Almost seven years later, I still want to be The Thermals’ Hutch Harris — and solely because of 2006’s The Body, the Blood, and the Machine. I used to think it was a straight up guitar record, urging even the clumsiest to pick up a First Act six-string and hammer away until their knuckles bled. Then, I sat down one rainy afternoon to strum through the album’s 36 minutes and realized it’s just not as thrilling, even when trying to recreate the rollercoaster of distortion that ricochets around “Here’s Your Future”, “A Pillar of Salt”, and “Power Doesn’t Run On Nothing. What’s the problem? It’s all in the vocals; it’s all about Hutch.
The Thermals have released five full-lengths, and they’ll make that six next month with Desperate Ground, and despite them all being solid records of their own merits, they’re not this one. They’ll never be. What separates The Body, the Bloody, and the Machine from, say, 2004’s Fuckin A, or 2009’s Now We Can See, is the vocals’ twisted sense of contrition. Pulling from a strict Catholic background, something both he and co-writer Kathy Foster have discussed at great lengths throughout their time together, Harris condemns any and all religious institutions with a sense of confessional urgency, as if he’s repenting for ever believing in them in the first place.
“I forgot I needed God, like a big brother,” Harris quips on “Returning to the Fold”; “Ashes and friends, ass-backwards medicines,” he bites his thumb on “I Might Need You to Kill”; “We don’t want to die / Or apologize / For our dirty god / Our dirty body,” he cries later on “A Pillar of Salt”. They’re all proverbs of a fallen saint who’s witnessed salvation by being absolved from any of god’s plans or wishes. Of course, it’s all a part of Harris’ fictional story of “a young couple who must flee a United States governed by fascist faux-Christians,” as the band’s website once declared at the time of the album’s release.
But it’s hard to believe it’s pure fiction. Either Harris and Foster used the story as a medium for their own conditioned frustrations (duh), or Harris is one hell of a musical actor (possibly, but not so much). Whatever the case, he’s never sounded this earnest, frustrated, bewildered, and poignant. Over quick two-and-a-half to three minute bursts, (the longest, “Power Doesn’t Run On Nothing”, clocking in at 5:34), Harris lives through these stories. Witness his sarcastic half-chuckle a minute and 45 seconds into “An Ear For Baby”, or the heartbroken asides amidst “St. Rosa And The Swallows”. There’s so much roughneck humanity to these tracks that all its simplicity becomes so much more complicated.
There’s still a dazzling array of well articulated hooks. The chord progressions behind “Returning to the Fold” or “Back to the Sea” are rather elementary, but they’re so goddamn fun. Then there’s the little flourishes that separate each of the album’s 10 tracks: the ’90s glazed rhythm guitar dubs of “I Might Need You to Kill”, the acoustic solo that chimes in the middle of the lazy “Test Pattern”, and the unmistakable phantom organ that opens up the album and haunts throughout. Fun fact: Foster played both bass and drums here.
One the album’s true heroes is producer and former Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty. Prior to this record, The Thermals had released two raw and vicious albums — 2003’s More Parts per Million and the aforementioned Fuckin A — that sounded as if they’d been scraped off the recordings of a beaten up four-track. They’re hallmark examples of lo-fi recording, but in hindsight, they hide what makes the Portland outfit so remarkable: their knack for aggression and melody. Canty took advantage of that, convinced them to ditch the lo-fi aesthetic, and wrung their strengths into a sound that they’ve yet to recreate.
Sometime in the mid-aughts, Harris and Foster holed up in Canty’s studio in Oregon City and came out loud, rough, and altogether succinct. There isn’t an organist amongst the trio, it’s rare they ever pick up an acoustic, and Harris is the band’s sole guitarist 100% of the time, and while some might scoff at the multiple guitar tracks and overdubs, few should. It sounds produced, sure, but it’s hard to deny the rugged humanity that’s in the vocals, the guitars, the bass, and the drums. Closing track “I Hold The Sound” exemplifies this. Foster never halts the percussion, coughing up dust on each hit, while Harris barks between verses. It’s like you’re right there with them.
To be fair, it doesn’t matter if Harris and Foster ever carve out another The Body, the Blood, and Machine. This is the sort of stocky effort that comes only once in a career (or a songwriter’s lifetime), where the piles of notebook scribbling, miles of angst, and blistering frustrations all boiled up at once and at the right time. Harris and Foster came into this determined, while Canty was there for the interception. Some call that lighting in a bottle or destiny, but that’s a little too faith-leaning for my tastes. Instead, let’s call it a necessary coincidence. For the nonbelievers, the heretics, and the aspiring vocalists, consider this your scripture.
Essential Tracks: “St. Rosa And The Swallows”, ”Returning to the Fold”, ”I Hold The Sound”, and ”A Pillar of Salt”