Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Thermals: Making Pop-Punk Fun Again

One of the worst periods of music started on the date June 1, 1999. That was the date that semi-unknown pop-punkers Blink 182 broke through to the mainstream and released Enema Of The State, the much anticipated follow up to the fun, catchy staple of my previous summer Dude Ranch. What happened with the release of Enema Of The State was a smaller-scale version of the release of Nirvana's Nevermind - all of a sudden, punk rock was everywhere, including, *gulp*, the mall. Pop-punk bands became the fad, which lead into emo, which lead into Hawthorne Heights. These bands were "punk," and I always felt like I was being robbed by that label. One of the worst memories I have is when someone in high school said to me, "Hey Dan, I know you always talk about punk music, and I do too now cause I've been listening to My Chemical Romance." My stomach turns just thinking of it.

Fast-forward to 2009, and that fad has mostly faded away. The closest thing we have to a mainstream pop-punk band is Paramore, and they're not singing about black parades and featuring Max Fisher look-a-likes in thier videos. Thankfully, Portland, Oregon's The Thermals can wear the crown of pop-punk kings, especially with their latest offering - the excellent Now We Can See.


The Thermals have been making music for years under many different monikers. The core of the band is couple (aww!) Hutch Harris and Kathy Foster, and the duo have expreimented with everything from folk (Hutch and Kathy), to indie pop (The All Girl Summer Fun Band), to smart pop-punk with the Thermals. They've been at it since 2002, and were first signed to Sub Pop Records when Death Cab For Cutie leader Ben Gibbard discovered them and became a fan himself. The group's 2006 album The Body, The Blood, The Machine won critical acclaim for all its hooks and pop-glory and for tackling the weighty subject of religion.

Now We Can See features no revelations musically - its the same three chord formula that the Ramones invented, and just as fun. Harris' lyrics use the pronoun "we" often, leaving the listener with a feeling of "we're all in this together" (as opposed to "I'm not okay, I promise"). The album is incessantly catchy, including the title track's whoa-ay-oh-oh-whoa-oh's and simple, no-frills guitar solo (They made a video, too!). "We Were Sick" is even catchier, with its three-chord pattern and melodies that stick like crazy glue. In fact, all songs here have their own hook and catchiness; perhaps the only clunker is the fact that the too-long "At The Bottom Of The Sea" acts as the centerpiece of the album.

The best thing about the Thermals is that I can equate them to an episode of The Adventures of Pete and Pete. The episode where little Pete is walking by a band in a garage playing a song "Marmalade Cream." The band is just a bunch of people having fun, enjoying their simple music, and Pete spends the episode trying to find the song that band was playing but can't. In a perfect world, I would walk by a garage to hear the Thermals playing, but unlike Pete, I would just be able to go to the record store to buy Now We Can See.

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