The Thermals - More Parts Per Million (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

The Thermals

More Parts Per Million (2003)

Sub Pop

I figured it out. I have a theory. It was a few years ago now that a massive convergence of musicians occurred, a secretive well-hidden underground meeting in an undisclosed location, somewhere, anywhere–probably in or around the New York or Tri-State area. There, a coalition formed with the plan to change rock and roll. To bring it back to how it used to be. And though evidence of such a meeting has never been uncovered, to this reviewer, this hypothesis, this theory, is the only way to explain the current rock offerings. Suddenly, as if rap-rock had never existed, lo-fi throwback 60s-esque driving rock began to overtake the airwaves. The Hives and The White Stripes both found mainstream success after years in the underground. The Strokes and The Vines both scored a major hit with their debut albums, and the former effectively commandeered the New York rock scene. Enter a west coast offering, Portland's, The Thermals. (Yes, another "the"…hell, why not?). With The Thermal's debut album, More Parts Per Million released on Sub-Pop Records, we have yet another lo-fi rock offering. Only this time, The Thermals describe themselves as "no-fi" with a real "d.i.y." (do-it-yourself) ethic. You know, for street credibility.

Singer/songwriter Hutch Harris recorded More Parts Per Million in his one bedroom house on a four-track. It sounds like it. Distorted vocals, distorted guitars, distorted bass, distorted drums, distorted everything. The vocals, especially, sound like they were recorded on a Playschool tape recorder with a plastic echoing Playschool microphone. Musically, The Thermal's are doing pretty much everything similar to their New York rock brethren. They sound mostly like a poorly recorded live Strokes mp3. We've heard this all before–first in the 1960s, now in all of the other similar bands out there.

The Thermals succeed in having some really catch hooks, and I suppose that's really what this type of rock is about. Lyrically they score about average. There is a reliance on much-repeated choruses. Every song sounds similar musically, though through that verbal repetition like, "On Your Breath/On your flesh/On line, On time," in song "Out of the Old and the Thin." So there are some distinguishing attributes in the individual structures, though overall, most everything is the same volume, tempo, and intensity.

In "Overgrown, Overblown!," the now standard style of driving guitar and syncopated drum beats are matched with Harris' sloppily annunciated, distorted vocals, "I see the fire/and it's faceless/I hope you cam here to embrace/and not escape it." The vocals here fade in and out, a power balance between grungy peaking guitars and Harris' wails. The recording takes as much prevalence as the music. A sequence from two of the last songs, "Back to Grey" to "Born Dead" is satisfying, with two of the catchiest offerings back to back.

The Thermals and their debut album More Parts Per Million are cashing in on a popular sound, and while the "no-fi" supposedly artistically credible recording and catchy hooks will certainly draw fans of the genre, I don't foresee this album making converts of the critics. And for a genre quickly becoming overcrowded, The Thermals sit on the fence with this average debut. It's better than some of the rest, but it's still a part of all of the rest. They face stiff competition. (Check out The Shins if you want something better). It has been reported that The Thermal's next album will be recorded in a more traditionally professional fashion. They had better hope this popular lo-fi garage nostalgic rock trend is still the hipster rage by then. It's beginning to all sound the same, and that's not conducive to a long shelf life.