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Whacking the Religious Wrong 

Tired of indie passivity? Well, the Thermals turn up the heat with a futuristic concept album.

Screw the Shins -- the Thermals are skinny kids with real attitude.
  • Screw the Shins -- the Thermals are skinny kids with real attitude.
Punk rock was born for rebellion -- faithful progeny of its hip-swerving rock and roll father. And you can count the Thermals among the revolutionary offspring. Like the movie Children of Men, their new album revolves around an epic escape from an authoritarian religious regime.

"They'll give us what we're asking for/Cuz God is with us and our God's the richest," intones singer and guitarist Hutch Harris. "Our power doesn't run on nothing/It runs on blood, and blood is easy to obtain/When you have no shame."

Titled The Body, the Blood, the Machine, the Thermals' third album, released last August, opens with scraggly blasts of chunky melody, like a postmillennial American answer to the Buzzcocks. With hi-hats ringing and distorted guitar jangle raining down, Harris invokes a vengeful God and ethnic cleansing, promising "Here's Your Future." Next in line is the chillingly sardonic, Old Testament-checking "I Might Need You to Kill."

Obviously the Thermals aren't out to make a lot of new friends, despite the recent successes of their local peers.

"We could've taken steps to be more commercial -- like not naming our [second] album Fuckin' A and not having Jesus on the cover [of their latest]," says bassist Kathy Foster from their Portland, Oregon home. "We're doing things the way we want to, and that might not get us as far as the Shins or the Decemberists."

If the Thermals don't bridge the indie/mainstream divide, it won't be for lack of energy. With a noisy, offhand feel, their blitzing pulse is wrapped around brief, careening ditties whose hooks-to-minute ratio recalls Guided by Voices. Although Harris relied on clipped, idiomatic expression that matched the music's jagged thrust in such early songs as "No Culture Icons" and "It's Trivia," this time he wanted to write something more personal. And the result is an album-long story that focuses as much on the emotions and ambivalence of a fleeing expatriate ("Returning to the Fold") as on skewering the religious right ("Power Doesn't Run on Nothing"). Foster compares the new album to Orwell's 1984 and suggests it too could be set in the not-that-distant future.

"It's kind of looking at what's already happening and imagining how bad it could get," says Foster. "Neither of us considers ourselves very political. I just think how things are in our government right now. It's hard not to be aware -- have an opinion about it and not want to be active, because things are getting so bad."

Since More Parts per Million -- the Thermals' stunning, lo-fi debut from 2003 -- the band has struggled with how to proceed. The lackluster Fuckin' A suffers from a sophomore slump that belies their attempt to replicate the sound of the first album, which was naturally noisy because it was largely recorded on a four-track.

"It could have sounded a lot more studio, but we wanted it to still be kind of trashy," says Foster. "[Producer and Death Cab for Cutie guitarist] Chris Walla worked with us on that. He made it sound kind of scratchy. So it was bigger, but still lo-fi."

The new album, in contrast, doesn't sound as worried about how it will be perceived, a by-product of its ambitions. It even embraces new directions on songs such as the ballad "Test Patterns," whose pretty, swooning guitar echoes the easy pop gait of the Shins. The insistent hooks and Harris' impassioned vocals benefit from a crisp, live-in-the-studio sound. It's still loud and a little distorted, but it doesn't feel self-conscious, like Fuckin' A did at times.

The Thermals' success is the culmination of an 11-year musical partnership between Foster and Harris. The pair met as teenagers, playing punk basement shows and VFW halls in San Jose, California. Their rock trio, Haelah, hopped a cross-country tour with Tree Records labelmates Cerberus Shoal in the summer of '97 and ended up in Portland, Maine, with no intention of returning to California.

"The third guy eventually moved to Chicago, so Hutch and I were just playing music -- the two of us. We played shows, and we'd play with Cerberus Shoal. We had a good time, but after a while, we felt we weren't getting anywhere musically in Maine," she says, laughing.

They eventually moved back to the West Coast, choosing Portland -- despite having been there only once before . . . for a day. The choice was based largely on listening to bands on labels like Kill Rock Stars. The decision was fortuitous, because it was through one of their new friends, Kind of Like Spitting's Ben Barnett, that some demos were passed to Postal Service's Ben Gibbard and then to Sub Pop, resulting in the Thermals' album deal. At the time, the idea for the band was limited to some tracks Harris had quickly written and recorded as a break from the pair's folk-pop duo, Hutch & Kathy. In fact, the two were on tour supporting the Thermals' debut when the e-mail arrived.

"When we got home it was like, 'Let's make a band for the Thermals,'" Foster says. "We had played, like, three to four shows and signed to Sub Pop in the fall of 2002."

No sooner had they signed than they were off on tour with Hot Hot Heat and the Walkmen. Next was their first European tour, followed by a slot on the Sasquatch Music Festival. Compared to the whirlwind beginning, everything else has felt pretty gradual, according to Foster.

"We did a lot right at the beginning," she says. "But now it feels good. It keeps growing, and it's not leveling off."

Let's hope the same can be said of the Thermals' recorded output. The Body, the Blood, the Machine is a dramatic step forward, and the complacent, love-addled indie scene could sure use some bands capable of bringing white-hot rhetoric.

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