Paul Thorn : What The Hell is Goin On?
What The Hell Is Goin’ On?
Perpetual Obscurity Records
By Grant Britt
It’s rare to find an album you can listen to all the way through over and over again. Paul Thorn manages to put ‘em out regularly and he’s done it again on his latest, What The Hell Is Goin’ On.? It’s an album of covers, but these covers aren’t ones easily plucked from the airwaves. It takes some serious vinyl digging to come up with this stuff.
Anything Paul Thorn does always packs a punch. You’d expect no less from a man who once went 7 rounds with “Hands Of Stone” Roberto Duran. Ranked number 29thmiddle-weight in the world when he fought Duran in ’88, Thorn was stopped in the seventh by cuts over his eyes from those hands of stone because “I wanted to show I was eligible to be in a John Wayne movie, so I started running in throwing punches, and he picked me apart,” Thorn says.
That fight ended that career, and after a stint in a furniture factory, Thorn jump-started his singer/songwriter career with “Hammer and a Nail,” the ultimate survivor’s theme song. “Ain’t gonna let ‘em beat me down,” he proclaimed on the title cut from his ’97 debut. “Someday I’ll prevail/ I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.”
Since then, Thorn, sounding like Randy Newman channeling John Hiatt, has put out 5 more collections concerning living and loving, Southern style. Thorn’s ruminations sometimes wander over the line from blue collar to white trash, but still the protagonists are allowed to maintain some dignity.
For his latest, Thorn lets others do the talking, but his voice, and his vision, is still very much in control.
He kicks it off with a Lindsey Buckingham/Stevie Nicks song “Don’t Let Me Down Again,” originally recorded in ’73, before the two were Fleetwood Mac-ers. It’s a far cry from that duo’s anemic, reedy vocal performance. Thorn wallops the vocal lead, snarling over a nasty slide guitar that sounds wrapped in barbed wire.
Thorn’s take on Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Snake Farm” sounds like it fell off a Tony Joe White record. But while Hubbard’s was just creepy, Thorn infuses his with a sense of fun. With a barely suppressed chuckle, he takes his time telling the tale about what he and viper mistress Ramona, who dances like Little Egypt and sports a tattoo of a python eating a mouse on her arm, will get up to after she’s run everybody off from the reptile house.
“Shed A Little Light” from Irish singer songwriter Foy Vance, is transformed from a folky love ode into a soulful hymn. And when Thorn moans churchily that “I’d surely die for your embrace,” he makes you believe he’s totally committed to doing just that. It’s one of the best soul tracks in years.
It just keeps getting better. Thorn’s take on Allen Toussaint’s “Wrong Number” sounds like Delbert McClinton interpreting John Hiatt.
McClinton himself shows up for a vocal guest shot on vocals for “Bull Mountain Bridge,” a cautionary tale about what happens when a pot-dealin’ lady killer goes up agin’ the local Klan leader in a small mountain community. “Take him on down to the Bull Mountain Bridge/ Tie his hands, throw him in the river/might as well give him his farewell party now,” McClinton advises, as the band rocks Skynyrd style behind him. “Knock him in the head/ he’s better of dead/ break his arms and throw him the river/if anybody asks just tell ‘em he committed suicide.”
Even though he’s long been retired from the sweet science, Thorn still delivers stunning blows to the head and body. Thanks, Paul, for the ringside seats.