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The Thermals

(19 Jun 2003: The Blackbird — Portland, Oregon)

Every show kept you wanting more, which is the great drug of rock and roll. The sets stayed short even as their set lists grew lengthier. They just played faster. Louder. Like everyone else who followed them.
—Excerpt from A Ramone Leaves Home: Joey 1951-2001 by Lenny Kaye

There is no replacement for Joey Ramone. But the yearning is there; we want a Novocain-tinged amalgam to fill the hole. Listening to the Thermals run through a live set of 15 songs in under 30 minutes, it’s hard not to think of Joey and Dee Dee’s “Gabba gabba hey!” No Thermals song lasts longer than 180 seconds, lead singer/guitarist Hutch Harris never strains his ax for a complicated chord. It’s innocent & catchy lo-fi rock, but what the Thermals are missing, at least tonight, is the big-eared exuberance of the Ramones, our beloved CBGB proto-punks, the primal popsters who managed to cover so much ground in such little time.

hardly art
hardly starving
hardly art
hardly garbage
—“No Culture Icons” from more parts per million

If Guided By Voices turned the volume down, if the Stooges stayed off the junk, if the Talking Heads never learned any chords besides A-G-C-D, if the Ramones wore tight-fitting short-sleeved Izods instead of leather. On their debut record, more parts per million, the Thermals dispense purist crack for the pogo-ing DIY crowd. But live, at least tonight, the lackluster audience wants a new drug. The band shows hella potential, but something’s missing. Is it a second guitarist? A keyboardist? A noisier microphone for Hutch Harris? In the face of an apathetic Pacific Northwest crowd, the Thermals don’t—or can’t?—get it up. There’s a danger of blandness in their repetition—songs sound alike more often than not, and Harris’s verbal ticks are hard to miss since he’s the sole vocalist. The band seems to still be finding its footing. And the audience responds barely: we’re restless, never loose, more pent up than freed.

hardly art
hardly starving
hardly art
hardly garbage

And that’s just wrong. Because what the Thermals offer, if you’re ready for it, is a slam against the bathroom wall for a short & fast indie shag. In 27 minutes and 46 seconds, the Thermals record is over. It cost the band $60 to make, and it sounds like it, and you still want it, bad. The Thermals are gone before you can ever say hello. Wipe your face, drop the latex in the garbage can, shake off that cheap feeling. Love it and leave it behind.

more colored liquid
no scent, no skin
more stained paper
more parts per million

The Thermals’ first batch of material is borne from a DIY state of mind: strip the songs to the bone, write ‘em fast, play ‘em faster, record ‘em at home. The third track, “No Culture Icons,” cycles through the chorus-verse-verse three times, and it’s not enough. This song could repeat for eight minutes, and you’d still wanna hear it again. How can something this simple be this brilliant? Watch the econo-video (, but beware. This song won’t leave your memory banks anytime soon.

no new deafness
no self reference
no cults and
no false stands

Nevermind the usual rock star distractions. Hutch Harris, the baby-faced front man, is the guy next door, the guy roasting your coffee, the guy you want picking the music as you read the paper and get your fix. Hutch Harris’ place of employment, Stumptown Coffee Roasters, is more than a place to get caffeinated. It’s a local phenomenon, a successful coffeeshop in a town boiling over with coffeeshops. Stumptown is quintessential Portland: a small, independently owned business promoting purist brewing techniques, local growers, organic farming, health care for everyone. Stumptown isn’t just roasting beans: Stumptown is fertile soil for a sprouting subculture.

no one ideal
know what i feel
no two the same
know two with the
same name

In Portland—a town disguised as a city—six degrees of separation feels more like one degree of separation. And coffee is a primal daily need for the closely knit masses. Stumptown’s on the fast track to a hipster monopoly. So when PDX transplant (and former Pavement frontman) Stephen Malkmus picked barista Harris and his Thermals to open for the Malkmus/Jicks spring 2003 tour, it felt like the indie rock kids next door had just announced they were hitting the road with Elvis.

hardly art
hardly starving
hardly art
hardly garbage

In a town which sometimes carries a small-town chip on its shoulder, the anti-success mentality can be a spine-wrapped monkey that blocks an artist’s creative expression. Let’s hope the Thermals don’t fall prey to such demons. This is the story of a young band with one great song. The Thermals have our attention. Now let’s see if they can win our devotion. Joey Ramone is dead, and there’s still room for a two-and-a-half-minute punk rock song to change the world.

hardly art
hardly starving
hardly art
hardly garbage


Tagged as: the thermals
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