Wednesday, September 08, 2010

New Release: The Thermals

I've written previously on the tendency to overvalue records that seem to be bold statements on the zeitgeist at the time of their release. The 2006 album by the Thermals, The Body, The Blood, The Machine, was certainly an example of this. Songs like "Here's Your Future" and "Power Doesn't Run On Nothing" perfectly surmised the frustration and anger of living in George W. Bush's America.

Luckily, it was also the band's strongest musical statement to date. And while the album was justly praised, one couldn't help but feel that this had as much, if not more, to do with its politics as its music.

Rock critics tend to be left-leaning, amateur sociologist types. This has been the case since rockwrite began proper in the 1960s. Most of its proponents were baby boomers suffering from Dylanitis and "committed" to the revolution (man). Far too often, they've been too quick to praise artists who merely reaffirmed their beliefs. Remember when socially conscious, afrocentric minded and rhythmically flaccid hip hop group Arrested Development topped the Pazz & Jop Poll?

The point is that political partisanship is fairly useless in evaluating music and ultimately does listeners a disservice. One need not share Johnny Ramone's worldview to be thrilled by his guitar playing.

In any event, the Thermals' less explicitly political followup, Now We Can See, garnered far less attention. The lack of easy rock crit copy may have been the cause of this but it probably didn't help that it was a noticeably weaker record than its predecessor. The true test comes now with the release of Personal Life. As one might presume from the title, the album stays away from social commentary altogether, focusing instead on introspective themes. Regardless of lyrical content, it's arguably a stronger and more consistent album than The Body, The Blood, The Machine. If Personal Life is not deemed to be of equal value, it may force one to wonder if the Tea Partiers are right about the liberal media.*

While the Thermals don't reinvent the wheel (nor do they attempt it), I wonder if listeners truly appreciate how difficult it is to create their brand of melodic punk without descending into cliché. Pop punk and emo have been commonplace in literal and figurative malls for so long that most of the true punk believers have retreated into noise, where the pop marketplace fears to tread. The Thermals' punk is (relatively) clean and catchy but with nary a whiff of commercialism. It's also heartfelt and earnest without ever approaching emo histrionics. The Thermals reclaim the stolen weapons from the enemy, showing them to be far more effective when used by those who understand their power.

Personal Life is streaming in its entirety at the NPR website. (More of that darn liberal media!) You should give it a listen. You should also check out this video the band made for "I Don't Believe You" which stars Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein. I believe it's a tribute to the final scene in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation. If you haven't seen that fine film, I apologize for the semi-spoiler.

*For the record, they're not right about anything.


joe said...

The Body, The Blood, The Machine was great for the hooks as well as the lyrical content. And even apolitically speaking, they were great fucking lyrics.

I'm going to listen to this over at NP... doh! ('Audio for this feature is no longer available.') why can't you just post illegally dled songs like real blogs.

brock johnson said...

I'm not sure it's a fair or accurate argument to put forth that "because all rock critics are liberals and because The Body, The Blood The Machine supports their world view, their view of the music is distorted."

My favorite moments on that record aren't moments where I'm reveling in the lyrical skewering of the Christian Right, though I think it IS fair to say that for many, the record's timing was significant.

Rather, my favorite moments on that record are those that aren't self-conscious about being communal, and anthemic. I'm not listening to the words of "back to the sea" and going "yeah, get 'em hutch! your political lyrics are really making me feel at home." I'm singing along with words that are simple and catchy enough that I don't need to dissect them to understand the angst they're trying to convey. I think that's a pretty common thing in pop music.

When I listen to "never listen to me" or "Only For You," I don't hear the energy I heard on those earlier songs; I hear downtempo power ballads. And that's fine; it's a subjective thing--I like a good power ballad as much as the next guy, too, just not these ones.

As a set of songs, "Personal Life" doesn't sound as inspired to me as "The Body, The Blood, The Machine." And you can blame the political moment that Hutch and the rest of the country were in at the time for that inspiration. But I don't think you can blame my response to the music as a listener; I think it's a much more visceral transaction between writer and receiver.