Where the Power Meets the Pop

The Thermals are that rarest of things — a great rock band

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There are several things rock 'n' roll can do to qualify as "great." It can make people want to dance, shed their clothing and have rhythmic voodoo sex with strangers. It can piss off the appropriate authority figures. It can resonate with listeners so intimately that they can read their own life stories written into the music. It can galvanize and exhilarate on the strength of its own willfully uproarious energy.Of course, truly great rock 'n' roll does all of those things. Or at least it used to. Here, in the days of micro-genres, market-specific radio formats and hit-single-or-death recording contracts, however, rock music often resembles a pill more than it does an expressive force — a band or style is prescribed to deliver this beat or that emotion. Occasionally groups will score on various levels, but more often than not the really good ones these days excel in very focused ways.

And while dancing voodoo sex is awesome and all, it seems like that exhilaration, that sense of being completely swept away by a band making a good rock song great through sheer exuberance and conviction, is currently the rarer thing.

Thank God Portland, Oregon's The Thermals have got it in spades.

The Thermals play deceptively simple guitar-driven music. Said music does not "bristle" or "crackle" with enthusiasm, because the words "bristle" and "crackle" simply do not do the trio's tangible electricity justice. Every brief, relentlessly engaging blast on each of their two Sub Pop full-lengths (last year's More Parts per Million and the new Fuckin' A, and really, doesn't that say it all?) carries the uncomplicated joy of just being in a rock band.

They're fuzz-toned and infectious, but they're not pop. They're smart, poetic and occasionally funny, but they're not indie rock. And though their most immediately discernible characteristics include lots of feedback-laden volume, a yen for fast, two-minute tunes, and the use of as few chords as possible, they're not a punk band, either.

"We try to avoid getting called punk rock," says guitarist/vocalist Hutch Harris with a laugh, "because there are so many crappy 'punk' bands out there now."

Individually, The Thermals are veterans of Portland's varied, collegiate music scene: Harris and bassist Kathy Foster were known for their aptly named precocious pop duo Hutch & Kathy, while drummer Jordan Hudson played with the instrumental Operacycle. (Former fourth Thermal Ben Barnett, who left the band shortly after its inception, is better known as the man behind Kind of Like Spitting.) They originally got together to blow off some musical steam outside of their primary groups, but most of those "primary groups" quickly fell by the wayside.

"Jordan and I, as soon as we started The Thermals, we let go of our other projects," says Harris, adding, "it hasn't been a problem at all, having that be the focus."

Freshness, spontaneity and a complete lack of pressure were the band's only criteria. In fact, the songs that make up the seriously raw More Parts Per Million were recorded on a four-track cassette recorder at Harris' one-room house over several months, and usually only hours after being written. The tapes weren't meant for anything other than personal documentation; it was Ben Gibbard of hipster darlings Death Cab for Cutie who brought the band to the attention of Sub Pop (after only six Thermals shows). Gibbard's Death Cab bandmate, rising indie-scene producer Chris Walla, mixed the homespun demos into The Thermals' Sub Pop debut.

When compared to the average computer-tweaked-and-mastered national release, More Parts sounds like it came off an answering-machine tape. Yet that distorted, lo-fi sound perfectly matches the band's own overdriven vibe, a sweet but nearly unhinged ruckus topped by Harris' melodic, youthful and rhythmically inventive vocals. Everything is right on the edge of breaking up, a feel that only heightens the songs' energy.

For Fuckin' A, the band, again aided by Walla, got a little more sophisticated.

But only a little.

"For this one, we kept it fresh by doing it fast. We were only in the studio for five days, and two of the songs we actually wrote while we were in the studio," Harris says. "But for both records, no part was played more than three or four times, any more than that and [the feeling] would have started to suck."

Harris believes in the idea that the tape captures not just the notes, but also the atmosphere and attitude. That's why The Thermals weren't worried that recording in, you know, an actual studio might kill the sense of irresistible force that More Parts Per Million embodies so well. It's not so much about lo-fi as it is being excited, being into what the band is creating and playing.

And judging by Fuckin' A, one of the year's great rock 'n' roll albums, they're still into it. Very much so.

A Rare Person

On Wednesday, June 23, Tampa musician and show promoter Ian Lynne died as a result of a gunshot wound and burns sustained in a vehicle fire. Police are still investigating the wholly perplexing circumstances surrounding Lynne's death.

The 24-year-old Lynne (who worked a day gig as a preschool teacher's assistant) played in the band Yukhonic with his brother Todd. They also ran an independent experimental/post-punk label, Cephia's Treat, and staged a series of maverick all-ages shows — collectively known as the F.A.D. series — in such anti-venues as shopping malls and under bridges.

I interviewed Ian last year about his musical endeavors. Though I didn't know him well, he was obviously an unusually thoughtful and principled guy. His actions spoke far louder than he did, and the ones that intersected with my own job and passions characterized him as a young man who did things with the benefit of his community, rather than himself, in mind. That's a rare and beautiful thing.

Our condolences, hearts and prayers to his family and friends.

Contact Scott Harrell at 813-739-4856, or [email protected].

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