The two trends most prevalent in Portland’s indie music seem to be, on the one hand, large-ensemble collectives singing and playing in unison, and, on the other, solo/duo synth/electronic/dance acts who sing along with recorded beats. It is strange, then, that one of Portland’s most successful exports are a standard three-piece power-pop garage band. Truly, competent rock ’n’ roll bands are in such short supply that The Thermals sound refreshing — not just on a local scale, but on a national one. It helps that the veteran Hutch Harris/Kathy Foster team are concise, shrewd, and capable songwriters: playing in such well-worn sonic territory, a three-piece garage band is only as interesting as its material. On their fifth full-length, they have turned their lyrical focus away from the politically- and existentially-charged material of their previous work to examine the arc of a romantic relationship. The results are mixed, as their energetic style is better suited to anthemic shout-alongs than it is to ruminations on interpersonal miscommunication. And while Personal Life has its share of lively shout-alongs, one’s opinion of the record will depend on how well one happens to enjoy a great band playing away from their strengths.
It almost seems as though there are two EPs that make up Personal Life: one comprising crisp pop songs with infectious sing-a-long choruses, and another filled with slower, contemplative snoozers. Instead of splitting those two EPs on Side A and Side B, they seem to be divided by odd/even track numbers. By coincidence or not, the even-numbered tracks are the strongest songs on Personal Life. Lead single “I Don’t Believe You,” a great up-tempo romp with a chorus consisting of shouted “oh-oh-oh”s in octaves, gets two thumbs up. “Not Like Any Other Feeling” is built around a lovely descending major/minor riff that is among the best of The Thermals’ career. Of the mid-tempo numbers that take up the bulk of the album’s runtime, “Only For You” is one of the best, with a strong dramatic arc and highly hummable chorus. “Your Love Is So Strong” sounds like an obvious second single in line with “I Don’t Believe You” (octave “oh-oh” choruses and all), and closer “You Changed My Life” is a peppier, crisper version of its somewhat turgid fellow bookend “I’m Gonna Change Your Life.” The odd-numbered tracks, however, are forgettable and bland by comparison. While I admire a band who really stick to garage basics for their sonic template, you have to sell simple instrumentation and production with knockout composition — it’s a relatively naked genre, and there is no magical arrangement or studio wizardry to carry the weaker songs.
When they get it right — as they do on half of Personal Life — The Thermals are a joy to behold. Their simple chord progressions are a Trojan horse for uncanny songwriting chops, and although Hutch leans heavily on power chords, he does not neglect the higher-register strings. Kathy’s bass parts are straight out of the Kim Deal/Krist Novoselic school — strum the chord’s root forcefully on the downbeat, rinse, and repeat — and they fit the bill perfectly. Vocally, Hutch is a charismatic and tuneful shouter with surprising melodic (if not stylistic) range. I choose to emphasize the better parts of this album in my final evaluation: Personal Life isn’t the classic that The Body, The Blood, The Machine or even Fuckin’ A were, but it’s got enough of the good stuff that makes The Thermals worthy of your attention in the first place.