Music

The Thermals: More Parts Per Million / Fuckin A / The Body, The Blood, The Machine

Photo: Alicia J. Rose

The Thermals are one of those rare bands we should never take for granted, never underestimate, and never deny.


The Thermals

More Parts Per Million / Fuckin A / The Body, The Blood, The Machine

Label: Sub Pop
Format: Vinyl
Release Date: 2013-03-05
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There’s a single moment on “St Rosa and the Swallows", on the Thermals’ third LP, The Body, The Blood, The Machine that shouldn’t be overlooked. Right before the final outro of the track, Hutch Harris lets out a “whoo” that sounds simultaneously cathartic and pensive. It feels like a final breath of exhaustion, but it also comes across like a second wind; a man gaining perspective on the current personal and political climate of the body and all the world-at-large. The phrase that comes after it is repeated several times throughout the song, but it resonates with an added frequency after the sublime post-war holler: “The day’s only clear for a second.”

Tune out for a second and you’ll miss this moment, but no one would actively crucify you for it. There’s more on The Body, The Blood, The Machine to hear than a possible off-the-cuff studio yelp. (When I saw the Thermals live on that tour, Hutch Harris didn’t replicate it.) Long before the Thermals thought in terms of widescreen concepts, there were two other definitive albums that traversed the mines of post-punk aesthetics: 2003’s More Parts Per Million and 2004’s Fuckin A. All three of the Thermals first LPs are available once more on vinyl from Sub Pop; all are mandatory listening and essential to own.

More Parts Per Million is as auspicious a debut as any. Most bands don’t exit the gate with 13 songs that demand an immediate repeat listen, but, somehow, More Parts accomplishes that coup effortlessly. Part lo-fi punk rock, part twisted pop songs, (I hesitate to call it pop-punk because that title holds bad connotations and the Thermals are more sneer than smile) More Partsis the child of Big Star on speed and Guided by Voices minus the nagging prog-rock tendencies. The record is recorded shittily, likely on a four-track with no overdubs, but it’s the kind of tape-deck mentality that made the Mountain Goats and Guided by Voices’ first releases so striking. The entire thematic content of More Parts is captured in four words from “No Culture Icons”: “hardly art, hardly garbage.”

More Parts sounds, now more than ever, like an anti-manifesto; a declaration of primitivism and intelligence that coexist. In a intense 28 minutes, the Thermals rip through 13 songs that make breathing optional, a task that Weezer has attempted on a few occasions (e.g., Pinkerton), although Weezer was always held back by their own irony. The Thermals, however, have no time for restraint. Hutch Harris and Kathy Foster, the two central members of the band with a rotation of drummers, want to spend it all and they want to spend it all now. “I can add it all up/one plus one,” Hutch reminds us on “Back to Gray". It’s simple math, but whether its one part or a million, everything coalesces on More Parts and the result is compounded every listen.

There are so many grand moments on More Parts it’s impossible to note them all: the opening snarl of “It’s Trivia", Harris yelling “throw them the fuck out” on “An Endless Supply", the entirety of “No Culture Icons” -- maybe the most underrated anthemic song of the naughts. Fuckin A, contains fewer of those flares, but it burns steadily from beginning to end. Fuckin A is only a minor tweak from More Parts. Most notably the sound quality has improved moderately from the red-line four-track noise to a grimy, studio polish (with producer Chris Walla from Death Cab for Cutie at the boards, no less). The Thermals lose none of their fury during the transition, though, and, in some ways, Fuckin A grinds faster and stronger than its predecessor.

Fuckin A is the same length as More Parts, with only one less song. It’s significant because it hints at the band’s editing process that became the centerpiece for their third LP. Tracks like “Remember Today” and “Let Your Earth Quake, Baby” are as close to anthemic as a three-piece can be without turning into Green Day, while “End to Begin” and “How We Know” (the latter the first Thermals’ song to cross the three-minute mark) use Foster’s simple 4/4 bass lines, Harris’ lyrical repetition, and feedback squalls to build a textured sonic palette.

But Fuckin A is the odd man out of the first three Thermals’ albums, if only because it can’t match the gravity of More Parts immediacy or the magnitude of The Body, The Blood, The Machine. It’s a transitory album that stands proudly on its own, but resides in the valley between its mountainous brothers. And, in some ways, it’s only a warm-up to what the Thermals’ were building towards: an epic album addressing morality, religion, love, and the combined politics of each.

The Body, The Blood, The Machine is undeniably immaculate. As a whole, it encompasses grand themes on global scales, yet remains rooted in the intensely personal. As songwriters, the Thermals’ come out fully formed from the clay on The Body. Harris’ observations are shocking astute and get announced from the outset. If there is a weak track on The Body, its not because it’s poorly written or not cared for, its because it has the misfortune of residing on the same album that contains “An Ear for Baby,” “Pillar of Salt,” and “Returning to the Fold.” (There might be an argument for “Back to the Sea” being the weak link due to length and repetition, but that is splitting hairs.)

The Body can’t be separated into single tracks for consumption. The concepts bridge from song to song, some more explicit than others, but each one builds within the context of the album. Separating tracks from their source doesn’t weaken them, per se, but it does split the foundation that the band meticulously built. The Body is an album made for the sake of albums: grand in concept and in sequence.

And yet, despite its lyrical content and its conceptual story, The Thermals remain distant from their political subject matter. You’re never overburdened by their defiance, even when lines like “we need the land you’re standing on… because goddamn we need the fuel” (“Power Doesn’t Run on Nothing”) and “God reached his hand down from the sky/he flooded the land then he set it afire” (“Here’s Your Future”) are unmistakably direct. Perhaps its because these moments are tempered with other, more compassionate lines like, “I carry my baby/her eyes can barely see/her mouth can barely breathe” (“Pillar of Salt”) and wry observations like “I regret leaving my mind/never thought I’d get so far with a head so empty” (“Returning to the Fold”). Perhaps the Thermals only channeled what came naturally to them at the time, born of the need to grow outward into a larger scope. Hashing out two albums of power chord vitriol can, after all, create a need to expand beyond your insular world.

I don’t know where the Thermals are now, musically and thematically. Their last two albums have dipped into the existential (Now We Can See) and the humanistic (Personal Life) with neither one reaching the prominence of their previous efforts. But where could they have gone after scaling so high? There is no way to topple the creativity of their first three LPs and there is no sense recreating the past. But now, finally, we can once again dig into the best of what this Portland band offers with these vinyl reissues. All three are vital; all three are essential. The Thermals are one of those rare bands we should never take for granted, never underestimate, and never deny.

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