By ROBERT TRUSSELLAnd so begins a new chapter in my love-hate relationship with the great Welsh singer Tom Jones.
I got to talk to Jones on the telephone in advance of an appearance at the Midland back in 1988. The show itself was vintage Jones nonsense — he sang medleys of his pop hits and worked some ill-fitting contemporary material by Michael Jackson and INXS into the lineup. And, of course, he worked up a sweat, prompting women to toss underwear on stage for him to mop his glistening brow.
But in the interview he described his roots as a teenage rocker in working-class bars and how he saw himself.
“I’m a blues singer,” he said matter-of-factly.
Jones, who turned 70 in June, was part of that Beatles-Rolling Stones generation of British musicians who were heavily influenced by American folk music. Skiffle bands proliferated, especially after Lonnie Donegan’s hit recording of “Rock Island Line” in 1955, and African-American bluesmen were feted as living gods when they toured the U.K.
That’s where Tom Jones came from. In all the years since that phone conversation, as he kept his career afloat as a perennial Vegas crooner, I couldn’t help but imagine what a Tom Jones straight blues album would sound like.
Now, as if to reclaim his roots, he gives us “Praise & Blame,” a lean, muscular, explosive recording that I can’t stop listening to. It’s more gospel than blues, but it’s a soulful, reflective record in which Jones roars and whispers and exhibits surprisingly good taste.
This collection of 11 tunes includes compositions by John Lee Hooker, Bob Dylan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Billy Joe Shaver. It’s stunning. Jones rocks, but with a refined sensibility, a delicacy that creates mesmerizing sound portraits. He’s still the bombastic singer he always was, but producer Ethan Johns has channeled the bombast into elemental songs that achieve beauty in their simplicity. The resulting vocal performances may, at times, bring to mind Big Joe Turner and other great blues shouters from long ago.
I have no idea what Jones’ religious leanings are — he could be a godless heathen like me who simply gets turned on by high-voltage gospel music — but this carefully selected group of songs has an eye on the big questions. They deal with sin, salvation, redemption and the unanswerable question of where we go when we die.
The album opens with a quiet reading of Dylan’s “What Good Am I?” and wraps up with a pulsating version of the gospel standard “Run On,” in which Jones warns “long-tongue liars, midnight riders, ramblers, gamblers” and “back-biters” that “sooner or later God’s gonna cut you down.”
In between we find a raw version of Hooker’s “Burning Hell,” in which he proposes the possibility that there’s no afterlife, and an arresting rendition of Susan Werner’s lyrical “Did Trouble Me,” in which the singer tells us he “closed my eyes so I would not see” and “when I let things stand that should not be, My Lord did trouble me.”
In Shaver’s “If I Give My Soul,” a musician lost to drink wonders if he can be reunited with his wife and son if he gets right with Jesus. And in one of the CD’s most exciting cuts, Jones covers another gospel standard, “Didn’t It Rain,” in which the story of Noah and the flood gets the ’50s rock ’n’ roll treatment.
Jones is in fine voice, singing with passion and finely calibrated intensity, but in every case his voice is framed by unpredictable arrangements. Most of the basic tracks were reportedly cut live in the studio, but Johns laid in discreet overdubs from heavy-hitters such as Booker T (organ), Benmont Tench (piano) and Americana songwriters Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. Their contributions are subtle if not imperceptible, but they add a bit of texture to songs that have been stripped down to their essence.
This album reminds us that gospel, blues and country all came from the same stewpot and are, to a large extent, old men’s music. It’s the music of experience, tempered by loss and peppered with disappointment, and Jones does that tradition justice.
Now, if you go on YouTube and look at some of the videos of Jones singing tunes from this recording, you’ll see a rather dapper fellow with a white goatee and a sense of style that is just a bit incongruous when juxtaposed against the content of these songs. Still, the music had to come from somewhere, and Jones wouldn’t have recorded these tunes unless he responded to them in some fundamental way.
So thanks, Mr. Jones. My only complaint: He should have recorded more than 11 songs. The CD grabs you by the lapels but is over before you know it. And so the only thing to do is listen to it again. And again.
Read the review here.