Plumbiferous Media

Personal Life - The Thermals

Sep 12th 2010
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Personal Life - The ThermalsThe Thermals
Personal Life
Score: 43

Port­land indie band The Ther­mals, found­ed in 2002 by Kathy Fos­ter and Hutch Har­ris, released their fifth LP, Per­son­al Life, on Tues­day. With Per­son­al Life, The Ther­mals con­tin­ue to dis­play the same sort of punk-influ­enced rock into which their style has devel­oped. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Per­son­al Life isn’t quite cre­ative enough to make up for its numer­ous flaws, lead­ing to an album that is inter­mit­tent­ly inter­est­ing but not inspiring.

The instru­men­tals of Per­son­al Life are by far their most suc­cess­ful ele­ment. Excel­lent­ly active, inter­est­ing (despite their rep­e­ti­tion), and gen­uine­ly enter­tain­ing lines flow through the entire album. It is one of very few albums that tru­ly sounds excel­lent with a fair­ly repet­i­tive struc­ture, most like­ly a result of the many sec­tions that (while indi­vid­u­al­ly repet­i­tive) pro­vide diver­si­ty that over­pow­ers any sense of bore­dom. Each track fol­lows a very sim­ple for­mu­la, the instru­men­ta­tion nev­er varies, the over­all lev­el of diver­si­ty is not excel­lent, but for one rea­son or anoth­er, it just works.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, there’s a very major prob­lem with Per­son­al Life, and that’s the vocals. Buried entire­ly in the instru­men­tals despite any lev­el of activ­i­ty it many have, the nasal­ly, whiny voice drones away through the album, com­plete­ly destroy­ing any sort of excel­lence in the instru­men­tals. And while the hor­ri­ble mesh­ing of the instru­men­tals and vocals is, at least par­tial­ly, a result of a mediocre mix­ing job, it’s hard to get around the fact that Har­ris is a pret­ty awful singer.

Har­ris real­ly only has one vocal tone, and it shows up on every track of Per­son­al Life. His nasal­ly, near­ly whiny voice pro­trudes unpleas­ant­ly through the album, the only vari­a­tion being how nasal­ly his voice sounds. At the same time, Har­ris does have a decent amount of ener­gy, and he man­ages to car­ry along the words of Per­son­al Life.

That, how­ev­er, means more or less depend­ing on the sec­tion of the album. True to its indie-punk mix, The Ther­mals switch­es between gener­ic indie lyrics (“I’m Gonna Change You“ ‘s “I’m gonna change your life / I’m gonna steal your soul / I’ll keep you warm at night / I’ll leave you in the cold”) and pass­ably well writ­ten punk lines (“Not Like Any Oth­er Feel­ing“ ‘s “You only exist to be replaced”). The for­mer set of lines are, unsur­pris­ing­ly, not exact­ly inspir­ing. More than any­thing else, they evoke a sense of déjà vu for the last mediocre indie album the lis­ten­er’s heard. The lat­ter, how­ev­er, expose a lot more of the strengths of The Ther­mals. When Har­ris is singing the more forth­right lines of Per­son­al Life, his voice is at its high­est point, and the music fol­lows. The prob­lem, then, is that the emo­tion just isn’t there. Even with Har­ris at the height of his vocal strength, he’s great­ly con­strained by his sin­gle tone - and that stops Per­son­al Life from ever becom­ing great.

Per­son­al Life real­ly does have a fair amount of promise. That promise is, sad­ly, lim­it­ed pri­mar­i­ly the the instru­men­tals, with only small bits leak­ing into the oth­er ele­ments. At the same time, The Ther­mals should by no means pro­duce an instru­men­tal album; they have clear­ly refined their sound very care­ful­ly to fit the ensem­ble used in Per­son­al Life. Prob­lem­at­ic vocals are very clear­ly the largest prob­lem with the album, record­ing and lyrics trail­ing behind that, and improve­ment in those ele­ments is real­ly all Per­son­al Life would need.

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