Review: The Thermals at the Middle East downstairs

The Thermals, live at the Middle East Downstairs, May 7, 2009
By MATT PARISH  |  May 11, 2009

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You know summer's almost here when the pipes that snake along the low ceiling of the Middle East downstairs start beading up with sweat in the middle of a show. The Thermals' Hutch Harris had ripped his sport coat off three songs into the set, and his white shirt looked as if he'd arrived on stage via Wet Banana. Every song had a clapping breakdown. A guy in a polo shirt crowd-surfed.

Seeing the Thermals play is such a goofy blast because, yes, the songs are fast and catchy and fun, but also because they're all so depressing that there's not much alternative. There's no one in rock right now with a more consistent songbook, scrappy as it is. Everything sounds sort of the same — a perpetually dejected garage pop — but there's just enough difference that the Thermals can pace the show.

It would have been nice to hear them go all-out with the hyper-slow (for the Thermals, that is) "Bottom of the Sea" from the new Now We Can See. Its five-minute dirge would have seemed downright epic here, but oh well. When they played the barely more up-tempo "We Dissolve," eyes throughout the crowd began to glaze over anyway (ditto on the cover of Nirvana's "Sappy"), so maybe they were right to stick to the brimstone and the rave-ups.

The twisted Bible stuff from The Body the Blood the Machine is still chilling — "Here's Your Future" is the most maniacal retelling of Old Testament lore since Black Francis and the Pixies. Harris has developed a bitter, shrieking laugh to cap off the Godly punch line to this one ("It's gonna rain!"). It's a stab somewhere between exasperation and glee, and that's about where every note this band have ever written is aimed. The excited Harris looked a lot like Wil Wheaton in Stand by Me — the intense parts, like when he's running for his life on the train tracks, which is pretty perfect. Plus he has the coolest bass counterpart imaginable in Kathy Foster, who pogo'd for about an hour straight.

The rest of the new stuff blended in just enough to fit, but not so much that it dulled their new-found pop moves. Both "I Let It Go" and "We Were Sick" had spots bulldozed out of the way for audience hype — cutting out to a jangly guitar or leaning on the kick drum for a whole verse. On record, they sound like almost chintzy studio gimmicks, but at the show it was as if someone had turned the disco ball on.

By the end of the night, the ceiling was dripping. The Thermals had slammed through "Pillar of Salt," "No Culture Icons," and "Goddamn the Light" and tossed off a quick encore of the Breeders' "Saint," bringing the room's vague generation gap into a low relief that they erased a few minutes later with first-song/first-album jam "It's Trivia." Then they spent five minutes high-fiving the front five rows with all the lights on.

  Topics: Live Reviews , Portland, Frank Black, alternative,  More more >
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