By Paul Casey
There were two barriers to my listening Paul Thorn‘s cover album, What The Hell Is Goin’ On? The first, I was not aware of Paul Thorn’s music. The second, I was not familiar with many of the songs he covered (and in some cases with the artists too). Quickly though these barriers turned to my advantage (aha!), finding a pleasant collection of Blues numbers and a new fellow who can turn it out a bit for money.
Paul Thorn has a voice with a touch of a more excited Randy Newman, especially on the Bobby Charles and Rick Danko song “Small Town Talk,” where he lays back and recalls the porch and ice tea concerns of 12 Songs. The song originally appeared on Danko’s first solo album—Rick Danko—a little heard, now out of print affair from 1977. (In spite of a few awkward lyrical turns, I highly recommend keeping an eye open at your local second-hand music emporium. It was the only album Danko released until the early 1990s.)
Thorn also records a version of “Wrong Number (I’m Sorry Goodbye),” written by Allen Toussaint and recorded by Aaron Neville. Allen Toussaint was also involved with THE BAND on the album Cahoots, and the live recording Rock of Ages where he arranged the horns for Robbie Robertson. Thorn’s voice is at its best when it is singing sweet, and “Wrong Number” is one of the best on the album. “She’s Got a Crush On Me,” is written by Donnie Fritts, a longtime player with Kris Kristofferson. Recalling a bit of the magic of early Van Morrison, it is a lovely performance.
The other track choices are similarly idiosyncratic, avoiding a large measure of the bother of cover albums appearing as the last stand for a spent career. Of course the Blues, and those that play it, are more resilient to this attack, given the genre’s long history of the swapping and mingling of material. Thorn has flavor, and almost certainly eats smo’ chicken.
Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham from that lot Fleetwood Mac, get a look in on “Don’t Let Me Down,” which opens the album. It comes from their first record together, Buckingham Nicks from 1973, which features a ridiculous front cover with Buckingham looking like his hair is going to eat someone. This album preceded Nicks and Buckingham joining the Mac by two years. Thorn gives the song a gentler flow, with Michael Graham’s organ complementing the more relaxed sound.
Another ’70s rocking outfit, Free—with that bod Paul Rogers who has taken over Freddie Mercury’s role in what passes as Queen for some strange reason—also feature. “Walk In My Shadow” comes from Free’s first LP, Tons of Sobs, released in early 1969. The low and grimy vocals from Thorn give it a distinctly less anxious, amphetamine-fuelled sound, turning it methodical and stompy. Rocks some.
Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Snake Farm” is that dirty Blues that is required. From Hubbard’s 2010 album—also reptile titled—it is, even in its phallic/reptile combinations a helluva rocker. Hubbard has been recording records since the 1970s, showing Thorn’s living presence in the live music of these performers. Wild Bill Emerson’s “Bull Mountain Bridge,” a tale of jovial violence, does the job and is the best rocker on the album. “Shelter Me Lord,” by Buddy Miller, is a pretty straight cover but works well.
There are some slightly embarrassing moments on What The Hell Is Goin’ On? The Big Al Anderson song “Jukin” is half surf goofball, with a riff that insists on a quick entrance and exit from Red Foxx. The title track, written by Elvin Bishop is also a tad irksome in lyrical message. If one considers that the guff-worthy traditionalist/Golden Days fallacy that informs the song is held as well worn truth, the otherwise pleasing track gets a bit vomit inducing.
Leave aside the unfortunate Real Music arse that afflicts so many modern Blues players—probably best to not read how separate Paul Thorn thinks this music is from the current crop of popular artists—and you’ll have a pleasing album, which will provide the entry point for some interesting, slightly obscure music. Much credit has to go to the producer, Billy Maddox, who ensures a lovely fat and warm sound throughout.
What The Hell Is Goin’ On? was released May 8 through Perpetual Obscurity/Thirty Tigers and is available to order from Paul Thorn’s website. He will be touring extensively throughout the rest of this year; for a full list of tour dates, go here.