Personnel: Paul Thorn (vocals, guitar, percussion); Bill Hinds (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, slide guitar, background vocals); Michael Graham (piano, organ); Jeffrey Perkins (drums, percussion); The McCrary Sisters, Ralph Friedrichsen (background vocals).
Audio Mixer: Michael Graham.
Prior to What the Hell Is Goin' On?, singer, songwriter and guitarist Paul Thorn issued six albums since 1997, all of them packed with (mostly) original material. His sensibility as a writer is informed by the wildly varied life he's lived (see bio). It was questionable, however, as to whether he could bring his qualities to bear on an album of covers. The 12 tunes Thorn's chosen here are rooted in classic forms -- barroom blues, roots rock, soul, gospel, country, etc. What's immediately apparent, whether you are familiar with the original tunes on this set or not, is just how Thorn has made them his own. The razor-wire electric funky blues of the title track (which features its author Elvin Bishop on guitar), the raw wail of desire in Free's "Walk in My Shadow," the slightly off-kilter rhythm 'n' soul in Allen Toussaint's "Wrong Number," or the scorching country-funk pried from bluegrass in Wild Bill and Martha Jo Emerson's "Bull Mountain Ridge" (with an excellent guest vocal by Delbert McClinton), all bear Thorn's indelible imprint. There are some excellent curveballs here, too: the set opener is a rumbling, martial read of Lindsey Buckingham's "Don't Let Me Down Again," from the 1973 Buckingham/Nicks LP. Bill Hinds' slide guitar shines, as does Michael Graham's skittering organ. Thorn's voice is much lower and rougher than Buckingham's and unique in its phrasing, but he captures the song's intent and turns it on its head, its meaning no longer ambivalent, but pronounced. Another highlight is Thorn's read of Buddy & Julie Miller's "Shelter Me Lord," as a ferocious, roiling gospel blues with backing chorus vocals by the incomparable McRary Sisters (they are present throughout the set; check them on the closer, a rave-up on Eli "Paperboy" Reed's "Take Me with You"; they almost steal it). While the song always felt like a prayer, Thorn sounds desperate, like a man going down for the last time. The only thing that isn't quite up to snuff here is this version of Ray Wylie Hubbard's anthem "Snake Farm." It doesn't contain the grimy, raw sensuality of the original, but that's a small complaint from What the Hell Is Goin' On? On it, Thorn proves his ability to interpret great songs as well as write them. ~ Thom Jurek