steady or the Thermals release an album, they’ve already built up a lot of goodwill from me and I’m probably gonna like what they do. The interesting thing is that this hardly ever provokes the strong reaction that not liking something does. The bulk of negative comments (probably all of them) I’ve received in the last year and a half (ish) of doing Bollocks! have come in defense of some album that I thought was bad (or, usually, terrible). People seem to want to come rushing to the defense of their favorite bands, but they don’t come rushing to assault me for liking their least favorite bands. I acknowledge people’s right to hate me for not liking the shit they like but I don’t apologize for not liking things. If I did, I’d be willingly putting myself in the position of feeling like I have to like everything. Or make everyone happy. And let’s face it: that ain’t gonna happen. I’m just saying it would crack me up to see a comment some day that’s like, “The Thermals are the shittiest band on earth, how can you possibly like them? You are teh s uck!” or something like that. As it is, people seem generally okay with me liking things.
So maybe y’all will forgive me for just liking the Thermals so goddamn much. Now We Can See, like it’s predecessor, is a catchy, raucous, melodic, and refreshingly brief album that takes simple tools (bass, drum, guitar) and makes joyous noise out of them. And I was gonna like it before I ever heard it, I’ll admit. So what? Some bands start with all the points and a good review is theirs to lose; other bands start with no points and a good review is a steep-ass, Sysyphusian ordeal. Is that fair? Of course not. But this idea that subjective criticism has to be fair is misguided at best. I would submit to you that any given Bollocks! review is more fair than an Iranian election. That’s as good as it gets. But, almost nothing in life is fair, except baseball – and baseball is fucking boring. (At least until Alex Rodriguez knocks up Willow Palin)