21 September 2006

The Thermals : This Was No Accident

So there's this band called The Thermals. They've been around for a few years, releasing garage rock on Sub Pop, an indie label so famous for housing early Nirvana that it's hard to believe it's still an indie label at all.

(And as it turns out, Sub Pop isn't an indie label anymore. Thanks to Laura for the heads up!)

But The Thermals' newest album, "The Body, The Blood, The Machine," clearly comes from an indie band. And it's not because the album's subject matter--frustration with modern religion--is so underground. I mean, Sarah McLachlan covered an XTC song about not believing in God, and Green Day had a number one album when "American Idiot" examined similar subjects.

The Thermals are clearly an indie band because they sound so utterly unrehearsed. On my first quick listen, I thought the record was an explosion of pure emotion, just big chords and screechy guitars and some kind of sadness permeating every song.

Several things could explain this tone. For one thing, bassist Kathy Fisher had to step in on drums at the last minute after a group member split. There's a frenzy to her work, as though she were trying to squeeze in a drum fill before racing back over to the bass.

Equally unpolished are Hutch Harris' nasal vocals, which sound very much like John Darnielle's on The Mountain Goats albums. Harris moves between singing and yelping with the awkward effort of a kid leaping sidewalk cracks.

However, there is something beneath all that sonic fuzz that grabs me. Something more purposeful that makes me want to pay attention.

Second and third listens reveal honest-to-god craft that breaks through the walls of feedback. In the opening moments of "Returning to the Fold," for instance, Harris' soaring voice leaps ten miles above the minor-chord guitar licks. Right away, there's a dramatic tension in the material. It sounds like the instruments are going to get away from Harris as he keeps stretching out his notes. There's this rollicking rhythm, but will it leave him behind?

Then the voice and instruments get in synch--Harris gets more restrained and everyone's working at the same pace. It's like the singer has fallen onto a moving train and landed safely. During the chorus, every flows smoothly.

But then... he leaps! Another soaring note! "Wait for me, wait for me," he sings, and the words make perfect sense with the music. By the time Harris lands again--riding out the rest of the song, sitting directly on top of its tempo--an entire journey has occurred.

For all their wildness, the Thermals are very much in control. They've made a record that sounds spontaneous in its energy but is too diverse in its sound and emotion to be anything but carefully planned.

That kind of careful chaos enthralls me.



At 8:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

::geek snort:: Actually, Sub-Pop isn't an indie label anymore. They were absorbed by Time Warner, so your instincts that the industry loins that birthed Nirvana couldn't have held out this long were right.


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