The Thermals Personal Life(Kill Rock Stars) Buy it from Insound
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.
As if they weren’t punk enough, The Thermals already battled Bush’s barbecue obsessed regime, tackled America’s easy riding clan of Christian radicals, and even played chess with the Grim Reaper. Now, deemed to piss off their detractors even more, they’ve based their latest on the most universal of themes. Spell it with me and try not to gag: LOVE. Since the Portland trio has always been highly regarded by their insightful writing flair, it comes as a surprise that Personal Life has a more undemanding (but no less frank) subject matter. When many artists aren’t even judged by their words (I mean, has anyone ever really questioned Thurston Moore’s allegories?), they must be aware about fully meeting expectations.
In I’m Gonna Change Your Life, Butch Harris serenades with passive aggressiveness, I’m gonna change your life/I’m gonna steal your soul/I'll keep you warm at night/I’ll leave you in the cold. With only four verses, Harris dichotomizes the fragile nature of loving by one’s own terms, expressing how a sentiment so wonderful can also be described as selfish. But the best Thermals moments are the ones where they emphatically scream their way into crescendoing moments of joy. Even if Personal Life is full of contradicting emotions, A Reflection climaxes with one of the most self-assured choruses in their entire career. Harris romantically cries, Together we end/together we sleep/a reflection of memory/is all we can leave, leaving past all his preoccupations and focusing in a very specific moment. Ostensibly so, it ends chaotically; Harris stirs the depths of memory so he can salvage them from fading away.
For the first time, Personal Life aggressively follows a pure power punk sound instead of hinting other forms of punk rock. Though there’s enough three-chord goodness to pass around, The Thermals are also starting to rest comfortably on their layered riffs. It is also their most meticulously produced. Helmed once again by Chris Walla (he produced their second LP Fuckin’ A), there are many similarities to that particular record: Kathy Foster’s bass lines sound prominently sharp while Harris’ guitar squalls sound compulsorily crunchy. Even the participation of drummer Westin Glass has brought upon a much-needed stability for both Foster and Harris; Westin’ perfectly punched hits mash well with the overall hi-fi sound they’ve effectively adopted.
Punk bands usually swerve when they stay afloat for too long: when The Ramones lost steam after an incredible run, it was mainly because there wasn’t much more territory for them to explore under their restrictive format. You stop believing in your heroes when you see them flutter around the stage without the slightest touch of believability. Fortunately, The Thermals like to venture into unfamiliar territory – songs sound more spacious when they need the breathing space; bass lines will override a song when guitars ought to blend in. And then there are the lyrical themes – listeners take their so-called simplicity for granted, provided they come up to the requisite standard of conceptual excellence. As long as that spirit remains, The Thermals will always shake heads, both in agreement and in denial.