CD Review of A Long Way from Tupelo by Paul Thorn
Recommended if you like
John Mellencamp, Southside Johnny, Bob Seger
Label
Perpetual Obscurity
Paul Thorn:
A Long Way from Tupelo

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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P
aul Thorn made his debut with 1997’s Hammer & Nail, one of the quirkiest roots-rock records you’ve never heard, and in the decade since somehow (briefly) finding his way onto the A&M roster, he’s followed a career path every bit as kinked and bumpy as you’d expect from the guy who wrote “800 Pound Jesus.” Thorn has a fascinating history – he’s the son of a Pentecostal preacher, a former boxer who once famously went seven rounds with Roberto Duran on national television, and a painter – and those experiences have helped add a little salt to the meat-and-potatoes rock & roll he favors. Even if he sounded like your average heartland rocker, you could always count on a few curveballs from Thorn – he was sort of a younger, less sarcastic John Hiatt.

All of this is a very roundabout way of leading up to the fact that Thorn’s fifth album, A Long Way from Tupelo, is the strangest, most unexpected thing he’s ever done – specifically, a straight-ahead, Michelob-scented, AOR album, beamed from a Camaro-shaped satellite trapped in a starless 1984 sky. Listening to it is like walking into the kitchen of a suite in a five-star hotel and discovering a butter churn – it isn’t an unpleasant discovery, exactly, but certainly an unexpected one. Who put it there? Were they trying to be funny? Does it still work?

The answers to those three questions, as they relate to A Long Way from Tupelo, are as follows: Paul Thorn (duh); only Thorn knows for sure, but probably not; and…maybe. It’s difficult to imagine that there’s still much of an audience for this stuff, but if you’re the type of listener who spends a lot of time spinning old Seger records and pining for the days when rock & roll still meant something, man, then you’re as likely as not to wind up wanting to sleep with this album under your pillow. On the other hand, if that description doesn’t apply to you, you’re liable to walk away from Tupelo before the first song is halfway finished. And if you’re a longtime Paul Thorn fan, well, it’s probably best to proceed with caution. This isn’t a total departure for him – in fact, he’s been steadily sanding the quirk out of his albums as he’s gone along – but unless your affection for his earlier records had everything to do with their sound and nothing to do with Thorn’s songwriting voice, Tupelo is a perplexing, somewhat disappointing listen.

As an anthropological artifact, though? It’s damn fascinating. They simply don’t make records like this anymore. You have to feel bad for Thorn – if this had come out 25 years ago, he’d be at least as well-known as John Cafferty, and could have squeezed out Boss rip-offs even more convincingly than John Eddie. By the time you hit the sixth song, the Joe Diffie B-side-sounding “Crutches,” you’re just waiting for Thorn to look at you, break into a grin, point to the can of beer in his hand, and say “Light and refreshing.” And what should come next but – hand to God – a song titled “It Don’t Get Any Better Than This.”

It does get better, honestly, but then again, it also gets a hell of a lot worse. Thorn’s latest might smell like mothballs and Old Spice, but its parts still work, and there aren’t any outright clunkers in the bunch. If you’ve worn out your copy of Mellencamp’s Uh-Huh, this could help tide you over until the next rock & roll revival.

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