What you have to remember is that, in March of 2003, the current indie rock scene was still tender and young. We did not yet know Franz Ferdinand or the Killers. The Strokes, Interpol, and their NYC scenester contemporaries were still building off their debuts. The Thermals, then, were a tremendous shot in the arm, keeping us going from one great release to the next, but always one release at a time. It could all fizzle out before it even got going. Alternative radio might not embrace these new sounds. It was a precarious beginning, and the music of this buzzing and desperately emphatic trio from Portland, Oregon, underscored why we grasp at the smoke tails of ephemera: Urgency is exciting! On the Thermals’ first CD, More Parts Per Million, every note they played and sang was super-charged with slam-dancing electrons of pure excitement. The band saturated the magnetic tape that captured their brisk and crackling debut. You could hear the heat of every overdriven note, feel on your face the red zone where the dB meters were lodged as these punk-pop kids banged out their 13 songs in less than 28 minutes. The album was fun, anxious, catchy, and scorching.
The Thermals’ second LP, 2004’s Fuckin A, fits the classic mold of the sophomore slump. Released one year after the group’s debut, it didn’t present a significant growth in approach or sound. The energy was there, but the songwriting wasn’t as crisp, or the tunes as catchy. Like a whole lot of second records, Fuckin A was merely just fine.
The band’s big hook has always been the voice of frontman and guitarist Hutch Harris. His quavering, nasal, and insistent vocals sound like Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, but with a delivery fueled by coke instead of pot (metaphorically, that is; they probably both smoke pot). And, rather than a mostly acoustic junkyard orchestra, Harris is backed only by his own distorted guitar, the steady clip of Kathy Foster’s bass, and the crashing drums of now ex-member Jordan Hudson (Lorin Coleman currently occupies the throne).
Harris’s lyrics, while evocative, are direct, especially when he sing-shouts lines like “Hardly art, hardly starving / Hardly art, hardly garbage”. Taken from “No Culture Icons”, off More Parts Per Million, they say volumes about the mediocrity of so much self-expression. But what really counts is the finale: “I can’t fucking stop thinking about you”. Sometimes the use of an expletive is simply crucial, turning pedestrian sentimentality into a visceral, vulnerable, naked truth.
Harris uses this talent for exposing the real and the raw brilliantly throughout The Body, the Blood, the Machine, the Thermals’ concept album on religion. Oh, sure, you could argue that a concept album is generally organized around a narrative arc that is woven throughout the songs, which is not the case here. But the entire disc is about Christianity. What could be more conceptual than that? On “Here’s Your Future”, Harris transforms Christ from a piously melancholic martyr into a frightened young man. “God told his son, ‘It’s time to come home’” and the “son said, ‘I will, but dad, I’m afraid’”. On the next track, ol’ pops declares, “I Might Need You to Kill”. Dude, you’re dad’s kinda scary.
Although the Thermals’ old sonic fingerprints are all over their new record, they have finessed their exuberance on The Body, the Blood, the Machine. Without sacrificing aural excitement, they have polished their approach with a refined understanding of dynamics and a broadening of style. “Test Pattern”, for example, is a laid-back surf song. Well, it sounds like a surf song. Only, instead of waves, boards, and bikinis, the lyrical themes are of loyalty and faith. It might be about Judas. Hey, did the apostles surf? Thankfully, the Thermals see no need to tether their lyrical concept to musical experimentations in Mesopotamian soundtracking. In other words, this record isn’t Peter Gabriel’s Passion. It’s just good, sharp, boisterous, serious, fun indie-rock. The disc starts off so strongly, you won’t even notice that they save the ultra-catchy first single, “A Pillar of Salt”, for track four.
The album isn’t perfect, though. The quality of the material on The Body becomes uneven after song six. But you’ll be so thoroughly won over at this point, it won’t matter much that the hooks don’t dig as deeply on the four final cuts. Both “St. Rosa and the Swallows” and “Power Doesn’t Run on Nothing” aren’t bad; they simply don’t excel. “Back to the Sea”, meanwhile, is actually monotonous. I suppose the plodding music fits the repeated theme of the chorus, “I’m gonna crawl”, but we still have to listen to a sludgy drone bereft of ornamentation. (Sonic Youth-style tip of the day: shards of noise and buzzing feedback can be used to dress up that drab little ditty!) A solid album ender, “I Hold the Sound” leaves us in a good mood, as a new day dawns… after the apocalypse! Yipes! The record comes to a close with the buzzes and shards that were missing a couple of songs before.
So, is that the sound that Hutch Harris holds? Yes, but he wields others, as well. Throughout The Body, the Blood, the Machine, he and Foster exhibit a maturity in songwriting and performance that almost immediately begins to feel like a natural extension of their past efforts, but is really pretty surprising considering how stalled their creativity felt on Fuckin A. A couple of years ago, the Thermals were just some enthusiastic indie-punk-pop kids, lagging a little on the growth charts. The next time they come to visit, they’re all growed up and ready to take on the world. I’m so proud, it’s getting me all misty-eyed. Or maybe they’re tears of joy. This album is really good.