Choking on the Craving: The Thermals - More Parts Per Million at Fifteen

Rewind, Local Music, Album Reviews
Martin Douglas

With Rewind, KEXP digs out beloved albums, giving them another look on the anniversary of its release. Today, we celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Thermals' bratty, cheaply-recorded, excellent debut album, More Parts Per Million, released March 4, 2003, via Sub Pop Records.

"Memory wise, memory flies, memory rarely satisfies,” sings Hutch Harris on “A Passing Feeling,” a highlight from the Thermals’ excellent debut album, More Parts Per Million. It’s an impression any person who has experienced anything can relate to. Remembrance is a fading photograph, an unreliable chronicle tied as loosely to the thrill of experience as a frayed shoelace. That’s part of why recorded music is such a powerful document; while memory goes dull with the passage of time, a recording captures a moment in time preserved for as long as a copy exists.

More Parts Per Million was a record largely caught between generations. 2003 was somewhat of a dark age for lo-fi, punk-leaning pop music -- a score too late for a band to share bills with Guided by Voices or Sebadoh, a half-decade too early for the subgenre’s cultural resurgence, led by the GarageBand-recorded Wavves or the self-described “shitgaze” of Times New Viking. But as the old saying goes, the medium is less important than the message, and More Parts Per Million managed to become a minor classic regardless of its path being out of the reaches of the zeitgeist.

SPIN once joked More Parts Per Million mixer Chris Walla -- known for his stately grace producing selected works from Death Cab for Cutie, the Decemberists, and various other indie bestsellers -- polished the album with a rusty Brillo pad. That remark could easily be cast off as derision, but there is an excitement in the dirty, trebly glare of the Thermals’ debut album, which infamously only cost around $60 to record. Regardless of the recording fidelity of their records, most bands spend more than that on beer.

As far as urgent opening statements go, there have been far worse than “It’s Trivia.” Hutch Harris sings loudly into the void, mulling over crunched numbers while the band plays with the intensity befitting of a song evoking the image of getting smashed in the face. Almost as a safeguard against being too overwhelmed by numbers in the red or black and being numbed down by words, Harris sings those lasting words above the cacophony, “It’s only trivia, so don’t freak out!”

There’s a lot of anxiety present in Harris’ lyrics on More Parts Per Million, a lot of bracing for bad things to happen (“Brace and Break”), a lot of being flung into the unknown (“Out of the Old and Thin,” “I Know the Pattern”). Forgetting becomes a preoccupation, whether it’s the fear of losing all the things he’d like to say to someone (“An Endless Supply”), hoping to lose bad memories to time (“Born Dead”), or waiting for someone so long he forgot he was waiting (“Goddamn the Light”).

On the Thermals’ interpretation of a sock-hop ballad, “Back to Gray” surveys a bleak winter, strobe lights in the sky, “your footprints in the fake snow,” a somewhat sarcastic embrace of Mother Nature (“I don’t need any love, ‘cause I’ve got the elements), and a plea addressed directly to her: “Don’t let us die before the springtime.” Deep in this collection of utterly catchy, bratty, punky pop songs -- listening to More Parts Per Million is like finding a lollipop caked with dirt -- is this gorgeously simple love song, scuffed as it may be.

All the reminiscence is tinged with romance, like on single “No Culture Icons.” Buried at the end of the screed the commodification of art and the erasure of individuality is a sudden utterance of infatuation: “Eyes so deep you’d never see through/I can’t fucking stop thinking about you.” On "Overgrown! Overblown!," Harris sings, "We can go to hell and you can teach me" with the romanticism of someone reciting their wedding vows. At its core, “Born Dead” is a rollicking meditation on heartbreak and the notion of the aching sensation making way for a rebirth.

Picking a favorite of the Thermals’ trio of astounding Sub Pop-released albums is a matter of personal preference. In addition to their kinetic debut album, there’s Fuckin’ A, similar in thematic punch but even more caustically produced than its predecessor. If you’re more into sprawling meditations on Christianity distilled into a powerful 40 minutes of pop-punk anthems, their near-perfect The Body, the Blood, the Machine -- sadly as culturally relevant in 2018 as it was twelve years ago -- is a surefire recommendation.

But there is value in starting the long and winding narrative of the Thermals from the beginning, from the basement. More Parts Per Million is absolutely the rawest, most concise iteration of both the band’s aesthetic and their worldview, a shot to the arm as far as its little corner of the music world goes -- even though it’s not always valued as such by many of its denizens. But maybe such a thing is only trivia anyway.

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