Croon on, suave gorilla - National Post Review

Dave Bidini, National Post · Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2010 He was like a lot of what was conjured in those times: seeing the neighbours drunk at a block party; stripmall Chinese food; plywood basement wet bars; Penthouse Letters found mud-splatched near the creek and the guy who wrote in to tell how he liked to sit naked and masturbate on a pizza; Bobby Orr's clothing ads in the Gardens' programs; acres of purple velour; The Tonight Show; designer trousers and chest hair bramble; cool Britannia losing its way; The Parallax View, which we saw in a shopping centre theatre on holidays, and which yielded Paula Prentiss's flouncing bosom and Sean Connery's sharkish leer; Charlie O and Joe Rudi, and Catfish, too; fuzz bass and Tiki chic; K-Tel records, maybe some Dobie Gray or Incredible Bongo Band; camel toes and pornography on Super 8 reels; and, filmed in Sensurround, the strange life of the modern man, whose fantasy was some chick in a sheer blouse sitting cross-legged in the lobby of Howard Johnson's.

Lording above all of this from his mossy peak at the epicentre of our suburban gomorrah was the Welsh pop star, Tom Jones. Rough velvet. Expert panty thief. The hands of a miner and the phallus of a satyr. Friends of mine once recorded with the suave gorilla in the early 2000s, and he was angry during most of the session, though not petulant, as one might have expected. Instead, he was frustrated that his voice -- a hirsute bedroom growl also capable of choirboy cascades and waterfall bellow -- was no longer capable of rising to his immediate demands. Back in the dirty '70s, he could punch out the damned thing and it would ask to be hit harder, but the years had worn down his vocal chords. After a few hours of warming up, he felt good enough to try. One take later, he was in a cab headed for the Wild Honey on St. George Street, or maybe Sheba's, where the Lebanese girls still swooned after the weary mist of his cologne.

Rock 'n' roll loves comebacks -- it's the industry that resists them at first, not the art -- and, with the fine, estimable Praise and Blame, it's Jones who finds himself walking in the shadows of Johnny Cash and Elvis, although there's a little bit of Neil Young in there, too, seeing that

Jones never quite left the world of contemporary music, appearing vibrant even when standing still. But better than American Recordings or Elvis in '68, Praise and Blame doesn't feel or sound as much like a producer capturing magic in a bottle as it does an artist devoting time to make sure that his final lasting record -- his musical epitaph -- is as profound and epic as all that came before it.

The album's first track, What Good Am I?, is the sonic equivalent of a film by John Cassavetes. The singer finds himself as the shell of the former modern man, the 905 Lothario sobbing into his forearm as he questions all of his worst decisions, which, in his twilight, he sees affecting the ones he cared about most. For all of the leonine vocals that established Jones' reputation as a great singer, it's his weakening vibrato at the end of the line -- "If I shut myself off / so I can't hear you cry" -- that possesses as much raw emotion as anything he's ever done. God bless the week's middleweight belt holder, Win Butler, but seasoned artists who find it in themselves to push their hands deep into their guts and pull up small devils tassled to their soul are more rare these days than indie kings attempting to hold form. One of Praise and Blame's calling cards is the sound of an artist making music without having to worry about cementing his legacy or answering, as Butler does, to a fickle generation tied to his music. After all, those whose lives were defined by It's Not Unusual or She's a Lady are now old and Viagra'ed, and, even though they've got the best stories, it's hard to get them off the couch, which is why Jones's music is as important as any new quaking band's. On Billy Joe Shaver's If I Give My Soul, Jones sings about being "a foolish man," sounding like a repentant playboy whose wife has gone and whose children have left him. The singer's La-Z-Boy is torn and weathered, and his TV has to be hit with a stick to work. In this song, you can glean as much about the suburbs as anything by Arcade Fire.

Praise and Blame is a gift to the ears partly because it's the sound of an artist making music for no one other than himself. The irony is that, like Nick Lowe's fiftysomething triumph, The Convincer, or Elvis Costello's The Delivery Man or, really, anything by Loudon Wainwright, it's unlikely that zoomer radio will find time for Praise and Blame, the medium being burdened, as it is, by light classical, Carrie Underwood or the best of Clay Aiken. Still, Praise and Blame reminds us that it's not only music made by young people that pulls us together, and it shouldn't take some hackneyed '60s revue or Eagles reunion to make this sort of thing happen. If you know someone who is closer to the end than you are to the beginning, it's a record they should own. It's also something that both of you should probably hear.

Read the review here