Release Date: Sep 7, 2010
Record label: Kill Rock Stars
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Love conquers all “I’m gonna change your life / I’m gonna steal your soul,” avows Thermals frontman Hutch Harris over plodding, gut-wrenching riffs on the opening track of Personal Life, the group’s fifth studio LP. Threadbare Garden State jokes be damned: The Portland trio is grappling with heady and life-altering stuff here—namely, falling in love. It’s a sea change, in terms of the band’s sound; their previous albums’ hyper-political, sturm und drang punk fury is almost entirely gone, replaced by easygoing power-pop more akin to fellow Pacific Northwesterners Built to Spill.
Over four fine albums, Portland's whipsmart pop-punks have tackled religion, politics, family and other high concepts; their fifth is all about love, and of course, that's hardly less complicated. A first glance at the titles might suggest guitarist/singer Hutch Harris was in the throes of true romance – I'm Gonna Change Your Life, Your Love Is So Strong – but in fact these might just as well continue: "... But Not in a Good Way." Harris flips expectations line by line in a way that's surprising and provocative, but his cynicism never seems gratuitous; it's a rare feat to find new things to say about love, but here he does it repeatedly.
The Thermals’ Hutch Harris has always spat out his giddy jeremiads over gold-star punk hooks and a melodic optimism. Even at the height of their doom-telling—2006’s Bush-baiting The Body, The Blood, The Machine—The Thermals have always seemed to bash away from some solid ground with the hope that things might work out. This is exactly what makes Personal Life such a disappointment.
What made early [a]The Thermals[/a] records such good fun was the way the Portland trio hurtled through their songs, racing themselves to the finish as if the studio floor was littered with hot coals. Where the intervening years have tempered that haste, this fifth album offers compensation in the form of their sharpest, most precise set to date. [b]Hutch Harris[/b]’ unmistakable, commanding voice remains the centrifugal force within this ‘[b]Personal Life[/b]’, tempting us from the get-go with promises like “[i]I’m gonna change your life/I’m gonna leave my mark[/i]” that suggest getting intimate with the buggers might be tricky to resist.[b]Tom Edwards[/b] .
After making two albums of unbridled, incredible noisy indie rock and a third album that scaled back the noise but boosted the lyrical stakes, the Thermals lost the plot on their fourth record, Now We Can See. The glossy production and clichéd rock & roll moves made it seem like the band was off the rails for good, but luckily for fans of the band’s energy and outlook, their fifth album Personal Life is a welcome comeback. Thanks to Chris Walla's simple production and a batch of catchy, emotionally powerful songs that mostly drop the preachiness of the previous album for a more personal approach, the band seems to have found their way again.
Despite the breakout success of The Body, the Blood, the Machine, 2009’s Now We Can See might be the Thermals’ crowning achievement as an album. Its timely mix of still-simmering vitriol and cautious hope, expressed with a subtle movement throughout the record, might not have blown the doors open the way its predecessor did, but it is a hell of a composition front to back. Personal Life continues in that vein, as Hutch Harris and his band have put together another compelling whole with this album.
Stop me if you think you've heard this one before: a band releases a cheap lo-fi record by means of necessity, then gets backlash because their newfound slick production sounds professional. With each progressing album, The Thermals keep disappointing because they’ve abandoned their garage ferocity in favor of spending studio time tinkering with the material. Aesthetic issues aside, these complaints come from those who expect their favorite bands to stop evolving; those who think it’s not cool to play in a spotless venue instead of playing out-of-tune chords in rundown landmarks.
Honestly (and legitimately) distressed by the direction his country has taken in the 21st-century, Hutch Harris of the Thermals can be an angry songwriter. "Pray for a new state/ Pray for assassination," he sang on "God and Country" in 2004, the year of the most soul-deadening American election of my lifetime. They're probably the two most infamous lines in the band's catalog, but they're not even the most crucial lines in "God and Country".
Evolution is a painfully slow process, only noticeable under close examination. Charles Darwin was slightly more interested in fossils than bands, but The Thermals’ gradual transformation is moving at an equivalently glacial pace. Each of the Portland trio’s five albums has presented tiny mutations of their poppy punk sound. They’re almost inaudible from one record to the next, but compare Personal Life to debut More Parts Per Million and it’s difficult to believe it’s the same band.
Full length number five, is about relationships Portland-based indie loyalists The Thermals don’t sport their ideologies on their sleeves, exactly, but may have worn them as temporary tattoos in the past. ‘The Body, The Blood, The Machine’, their 06 album, sung of a semi imaginary America under the yoke of right-wing totalitarianism; ‘Personal Life’, The Thermals full length number five, is about relationships. This is telegraphed by song titles like ‘Only For You’, ‘Your Love Is So Strong’ and other X Factor winner-ready phrases; musically speaking, it’s business as usual, Hutch Harris’ appealing whine (trust us here) spurring on choppy, chunky melodies.
Review Summary: The Thermals play The ThermalsPower-pop has been in a slump as of late. With Weezer basically turning to crap halfway through Maladroit a decade ago and Green Day deciding that they would rather ride a wave of shitty faux-political Bush era malaise in this now Obamafied landscape, there's no one left in the mainstream doing it justice, but for the last decade Washington state's The Thermals have been picking up the slack and soldiering on with their 4 chord wonders. The Thermals hit their stride with 2006's The Body, The Blood, The Machine, a rock epic based on escaping a totalitarian Christian superstate, it struck a chord at a time when conservative hard-line Christian morals were perched in a seemingly unpopular but continual seat of power, steering the American political landscape.
The two trends most prevalent in Portland’s indie music seem to be, on the one hand, large-ensemble collectives singing and playing in unison, and, on the other, solo/duo synth/electronic/dance acts who sing along with recorded beats. It is strange, then, that one of Portland’s most successful exports are a standard three-piece power-pop garage band. Truly, competent rock ’n’ roll bands are in such short supply that The Thermals sound refreshing — not just on a local scale, but on a national one.
It takes all of three songs of Personal Life to know that these are not the same Thermals who made The Body, The Blood, The Machine (possibly the best punk album of the ‘00s) and Now We Can See. There are no songs about turning into pillars of salt or about being dead; there are no allegories that strike out against organized religion; there is, comparatively, hardly any shouting. Instead, five albums in, the Thermals have decided to tone down the invective and turn back to the vaguely upset pop-punk of their 2004 album, Fuckin A.
Welcome back to The Thermals. Personal Life sounds like it has come from a band that has followed the Superchunk model of maturing from snotty punks into, well, adulthood. That isn’t to say that the band has altogether given up on its ways of old. It’s more like The Thermals have found more than one way to express itself.