It took the Thermals two albums to go from Sub Pop-signed unknowns to obvious heirs to the throne once filled by the Buzzcocks and Superchunk. The secret? Hutch Harris' defiant bark and rat-a-tat riffs, backed by a tireless rhythm section, which always makes rocket-fueled pop-punk way smarter than something that catchy needs to be.
Though the Portland trio's songs were longer and meatier on their second showing—the perfectly named Fuckin' A—nobody expected their third to be a concept record. But that's essentially what The Body, The Blood, The Machine is. Think of it as a counterpart to Green Day's American Idiot, casting a religion-driven, Bush-like administration as all-out fascists in the very near future. Big anthems portray the apocalyptic outcome as the protagonists wriggle free of their government's thumb, questioning God and life as they run.
Harris' rancor seethes through descriptions of leaders who "tell me what to feel" and of his characters' desire to seek a place where they won't have to apologize for "our dirty God/Our dirty bodies." He almost cracks into nervous laughter as he half-talks the line, "Good luck getting God on the phone/Good luck getting even a tone."
As with the Hold Steady, a Catholic upbringing informs the Thermals' songs. Unlike Bad Religion, though, the Thermals aren't out to attack faith or espouse atheism. They're simply disgusted by how much evil is committed under the guise of biblical justice. At heart, the characters rely on faith: "I forgot I needed God like a big brother."
Despite the overarching plot, the 10 songs on The Body are as lively and elementally irresistible as anything on the band's first two albums. Even the addition of slower songs and the occasional organ doesn't hamper the hooky thrills throughout. As the heroes fight their way to new lives, you better believe the Thermals provide one hell of a soundtrack. Delivered live, it'll practically be a call to arms.
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The Thermals, Cursive and Eastern Youth perform at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 865-3802; www.theglasshouse.us. Sat., 7 p.m. $15.