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The Thermals: Desperate Ground

Author: Ian Cohen
04/16/2013 | Pitchfork | www.pitchfork.com | Album Review
Though the Thermals have often been described as a "political" punk rock band over the past decade, their latest album comes from an anti-apolitical standpoint, a less strident and specific version of protest music that reads more like common decency: not so much forged by considered opinions and intense debate as it is a natural byproduct of being sufficiently intelligent, informed, and idealistic. If you posted something on Facebook that admonished gun violence, war, or an impingement on civil rights, Desperate Ground would "like" it without leaving a comment. But it ultimately rings hollow here, as the Thermals still are trying to sound like insurrectionists while leaning so heavy on boilerplate sloganeering you'd think they were the ones running for public office.

After the more introspective tone of 2010's Personal Life, Desperate Ground superficially evokes the Portland trio's incendiary earlier work, speaking the same vocabulary as 2006's high watermark, The Body, The Blood, The Machine-- so much that at the outset it feels like a return to form more than a retreat. In fact, opener "Born To Kill" could just be The Body's supernatural sermon "I Might Need You to Kill" told from a different perspective. The Thermals were never much for variety or innovation anyway, and the 10 servings of zippy pop-punk here are of nearly uniform length, tempo, topic, and structure. Even the relative curveballs amidst the missionary strumming of four-chord progressions-- like Hutch Harris straining for a high note in the chorus, just exceeding his range-- seem to pop up in nearly the exact same place.

This classicist template is hard to fuck up, and the Thermals typically have good taste behind the boards: they might well be the only band who will ever be sympathetically produced by members of both Death Cab for Cutie and Fugazi, so the shift from John Congleton's immaculate naturalism to 90s revivalist John Agnello (Male Bonding, Sonic Youth) should be a cinch. Yet Desperate Ground feels overproduced: The guitars are rendered toothless, in particular, the gutted distortion of "You Will Find Me", which sounds ripped from a thrice-dubbed cassette.

Harris remains a distinctive and effective singer-- his nasal bray can cut through just about any kind of sonic clutter-- and Desperate Ground never drags, the hooks as facile and forgettable as you might expect from songs with titles such as "You Will Be Free", "You Will Find Me", and "Our Love Survives". Let a latter-day Mark Hoppus or Jim Adkins get a crack at these melodies and you'd have a perfectly enjoyable and gooey low-stakes pop-punk record.

But Desperate Ground is a record that really wants to convey having something to say and Harris has run out of ways to say that something. Not long after "Born To Kill" sets the tone, Desperate Ground feels less like a sequel to The Body than a series of sequels to itself-- on "The Sunset", Harris sings an executioner's song, his remorse haunting him like his own shadow. On "Faces Stay With Me", the same thing happens, only with faces instead of shadows. By the time "I Go Alone" situates itself between Whitesnake and Green Day, they've lost even the basic righteousness of sloganeering and you start to hear it as Thermals magnetic poetry with "blood," "kill," "war," "road," "sunset," and "shadows" all popping up with alarming frequency. You could probably guess 75% of the lyrics from "The Sword By My Side" without even hearing it, and yes, they're using a weapon as a metaphor for another weapon.

In a way, the stultifying generality of Desperate Ground does lend it a perspective, though it's the all-too-common affliction of seeing the same wars drag on and the same talking heads making the same points on the news and feeling utterly helpless. Perhaps the pileup of clich�s and the numbed production is supposed to give Desperate Ground a meta context, that the endless body count has rendered Harris completely desensitized. But that's a generous reading for an album that begins and ends with guns-blazin' mission statements with plenty in between, so it's more likely Desperate Ground is a failure to respond to the horror rather than an intention to reflect it.
The Thermals: Desperate Ground

The Thermals: Desperate Ground

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