The Thermals’ 2006 album The Body, the Blood, the Machine was a punk-rock concept album about an America tyrannized by a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. Sound familiar? One online commenter described The Body as sounding like what Green Day wanted American Idiot to be. Maybe so, but more apt comparisons for the Thermals would be Superchunk and Ted Leo.
So, how do you follow up a concept album that does such a good job of describing the Bush years when you’re in the Obama years? If you’re Green Day, you keep following the progressive-rock path and go for something even more grandiose. If you’re the Thermals, you simplify.
The Portland band has been kicking along since 2002, burning through drummers and second guitarists until it became essentially a duo of Hutch Harris and Kathy Foster. (Westin Glass plays drums on tour.) Sometimes that’s a problem: a lot of Thermals songs sound as if they could use a lead guitarist or someone to provide musical complexity on top of all Harris’s furious guitar strumming.
On this year’s Now We Can See, Harris and Foster leave a lot more room in their sound. The title track centers on simple wordless sing-along and handclaps, yet it’s more exciting than many of the band’s guitar-bashing numbers. Elsewhere on the album, the Thermals may have stripped things down too much — look at the lyrics and you see that several songs are just slight variations of each other. You can hear the same problem in listening to the chord progressions and drumbeats. Maybe this is a transitional album at a transitional time in American history — which would mean that, once again, the Thermals have summed up an era.
THERMALS: The Casbah, Sunday, September 6, 7 p.m. 619-232-4355. $12.