One overriding thought flashed through my head when I first heard the Thermals’ More Parts Per Million: justgimmeindierock© Lou Barlow). Having been weaned on the college radio of the early to mid-1990s, I find the Thermals lo-fi, hyperactively musicalized and awkwardly vocalized sound makes me wax almost as warmly nostalgic as someone of my parents’ generation might upon hearing Pat Boone or Dion. It’s got that tinny bedroom four-track recording sound of early Sebadoh, the strangled-cat vocals of the Mountain Goats, the manic energy of Guided By Voices, and the imperative command-style lyrics of a thousand and one hardcore bands. It’s the sound of just about every male indie rock D.J.‘s show at my college station, a sound that, quite frankly, with its associations with male indie rocker arrogance and condescension, used to piss me off to no end, but with the passing years now feels as comfortable as a flannel blanket (or, to employ a more appropriate simile, a worn-out Polvo t-shirt with an ironic slogan).
The Thermals are a year-old band from Portland, Oregon that could be termed a supergroup, though only in the indiest of circles. They feature frontman Hutch Harris of Hutch & Kathy, bassist Kathy Foster of the All Girl Summer Fun Band (as well as Hutch & Kathy), guitarist Ben Barnett of Kind of Like Spitting, and drummer Jordan Hudson of Operacycle. Most of the individual members’ own bands tend toward a higher level of sophistication, but together, the Thermals produce something quite raw. In fact, Harris’ adolescent-sounding voice, the undifferentiated dynamics, and the sameness of the instrumentation in the songs bring to mind not only elements of old school indie rock, but also the legions of aspiring high school punk rockers cutting their musical teeth in their parents’ suburban garages. Thankfully, the Thermals’ execution displays a much higher level of competence and yields much more listenable results.
More Parts Per Million proceeds at a breakneck pace. With 13 songs and a running time clocking in under a half-hour, the Thermals definitely don’t mess around. “It’s Trivia”, the opener, sets an intense but somewhat loose mood for the album, as Harris proclaims, “It’s only trivia, so don’t freak out”. “No Culture Icons” was previously released as a single, and provides a manifesto of sorts: “No new deafness / No self-reference / No getting psyched on / No culture icons”. Other standout songs include “I Know the Pattern” and “My Little Machine”, both of which have really fun shouted lyrics and garage-style guitar riffs, and “Back to Gray”, which sounds so much like Guided By Voices that it could be a cover. What makes the Thermals so entertaining is that they are absolutely unequivocal in their declarations, all exclamations and swear words, and that these declarations are accompanied by ultra-simple, catchy-as-heck bass and guitar chord progressions and crashes of drums and cymbals.
One problem with More Parts Per Million, however, is that, because most of the songs follow the same formula, it gets a little tiring after awhile, short as it is. It can also be difficult to distinguish one song from another. But then, while the Thermals come off well on record, I imagine their real element is live performance. I picture them jumping up and down Mac Superchunk-style, grinning wildly, shaking their hair, and just plain wearing everyone in the room out. And with that amusing image in my mind’s eye, I’m more than happy to give the Thermals a pass on being less-than-diverse in their recorded output.
Does More Parts Per Million break any new ground? Oh dear Lord no. But is it fun as hell? A thousand times yes.