NPR logo Thunderbirds Are Now!: Refined Alt-Rock

Thunderbirds Are Now!: Refined Alt-Rock

When I told my young friend that I was a fan of Thunderbirds Are Now!'s spiky new Make History album, he said, "I liked their last one. No one's talking about the new one. It's their third album, so it's like they're over, y'know?" My friend was being ironic — that— how 24-year-olds are — but — regard to the online critical world he was also being accurate. Alt-rock connoisseurs scale whole new heights of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately.

Thunderbirds Are Now! is a four-piece alternative rock band from Detroit. Jon Shaft hide caption

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Jon Shaft

Thunderbirds Are Now! is a four-piece alternative rock band from Detroit.

Jon Shaft

Thunderbirds Are Now! are a trickier-than-usual band from the garage-rock hotbed of Detroit. They put out one prematurely ejaculated CD on their own before releasing Justamustache on the modestly prestigious Frenchkiss label in 2005. They have their cult. But it's a measure of how obscure they are that their jagged, frantic songs are thought to continue the grand tradition of a band called Les Savy Fav, who you probably never heard of either.

I'll take Thunderbirds Are Now!, for the simple reason that they've got the goods musically, with special kudos to Ryan Allen's boyishly urgent vocals and his brother Scott Allen's shamelessly catchy keyboards. It's just as well that I heard Make History first, because on the dandy enough Justamustache they get distracted by fancy stuff like multipartite song structures, the way kids who can bring off fancy stuff so often do. Maybe my perspective is skewed, and for sure the next-hep-thing crowd will think that by paring down they've sold out (though, really, sold to what? MTV? Maybe YouTube). Anyway, I say that for Thunderbirds Are Now! to play up melodic gifts most alt musicians don't have in the first place is a mark of aesthetic maturity. Once fancy stuff enters the mix, rock and roll requires execution, sometimes even refinement, as well as inspiration.

Formally, Make History is almost a pop record — it begins with some extended Beach Boys harmonies to make the point. But content wise it isn't — romance is not on their menu. A minute and a half after the Beach Boys go away he's railing about money, medicine, and mortality. Sometimes Allen is articulate, sometimes indistinct; sometimes he's astute, sometimes confused; sometimes he seems angry, sometimes, what can you do, ironic. But he needs to address the bad stuff he sees around him. And the intensity and instant memorability of the music he vents to makes the venting seem important whether you understand it or not. How many online critics can make that claim?