Tuesday, September 07, 2010

REVIEW: The Thermals - Personal Life

The Thermals - Personal Life

The Thermals have always been known for their angst and punk energy, with singer/guitarist Hutch Harris’ earnest, intelligent lyrics delivered passionately and honestly. After four albums, the band has certainly crafted a sonic niche of their own, wrapping infectious hooks and melodies around power chord/barre chord fury. The magnetism of the band’s uplifting energy and Harris’ vocal charisma have produced a string of albums fully fueled by a blast of razor-sharp chord progressions and raw attitude.

Enter Personal Life, an album that puts a spin on The Thermals’ familiar dynamic. In many ways, the album is arguably the band’s simplest to date, with no overdubs; they went into the studio, played the songs, and then recorded the vocals. The songs were written around bass rather than the guitar. As a result, the power chord fury takes more of a backseat ride through Personal Life, but the attitude and conviction is still as present as ever. The hooks here are anchored not by blasts of guitar, but rather Kathy Foster’s bass guitar. Foster’s riffs might be rather straightforward, but they keep everything grounded and each note is picked with a determination that perfectly parallels the mood and angle of Harris’ lyrics. It’s been said that bass is the most important instrument and on Personal Life, this is made abundantly clear throughout the album’s 10 tracks.

On cuts like “Never Listen to Me,” Foster’s heavy, and, in some cases, brooding bass provides a solid backbone upon which Harris can deliver his words. “Never Listen to Me” actually has hardly any guitar, with a chorus driven solely by a confident vocal melody, bass guitar, and drums. On “Only For You” bass is the glue, with guitar roaring in during the chorus in triumphant ringouts. More than ever before, Harris tends to forgo blasts of chords in favor of spirited single-note guitar riffs.

Thematically, the album lives up to its title, with Harris discussing the tumultuous ups and downs involved with relationships. It’s an intensely frank collection of words, with lines like “Love you all of my life/Never listen to me” (“Never Listen To Me”) and “You were made from mistakes” (“Only For You”). And when Harris’ guitar does enter the fold, he ascends and descends the fretboard as though each note, each chord played is mapping a graph of those ups and downs.

The music could have benefited from a bit more experimentation, as it sees the band covering territory they’ve tread a few times before in previous albums. But to their credit, The Thermals could also have stepped too far off the creative edge and lost their course. Without wandering much outside the lines of their sound, they maintain a semblance of who they are. “Your Love Is So Strong” works a similar formula as the title track of Now We Can See, but instead of an infectious hook, “Your Love Is So Strong” becomes an entirely different beast on the power of thrashing drums and an energetic kick that could wake the dead.

Personal Life is an album that works in negative space. It’s not always about what is played, because sometimes leaving blank space allows the listener to form a deeper connection with the music, enriching the auditory experience with a certain memory or experience. With new drummer Westin Glass keeping things in line, rounding out the band, The Thermals convey a sense of comfort and a sort of familial zeal that makes the music sound all the more at home. It's an album that proves the band’s strength lies with the melodies and candid lyrics. As a whole, Personal Life is another reminder, and perfect example, that The Thermals are a band that cuts to the bone and sings straight from the heart.

BUY: Personal Life is out today on Kill Rock Stars. Pick it up here on CD, here digitally, or here on vinyl.

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