Portland, Oregon’s The Thermals seem bent on reigning in the chaos and noise. 2003’s More Parts Per Million ached and rumbled in its snotty lo-fi power pop-ness. Three years later, the thoughtful, religiously themed yet noisy The Body, The Blood, The Machine contained the same brash attitude, but found them using higher quality studio techniques. Then, last year’s Now We Can See ditched a dash of the noise, giving vocalist/guitarist Hutch Harris room for a more personal, introspective tone.
That said, introspection doesn’t always sit well for The Thermals. So much of the best of the band came from that streak of punk attitude that beamed fun. There was joy in drummer Westin Glass running around the stage while Harris and bassist Kathy Foster last I saw them live. There was a sense of snarky community in Harris’ religious challenges in songs like “A Pillar of Salt”. So, when some of the relationship lyrics clunk, they’re in a cliche land where sap goes to die. There aren’t too many punky records about religion in the 2000’s, so a bum lyric on The Body, The Blood, The Machine is something forgivable. Luckily, the sap issues are kept to a minimum and the music still follows the same formula that makes for engaging, fun songs.
One thing’s for certain, though: Harris knows how to write a hook. Album opener “I’m Gonna Change Your Life” hums and crackles with passion, yet still manages to linger a little too slowly. The lyrics are oh-so-heart-on-the-sleeve, yet they sound sincere and grand in Harris’ slightly nasal, super-confident, super-believable voice. His claims of leaving a mark, of wanting to know your feelings are the hopes incumbent of a new relationship, feelings that hit home. Next up, “I Don’t Believe You” follows that old Thermals single pattern to a t: wordless vocal hook, sing-a-long chorus, chugging, distorted guitars. It’s insanely catchy, in the same way that “Now We Can See” was last year.
Foster’s bass takes up the charge on “Never Listen To Me”, Harris’ guitar taking a rare, yet inspired turn at subtle, non-chordal additions. His vocals are mixed further back too, which is a great change considering the song’s relationship issues theme. The ego-checking of “Not Like Any Other Feeling” follows a similar tack, but is more recognizable in its Thermals-ness. It’s a dose of bobbing, straight-ahead goodness, the lyrics sweetly simple and meaningful. The lyrics in “Only For You” are pretty innocuous, but the song is entirely listenable. There aren’t any unexpected twists or turns, but things wind up in a rich enough locale. Again, it’s a bass-driven beast, letting Harris’ guitar breath and accent, his up-picked chords a sweet addition.
The brief two minutes of “Alone, A Fool” are sparse, sad, Harris’ hopes dashed and lonely. The percussion comes from what may be a fist on a metal door, pounding a single beat every couple of measures, the guitar acoustic, the bass insistent. It’s a gem that goes by too quickly. More “whoa oh ay oh”s come out to play in “Your Love Is So Strong”, which sounds like it was built between The Body… and Now We Can See. The talk of love crumbling to dust and the big, rollicking, wordless chorus flood together into the heart of Thermals-land.
The short, punchy “A Reflection” ends in a feedback-heavy mire, a guitar line popping out as things fall into a mess. In the end, album closer “You Changed My Life” is one of the best tracks on the album. More of Foster’s bass leads the tune, Harris’ guitar flourishes by this time having come into their own. The semi-chorus of guitar and super-quick cymbal hits are a hook that will not let go. The somehow positive heartbreak is a step away from too sappy, yet always staying that step away.
This isn’t an altogether fun album, but it’s still the Thermals. Which seems like a contradiction, but it’s entirely true. Which, in and of itself, is a compliment. Harris, Foster, and Westin have really revealed another side to their song-writing, their music, one that sounds just as good as the first. This isn’t primal punk, it’s not a rant against Bush-era religion. However, it’s impossible to be glad there aren’t as many punky, fun anthems. For better and for worse, it’s subtler, it’s achier.