Although they had been friends for years and played in other bands together, Portland, Oregon’s Hutch Harris and Kathy Foster found their niche making raucous, punk-inspired anthems as the Thermals. Simple, smart and brimming with ire, the Thermals’ two- and three-chord songs can be surprisingly thoughtful, tackling such topics as religion, politics and culture and offering an acerbic commentary on American life. There’s even room for love in their landscape.
On the Thermals’ debut, More Parts per Million, Harris (guitar/vocals) and Foster (bass) are joined by guitarist Ben Barnett (Kind of Like Spitting) and drummer Jordan Hudson. Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie) mixed the record, which was recorded at Harris’ apartment, and although muddy acoustics dampen the sound, they do not completely suffocate the band’s energy. Loud, simply constructed songs rule the day, dominated by Harris’ nasal squall. “Back to Gray” stands out for its near-melody and Harris’ playful use of the phrase “Hail Mary.” He toys with religious symbols until they suit him, like hitting on an alternate tuning for guitar. “No Culture Icons” fits the band like a mission statement: to dismantle and repurpose recognizable images that make us too comfortable.
After Barnett’s departure, the band released Fuckin A as a trio. Chris Walla again engineered, and the production quality is substantially improved. The first sustained wail of feedback on “Our Trip” establishes that the Thermals are still loud but now the instruments, rather than the recording process, create the wall of noise. Instead of getting lost in the mix, a Breeders-inspired bass line on “How We Know” showcases Foster’s talents. “Remember Today” flirts with cliché, until Harris announces, “Anything you can grasp / you can easily see / is just plastic.” The lyrics of “God and Country” play like a prequel to The Body the Blood the Machine: “To the future deaf / so the few left / will need a fist / when no one will listen.”
The Thermals’ music and message mature on The Body the Blood the Machine, the band’s best record to date. With Hudson gone, Foster doubles on drums to become a one-woman rhythm section. Brendan Canty of Fugazi produced the record, and as a drummer, he ensures that no percussive energy is misdirected. (After completing the record as a duo, Harris and Foster enlisted Caitlin Love to replace Hudson. Love’s stay was brief, and Lorin Coleman soon replaced her.) The songs tell a loose tale of two lovers escaping as a right-wing Christian government brings on the apocalypse. But rather than adhering slavishly to a concept, each song stands alone on the strength of its hooks and lyrics. “Pillar of Salt” fields a tight, anthemic guitar line, while “Back to the Fold” proves Harris able to sing full throttle without harshness. “I Hold the Sound” slows down the tempo; the band opens up to make room for an extended guitar solo (by Thermals standards) on “Power Doesn’t Run on Nothing.”
One of a series of CDs issued by the online music store Insound, the limited run Insound Tour Support 2.0 captures the Thermals performing live in a Seattle radio studio and a San Francisco club. The CD also includes an acoustic version of “Welcome to the Planet” cut for Canty’s Burn to Shine 3 DVD.
Before forming the Thermals, Harris spent seven years playing under the name Urban Legends, an ever-changing project that began solo but grew to include a rotating cast of Foster, Marc Bianchi (Her Space Holiday) and Brian Grant (Kind of Like Spitting). Though Of Old Lost Days bears a 2007 release date, Harris recorded the tracks between 1997 and 2002. “My Only Defense Left” features Foster on backing vocals, and was previously available only on the out-of-print Secretly, Faithfully EP.
While the light, bright indie pop of Hutch and Kathy sounds more like Small Factory than the Thermals, hints of Harris’ recognizable lyrical style emerge amidst the sea of twee. “On the Way to Work” uses familiar phrases like “gently down the stream” and “lather rinse repeat” as Harris deadpans, “Satan, make me a star / Mama, I wanna be a politician.” The song also features two things that have yet to surface in a Thermals song: harmonica and Foster’s girlish, harmonizing vocals.
Members of the Thermals frequently pop up in other acts. Ben Barnett continued as Kind of Like Spitting’s main creative force until he disbanded that project in 2006. Jordan Hudson released a solo CD as Operacycle before joining the Thermals. Besides her projects with Harris, Foster plays drums and bass in the All Girl Summer Fun Band, along with Jen Sbragia of the Softies.