The Thorns

The Thorns (Columbia)

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The Thorns are three earnest guitar-pop balladeers -- Matthew Sweet, Pete Droge, and Shawn Mullins -- who've traded 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 whether 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 '95's "If You Don't Love Me (I'll Kill Myself)."

Still, the Thorns should make the old farts 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 frontman here, he steers the trio clear of the saccharine overload and the adult-contempo banality that could have easily sunk it; such tunes as "I Can't Remember" and the string-buoyed "Now I Know" tweak rootsy strum with hints of darkness -- think 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, at least they've got each other.

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