Before they met, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash all had successful careers — Crosby with the Byrds, Stills in Buffalo Springfield, and Nash as one of the Hollies. So it’s not unprecedented for three singer-songwriters to discover that they sound nice harmonizing together and decide to join forces.
The Thorns are built on such a model — this slightly-less-than-supergroup is made up of Matthew Sweet(best known for 1991’s power-pop gem ”Girlfriend”), Pete Droge (1994’s winsome novelty hit ”If You Don’t Love Me [I’ll Kill Myself]”), and Shawn Mullins (the spoken-sung ’98 smash ”Lullaby”). The problem with the Thorns isn’t that they’re reminiscent, in theory and in pedigree, of CS&N — it’s that they spend much of the album sounding almost exactly like CS&N. Except for the parts when they sound almost exactly like Tom Petty, or the Byrds, the Eagles, the Beach Boys…
There’s nothing wrong with being derivative — the Beatles copied Carl Perkins and Motown singles, the Stones imitated their blues idols, Ja Rule bites Tupac. But when an entire CD turns into a game of spot the classic-rock reference, it’s distracting, not to mention dull. The Thorns is strictly an A-list affair, produced by Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen) and featuring top-call players like drummer Jim Keltner and E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan. The material, though, seldom rises to the caliber of the cast.
Sweet, Droge, and Mullins are all talented songwriters, but nearly every track feels like it was written by committee. The disc is pleasant enough, yet it lacks memorable lines or hooks, or even much in the way of actual heartfelt emotion; most songs fall into the unexciting category of ”bittersweet.” The downcast ballad ”No Blue Sky,” with its lovely string arrangement, and the more rocked-up ”I Set the World on Fire” at least feel distinct, standing out from the peaceful, easy country-rock lite that makes up the bulk of the album. CS&N were hardly edgy, but they’re like the Sex Pistols next to these guys.
The Thorns’ har-mony singing is impressive, but most of the time it seems an end unto itself — as if the songs never really got finished because they were nothing more than vehicles for the blended voices. (Which may be a generous explanation for the gloppy ”Teach Your Children” knockoff ”Think It Over”; it would be awful if lines like ”lay your own stepping-stones” represented these writers’ best effort.)
Ironically, the strongest moments on ”The Thorns” tend to come when one of the voices steps into the spotlight. Sweet is probably the primary draw, but the biggest surprise is Mullins: His slightly rougher sound gives a song like ”Such a Shame” some added weight by breaking up the nonstop prettiness. Another pleasant surprise is ”Now I Know,” a pure harmony exercise set against a wash of strings and keyboards that extends the trio into more ambitious, Brian Wilson-style territory. But aside from these few highlights, the Thorns are in need of some of the spikiness their name implies — unless, of course, they have a secret plan to tour the world doing impressions of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers.