About 22 nah, make that 23 people hid in the shadows
of the nightclub that sluggish Sunday evening. They may as well have
not been there; I kept forgetting they were. Were these
semi-invisible attendees there to see The Pattern? Or maybe they were
just doing what they do every Sunday night: hanging out, quieting
their weekend hangovers in the reclusive corners of Berbati's
nightclub, careless and clueless about who would take the stage.
Let's just say it was dead, but I was there anyway, to see The
Pattern. But what I remember most is The Thermals.
I don't go to a lot of shows. I don't have a lot of friends and I
don't hang out in any kind of scene. For me, it's easier to stay at
home and listen to music. I tell a lot of bands I interview that I
will definitely be at their show. I doubt they notice that
most of the time I'm not. But lately I've been pressing myself to
experience live sets you never know what you're going to
stumble upon. I found the Von Bondies when I went to see the White
Stripes, The Sights when I went to see Hot Hot Heat, and so on and so
I sat at a small circular table to the left of the typically and
claustrophobically full area in front of the stage. Many empty tables
surrounded me. I had never been lucky enough to get one table at
Berbati's; now I had more than a dozen. I was so taken by the unusual
chilling bleakness, I didn't even notice The Thermals take the stage,
until, of course, I heard their music.
I have to admit my first reaction they're so cute, way
beyond physical characteristics. I just wanted to grab them all and
squeeze them, jump up and down with them. I wanted to feel the
exuberant youthfulness and supposed innocence rising from their
frail, pumping bodies. I wanted to ball up their enormous energy
(can't imagine what they'd be like with an audience) and take
it home, because I knew it would last me months. They jolted and
bounced and shook and sweated and loved, loved, loved the music.
I love, love, love this band. I would squeeze them until
they're squished. Their music crushes me for one simple reason:
singer/guitarist Hutch Harris writes the best songs. And I have a
feeling they just fall out of him like the rain that falls on his
hometown of Portland which does not mean his songs succumb to
the grimness of long winters and seasonal disorders. They are bright,
fast, crunching, melodic and moving sing-along songs recorded with
little money. They are pop and punk and rock and indie and a
combination of all these things, but, more than all of the above,
they are Harris' personal songs and they are incredible.
The Thermals Harris, bassist Kathy Foster, guitarist Ben
Barnett and drummer Jordan Hudson signed to Sub Pop after four
months in existence, releasing their debut album March 4. This isn't
the first band experience for Thermals members Harris and
Kathy are also known as Portland's lo-fi folkish duo Hutch & Kathy,
and Barnett as Kind of Like Spitting but it's got to be their
best. The way the crunching guitars are wrapped in distortion, the
way the hollowed-out garage beats knock your insides, and the way
Harris' singing sounds like none other, bringing so much emotion and
desperation to the echoing, lo-fi instrumentation it all feels
so right, so touching. But not in a sappy way. There is so, so much
music out there, and so very little of it is touching. Whatever
ingredient it takes to touch the listener (and don't ask me, 'cause I
don't know), The Thermals have got it.
Of course the songs aren't complete without the right words. Harris
writes the kind of lyrics that are so powerful and feel so simple you
wish you would've thought of them first. Snowballing so perfectly
together, the words feel made for each other, burning with emotion,
passion, angst and wittiness. On the pummeling "Overgrown,
Overblown!," Harris pleads, screams, strains and sings: "Nod if
you're near/ If you can hear me/ Signal if you feel it, you're
feeling it/ I see the fire and it's faceless/ I hope you came here to
embrace/ And not escape it/ Tell me if this hurts/ If you've heard
this/ Tell me if it hurts/ Is it worth it/ We can go to hell/ If you
can teach me/ I finally found my voice/ And I'm speechless."
"No Culture Icons" illuminates a hole, something missing. Maybe it's
art, maybe it's culture, maybe it's love it's a disillusioned
emptiness yearning for fulfillment. "Hardly art/ Hardly starving,"
Harris sneers. "Hardly art/ Hardly garbage/ ...No new deafness/ No
self-reference/ No one ideal/ No what I feel/ No getting psyched on/
No culture icon/ ...I can't stop thinking about you."
And when Harris sings, fired up and full of passion, "It's been so
long I forgot how to say it/ It's been so long I forgot I was
waiting/ ...Where have you been?" on the fuzzy, stormy "Goddamn the
Lights," you know exactly what he's talking about. You've been there,
but never knew how to put it into words you feel like
someone's done it for you, validating your frustration and pain
perfectly. And Harris does it again on minimal, dark, acquiescent
"Time to Lose." He wails in a hate-to-admit-it tone: "I think we've
reached our limits/ I think we're getting finished/ ...Know it's not
the same/ Know it's entertaining/ I know I'm unaware/ But I just
can't bear to leave."
The softest song on the album, "Back to Gray" the one I'd
like to squeeze to pieces the most for its frail, adorable, pretty
feel is sad, light and bouncing without being slow (none of
the tracks on the record are). "Hail Mary/ Heaven wailing/ Let a
blanket/ Cover everything/ ...Mother don't let us die before the
springtime/ I don't need any love/ Because I've got the elements," he
sings, with pain in his voice. He ends the song with my favorite line
on the album, one that any living being can probably relate to: "If
you do not mind I will stay/ If you decline I will find a way."
Find a way to get this album. The Thermals are more than a mere
discovery at the lazy end of the weekend. Nobody likes being called
cute, especially not people in rock bands. But they're so damn cute
in a different kind of way. In a way where you're
immediately enamored and sucked in you just want to grab them
in all their bursting energy and fervent passion, and squish them to
pieces, just as their amazing songs will do to you.