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The Thermals' 'Personal Life' is subdued, but they won't stay down for long 

Wednesday, Nov 10 2010

The Thermals' fifth record, Personal Life, was released just a couple of months ago, but the Portland, Ore.-based trio might already be reconsidering recent developments. Unlike the band's cheerfully chaotic past material, Personal Life's indie rock is largely subdued and grim. "The other day, we were talking [about how] we wanted to make a record similar to the first — a noisy lo-fi record. We were joking about how we are already bored," says bassist Kathy Foster, who vouches for the work while getting nostalgic during recent concerts: "People have been going crazy during older songs like 'Here's Your Future' and 'A Pillar of Salt,' and then standing there during the slower ones. You crave that super-out-of-control energy. That's what makes shows worth playing."

The Thermals' charm has always been in their feistiness. Casting off rounds of power pop that cracked like cap gun shells, they'd grin while tackling the sorest topics: confusion and disgust for the Dubya days, death, fanaticism, and the apocalypse. "A Pillar of Salt," from 2008's The Body, the Blood, the Machine, paired a bubblegum-sticky hook with a narrative about running away from a vengeful deity. Frontman Hutch Harris' conversational, nasal call has never possessed much in the way of nuance, so he'd prove a point by shouting vigorously. Not every Thermals moment was bathed in glee, but when they moved, they did so with enough energy to convince you that we'd all make it through the gloomiest hours.

This latest album, on the other hand, orbits a dismal subject (an ailing relationship) without incorporating any playfulness to offset the fatigue. From opener "I'm Gonna Change Your Life" onward, it's all about the slow burn — tempos that painfully ruminate as they ascend. (Spiritually, compare this approach to the downer daydreams floating through the heads of Built to Spill's Doug Martsch or Dear You–era Blake Schwarzenbach.) A sense of dejection penetrates Harris' delivery. He sings, whispers, and shouts, unable to fight back against negativity. In "A Reflection," he ponders, "A reflection of love/A reflection of death/Is all that we needed/It's all that we have left." Then, "Your Love Is So Strong" subverts any of the joy in its title by declaring, "Your love is so strong/It's only a fear in your eyes/Your love is so strong/It's only a series of lies." Elsewhere, there's regret, abandonment, and self-deprecation. In "Power Lies," he gets gloomy enough to ask about faking his own death.

Personal Life sounds like the product of trauma or a major loss — the sort that's still eating away at Harris. Foster shies away from detailing Harris' narrative, but she does note that the album condenses three relationships into one arc, is a "darker, less sentimental view of love," and is based around "arrogance" plus "lying to each other and a sense of desperation." The several references to "you" scattered through the album allude to different people.

What hasn't changed about the band is its love for minimalism. Personal Life is the first Thermals album written entirely with a stable drummer. Said drummer (Westin Glass) uses a kit that contains only three pieces and, as Foster mentions with a chuckle, "That has expanded from the very beginning." Her appreciation for this sparseness comes from her interest in crisp beats. "It's anti–the huge rock kit," she says. "When I'm recording four-tracks, I have the same kind of kit, and I really like those simple kind of beats. That's our philosophy, too: Keeping it simple and seeing how far you can take it." The band temporarily beefed up its ranks after The Body's release by adding a second guitarist, but after its early songs became repetitive, it was back to three.

In keeping with this stripped-down approach, the subject matter for Personal Life originated from Harris alone (with a little bit of input from the other members), and that choice of theme shaded the record's musical tone. Foster doesn't want to influence or investigate his next angle too deeply, but she is willing to offer an idea for what would steer the Thermals back in a more enthusiastic direction. "The past two albums have been pretty dark topics, so maybe [the next topic] should be something superfun," she says, "like party songs or something."

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Reyan Ali

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