by IAN ANDERSON
I have had the good fortune of following The Thermals since the band’s infancy and have enjoyed watching them grow from an underappreciated, noisy post-punk rock band to an almost-as-appreciated-as-they-should-be, noisy post-punk rock band. They’re a loud, abrasively energetic band with enough cool to lasso the everyday listener without alienating the indie elitists. They work hard: spending nearly all of the past three years on the road touring obsessively, and that hard work is finally paying off. Not to mention that they have made one of the best records of the year.
Thermals are infectious, a fact evidenced by their history. Their first album,
More Parts Per Million, was a gem that was fortunately noticed by the right
people. It was a loud, chaotic and fun debut that guitarist Hutch Harris and
bass player (and now drummer, too) Kathy Foster recorded on a four-track in
2003. Sub Pop Records quickly
pounced on the Portland-based band per suggestion and helpful nudge by Ben Gibbard
Cab For Cutie fame just four months after they formed, and released More
Parts Per Million.
Fuckin’ A, The Thermals’ second full-length release was recorded
and produced by Chris Walla (guitarist for Death Cab) and finally brought the
band’s image to fruition. Although of a much higher audio fidelity than
their first album, The Thermals still hadn’t betrayed their sense of reckless
abandon and boundless energy—and this stays true for their latest release
The Body, The Blood, The Machine.
There have been changes, however. Perhaps most significant was the decision
to have Foster play both bass and drums, which made the process a bit more exclusive.
“It was natural,” Harris said. “We’ve been playing together
for 10 or 11 years; it’s nothing new. It’s just going back to something
we’re familiar with. We wanted to see if we could do it with just the
two of us: if we could do it, we could pull it off in the future. It was also
a lot of fun to record with less people—it makes it an easier job. It
was this tiny little secret club and that made it a lot of fun.”
But fun doesn’t mean less effort. Every move was predetermined and calculated
many times over. “We had to move fast and bust our ass,” Harris
said. “We didn’t have a lot of time in the studio, but we spent
a lot of time writing. We made a lot of demos and we were really ready when
we got in the studio.” All this prep time led to a record with a far more
clear and deliberate direction than previous Thermals releases.
and recorded by former Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, The Body is a throwback
to the classic D.C. sound, but doesn’t lose perspective on the band’s
previous works. The production is less scattered and more focused, the drums
are louder, the guitars are still loud, and the vocals rest on top of the mix
rather than being buried deep within it. The recording is crisp and, despite
its polished quality, doesn’t ignore the dirty nature of the band. The
Body is also a big step forward in terms of songwriting and musicianship.
The songs are catchier, wittier and possess that extra something that separates
the middleweight bands from the heavy-hitters.
The perfect one-two punch of “A Pillar of Salt” and “Returning
to the Fold” would make an excellent seven-inch, and are the best songs
on the album. “A Pillar of Salt” is the sure-fire hit on the record—expect
to see it on a Lexus or Apple commercial sometime—complete with hydraulic
drums and the catchiest riff on the record: This song could be the back-to-school
hit of the year.
“There is a story in the record,” Harris said. “It isn’t
really a concept, but there is a story being told. [“A Pillar of Salt”]
originally was called ‘Escaping.’ And [“Returning to the Fold”]
is the returning. It’s the exodus of the record, escaping from the fascist
“Returning to the Fold” is a slow-burner that has a surprisingly
undeniable groove for a band dubbed as just a post-punk outfit. The song is
about the hesitant return to the Church and faith. With lines like “I
forgot I needed God like a big brother,” the song possesses an odd air
of Orwellian paranoia. But lines like “But I still have faith, wait for
me” indicate a conflict within Harris between embracing his instinct to
return to his faith and another instinct to completely disregard it.
“[‘Returning to the Fold’] is a little more complicated,”
Harris said. “It’s about hating the Church and running away from
the Church, but still loving God and Jesus. It’s losing the faith in the
Church but still keeping the faith you have.”
deeper lyrical content of the record also sets it apart from the rest of the
Thermals’ catalog, plus the lyrics are slightly Mountain Goat-ish with
a dash of Pavement, which always makes for a good story. “I tried to work
a lot harder on the lyrics,” Harris said. “I spent a lot more time
on them and worked on them until I really liked them. I wanted them to be a
step above the other record.”
Harris’ topics may have shifted from politics to God, but Harris doesn’t
think the contrast is so stark. “For me, [talking about God] is still
talking about politics a lot. A lot of the decisions [President] Bush makes
are based on faith. I’m not really sure if I believe he is a Christian,
but religious groups influence a lot of his decision making.”
Ridden with frustration and impatience, The Body is urgent and pressing
and demands attention. Harris lashes out at anyone who will listen because,
well, Harris is saying something worth listening to. “It’s frustrating
to live in the world and have to deal with other people ruining it,” Harris
said. “It’s just a small powerful handful that want to fuck it up
for the rest of us. I’m not really religious; I grew up a Christian. I’m
not now but may be again. It’s not that I’ve lost faith in God,
I’ve lost faith in the Church. I’ve lost faith in the Church because
it is run by people and people screw things up,” Harris said. “We’re
[The Thermals] ambitious people and we’re not out to conquer the world,
yet. We really just enjoy being a band and playing shows and making records
and writing whatever we want. In the end, people can either take it or leave.
In the end, we really don’t give a shit.” ||
The Thermals perform on Sat., Sept. 23 at First Avenue with Cursive and
Ladyfinger. 8 p.m. $14. 18+. 701 First
Ave. N, Mpls. 612-338-8388. For more info on The Thermals, check out their official
website at thethermals.com.