The Thorns were a coming together of 3 successful singer/songwriters; Matthew Sweet, Shawn Mullins, and Pete Droge who produced one superb album in 2003 before disbanding and carrying on with their respective solo careers. Each artist had varying levels of success as solo artists but all were very well thought of within the songwriting community. The most well known of the three in the UK was Mullins due to his song ‘Lullaby’ being a surprise radio hit in the late-nineties. When they all decided to join forces, they set out to produce an album that evoked all the best elements of the late 60s and early 70s west coast music scene. The most obvious reference points were the likes ofCrosby, Stills, and Nash, The Eagles, and James Taylor but they managed to rubberstamp their songs with their own unique blend of harmonies and instrumentation.
For a band of songwriters so used to working solo, the results of this union were incredible. 12 beautifully accessible compositions and one cover version flowed brilliantly together, and was an extremely rewarding listen for anybody who managed to stumble across this album upon its release.
The albums lead single ‘Runaway Feeling’ thrusts the bands influences to the forefront of proceedings, marrying the pretty, sun-kissed, acoustic melodies of James Taylor with wonderful CS&N three part harmonies and a chorus so infectious you will be humming it for days after hearing it.
Runaway Feeling (Live Acoustic Version)
As the album progresses the strength of the songwriting becomes more and more apparent along with Brendan O’Brien’s lush production. O’Brien is one of my favourite producers of all time with a wide variety of albums under his belt by the likes of Pearl Jam, Springsteen, Train, Mastadon, Rage Against The Machine, and The Black Crowes as well as solo albums by both Matthew Sweet and Pete Droge. But his work on this album is probably his best, also contributing as a musician during the recording process.
‘I Can’t Remember’ is a laid back acoustic stroll reminiscent of mid period Eagles while ‘Now I Know’ is driven by a ukulele and bright keyboards with the three voices blending beautifully together. This is closely followed by ‘Dragonfly’ which will have fans of Crosby Stills &Nash’s more brooding moments salivating for more.
The albums most stunning moment comes in the form of ‘No Blue Sky’ filled with chiming guitars, melancholic melodies, and a sweeping string arrangement that packs the same sort of emotional punch as Train’s ‘Drops Of Jupiter’. The fact that O’Brien was at the production helm for that album too shows how adept he is at producing this sort of heart stirring, string laden music.
The cover of The Jayhawks song ‘Blue’ is an inspired choice and the songs natural melody and arrangement is almost tailor-made for a band such as The Thorns. They show their more powerful side with ‘I Set The World On Fire’ with its anthemic chorus, big guitar crashes and uplifting Eagles-esque vocals.
One thing I remember thinking to myself at the time of hearing this album was that I would love to hear all the songs in purely acoustic form. Luckily the band had foreseen this line of thinking and a few months later released the Deluxe version of the album, with a bonus disc of the whole album performed acoustically. This version of the album not only got the heart of the songs across even more, but also showed off the bands exceptional harmonies in their rawest form. The acoustic album was recorded live in the studio and had a more rootsy feel to it when stripped down. When listening back to it now, the more folk elements to their song writing are very much apparent, sounding like the spiritual forefathers of Fleet Foxes. The arrangements of the songs were changed to suit the acoustic environment and a few of them sounded even better for it. ‘Now I Know’ is even more sparse than the original, with a single ukulele and the three voices that are so clear you can hear every quiver and every breath by each member as they almost whisper their way through the song. It is at these moments that the Fleet Foxes comparison is at its most obvious. The acoustic setting also brings to life ‘I Told You’ where the bendy, fretless bass work is a great compliment to the three voices in one of the albums most memorable and hummable tunes.
The acoustic version of philosophical album closer ‘Among The Living’ is truly spellbinding, with mandolins intertwining with acoustic guitars and fretless bass, and the vocals are magnificent, full of emotion and showing just how well matched the three voices are. Simply put, if you are looking to seek out this album, you simply have to get the expanded version.
It is a frustration that Sweet, Mullins, and Droge have chosen not to reconvene and record another album under The Thorns name. Particularly given the renaissance this acoustic scene has gone through over the 5 years or so. While their style may well be rooted in the West Coast of America from the late 60s and early 70s, when it first came out in 2002 it was refreshing to hear that people were still writing music such as this, staying to true to the songwriting values of the era. If you are a fan of any of the above, this album will be impossible not to love.
No Blue Sky (Album Version)