The Thermals, ‘Desperate Ground’ – Album Review
It is hard to imagine anyone still on the fence regarding the Thermals. Over the past decade -- and now six LPs -- the Portland trio has maintained such consistency in voice and quality that it should take only one listen to any song in their catalog for someone to make up their mind about the group's self-described "post-pop-punk."
With 'Desperate Ground,' those in the Thermals' corner have another treat: a compact dose of catchy, thought-provoking burners that pack conviction where there might be lack of imagination.
From album to album, there has been little change in the way that Hutch Harris writes. The differences are in the thematics and the presentation. Having previously tackled concepts like religion, death and marriage, the Thermals now take on war, with Harris adopting the same relatable first-person perspective that has always made him special. In 'Faces Stay With Me,' Harris describes the loss of friends, ostensibly fellow soldiers that have fallen in battle. But there is enough ambiguity to hear the lyrics as a reflection on any loss, with some of the weight possibly stemming from the fact that the Thermals said goodbye to a fallen bandmate, Joel Barrows, last year. Though Harris has never seen his friends die in a literal battle, the emotion is real.
Harris builds most songs around the senses and details, from the titular memory of "The Howl of the Winds" to the examination of a soldier's post-training psyche on 'Born to Kill.' The listener is thrust into the center of a foreign reality, but due to the preciseness of Harris' words, we can navigate it and not feel lost.
All this is presented in a scratchy, lo-fi package that sees the band sounding its most unpolished since debut 'More Parts Per Million.' John Agnello's production is a long stretch from where the Thermals last left us on the Chris Walla-helmed 'Personal Life,' and the changes they've opted for make sense. Having Death Cab for Cutie's aesthetician record songs about relationships makes sense, but going with a guy who's credits include Dinosaur Jr.'s 'Without a Sound' and the Hold Steady's 'Boys and Girls in America' is prudent, given the raised stakes that come with singing about life and death.
The result is an album that briefly and successfully transports listeners someplace familiar but never comfortable. The distorted vocals that dominate the mix sound like they're coming from the other end of a payphone, making everything seem urgent and weighty. And maybe it is, but there still might be some who knock the Thermals for being stuck in a cycle of same-sounding songs album after album. And after making their most ambitious record, they've returned with one that sounds both reinvigorated and redundant.
Still, as long as Harris has important things to say, interesting ways of saying them and melodies as instantly affecting as those found on the last half-dozen records, the Thermals are welcome to stay in the same crunchy territory for as many 30-minute trips as they want.