The latest Paul Thorn CD is here and I'm pleased to say they have outdone themselves yet again. Pimps and Preachers is hard to label. It doesn't have the typical Paul Thorn themes. The sound is less slick than some of the previous albums...nothing feels contrived...or forced. My favorite of the studio albums from the past are Long Way from Tupelo and Mission Temple Firework Stand as complete works to let you know from where I'm approaching this. The song quality is as good as any previous work but there's just something special about this one to me. This album isn't about lifting anyone up though, in true Paul form, it's not about tearing anyone down either. They've gotten back to the story songs that paint such vivid images, you feel like it's happening to you. It's Paul and Billy's writing at its best!
The first tune is a Beatlesque driving tune; You're Not the Only One. It's a "we're in this thing together" tune setting up our journey through the CD perfectly. Musically, it just makes me happy...the best compliment I can give any musician. Dr. Love's left hand is the star of this one musically to me. I thought of Lady Madonna the first time I heard it. It's not a rip off but a beautiful homage to that wonderful style of arranging a tune to suit the lyrics perfectly. This is a sympathetic tune. It tells the story of how we all feel sorry for ourselves and that is a Universal truth. We all struggle. On this album...the struggles are going to be shared. So here we go...
The next tune is the title track. Pimps and Preachers has slick melodic bass groove provided by Doug Kahan that sets up the lessons learned. Once again we've got hard knocks to go through but we have the source of Paul's advice set up in the last tune. It brings you in close from the beginning, as we move along; the rhythm guitar gets raunchier as we build to Bill's solo. The vibrato that brings us into the last verse takes us full circle back to that original down and dirty groove. It's a wonderful love letter from Paul to his father and uncle. It thanks them for their guidance in how to deal with life and that absolutely is the theme of this CD.
We feel a bit sorry for ourselves again on track 3; Tequila is Good for the Heart. It's a tongue and cheek look at a drinkin' song. There's traditional country, blues, classic rock and a large dose of gospel served up on this one. It never ceases to make me smile when I hear it. Dr. Love really shines on this one. There's a church organ and barroom piano playing together in harmony. I can already see the drunks swaying back and forth in a sing a long down front at a show in my head.
Probably my favorite cut on the disc is Track 4, Love Scar. We have lessons to learn the hard way in this tune as well. It's catchy as hell and easy to sing a long right away. It's memorable. The keys at the beginning bring to mind the best of what The Band had to give and some of Levon's later tunes. This strikes me as a hit song. It's better than 99% of anything I've heard on a country radio station in a long damn time. It has a beautifully executed mandolin part on it that I believe was a Dr. Love contribution that adds to its sound. It demonstrates how stripped down the production is on this CD as well. When you hear the acoustic at the beginning as the organ comes in, you'll hear Billy Maddox inhaling in rhythm through his nose. It makes me grin every time. The lyrical content is a clever play on those cheesy pickup lines that many songs glorify these days but this song absolutely takes itself seriously as it raises the bar. It's an amazing song done extremely well. There's no justice if this isn't a darling of mainstream radio. We'll see.
Moving on to Track 5, we go from a woman's disappointment in a smooth talking man to a rousing tune about a paranoid man convinced his woman is stepping out on him. Jeffrey Perkins stands out on this tune. He hits you in the gut and sets the lyrics up so they can tear them the rest of the way out! Weeds in My Roses is full of that paranoia that I love from Black Rainbow. The difference is this one is a little more angry and a lot more rockin' and rollin'. All the players are grittier on this tune than any other tune on the record. Also, it captures that magic of the PTB live and in person.
We find ourselves down and out in the next song; Better Days Ahead. It has a flavor of New Orleans with the never ending Paul Thorn optimism in the face of darkness. The music reflects it perfectly. Dr. Love really shines on this one from piano, to mandolin and the synthesized accordion solo. Bill's slide is magical in the bridge. They are all absolutely on their game on this entire album but this one stands out to break the sadness of a handful of the previous tunes. It reminds us we are still in this together.
Now we find us in the surreal. Ray Ann's Shoes is unlike any other Paul Thorn song you've ever heard. It brings some early Ryan Adams to mind as far as the guitar work goes. This song has Paul on acoustic guitar and lead vocals. He is joined in harmony on vocals by himself bringing a subtle dissonance the harmonies are so damn tight. His guitar is joined by a violin/fiddle provided by the wonderful Donnie Carpenter, the go to guy in Muscle Shoals for strings. Donnie really adds a special feel blending a classical and a country feel together to bring this tune to a whole new level. I know this is a song close to Paul's heart. He wrote it about someone he actually knows that went through a divorce recently. It's a beautiful tribute to her. It also expands the definition of what a Paul Thorn song sounds like. Billy deserves a big pat on the back getting this one where it is from what I understand from Paul.
Next, we get a little boogie back in our step with a shuffling drum and infectious rhythm guitar to get our toes tapping. Bill's slide work on this is just fun. It makes me happy. The tune is You Might Be Wrong. It asks you to take a step back before you argue about religion. It preaches faith with tolerance. An open mind seems to be the key to Paul's personal philosophy. I love this tune. Perhaps when the folks that tend to think he's a contemporary Christian artist will get the picture with this tune. It's live and let live. The eternal optimism comes through on this tune as well.
Buckskin Jones is story song. It's got a funky groove that just sounds new to me while invoking the sounds of the South from the last 50 years. The solo in the middle is provided by an old friend of Bill's originally from Montgomery, Alabama where they grew up in bands together, Mr. Kelvin Holly. He's Little Richard's long time guitarist and Muscle Shoals studio musician. I'm lucky enough to live close enough where I can slip over and see him play with his band The Decoys most every Wednesday Night in a local club here. He's one of the best and he shines here. He brought something special and from all accounts, brought a special vibe in the studio. Buckskin Jones ends up sounding like a labor of love continuing the theme that life throws you curves. It is how you react to them that make a difference.
Next is a personal favorite from Paul's acoustic sets over the last couple of years, I Hope I'm Doing This Right. I wasn't sure how this would interpret to disc. The guys did a great job of making the feel lighter than the lyrics. I love how it turned out. What a great song about hitting the middle of your life and accessing what you are actually doing to make your life successful...defining success...feeling helpless to your weaknesses...but going to the well of faith to try to deal with it. One of the greatest verses in any song EVER refers to Hank Williams. I won't just type it here and let the ones that haven't heard it yet have their own reaction. I can tell you this, the first time I heard it, I was in Birmingham, Alabama sitting on the edge of the stage at WorkPlay and I got chills and burst into tears. Paul looked at me and grinned at my gut reaction. He should be really proud of this one.
The next tune addresses in a perfectly honest way, how annoying the people in our lives can be. I Don't Like Half the Folks I Love stops short of being a novelty tune but keeps all of the Thorn humor in tact. Bill's slide guitar on this one is definitely no joke. He really shines. Jeffrey's drums help keep the tongue firmly in the cheek by driving the tune along. This one is fun.
This brings us to one my favorite tunes. The first time I heard it, I was on a stretch of Highway 43 between Hamilton and Hackelburg, Alabama. I looked down and I was driving 85 before I knew what I was doing. Nona Lisa is a pop song. It brings together EVERYTHING I love about music. From the drum line pushing my accelerator down for me, to perfectly innocent longing of the lyrics, to the bridge that reminds me of some of the great hits from the 60s, to my favorite Bill Hinds guitar solo ever...this will be a favorite for a long time. Bill's guitar has more longing in it than the lyrics themselves. It's not the most complicated moment Bill's ever put on disc but if it doesn't break your heart, you ain't got one! Again...this tune continues the theme of a common experience we all have. There's always that unrequited love we all remember from being young. If the critics whine about this being too pop, they can go to hell as far as I'm concerned. I love it.
The album rounds out with a beautiful song, That's Life, that is a collection of lines that Paul's mom has told him over the years. I wasn't sure what Billy and Paul would do to this one to bring it to the CD and I was shocked what they did in a good way. There's so much of a late 70s Muscle Shoals feel to it. It's very easy listening that rounds out the CD so well. It's the perfect one to be the anchor tune.
"That's Life" could be the name of the CD instead of Pimps and Preachers. It seems to be the theme of the entire disc. We all deal with all of these life lessons, big and small. From realizing we aren't the center of the universe and aren't the only one to every go through trials and tribulations on the first cut...to loving and losing and learning lessons from it no matter how painful it is...to losing control of our emotions and being suspicious...to having to pick ourselves up and dusting ourselves off...to understanding we aren't the only ones with a faith on the planet...to dark family secrets...to hitting our knees in prayer hoping we are on the right path...to being fed up with family and friends but loving them anyway...reminiscing about the dream person that got away...and watching our parents and grandparents age...it is all on this journey that is life. It all connects. It's a beautifully thought out ride from beginning to end. I'm proud to call myself a fan.