The Thorns

The Thorns

Sony Records, 2003

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Sometimes it's all about expectations.

It's taken me weeks of listening and a couple of long breaks to get past my own in connection with this album, the debut disc from the alliance of singer-songwriters Matthew Sweet, Shawn Mullins and Pete Droge. And I'm not alone -- both critics and fans of the individual artists involved have been challenged by this album.

The issue is the same for me -- an avowed Shawn Mullins fan -- as for admirers of Sweet and Droge. Each has developed an appealingly quirky, highly individual approach to their solo work; it's part of what makes them worth following. Here, by contrast, the individual musical personalities of Sweet, Mullins and Droge are almost undetectable. Ten of the 13 tracks on the album are co-credited to all three, and ninety percent of the vocals are done in full harmony. In banding together, the three have largely surrendered their individuality in favor of a collective style that's distinctly different from their individual efforts.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

There's the hurdle, then, and here's the punchline -- given the chance to, the Thorns soar right over it.

Taking as their models '70s harmony groups like Crosby Stills & Nash and America, the Thorns wrap their voices around one another and build a series of little cathedrals of sound on a folk-rock foundation. A perfect example is the wistful "I Can't Remember," whose slumbering melody swells under the power of their voices meshing into one of those constructs that feels bigger on the outside than it is on the inside.

It's the kick-off, Byrds-y "Runaway Feeling" that sets the tone for the album, though, with its loping verses and chiming-guitar choruses finished off with cheeky Beach Boys harmonies. Later on, "Now I Know" takes the boys deeper into Pet Sounds territory, setting their three-member choir against nothing but strings and letting the listener simply wallow in their perfect tone. Still, for pure "wow" factor, the highlight has to be their dead-on cover of the Jayhawks' "Blue," where their three voices triangulate like precision-guided fireworks over cello and organ.

On the other hand… about three-quarters of the way through this disc, the Thorns start to sound like they may be a bit of a one-trick pony. Yeah, "Long, Sweet Summer Night" has a great little melody, and the vocals on "I Told You" are rich as ever, but these tracks already sound familiar, like something you just heard a few minutes before. The only real variety in the first ten tracks is the funked-up oddity that is "Thorns," whose chief purpose seems to be to provide a caption for the cover photo ("Thorns / Keep walking away from it all"). These sequencing choices become that much more puzzling when the Thorns and producer Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam, Train, Bruce Springsteen) load up the tail end of the album with two considerably heavier -- and quite well-crafted -- rock tracks, "Such A Shame" and "I Set The World On Fire." Why these two don't show up sooner on the track list is a mystery.

If, like me, you were a fan of Sweet, Mullins and/or Droge as a solo artist who finds yourself initially disoriented, maybe even disappointed by this album's sound, my advice is to give it a chance to grow on you. Stepping back until it was possible to set expectations aside and hear this album with fresh ears made all the difference for this listener.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2003 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Sony Records, and is used for informational purposes only.