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The Thermals - The Body, the Blood, the Machine

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Artist: The Thermals

Album: The Body, the Blood, the Machine

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: Sep. 4, 2006

Two years ago, Hutch Harris didn't consider the Thermals to be very punk. He described Portland's pride and joy as more of an indie pop outfit, even though their short, melodic outbursts sounded right at home next to classic cuts by the Clash and the Buzzcocks. The difference, I thought, had to be the lyrics, since there was hardly a finger's breadth of light between the Thermals two- and three-chord anthems and any number of late-'70s punk songs. They just didn't care about politics – that had to be it; they were focused, almost exclusively, on having a good time.

Now, two albums later, the lyrics to The Body, the Blood, the Machine have turned far more topical. "Here's your future / It's going to rain," sings Harris on the album's opener, deftly linking Noah's Ark to global warming and government oppression. Later, Lot's wife makes an appearance in the equally good "Pillar of Salt," as hard-fired guitar supports lines about an escape from Gomorrah. Religious imagery is nothing new to the Thermals – the best song off More Parts Per Million started out, "Hail Mary / Heaven Wailing / Let a blanket cover everything" – but it is far more linear and developed here. This is a concept album, nearly every track describing an attempt to escape a theocratic, repressive state.

But if the words have shifted more into confrontational punk territory, the songs have slipped away from it. The first thing you'll notice about this album is that it seems about half a beat too slow. Instead of bouncing through their songs, as they did on More Parts Per Million, the band is on a slow march through mud. Early stompers like "Here's Your Future" and "Pillar of Salt" are interspersed with dragged out dirges. The Thermals' strengths – a stream of shifting images fluttering over relentless energy and joy – aren't exactly suffocated, but they're gasping for air.

This deceleration – you can hear it most clearly on "I Might Need for You To Kill" and "Test Pattern" – may derive from a change in drummers. Jordan Hudson left just before recording started to join M. Ward's band (imagine the bar fight over that), and bass player Kathy Foster took over on both bass and drums. The remaining Thermals had also made a conscious decision to incorporate some slower material into their live show, so that they could extend the set without killing themselves. Still, for whatever reason, this is the slowest Thermals album yet, and that takes some getting used to.

Still, it's worth holding on 'til the end, because The Body, the Blood, the Machine is heavily backloaded. The album's second wind starts with "St. Rosa and the Swallows," a sluggish but powerful evocation of Harris' presumably Catholic youth, embellished with beneficent saints who fly with the birds. It's followed by "Back to the Sea," a triumphant barrage of power chords that celebrates an inverse Ark, with animals returning two-by-two to the sea. The war-protesting "Power Doesn't Run on Nothing" is even better, finally picking up the pace. "Let the beat roll over," sings Harris in the inexorable finish. "Our power doesn't run on nothing / It runs on blood / And blood is easy to obtain." It's not Dylan, but it is a pretty succinct description of our current world order.

The Body, the Blood, the Machine reveals a band that's a bit older, a step slower, and startlingly sardonic. The pedal isn't glued to the floor anymore, but cars tend to crawl at the scene of a crime.

By Jennifer Kelly

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