Since so much three-chord punk has gotten stale, this Portland, Oregon trio often strips down to just two chords--which makes those moments when they do splurge on that third precious bundle of notes staggeringly climactic. The Thermals have just one basic melody, but it's a great one, and like the finest bluesmen, their brilliance is in the variations they work over these standard changes. Except these variations aren't solos--they're gradations of emotional tone and feedback burst and Hutch Harris' clearly enunciated rants. There's a political underpinning to this all--the lyrics on the elliptical yet scathing "God and Country" ("Pray for a new state/ Pray for assassination") draws the line pretty clearly. But even here, Harris chooses not to rail against the powers that be, but instead to express solidarity with a likeminded constituency, declaring "History will show our progress is slow/ When we win/ We win in inches." --Keith Harris
[Sub Pop; 2004]
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Every fit-throwing eight-year old left sobbing in front of a pet store window eventually hears the same defeatist speech: Puppies grow up into dogs, everything changes, eternal youth is bullshit, and cold, crappy maturity is the last unflappable truth. But it turns out that your mom was totally wrong: Portland's The Thermals have successfully flicked off all notions of inevitable evolution, eschewing presumed sophistication for dumb, youthful glee. 25 seconds into The Thermals' sophomore record, Fuckin A, shrieks of feedback fade into power chords, Hutch Henry begins lodging demands, and it becomes alarmingly clear that The Thermals' founding aesthetic-- grimy, lo-fi garage punk-- will endure eternally, a snarled, hyperactive, and unchanging homage to goofy basement tapes and kitchen acoustics.
That Fuckin A was recorded by Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla (who mastered the band's debut, 2001's More Parts Per Million) is strikingly apropos; The Thermals are not about reinvention, and Fuckin A is-- obviously-- not at all concerned with growing up, even on studio time. Mostly, Fuckin A is as stupidly (and gloriously) irreverent as its title, all adolescent three-chord slams and snotty, self-championing chants, a seamless extension of the urgency introduced on More Parts Per Million.
But despite all their snark and self-repetition, The Thermals are still an immensely likable outfit; like a little brother demanding unconditional love, pulling down your pants and then begging for a dollar, The Thermals ingratiate themselves quickly and curiously, working against your most rational and justifiable complaints. It's not so much that the band sounds like kids (although sometimes, they sorta do), it's that they're brazenly and addictively self-confident, hopped up on spit and adrenaline, fueled by the rewards of their own dumb fun.
Frontman Hutch Henry's nasal shouts are uncannily similar to Mountain Goat John Darnielle's, and while The Thermals' lyrics tend to skew a bit more simplistic ("It's our trip and/ And we're not listening.../ We won't flinch/ We don't give a shit"), Henry still wields Darnielle's brand of sharp, scrappy charm awfully well. That The Thermals are the direct descendents of twee-folk duo Hutch and Kathy can sometimes seem ridiculous, particularly given The Thermals' obvious proclivity for brash, anti-folk stomps, but the influence of their lineage becomes more evident the harder you listen-- tracks like "God and Country" admit The Thermals' appropriately desperate politics ("Pray for a new state/ Pray for assassination"), while "Remember Today" sees Henry adopt a Dylan-esque mix of sentimentality and weird humor ("Anything you can see/ You can probably feel/ Anyone far away/ You can probably charge at").
Fuckin A is a bit more political, a bit cleaner, and a bit less exuberant than its predecessor, but ultimately, the message is the same. That this is somehow more charming than irritating speaks directly to The Thermals' central prowess: beautiful indiscretion.
-Amanda Petrusich, June 21, 2004
Review by Heather Phares
With a title that's as much a call to arms as a call to rock out, the Thermals' Fuckin A offers a darker, more developed version of the passionate, in-the-red indie rock of their debut, More Parts Per Million. The most immediately noticeable difference between the two albums is the sound quality: instead of recording most of the songs to a cassette player in Hutch Harris' kitchen, as the band did with their first album, this time the Thermals spent four days in a more traditional studio with friend/producer/Death Cab for Cutie guitarist/organist Chris Walla. The result is an album that sounds cleaner but still keeps most of the band's ramshackle energy. However, the Thermals have different reasons to sound urgent on Fuckin A than they did on More Parts Per Million; though that album's "No Culture Icons" tackled the politics of the indie scene, much of Fuckin A is just straight-up political, a response to the war in Iraq and other events in America and in the world that transpired after their debut was released. The switch to a moderately cleaner sound for this album pays off well in this regard, if only because it's easier to hear Harris' smart, talky lyrics with a few layers of static stripped from them. On songs like "End to Begin," "When You're Thrown," and "God and Country" -- on which he sneers, "Pray for a new state, pray for assassination" -- Harris balances the power of protest chants with the same intricate wordplay and internal rhymes that made it worth dividing his lyrics from More Parts Per Million's wash of noise. Even the songs that aren't overtly political still have political leanings: on "A Stare Like Yours," described by Harris as an "aggressive love song," he sings, "When you don't have control, you have to pretend." Likewise, "Forward" and "Remember Today" have a bouncy idealism that stands in sharp contrast to Fuckin A's more charged moments. "Keep Time," one of the best songs the Thermals have yet written, is both upbeat and political, an anthem about trying to keep some hope even in challenging times. Owing to its themes, Fuckin A is a shade or two less exuberant than More Parts Per Million, but it's no less passionate or energetic, and it proves the Thermals can introduce new sounds and ideas into their music without losing what made them worth listening to in the first place.