I'm not a big Thermals guy. I've never minded their music, and even thought that they'd be a cool live act to go see, but I've never picked up a Thermals album because I was feeling like one of their songs. The thing is, they've always been a critical darling, and so I've left the door open- waiting to be convinced. I honestly thought that Now We Can See would do it too... I was hoping that this would be the album that showed me that all those critics were right, that this basement band out of Portland really was that good. Unfortunately, this album continues the just-there trend that's kept me on the fringes.
Now, I know that there are gonna be Thermals fans coming here that think I'm an idiot. I'm okay with that because I know that I'm not just being a biased prick. The Thermals are a band that I should like. I'm a big SubPop and Kill Rock Stars guy, and I like the northwest rock movement. I like under-funded, under-produced bands that have to truly sacrifice for their music. Still, the music sacrificed for has to stack up, and I just don't think this does.
This album doesn't seem to come out as organically as The Body, The Blood, The Machine. You can almost feel the tension build as The Thermals basement sound is forced into a more produced recording then they're accustomed. The recording comes out clean, but by making this album, the Thermals lose the endearing edge that they'd built on previous albums. There's something about that garagey sound that makes you feel like the band is fighting and struggling for the music. Well, that's gone and replaced with overproduction (by The Thermals standard) that leaves you wishing it was more like their last album and less like this one.
"At the Bottom Of the Sea" is probably my favorite song on the album, mostly because it shows some range for the band. It slows things down a bit, and actually gives you something to admire in The Thermals song writing. Unfortunately, it doesn't last, and "When We Were Alive" kicks things back up to the same noisy level where the rest of the album resides.
Despite starting a year earlier, The Thermals have always felt like a poor man's Hold Steady to me. I know that The Hold Steady uses a bajillion more instruments, and The Thermals are a three piece, but they both use the bar band delivery, and go for the unpolished basement sound. The thing is, I'd rather listen to the Hold Steady then The Thermals any day of the week. The Thermals first single, "Now We Can See," was written for live shows and as the "oh way oh-oh whoa oh" roll out, it feels like the only place it should be performed at is in a bar. While it's certain that fans will love and mercilessly sing along with this song throughout their next tour, I just can't get into it. It's got great lyrics, a peppy beat, a decent guitar break, and a strong sing-song quality... still, I'd rather listen and sing along with The Hold Steady (like "Chips Ahoy") any day of the week.
My biggest complaint with this album is that ultimately Now We Can See is full of songs that bleed together into one ubiquitous mass. With the exception of "At the Bottom of the Sea," there's too much of the same here. Many of the songs start off with promise (like "When I Was Afraid,") but end up running the same course as songs before it. Nothing sounds original, and nothing is good enough to take an overt interest in.
There are a few tracks here worth a listen, and the overall album isn't necessarily bad, but there just isn't anything new here that I prefer over The Body, The Blood, The Machine. The Thermals are good, not great and they're gonna need to progress beyond what's presented in Now We Can See before I get too excited about anything they're doing. I'll be interested to hear what fans think about this album, but for me, Now We can See underwhelms.