The opening notes of Paul Thorn’s new album are a bit familiar, signaling we might have traveled this road before. But that’s by design. Sure, we’ve all heard the Buckingham Nicks version of “Don’t Let Me Down Again,” but not with a gravelly lead vocal and a seriously earthy Southern groove. That’s because Thorn decided to cut an album of covers, interpreting a wide range of material and giving it his own particular spin.
For his last release, Pimps and Preachers (2010), Thorn drew from two sides of his family tree. According to publicity for the album, “his father is a Church of God Pentecostal minister, his uncle (his father’s brother) spent time as a pimp.” This time around we hear songs about saints and sinners again. By using material crafted by other songwriters, Thorn claimed he came up with a collection of tunes he wished he had composed himself. Produced by Billy Maddox, the album’s players are the very tight band that has been backing Thorn for 15 years. The band consists of guitarist Bill Hinds, keyboardist Michael Graham, bassist Ralph Friedrichsen and drummer Jeffrey Perkins. Guests along the way include some of Thorn’s idols, such as the ubiquitous Delbert McClinton.
Throughout the collection, the chosen songs come from sometimes esoteric sources, but the sound is unified by the feel and style of the band. Dirty guitar appropriately drives “Snake Farm,” as the singer conveys Ray Wylie Hubbard’s vision of a place which sounds nasty, “and pretty much is.” On the preachers’ side of the coin, the gospel lyrics of Buddy Miller’s “Shelter Me Lord” and Foy Vance’s “Shed A Little Light” share the same low down blues groove. They’re aided by nods to Stax records in the organ swells and soulful back-up singers, the McCrary Sisters. Likewise, “Wrong Number” sounds like an old-fashioned lover’s lament about someone who isn’t calling, pleaded in a very melodic setting.
Want more raw, rough-edged guitar? Elvin Bishop’s “What the Hell is Goin’ on” delivers with litanies of modern world woes leading to the rather pertinent title question. It also features some hot licks from Mr. Bishop himself. The gentler “Small Town Talk” is a laid-back warning against believing in loose, unreliable lips. The primal cover of an obscure Paul Rogers and Free song, “Walk In My Shadow,” is what the singer would like to do with a lady friend in the dark.
Wild Bill Emerson’s “Bull Mountain Bridge” is one of the most ironic tunes I’ve heard in ages. What happens when a pothead meets a redneck, alkie Klan member? Well, he gets knocked in the head and thrown in the river. This story is told with oddly joyful church choir choruses, something akin to Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys approach. Thorn keeps his party going in “Jukin’”, a Big Al Anderson composition where the singer is misbehaving while his lady is gone. The church organ and Steve Cropper-ish guitar return for the slow “She’s Got A Crush On Me,” where light lyrics are delivered with a haunting performance. How should such a trip end? With a rousing, good-time sing-along, of course. In this case it’s “Take My Love With You,” which Thorn described as representing his feelings about being a touring musician, often away from those he loves.
What The Hell Is Goin’ On? is for lovers of gritty, low-down, sizzling, earthy blues and blues rock. The music isn’t especially surprising or original, but the lyrics and stories are often character sketches or descriptions you don’t often hear quite like this on a blues record. I prefer the sinners, but no doubt some listeners will better appreciate the preaching. I guess I’m among those who need to hear a bit about redemption.