So Matthew Sweet, Pete Droge, and Shawn Mullins have joined forces to create The Thorns, an alleged supergroup that specializes in seeing just how thin a band can stretch syrupy vocal harmonies, sunny-day melodies, and sentimental lyrics. Of the three artists, Matthew Sweet has met with the most critical success, while Mullins has had the biggest radio hit with the intolerably cheesy “Lullaby”. Droge is that guy whose name you know, though you’re not really sure why.
Apparently, the boys were hoping that this collaboration would spark some more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts magic. One can’t blame them for thinking so, especially considering the modest parts we’re talking about. However, what they’ve ended up with is pretty much what one would expect from three aging singer-songwriters who share a proclivity for none-too-challenging mid-tempo rock. At its best, it approximates Crosby Stills and Nash; at its worst, it sounds strikingly like the Eagles. When neither at their best or worst, that is to say, most of the time, they sound (as a friend pointed out to me) “like what the Bacon Brothers must sound like, though I wouldn’t know.”
I have to give credit where credit is due though: Their voices work together rather nicely. If you’re the type who cranks the volume on your local classic rock station every time “Seven Bridges Road” comes on, you’ll appreciate the Thorns. Matthew Sweet, whose association with this project has surely spurred much hand-wringing disapproval on the part of his fans, stands out the most, ladling his improbably appealing nasal tenor atop the less distinctive voices of Mullins and Droge.
Sweet was also responsible for the most pleasing instrumentation of the night, brandishing an Appalachian dulcimer for “Runaway Feeling”, the opening track off the band’s self-titled debut album. The band seemed to hit their peak during its performance, which didn’t bode well for either the band or the audience, as it was only the second song of the band’s set.
What The Thorns lack more than engaging songs, thoughtful lyrics, or any kind of edge whatsoever (but make no mistake—they certainly lack all of those things too) is some semblance of personality. With three former solo artists on stage together, I was expecting, at the very least, some scintillating back-and-forth banter. And I was really hoping for was some Machiavellian, passive-aggressive sparring among the band members, as each one jockeyed for the surely-never-spoken-of but unquestionably-much-pined-for rank of Frontman. Instead, we in the audience got three insufferable bores. The floppy-limbed Droge stood at the far right of the stage and impassively played his guitar all night. Sweet hung out on the far left looking grumpy and in need of some time spent with the elliptical trainer. Mullins cheesed it up at center stage, sharing lots of toothy smiles and a few post-song thank yous, but nothing more.
Of course, the audience loved it. Never mind the ho-hum songs or the inanimate performers; the suburbanite crowd lapped it all up happily. It seems that those who like The Thorns want out of music what they want out of life: Sunny skies, lazy days, and no surprises, ever.