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Paul Thorn

What the Hell is Goin' On?

(Perpetual Obscurity; US: 8 May 2012; UK: 8 May 2012)

Break his arms and throw him in the river

The old childhood taunt goes it takes one to know one. But no one would tease Paul Thorn because he would whoop your ass. He’s one of America’s best singer songwriters, and now he has put out an album of other people’s songs. I guess that considering his talent, Thorn should know a good song when he hears it. His own works are filled with saints, sinners and the strange whose lives cannot be viewed through the prism of the sacred or the profane. The same is true of the people he sings about on the new cover record.

At heart, Thorn is a storyteller who knows how to rock. He’s had the same band for about 15 years that features guitarist Bill Hinds, keyboard player Michael Graham, bassist Ralph Friedrichsen and drummer Jeffrey Perkins. Thorn has described them as “a well-oiled machine,” which seems appropriate because the players tightly mesh with each other to create a monster sound. They form the backbone of the record and know when to let loose with a solo or to hold back and let Thorn shine forth.

And Thorn understands the importance of the song. The dozen ones he selected here share little in common except for the fact that Thorn makes them all sound cool. Some are weird. Some are sincere. Some are spiritual. Some are sad. But Thorn brings out the jewel inside each and every one of them. It’s clear that he chose them because they had a personal meaning to him that he wanted to share with listeners. That doesn’t make them heavy. Sometimes the meaning is simply that he’s horny or here’s a tale to make you squirm. That’s okay.

For example, Thorn takes Ray Wylie Hubbard’s funky “Snake Farm” and lets the nastiness of the reptile house and the girl named Ramona seduce you into thinking from your loins instead of your brains. Or he takes Wild Bill Emerson’s “Bull Mountain Ridge”, a song about a redneck cop Klan leader who kills a marijuana peddlin’ hippie by knocking him in the head, breaking both his arms and throwing him in the river and calling it a suicide, and makes it into lighthearted romp.

This is not a novelty record. The reason the two aforementioned songs work so well is because they are squeezed between more tunes like Fleetwood Mac’s early blues number “Don’t Let Me Down Again”, Buddy Miller’s spiritual “Shelter Me Lord”, Eli “Paperboy” Reed’s soulful “Take My Love With You”. Anyone who believes in love must be crazy, and What the Hell is Goin’ On?”  is filled with love struck fools.

Thorn performs the title song with its author, Elvin Bishop. The diatribe against modern technology contains a swamp drenched guitar lead that oozes mud between the notes. Thorn belts out a litany of complaints against a modern world that has left people isolated from each other and the places they live. Bishop takes a guitar solo in the middle that blasts its complaint as eloquently as the lyrics.

The majority of Thorn’s selections focus on one-to-one relationships rather than deal with larger issues, but he understands there is always somebody ready to get in the way of another person’s good thing. Sometimes he turns this into a joke, such as on Big Al Anderson’s “Jukin’”, and other times he points out the poignancy of the situation, such as on Bobby Charles/ Rick Danko’s “Small Town Talk”. But mostly, Thorn’s just interested in making the audience feel what he finds special in the songs, and he mightily succeeds.


Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.

Paul Thorn and "What The Hell Is Goin' On?" Part I
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