Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

{ed note: this was originally written in August, 2006. Since then Erik, the writer, has updated his opinion of the record. Thank goodness as it's one of imaginary girl Liz's favorite albums of the 2006.}

The Thermals are a lot like Ally Sheedy. How, you ask, can a band be like a popular 80's actress? Well, its really quite simple. Ally, for those of you who have been living in a cave on the moon for the last twenty years, is probably best know for her role in the seminal John Hughes film, The Breakfast Club. My dislike of this movie is fodder for another day, but needless to say, I'm the type of guy who definitely liked Alison (Ally's character) much, much, much better in her pre-makeover glory. Rumpled, slightly crazed, unkempt and totally early punk-rock hot (a look Juliana Hatfield would perfect in the early 90's). Afterwards? She looked like a poor man's Jenny Lewis (not that such a look is bad, per se, but it was clearly a downward move). The same can be said to our friends in the Thermals: the rough-and-tumble Thermals are a lot better than the polished-and-clean Thermals, and the later is what we get on The Body, The Blood, The Machine.

The Thermals are equal parts neo-grunge distorted guitars and clever pop songs in the same fold as Death Cab for Cutie and the Decemberists, which makes sense considering the band grew out of the effervescent Portland indie scene. Their last two albums, More Parts Per Million and the oh-so-radio friendly titled Fuckin A, were chock full of frenetic, lo-fi songs that burrowed deep into your cerebrum whether you wanted them to or not. The pace was wicked, it sounded like it was recorded overnight and it was brilliant in its own special way. Lead singer Hutch Harris has an odd Daniel Johnston charm to his vocals and on the best Thermals tracks, he sounds like he's delivering his vocals under threat of physical harm, as if someone is holding a gun to his back. However, as is with a lot of bands out there, more success tends to equal more production. Its happened to the best of them – the White Stripes, Mooney Suzuki, They Might Be Giants – and very rarely does it work in the opposite direction (the only example I can think of is Weezer between the Blue Album and Pinkerton, a brilliant maneuver of pulling back the production throttle). The Thermals have obviously found the Pandora's Box that is studio production, and that's the Achilles' Heel of The Body, The Blood, The Machine (sorry about mixing the Classical references).

And another thing (yes, I am officially an old fogey for starting any paragraph with that), not only did the Thermals up their production values, but they suddenly went all concept album on us (although they claim otherwise). The Body, The Blood, The Machine is about the impeding Christian fascist nation that we can all look forwards to the U.S. and tells the story of surviving in such a state. However, without knowing this fact beforehand, its kind of hard to tell what is going on short of a miraculous revelation to Harris and Kathy Foster (bassist). While I am all for such musical experiments in many cases, it again aggravates the feeling that this Thermals record is far too planned for its own good. God pops up in almost every song in one way or another, right down to being the first word on the opening track "Here's the Future" that opens with an eerily church-sounding organ. The song itself is one of the few that has the energy that we expect from the Thermals, raucous and raging. They slow things down going into "I Might Need You to Kill", a song that sounds like it lost its way from an Everclear album, and it feels like it never gets off the ground. The same can be said for "Returning to the Fold" and its exacerbated by some odd lyrics like I forgot I needed God like a big brother. "A Pillar of Salt" has more energy but is so permeated by the religious overtones that it seems like Christian indie rock, with Harris singing we were born to sin/we don't think we're special, sir/we know everybody is, quite a change from the Thermals don't need drugs to have a good time/the Thermals need drugs just to stay alive from 2003's "Everything's Thermals". However, beyond the lyrical content, the song has the remarkable catchiness in which the Thermals excel.

There just seems to be a lack of energy throughout a lot of the album and it makes many of the tracks, like "Test Pattern", "St. Rosa and the Swallow" and "Back to the Sea" mostly forgettable. They all seem to lack the intensity we grown to expect from the Thermals and it leaves them sounds like a fairly run of the mill power-pop trio. An exception is "Power Doesn't Run on Nothing", a protest song that finds Harris singing Our power doesn't run on nothing/its runs on blood/and blood is easy to obtain/when you have no shame and has a lot more energy and attitude than most of The Body…. This is when the whole God thing gets a little dicey, as there are points on "Power Doesn't Run on Nothing" that could easily be interpreted as both pro- and anti-religion. Maybe I've missed the point of the whole album and its all satire, but I find that a little hard to believe. The album closes on "I Hold the Sound," which sounds like it might be starting at any point until you realize its over. Sadly enough, that could be said for most of The Body, The Blood, The Machine.

Maybe, down the road, I will come to appreciate the finer nuances of the Thermals third album. However, right now it just feels overproduced and under enthused. It could be that I'm just becoming an old stick-in-the-mud, wanting the new Thermals to be the same as the old Thermals from the good ol' days. The Body, The Blood, The Machine might be part of a larger evolution for the Thermals, but the lack of the raw intensity that set them apart from the other post-punk indie bands seems to have been sapped from the band. We can only hope that, at least, they get to go home with Emilio Estevez.