Portland, Oregon’s finest musical export since The Dandy Warhols and The Decemberists, The Thermals have built up a steady fan-base on the US college circuit (and a cult following here) in the last 10 years without ever threatening to become popular.
Their lo fi, indie punk sound has not evolved very much. Their first album More Parts Per Million was literally recorded in singer-songwriter Hutch Harris’s house, and the follow-up albums sounded as though they had been too. Contrasted with another trio of pop-punksters, Green Day, who targeted the mainstream with much success, The Thermals have seemed happy to stick to the margins without commercial pressures.
But last year’s album Personal Life signalled a change in direction. As its title suggests, as well as moving away from the outspoken anti-establishment political songs which made their name towards relationship issues of love and sex, attraction and break-up, the tracks feel more rounded and radio-friendly, without the band losing its character. It’s their best record yet.
Following on from the entertaining April Fool antics of the supporting The Coathangers, a girl punk band from Atlanta, Georgia, whose third album Larceny & Old Lace comes out in June, The Thermals hit the stage bang on time for a punchy one-hour gig ending the British leg of their European tour promoting the new album.
They kicked off with the tuneful first single from Personal Life, I Don’t Believe You, followed by the equally engaging Not Like Any Other Feeling, the hypnotic Never Listen To Me and the uplifting Your Love Is So Strong, with the audience joining in the chorus.
Previous album Now We Can See also featured strongly, including the catchy title track (with the audience shouting out “Oh way-ow oh-whoa-oh”), the angry We Were Sick and the therapeutic I Let It Go. There was plenty of early material too, with the gig finishing with Pillar of Salt from The Body, The Blood, The Machine, arguably the band’s finest example of three-chord, three-minute punky minimalism.
Despite a narrow vocal range is narrow Harris sang with full-throated conviction, as well as playing short penetrating shards of guitar, backed by accomplished bassist Kathy Foster and solid drummer Westin Glass. The sweat generated on stage was more than matched by those pogoing enthusiastically in the mosh pit.
After ploughing their own particular furrow for a number of years, The Thermals now seem ready to move on to cultivate other fields.