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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