Desperate GroundSaddle Creek Records
By Cole Faulkner
As the saying goes, less is more, and it couldn’t be truer than in the case of Oregon garage punk trio, The Thermals. The Portland troupe’s attention to simple, infectious, fuzz drenched riffs has been at their foundation since their humble beginnings, reaching an ambitious peak with 2009’s Now We Can See (my personal jumping on period). In an effort to expand on their talents, 2010’s Personal Life lengthened song run times and upped ambitions with mixed results. And while the approach worked at the time, their newest full length, Desperate Ground, is a reminder of just how successful The Thermals can be without all the frills.
Composed of a quick ten songs, none of which press far beyond the three-minute mark, Desperate Ground clocks in at a well-suited twenty-six minutes that highlights The Thermals’ gusto. Armed with scrappy chords and blunt, repetitive lyrics, the band builds a surprisingly complex narrative. The album follows the conflicted psychology of a sword-wielding assassin ready to kill on command. What some bands might try to tackle in a single track, The Thermals survey over an entire album. For instance, “Born To Kill” singly explores an innate “made to slay” bloodlust with a quick jangly tempo, whereas “You Will Be Free” enters our protagonist’s mind for some rather conflicted mid-tempo motivation. Comparing tracks that chronicle the deeds done like “The Sword By My Side” with the internal turmoil of “Faces Stay With Me” and the splurge of emotion in the methodically paced conclusion “Our Love Survives” tell a story that can’t be reduced to a handful of choice cuts. Most songs will resonate well after they run their course, and the indirect political and moralistic commentary will take hold after repeat listens.
My only minor gripe is that a few songs, like “Where I Stand,” recycle and repeat some early content. True, there are some minor alterations, but if played side by side with, say, “The Sunset,” they make one ponder about alternative directions. The album features great situational character development, but listeners are left with some questions that could have been touched on.
So very distinct in style and substance, The Thermals have become niche landmarks like Deathcab For Cutie or The Decemberists, playing to an audience hungry for their next sonic fix. With their sixth studio album so tightly formed and trimmed from any fat, Desperate Ground is a lean, back to basics offering that should catch the ear of the lo-fi indie and pop-punk communities alike.