Kill Rock Stars, 2010
REVIEW BY: Melanie Love
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/13/2010
Strangely enough, it’s possible to be a little too pretty. It’s a little too orchestrated, too glossy, like a paint-by-numbers – except you can still see the numbers showing through. Every note seems perfectly calibrated to exert the maximum effect, and while it can work superficially, there’s still a sense that some raw heart is lacking. That’s the problem I have with The Thermals’ fifth album, Personal Life; though the album on the whole is listenable and pretty enjoyable, I feel like they could’ve done more, injecting some more spunk, urgency, and personality into these ten cuts.
Front man Hutch Harris is probably the most unique aspect of this outfit, although that’s not always in a good way. His vocals are distinctly nasal and somewhat operatic, soaring and crisply accented, a bit like a swirl between The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle and The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy. Sometimes Harris is endearingly earnest, like on opener “I’m Gonna Change Your Life” where he howls “I wanna know your feelings / I wanna know your shame…I’m gonna change your life!” and as the guitars chug along behind him and the acoustics swell, you can’t help but believe he’ll do just that.
The Thermals are at their best when their energy is high, like on “I Don’t Believe You” with its charming “whoa oh ohhhh” harmonies, Harris’ call-and-response vocals, and the fiery instrumentation. Later in the album, “Your Love Is So Strong” resurrect that momentum, and though the lyrics are a bit vague (“Your love is so strong / Like nothing it melts in the rain”), the group comes together well on the harmonies, making this a fuzzy punk-ish ballad that wears its heart on its sleeve. Meanwhile, “Only For You” is another standout, brewing some bitterness in its slow-burning instrumentation and lines like “I’m cut for you / If only to cushion your fall…my love.” It’s this sort of sneering, slightly punk attitude that helps The Thermals hit their mark, and if the rest of Personal Life kept up this sort of groove, it would’ve been a far more resonant release.
The problem is, a lot of these tracks are too interchangeable, and the songwriting leaves a bit to be desired, tossing around big themes and emotions but not rooting anything in the vivid little details that make artists like, say, The Mountain Goats so painfully relatable. And for a band whose third release was a concept album dealing with struggles to escape a totalitarian Christian regime, this batch of songs can’t help but fall a bit flat in comparison. They still belt out their songs with a fancy-free enthusiasm, but it’s like you can hear the band behind the scenes cobbling these cuts together, saying “This is where the epic chorus goes, this is where the hook kicks in, this is where we harmonize.” It all looks good in the end – songs like “Never Listen To Me” and “Power Lies” are charmingly catchy in the moment – but end up feeling flimsy and too disposable.
Not a success, but not a failure either, Personal Life has a handful of strong cuts worth checking out. Still, The Thermals have more in them.