Review: Paul Thorn – What the Hell is Going On? (Perpetual Obscurity, 2012)
Paul Thorn is a Mississippi bluesman whose earlier career as a boxer still echoes in his gruff growl. Though well-known for his original, biographical songs, Thorn’s sixth album is an all-covers affair. Singing the songs of other writers is a complex task, one that reflects on Thorn’s understanding of songwriting craft as well as his visceral experience as a listener. He poses this set as an opportunity to “take a break from myself,” but his selections from others’ pens say a great deal about his musical roots, influences and tastes. Most of his picks are sufficiently obscure to avoid even registering as covers for many listeners; but these are interpretations rather than explanations, and Thorn’s fans will marvel at how easily he draws these songs into his personal orbit. This is a mix tape, but one in which the mixer sings the songs rather than having lined up other people’s performances on a C90.
Thorn’s voice has a clenched, raspy edge that variously brings to mind Dr. John, Jon Dee Graham, Willy DeVille, John Hyatt, Lyle Lovett, Randy Newman, Joe Cocker, Tom Waits and even a bit of Louis Armstrong. He doesn’t sound like any one of them, but your ears will catch passing associations as he work through a wide-ranging catalog drawn from Ray Wylie Hubbard, Buddy Miller, Elvin Bishop, Allen Toussaint and others. Each recitation balances flavors from the original recordings with Thorn’s own sound, retaining the signature rolling rhythm of Lindsey Buckingham’s early “Don’t let Me Down Again” while lowering its youthful freneticism, magnifying the blue side of Free’s “Walk in My Shadow,” and giving Muscle Shoals’ legend Donnie Fritts’ “She’s Got a Crush on Me” the soul vocal it really deserves.
Thorn finds something interesting to say with each of these covers, zeroing in on the fright of Hubbard’s “Snake Farm,” lending a heavier church-vibe to Miller’s “Shelter Me Lord,” and giving Bishop space to play guitar on a tightened-up version of his own title track. One of the album’s best tracks, “Bull Mountain Bridge,” is also its one thematic cheat. Originally recorded as a demo called “The Hawk,” the song was retitled (and shouldn’t be confused with songwriter Wild Bill Emerson’s “Bull Mountain Boy”) and given, with Delbert McClinton pitching in on vocals, a superb southern rock treatment. Thorn compliments his songwriting peers by wishing he’d written these compositions, and pays his debt for their listening pleasure by sharing these songs with his own fans.