Album Reviews

Album Review: The Thermals – Fuckin A [Reissue]

on March 08, 2013, 12:01am
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The Thermals have always been an island. Born at the dawn of the webcomic renaissance, they floated between the universes of Questionable Content and Nothing Nice to Say, never quite finding a home in either. They cobbled together expats from emo and twee-folk to perform scratchy three-chord punk that soon blossomed into addictive, accessible political discourse. Just one year after their 2003 debut, Fuckin A pushed the Portland trio forward into a place where they could attack the political ennui of mid-aughts America in candy-coated two-minute bites.

It came at the right time. Like frontman Hutch Harris, I discovered punk through Operation Ivy’s Energy right after middle school. That 19-song fireball showed me how music could be brash, irreverent, self-loathing, and hilarious all within one minute-and-a-half track. Punk and the archipelago of genres around it soon became a haven for the angry weirdo I was at 14. I hated school and the president and everyone, but at least I could drown it all out with Black Flag, the Misfits, and Against Me!.

Punk might have become a shadow of what it was in the years before I was born. It might have been sidelined and commercialized, it might have morphed into emo and then emo-emo, it might have been puréed into Good Charlotte and Simple Plan. My very first punk show might have been the Dropkick Murphys—at the Fleet Center after a Bruins game. But it was a way for me and my ragtag bunch of “alternative” friends to feel like our rage had a home. We’d attend useless, anachronistic anti-war rallies on the Boston Common, then go home and blast Ghost Mice on hand-me-down headphones.

Like Laura Jane Grace on Reinventing Axl Rose, Harris used explosive punk as a springboard for furious but eloquent lyrics. The Thermals’ chords might jangle and swing like the catchiest pop-punk, but Harris funneled in his vocal delivery straight from the anti-folk camp. John Darnielle fronting the Descendents sounds terrible on paper; the Thermals spun it into gold. Few other frontmen could balance the canned teenage brattiness of lines like “We’re not listening” with more nuanced ideas: ”We’re self-cleansing”.

If classic hardcore acts found strength in singing to their enemies, The Thermals found the same power in singing to their friends. Fuckin A can’t hide its anger, but it nurses the wounds of Dubya’s first term with the rest of us. Tracks like “A Stare Like Yours” play as love songs to the righteously outraged, while ”God And Country” planted the first seeds of the all-out manifesto against weaponized religion on 2006′s The Body, The Blood, The Machine. If there’s one thing that can be said for Bush’s presidency, it’s that we at least got to bond over it.

The Thermals were just one of many artists who felt a desperate desire to save their country from a seemingly unmitigated path toward self-destruction. But unlike the icy ruminations of Hail to the Thief or the absurd escapism of Sung Tongs, Fuckin A ran hot and bloody with the anger of the mid-aughts and the fierce hope nestled inside it. While the government kept building alternate universes to justify its violence, The Thermals countered with raw reassurance that we were, in fact, sane. ”I don’t think we’re paranoid”, Harris sings on “Keep Time”. ”Keep breathing / Keep feeling”, he continues—words that might have been easy cliché coming from anyone else’s mouth, but from him, in 2004, were lifesaving.

Fuckin A could have been one of the last records to express anger at the television—that “static box” that inflicted so much hurt through Fox News and States of the Union alike. For those of us who were just learning how to position ourselves in an increasingly broken world, every presidential smirk broadcasted was another bullet our growing bodies had to dodge. We were already dealing with the fact that we were 15; how were we supposed to contend with the idea that our country was being steered either by a madman or a puppet of calculated evil? We weren’t even sure which was worse.

Despite the exasperated title, Fuckin A wasn’t a throwaway tantrum. It honed in precisely on the existential despair of anyone who came of age in the thick of illegal warmongering and state-sponsored surveillance. An elegant bridge between the scrappy tooth-gnashing of More Parts Per Million and the theological quandaries of The Body, The Blood, The Machine, the record grapples simultaneously with a need for dogma’s comforts and a dismissal of its effects. Harris’ command of simple, bold melody rockets his lyrics to the volume at which they deserve to ring. “I can hope, see / Even if I don’t believe,” he sings on “God And Country”, an album highlight that remains a gem of the Thermals’ entire catalog. He goes on: “But I believe, I think / I don’t know.” We didn’t either, but like Harris, we were trying. It was all we could do.

Essential Tracks: “God And Country”, “Forward”, and “Our Trip”

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