Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Body, The Blood, The Jamz

We're building a boat

The Thermals w/ The Big Sleep - Aug. 10 @ Maxwells, Hoboken, NJ

The Thermals are a strange anomaly on the indie-rock stratosphere in 2007. The Superchunk model has totally diminshed for the types of highly-arranged melodious types of the last few years. "Intelligence" has become interchangeable with "sophistication" again for the most part ever since Sleater-Kinney collapsed, the last major intelli-GUITARROCK band to leave town. Peter Bjorn & John, Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird, Spoon, The Decemberists, The Shins...those are who's synonymous with both "indie-rock" and "intelligent" now. Even Modest Mouse has thrown away the jagged guitar sagas to absorb the o.g. of "highbrow" indie, Johnny Marr, into their now highly-arranged fold, kind of like if Archers of Loaf and Crooked Fingers were never two separate bands, just an outgrowth of the other. I'm not saying these bands aren't intelligent, or that they're even not good. But there's definitely a stigma now that you can no longer get anywhere with three chords and a bladder fulla sarcasm. The two big indie bands who circumvent this paradigm have smarty-pants gimmicks of their own to make those three chords stand out, Art Brut and the Hold Steady, and the Hold Steady even has keyboards. Even the punk sector these days is dominated by an obsession with clean, studio polish. Paramore and Fall Out Boy and Avril Lavigne and Panic! at the Disco are trying to appeal to the kids due to their pose of sophistication. It used to be all about making yourselves look dumber to appeal to the masses. Now the masses want to appear smart. Records about sniffing glue could've never been underground phenomena in 2007, sorry dead Ramones. Maybe if there were 29 of you (Bradford Ramone? Sylvester Ramone?) and one was on bassoon.

So the Thermals are weird. They're a trio of smarty-punks from Portland who could give a damn about learning a fourth chord, an overdubbing technique, growing a mohawk, or really doing anything but making catchy, basic-ass music the same damn way for three ascending records now. Frontman Hutch Harris has always had intriguing things to say; his songwriting's starting to consistently match. If the White Stripes connossieurs at Rolling Stone, Xgau excluded, would kick themselves already and notice the appeal comes from Da Basics Played Loud rather than OMG THEY KNOW DA BLOOZE, last year's The Body, The Blood, The Machine might've ate up half Elephant's plaudits. And I fear that any plaudits it got came from the concession to the normal-rock thing that it was a concept album and therefore somehow more "literate" than 2003's "No Culture Icons." The only comparable dude who claims this niche is the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, who still plunks out his beginner's chords still even through four concept albums, but gets most of the respect for his admittedly depth-defying lyrics. In a way, the sophistication-obsessed public was right. Harris' hypersnotty observations always needed a target, and who better to rally your subversive rock-loving masses than the big bad Christian right? He gets extra points for going straight for the Bible instead of stopping at Karl Rove, a move that's far more "My Brain Is Hanging Upside-Down" punk than putting the word "Against" in your band name.

These three-chord wonders bested their album momentum live, as I predicted, where the engrossing slaps on frightening Biblical retards blended into loud, feedbacking incomprehensibility with the ones that weren't. Everything was sharp and fast. Hutch mostly told the crowd "Thanksabunch!" over and over, quickly, between tiny chunks of joyful noise, and his goofy faux-arena stage moves coordinating with bassist Kathy Foster made for excellently simple visual accompanient to the handful of singalongs: the no-sir-Noah "Here's Your Future," the antiapology for our dirty bodies "A Pillar of Salt," the mostly bass-locked "How We Know," and the famous "No Culture Icons," surprisingly discarded early on with little introduction. The songs risked a healthy anonymity being revved and stopped at Minor Threat pace, knocking out maybe 25 in an hour, with a suprising encore of Built to Spill's "Big Dipper," that seemed custom-made for them, and a Cribs cover I didn't know that was only slightly more sinewy than the average Thermals song. The band's chemistry and energy was so casual it was rare. That seems weird when three chords is not-the-thing-yet-the-thing again. But I only realized how weird when I tried to think of another band I've seen in six months with "just" guitar-bass-drums. Even the Noisettes at Siren seemed relatively arty.

As you'd imagine, Harris is a good sport, posing for goofy pictures with three now-deaf fans. 3/5 of my best conflict-of-interest buddies Tourmaline were also in attendance, and good times were had by all, despite even the annoying mostly-instrumental caterwaul of openers the Big Sleep. Maxwell's remains my new favorite place to see music, though. Stripped-down rock like the Thermals or spare-Americana like Eric Bachmann have sounded just amazing in the little bare-bones venue on my favorite street in the world.


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