Release Date: Apr 16, 2013
Record label: Saddle Creek Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Lo-Fi
For just over a decade The Thermals have stuck to their scrappy, good-timin’ punk formula. And they’ve done it better than anyone, making economical four-chord rock that’s still potent and thrilling. The Portland trio deviated from that path in recent years, albeit only slightly. On Now We Can See they embraced squeaky-clean production and bubblegummy boy-girl choruses, and 2011’s Personal Life took on a darker new wave bent, driven by Kathy Foster’s fuzzy bass lines.
To the casual observer, The Thermals might seem like a one-trick pony. While their brand of power-pop punk uses a "keep it simple, stupid" approach, they have made a conscious effort towards subtle changes from record to record. In recent years, their poppiest effort, 2009's Now We Can See was followed by the slightly-disappointing but necessary divergence to a slower, more restrained set on 2010's Personal Life.
At the end of his review of the Thermals’ first three albums (recently re-released on vinyl), our own Scott Elingburg wondered where the group were now musically and thematically. Well Scott, I can happily report that they remain as potent, powerful and essential as ever. Newly signed to Saddle Creek, produced by John Agnello in Hoboken, and recorded just before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, Desperate Ground will be immediately recognized as amongst the best work the band have done.
With fuzzy garage bands coming out of the woodwork these days, you'd think old farts like the Thermals (they've been together for a decade, which is a lifetime in garage rocker years) would be pushed aside for new blood. But on Desperate Ground, the band's fifth full-length, the Portland, OR punks once again make a strong case for relevancy, not that they needed to. Desperate Ground sticks to the basic formula the Thermals have been perfecting their entire career, with Desperate Ground's pacing more in line with the break-neck speed of earlier releases, while producer John Angelo gives the guitars a little more fuzz than on Personal Life.
In their 11-year career, The Thermals have made music so angry at the world it would make heads of state take a long hard look at themselves if they indulged in the back catalogue. On sixth album ‘Desperate Ground’, the Portland trio are taking on familiar foes: religion, politics, the world’s lack of moral backbone. Opener ‘Born To Kill’ is bolshy lo-fi, flooded with anti-war lyrics and Hutch Harris’ shouty vocals.
Though the Thermals have explored different avenues on their albums, all roads inevitably lead back to their punk roots. Even 2010's Personal Life, with its handful of relatively subdued tracks that feel something like late-'90s indie or proto-dance rock, still had backbones of messy punk filtering the group's shy dabbling with new forms. Sixth album Desperate Ground undoes much of that dabbling, stripping the songs down to their rawest elements and offering mostly quick bursts of the type of melancholic punk energy that began the Thermals' accidental career over ten years beforehand.
Ten years after their debut, The Thermals are back with a bang with their sixth album Desperate Ground. The three-piece from Portland, Oregon made their name with a string of punky, lo fi albums which made no concessions to commercialism in either their no frills but high thrills music or angry, anti-establishment lyrics that carried you along breathlessly on a tide of adrenaline. Their previous album Personal Life (2010) marked a change to more rounded, radio-friendly songs about personal relationships, but this fireball is a return to the fast-paced, raw intensity of their early years.
On their sixth album, Desperate Ground, the Thermals ditch the comparably toned-down sounds of 2010's politically minded Personal Life, which experimented with a number of variably conflicting styles, from gnarled garage rock to cluttered emo balladry, for an approach that more closely resembles 2006's relentlessly voltaic The Body, The Blood, The Machine. Desperate Ground trims the fat that occasionally decelerated the band's previous effort, giving way to a collection of songs that, while still exuding a firm dissatisfaction with the U.S. government, significantly turns up the thematic turbulence, dealing with darker, worldlier themes such as the philosophy of war and the inevitability of death.
With their 2006 breakthrough album The Body, the Blood, the Machine, The Thermals essentially provided the American Idiot that dyed-in-the-wool indie kids could like, carrying the ragged melodicism of the Pavements/Guided by Voices of this world in its (slightly) gentler moments and having Fugazi’s sticksman Brendan Canty on production duties. Their lo-fi sonic asceticism is undoubtedly a matter of choice rather than necessity, considering that previous and subsequent Thermals albums (Fuckin A and Personal Life respectively) have been produced by Death Cab For Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, who counts the significantly poppier chimes of Tegan and Sara and the expansive folk-pop of The Decemberists amongst his production credits. Be it as it may that these indie/DIY signifiers are what earns The Thermals the 'post' prefix to their punk-pop, their real virtues are split between the universal (tunes as catchy as they are mercilessly to-the-point) and the esoteric (intriguingly specific album concepts such as 'a young couple fleeing a fascist faux-Christian USA' and 'monogamy' as a realisation of a peculiarly personal brand of political rhetoric).
Review Summary: Desperate in name only.It’s easy to like The Thermals but hard to really fall in love with them, and it all comes back to The Body, The Blood, The Machine.That album is a pretty much agreed-upon classic, and for good reason too. It’s one of my favorite albums of all time. But it’s different from everything else the band has released, and because of that, The Thermals are often relegated to the status of a one-album-wonder.
You know when a band announces a new album and the concept alone sounds like the exact album you’ve always wanted them to make? I’ll admit, when The Thermals first described their new album as a cross between their debut, More Parts Per Million, and their epic breakthrough The Body, The Blood, the Machine, I grew suspicious that the band had been monitoring my thoughts for the past year or so. Of course, I wouldn’t be the only one hoping for this: Both albums are indeed fan favorites, and the idea of Parts Per Million’s ultra-fast, ultra-infectious riffs colliding with The Body’s larger than life hooks and themes on one record sounded like a purely indulgent fantasy record for fans to blare out their car stereos. The most crucial thing I’ve learned from Desperate Ground, however, is that when you wish for a band to record albums like they did ten years earlier, be prepared to hear a lot of songs you’ve probably already heard before.
The ThermalsDesperate Ground[Saddle Creek; 2013]By Brendan Frank; May 13, 2013Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGTweetI’m probably in the minority on this one, but I think the Thermals’ third album, The Body, The Blood, The Machine, should have been every bit the success that Green Day’s American Idiot was. Sure, Green Day was just slightly higher profile and got to the punch quicker, but both albums were at the top of the heap in terms of mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore, Bush-era punk rock. The Body, The Blood, The Machine was unrivaled in its imagery and arc.
Throughout their 11-year career, The Thermals have thrived on endearing, wise, snotty, righteous anger. Their best albums directed that fury into a narrative both personally relatable and open for interpretation. At worst, the angst wound up marshalled in an over-general context, but even these tunes were enough fun to pogo right past the too familiar lyrics.
Desperate Ground, the sixth studio release from The Thermals, is a collection of short, punchy songs that balance bright pop punk against appreciably darker lyrics, while doing little to carve out the emotional drama called for by the libretto..
Though the Thermals have often been described as a "political" punk rock band over the past decade, their latest album comes from an anti-apolitical standpoint, a less strident and specific version of protest music that reads more like common decency: not so much forged by considered opinions and intense debate as it is a natural byproduct of being sufficiently intelligent, informed, and idealistic. If you posted something on Facebook that admonished gun violence, war, or an impingement on civil rights, Desperate Ground would “like” it without leaving a comment. But it ultimately rings hollow here, as the Thermals still are trying to sound like insurrectionists while leaning so heavy on boilerplate sloganeering you’d think they were the ones running for public office.
The Thermals, more precisely their vocalist Hutch Harris, have never been anything short of outspoken. Across their last five albums, the Portland trio have expressed anger over religion in America, (‘The Blood, The Body And The Machine’), American politics (‘Personal Life’) and humanity’s treatment (‘Now We Can See’).These polemics still run heavily on the band’s sixth album ‘Desperate Ground’. Produced by John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth), the record returns to the rambunctious sound of their earlier days.
Hutch Harris writes two kinds of songs – “me” songs and “we” songs – and, for a scrawny thirtysomething indie-rocker, his way with the first person is spectacular. His commanding whine of a voice somehow manages to encapsulate the frustration and joy of anyone who puts the needle on a groove of a Thermals record. Never afraid of big subjects and small-c concept albums, his band’s last three releases have tackled religion, evolution and relationships.