Supergroups are every record label's dream. Take a handful of proven artists and bundle them into a single package, and it's bound to be a runaway success.
Such a scenario is surely what prompted record execs to suggest that Pete Droge, Shawn Mullins and Matthew Sweet take a stab at collaborating as a full-blown band. Visions of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Fleetwood Mac must have been dancing in their heads.
In the case of the Thorns, though, they were dead wrong. The self-titled debut album from this trio of singer-songwriters could have been great, but instead it falls flat on almost every count.
You can't fault the label for trying. If you look at The Thorns as a complete package, it seems like it can't miss. Droge, Mullins and Sweet each bring to the table impressive resumés and critical acclaim, not to mention considerable songwriting talent. Add to the mix the Midas touch of producer Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam, Aerosmith, Soundgarden, as well as two earlier Thorns efforts); drumming by the legendary Jim Keltner; piano work by E Street veteran Roy Bittan; and contributions by mandolin virtuoso Greg Leisz and string arranger Paul Buckmaster, who has worked with everyone from Leonard Cohen to Carly Simon to 10,000 Maniacs -- and this should have been a surefire hit.
But it's not. While the voices of Droge, Mullins and Sweet create some unexpectedly beautiful harmonies that are, in fact, reminiscent of Crosby, Stills and Nash, the overall musical impact is flaccid. This is not to say that the music is patently bad, just that it is not at all interesting. Even the strongest tracks on The Thorns sound like they would have been rejected for solo records by any one of these skilled songwriters. Actually, the strongest track on the album is a cover of the Jayhawks' "Blue."
In many cases, the songs and their arrangements end up sounding far too much like their influences -- mostly the "N" of CSN, Graham Nash -- and sometimes stray (accidentally?) into territory covered by the Grateful Dead, Brian Wilson, '80s-era Elton John, "More Than Words"-era Extreme and, unbelievably, 'N Sync. (Listen to "I Can't Remember" if you have doubts.)
Unquestionably, Droge, Mullins and Sweet are each extremely gifted singers, songwriters and multi-instrumentalists with loyal and enthusiastic fans who will rush out to snap up The Thorns. They deserve better than this.
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