The Thorns

The Thorns (Aware/Columbia)

The Thorns have the sort of name that these days can attract a considerable ground swell of interest among young record-buyers: a definite article in front of a one-syllable plural noun that features a prominent long vowel. Last year the formula worked for the Hives, the Vines and the Strokes, and it could this year for the Thorns -- at least until those young record-buyers notice the names of the band's members: Matthew Sweet, Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins, three earnest guitar-pop balladeers who've exchanged the total creative autonomy and mild commercial fruits of their respective solo careers for a concentrated market incursion and the chance to sing in dazzling three-part harmony.

It's tough to say if the market will sing back. Each man has faced dwindling record sales in recent years -- Sweet since his early-'90s Girlfriend/Altered Beast peak, Mullins since his treacly "Lullaby" in 1998 and Droge since "If You Don't Love Me (I'll Kill Myself)," his '95 hit; small circles of devoted fans have replaced the relatively widespread MTV and radio exposure each enjoyed previously. And given the brash character of much of the hip-hop, nü-metal and neo-garage currently on the charts, these three shaggy tenors will probably end up wooing more 50-year-olds nostalgic for the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash than 16-year-olds on the prowl for new music.

Still, the Thorns should make the old farts quite happy. Sweet's always been among our most subtle power-pop songwriters, able to import crucial hints of sour into his sugar, and as the de facto front man here he steers the trio clear of the saccharine overload and the adult-contempo banality that could have easily sunk it; tunes like "I Can't Remember" and the string-buoyed "Now I Know" tweak rootsy strum with hints of darkness, like Tom Petty by way of Richard Carpenter. And the singers' rich harmonies, complex yet intuitive, almost make the project worthwhile on their own. If the Thorns don't have record-buyers to depend on, they've at least got each other.

 
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