On first listen, the Thermals' sophomore release might be a letdown for those who have followed the band since last year's More Parts Per Million.
Much of the appeal of that first album came from the tinny, uneven recording of the band's no-filler pockets of aggressive pop. Not that a crappy recording can, alone, make an album as fantastic as MPPM. But the recording complemented the strongest parts of the band's sound--the pleading urgency of leadman Hutch Harris' vocals intensified when delivered with the fidelity of a police scanner, just as the guitar hooks that pushed the songs were given an ear-tweaking grimy shine. Overall, MPPM sounded like an album thrown together with urgency: The musical production took a backseat to a message of such cultural import that, if it needed to be recorded in a kitchen, so be it. As local legend has it, it was.
Fuckin' A, the Portland trio's latest, wasn't recorded at home. With backing from the Sub Pop label, the band entered Avast Recording Studio in Seattle with producer Chris Walla (a guitarist for Death Cab for Cutie). Harris, bassist Kathy Foster and drummer Jordan Hudson spent five days in the studio creating an album that retains the frenetic energy of the first, but cleans up the sound for a larger audience.
In other words, the Thermals have recorded a more (eek!) mature album. And after the initial shock of the higher-fidelity version wears off, that maturity emerges to show musicians who are capable of more than just great hooks and snotty vocals. Fuckin' A is the product of a band that can take the classic bass-drums-guitar combo and invent two-minute pop songs to shuddering anthemic effect.
The album's first track, "Our Trip," plays like an announcement. Beginning with Hudson's crisp snare and sizzling symbol, the beat gives way to Foster's simple 4/4 bass line and a whine of guitar feedback that plays for a full 12 measures. Then Hutch starts one and a half minutes of pouncing, straining and refraining by singing: "We're self-mending/ We're self-cleansing/ Our slate is clean/ Say what you mean."
Simple as it may seem, this building-blocks approach to song is a drastic shift from the plug, chug and sing of MPPM--and the band is better for it. "How We Know," the album's longest track at 3:18, is allowed to swell and swoon while leading into a mournful guitar outro, in contrast to "Let Your Earth Quake, Baby," which swaggers on a steady dance-friendly beat. These songs wouldn't translate on MPPM, because, honestly, some things just can't be picked up on a tape recorder in a kitchen.
The Thermals play with the Schande and Moonpony Tuesday, May 18, at Berbati's Pan, 231 SW Ankeny St., 248-4579. 9:30 pm. Cover. 21+.