The Thermals - Personal Life

by Al Brown Rating:8 Release Date:2010-09-20

The Thermals have always been a fairly predictable band, specialising in the kind of melodic, sincere guitar-rock that harks back to Pavement and Pixies in their pomp. That they continue to get good reviews and maintain a dedicated fanbase in an era of rampant indie-experimentalism is testament to their songwriting chops. Since they burst onto the scene with 2003's catchiest song, 'No Culture Icons', their lyrics have got a bit more serious, but the dedication to big, sing-along choruses has stayed intact. However, last year's Now We Can See was perhaps their weakest effort to date - Hutch Harris' vocals were typically emotive, but the melodies were less memorable - and, in the absence of big hooks, the band's limitations were thrown into sharp relief.

This record doesn't stray far from The Thermals' signature sound, but at the same time it sounds like a band rejuvenated. Lyrically, sincerity is the order of the day once more, with Harris relying once again on his gift for blasting out less-than-amazing lyrics with utter conviction. Songs like 'I Don't Believe You' and 'Never Listen to Me' basically rely on about a dozen short lines of lyrics repeated along with the title of the song a few times. Which sounds boring, but The Thermals squeeze so much out of each tight chord-switch, each "Oh-oh-oh" backing vocal, that the songs become more than the sum of their parts.

The album as a whole can be seen as a series of good decisions, big and small: simple but elegant lyrics throughout, just the right amount of fuzz on the languid guitar line on 'Only for You' and the great Kinks-like bassline and rare snare-hits on 'Alone, a Fool'. There's also a dedication to paring every song down to the absolute minimum: Kathy Foster's backing vocals are great as usual, but even better for the fact that they are held back for the moments when they will have the most impact. Meanwhile Harris' lead guitar work is a masterclass (especially on 'Only for You' and 'You Changed My Life') in getting the most out of a few repeated notes. This lack of pretension in musical terms makes it easier to take the plaintive lyrics at face value; when Harris sings: "It's so hard/To be alone/After the heat I've felt/ After the love I've known", it hits hard, despite the sentiment being old as the hills.

Like all the best pop records, this one is largely about unrequited love: it bleeds beaten-down depression, and indeed it realises that there is nothing new to say on the subject, and so settles for being as stripped back and visceral as possible. Doubtless there are people who will sneer at this open emoting, even call it a trick, an illusion of empathy created by lyrics that could apply to just about any difficult situation. I don't have time for this: if you can listen to Harris' singing and come to the conclusion that he is a phoney then fine, this stuff is subjective, after all. But my impression, as it always has been with this band, is that you should leave your cynicism at the door: you might even enjoy yourselves.

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