Thermals – Fuckin A

3 out of 5

Label: Sub Pop

Produced by: Chris Walla

I listened to The Thermals’ debut but sort of passed on it for various lame reasons.  First, that it was on Sub Pop, which at the time, had a Spin-cover baiting association for me (arguably still intact, for whatever the current version of a Spin cover is), second, that its uber-lo fi thing fell into a similar forced-hip bucket, and lastly – probably the sinker – that Chris Walla mixed it.  Mr. Walla, of Death Cab, a band that shares the same distinction as one other band / artist – Bright Eyes – of my forever not being able to properly reevaluate them outside of my biased hatred for the styles / genres they represent.  …Which is a whole other article, of course.

But the group survived to a second album, which was impressive enough, and calling the album Fuckin A – with its sorta dumb cut-and-paste, uncool cover – admittedly caught my eye.  Which is the intention of something so brash, but for whatever reason, it didn’t flag my bullshit alarms.  I dug the way it was executed, so’s I gave the album a dedicated spin.  And then several of the tracks caught my ear.

It would still be another release before Thermals figured out how to fully commit to a style besides “energetic three chord punk song,” but Fuckin A was definitely a step in that direction, taking the all-out blitz cues of Parts Per Million and attempting to wrangle some full ideas out of it.  Half the time – it succeeds!  The opener (it’s trivia) is a stellar example of zipping through hooks and a solo with the intensity kept on a continual high, and standout single No Culture Icons hints at the pop the group would eventually bring more to the fore.  Sprinkled across the album are some great riffs, some smart lyrical snippets, and some great breakdowns.

…Alas, you don’t end up remembering most of it.  Punk has gotten by for years on throaty shouts and a few chords; lengthy punk releases tend to get tiresome no matter who’s playing, but those that have stood out over the years tend to bring an intensity to the genre that stands out.    The Thermals – here and on later albums – have always suffered from a mismatch of passions.  Hutch Harris has a passionate yelp but it almost sounds too earnest; this is a political dude who wants his lyrics heard and understood.  The guitar, bass and drums are all fuzzed fuzzed out and primed to explode, but there’s a disconnect between playing fast and playing hard – the group does the former, the latter doesn’t come through.  At worst, this equals tracks that are completely forgettable – about half of Fuckin A – with the worst offender being second track Every Stitch, which picks up the exact beat as its lead in, pretty much forcing your brain to ask – Didn’t we just hear this? – and shut off.  These are “standards” – that yelp, and three chords played fast.

But the other half, the successful one, occurs when the group steps outside of its forced genre, ever so slightly, to develop fuller songs.  These get stuck in your head.

The album is sequenced well enough to leave a mostly positive impression.  But over the years I’ve found I generally don’t remember any of the songs beyond the singles.  Not the worst crime, but also means of you own one Thermals disc, it doesn’t need to be this one.

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