Over the course of three albums, Portland, Oregon's the Thermals have expanded from thrashing out curse-laden, four-track noise-bursts to The Body, The Blood, The Machine, a full-scale apocalyptic concept album. (Please keep reading.) What sounds like a terrible idea on paper a trek through an evangelical-controlled America is actually one of this year's best albums. Vocalist-guitarist Hutch Harris' narrator tries to escape from a culture of fear and obedience, one created by an unforgiving, plague-unleashing Old Testament God and reinforced by blind patriotism. The story line doesn't always hold water, but the songs never let up, and the trio manages to produce a huge sound that matches the album's ambitions.
If the Thermals deploy a scrappy punk platform to address national concerns, Cursive inverts the formula. On Happy Hollow, the quartet takes the same fears and frustrations about faith and identity and narrows the focus to claustrophobic small-town America. To do so, singer Tim Kasher gives his songs a more cinematic scope and a larger, somewhat softer sound although all the horns and keyboards don't dull Hollow's message: On "Flag and Family," a young recruit asks his girlfriend-turned-zealot, "When you're down on your knees, are you praying for holy war?" Sounds like these tourmates will have a lot to talk about in the green room.