Paul Thorn's second studio full-length and his debut for Virgin's Back Porch Records is a wild, wooly, roots-drenched voyage into the dark, conflicted, yearning heart of America. A Tupelo, MS, native and the son of a Church of God minister, Thorn knows the boundaries -- where they can be stretched and where the paradoxes with no answers lie. His job is to puzzle over the questions and to seek to illuminate them by means of narratives, exhortations, and humor that is rooted in gritty garage rock, Southern blues and gospel, and honky tonk music. Thorn's life experience has been rich; along with being a singer and songwriter, he has been an artist in the Howard Finster tradition, a boxer who fought Roberto Duran once, and a factory worker. All of these elements come into play on this deeply spiritual look at both the sacred and profane. There is no ethereal posturing here -- just spit, vinegar, and a rugged toughness that knows that the soft side of things needs attention. To get a mental and aural picture of this sound, try to look at Greg Brown's gritty-voiced wit and Lyle Lovett's melodic sense, teamed with the rock sensibility of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the steamy soul and funk of Delaney Bramlett, and the rough-hewn ballad approach of Steve Earle. Thorn's approach features an army of electric guitars behind him, and he needs them because he tells big stories. The second track, "Rise Up," is a single mom's anthem; come to think of it, with it's crunching, transcendent major-chord riff, "Rise Up" is for anybody who wants to make changes wholesale. The drums crack just enough to carry Thorn's big voice over the top, to ride the guitars and underline his chorus. There is also the title track, which holds one of the most powerful metaphors ever for taking a good, hard look at how we live and how we view others: "I saw a black man with a bible and a sparkler in his hand/He was holding a tent revival and running a fireworks stand/He said the end of the world is coming so you better get on your knees/Today bottle rockets are two for one/ But salvation is always free." One of the more poignant cuts is "Even Heroes Die," a ballad with a gorgeous piano slipping underneath the brushed drums before the organ and guitars come in a gently cresting wave. Thorn tells the story of Elvis becoming not only a parody of himself in life, but a cartoon character in death; Presley is a homeboy from Tupelo. But he juxtaposes it with the story of a street preacher who dies alone in a shelter. "Sister Ruby's House of Prayer" is an elemental rock track with Southern boogie guitars that could have come from a .38 Special hit, layered with sitars and a big drumbeat. While some would draw surface comparisons to another minister's son and visual artist-cum-musician Jim White, all that it adds up to is life circumstance. Thorn's music is big, loud, and full of an in-your-face attitude. His humor is not wry or effete, nor does he present himself as an outsider in any way -- just a songwriter with a curious vision of the world, heaven, and, of course, hell. Highly recommended.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek