Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Thermals - The Body, The Blood, The Machine

Graphic by Julie Boehmer

The Thermals - The Body, The Blood, The Machine
Grade: A

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 the whole 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.

The Thermals are infectious, a fact evidenced by their history. Their first album, More Parts Per Million, was an underappreciated 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 of Death 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 Christ Walla (another Death Cab cutie) 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.

However, there were some changes. Perhaps most prominent 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 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." This careful time of development was a clear marker in the evolution of the record as The Body has a far more clear and deliberate direction than any other Thermals release in the past.

Produced 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 are 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 Thermals fall into the latter category.

The best songs on the record are a perfect one-two punch of "A Pillar of Salt" and "Returning to the Fold" and would make an excellent seven-inch. "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 hydrolic drums and the catchiest lead-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 Christian government."

"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 owns 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."

The lyrical content of the record also sets it apart from the rest of the Thermals' catalog. Both deeper in content and meaning, it was clear that Harris was making a point with the record. 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. At the end of it, I was really glad that we did."

But in seemingly stark contrast, Harris' topics 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. I don't know if there really is [a mission statement]," Harris said. "We're 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."


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