Album number seven finds Portland Indie-Punk trio The Thermals on good form. A more focused set of songs than those found on 2013's Desperate Ground, the ten tracks on We Disappear grab your attention instantaneously. Hutch Harris leaves behind the fantastical fictionalised lyrical content of the bands previous work to present something altogether more grounded, personal, and intimate here. He perhaps sums it up best on 'My Heart Went Cold' with the line; "words I needed to say I buried away". We Disappear gives Harris the chance to finally express all the words he needed to say.
Harris claims that technology, love, and death are the three obsessions of the record. Lyrically he's correct, but that neglects the streamlined construction of these songs. Most are built around a recurring and immediately catchy riff that everything else orbits around. The band sound tighter and the production is less cluttered than previously, then you realise the man behind the soundboard is former Death Cab For Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, and it all starts to make sense. The Thermals have lost none of their visceral sonic punch, but there is a clarity to the arrangements that benefits this material. Walla's involvement can only have helped to push the band in this direction, which has resulted in some of their best work to date.
If the trinity of lyrical themes that Harris is aiming for sound pretty conventional, it's perhaps his execution that elevates them to a cohesive whole. Straight out of the gate 'Into The Code' sets out Harris' main thesis; "If we go we will not be missed, in the code we will always exist". There are echoes of this idea elsewhere, such as during 'The Great Dying' ("The words we leave will be believed".) and the photographic references included in 'Always Never Be'. The concept of self-eulogising and presenting a public narrative of your own history through social media seems to fascinate Harris as he considers his own mortality and the idea that the only thing that ever truly lasts is love. This seismic shift in the way the world interacts through technology is the driving force behind many of these songs. As a relatively new phenomenon, Harris' observations on this are a welcome perspective and a piece of social commentary that doesn't feel tired or conventional, as you at first may have suspected.
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A Week In Reviews... This week saw 14-time Grammy winner Alicia Keys head to the UK for a series of dates, and boy did it seem that the girl really was on fire. A storming appraisal from us here at Contactmusic, for her show in Manchester proved that Keys hasn't lost her spark over 16 years in the game."If one thing's for certain tonight it's that Alicia Keys is the perfect crossover star, with an old school approach to music and a new school approach to showmanship; the girl really is on fire" we reckoned.
Meanwhile, across the Pennines in Leeds, Mercury-nominated Ghostpoet was in town to perform plenty of new material. However, there was plenty to take in for both fans old and new, with Contactmusic's Joe Wild writing "Whilst the show was unquestionably a vehicle to promote his new material, the MC did sprinkle some Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam favourites into the set-list, such as 'Liiines' and 'Cash and Carry Me Home' to keep the faithful fans happy. But it was the renditions of newbies 'Dial Tones,' 'MSI MusmiD' and new single 'Meltdown' that really got the crowd amped and responding to his metaphor-laden lyrics and urban-decay-inspired beats."
There's something reassuring about the urgency that runs through the veins of The Thermals' sixth album Desperate Ground. It's the Portland trio's first record in three years, but there's no sign they've mellowed with age. The 10 songs here demonstrate why they're among the best of what the Pop-Punk genre has to offer; it's lo-fi, angry and incredibly catchy. But there is an underlying feeling that Hutch Harris' acerbic social commentary falls a little flat on The Thermals' debut release for Saddle Creek.
The band finished recording Desperate Ground in Hoboken just hours before Hurricane Sandy made landfall last year, and perhaps it's that which adds to the urgency on display here. But, unlike earlier releases, some of the more raw edges have been smoothed down, leaving Harris' lyrics to carry the burden of packing the emotional punch required. He therefore decides to focus his attentions on a loose theme of war and conflict. Unfortunately, that's where my problems with Desperate Ground lie.
First single and opening track 'Born To Kill' highlights the sometimes unnecessary physical and mental sacrifices required on the front line ("Blood on my hands, when you command, I will."). But while it provides an insight into what The Thermals are rallying against, it's perhaps a little too generic to hit its target of US foreign policy properly. In a post-Bush era where America seems to be less likely to resort to a military solution as the first option, Harris' critique appears to already be somewhat dated. It's a theme that continues with 'I Go Alone' ("Each night I dream of a war") and 'Faces Stay With Me'. While he's also tackling post-traumatic stress here, it's a well-publicised issue faced by veterans, and again something that's been hitting the headlines for years.
Continue reading: The Thermals - Desperate Ground Album Review
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