Well-received as they may have been for lyrically smart and straight albums like The Body, the Blood, the Machine, the Thermals have never quite recaptured the urgency of their first record, 2003's More Parts Per Million—its tinny guitar in a race with Ben Barnett's fingers, Hutch Harris' frantic shout masking the fact that he actually can't sing much. It was a perfect punk rock album, cheaply recorded, played as though the band's collective life depended on its completion. It was claustrophobia, embodied in an approximate half hour of song, but then, it's hard not to sound claustrophobic and urgent when you're recording in a kitchenette. Nothing drives art like poverty.
They managed to capture a bit of the same energy on Fuckin' A, and even to some extent on their next couple of records—look, for instance, to "When We Were Alive" (Now We Can See). But with their fifth record, Personal Life, quite a bit is lost. The Thermals have gone through a few lineup changes, but the trouble here is not with new drummer Westin Glass; it is perhaps that they are too contrived by now. Their history lies in smart, clever lyrics about higher topics, so it's not convincing when Harris tries to sing "I wanna know your feelings/I wanna know your shame/I wanna know your secrets/I wanna know your name" ("I'm Gonna Change Your Life"). They've slowed in pace, but the lack of speed in their particular case only makes apparent that they are aiming to deliver a lyrically important song—this time about feelings—when in fact, their biggest strength lies in creating a perfect pop song that is unmatched in quickness, nothing more or less.
And this is why they will win over fans with songs like "I Don't Believe You," the video for which shows the trio in a shed, Harris and Kathy Foster harmonizing while facing each other, the tight space visually mimicking that claustrophobia and desperation of their earlier record(s). But songs like "Never Listen to Me" and "Only for You" are too fashionable and perhaps reminiscent of the typical, self-aware Silver Lake (Los Angeles) sound; meanwhile, "Alone, a Fool," a bedroom love song performed by Harris on guitar and marked otherwise only by a heavy drum on every eighth count, seems underdeveloped, and begs for more lo-fi percussion involvement but never delivers. Though the Thermals have now settled into the role of reliable pop-rock band, Personal Life is their weakest release thus far, and will leave fans of their lo-fi, DIY punk style wanting, and wanting some more. [Kill Rock Stars]
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