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Paul Thorn

Pimps and Preachers – 2010 (Perpetual Obscurity)

Reviewed by Brian Baker

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CDs by Paul Thorn

Paul Thorn's bio reads like a Faulkner novel on mescaline. Born in Wisconsin, raised in Tupelo, Miss. by his Pentecostal preacher father, Thorn learned guitar at 12 but took up boxing under the tutelage of a black sheep uncle - who had been a pimp at one time - and got good enough to earn a bout with Roberto Duran.

Along the way, Thorn has worked in a furniture factory, become an expert skydiver and was discovered by an associate of Miles Copeland's, which led to invitations to Copeland's songwriting workshop and Thorn's first rock concert; opening for Sting in front of 13,000 people. It's easy to see where he gets characters for his songs; he's the most colorful of them all. Obscure indies to major label deals, acoustic quietude to electric tumult, Thorn's songs have always been brilliantly fleshed out musical portraits, a surreal human carnival painted from Thorn's imagination and memory.

On his ninth album, "Pimps and Preachers," Thorn gets extremely autobiographical, particularly on the title track, a literal examination of his unorthodox upbringing. The crudely sophisticated cover art, painted by Thorn, further accentuates his life's duality; a folksy evocation of an existence on the corner of Redemption Lane and Turn Out Boulevard where sin and salvation live with equal passion and determination. Thorn's brilliance bears a striking resemblance to John Prine; they both possess an almost supernatural ability to elicit side-splitting laughs and heartbreaking tears from one song - and sometimes one line - to the next.

That gift is on full display on "Pimps and Preachers," from the incisive and wickedly funny Tequila is Good for the Heart and I Don't Like Half the People I Love, and the sweet melancholy of I Hope I'm Doin' This Right, the middle aged hopeful heartache of Ray Ann's Shoes, and the post-Katrina pain of Better Days Ahead.

Musically, Thorn is at the top of his game, with alt.-country blues, folk balladry and roots rock bluster all taking will-deserved turns in the mix; the Bruce-Springsteen-tinged Nona Lisa, the Bob Seger-fueled Weeds in My Roses, the wistful, soulful prayer of That's Life. If "Pimps and Preachers" isn't Paul Thorn's masterpiece, it's difficult to imagine what areas he'll ratchet up on the next one in order to get there.