Tom JonesPraise & Blame Lost Highway Records Grade: ★★★★
I had a pre-conceived notion when sitting down to review the new Tom Jones album, “Praise & Blame.” After all, this was the panty-thrown singer who thrust his hips in the 1970s to throngs of women. Well, what I found on that first listen was definitely not stripped down women but a much stripped down sound which was actually really good, full of a combination of artistry and spirituality which opened up a whole other side to Jones. Opening with a Bob Dylan tune “What Good Am I,” it came out of the box with a simple low drum pounding which progressed into the song which Jones sang with clarity, showing off his true crisp sounding vocals and pronounced sound. This now 70-year-old crooner then went into the Jesse Mae Hemphill tune “Lord Help,” which further uncovered the true gospel rooted sound he was going for without choosing any obvious gospel classics that would throw this release into a sort of greatest hits collection of Southern Baptist classics. Produced by the well chosen Ethan Johns at Peter Gabriel’s studio in Wilshire, the “Did Trouble Me” cut was a stand alone song that is notably crisp with an almost speaking Jones heading into a soft banjo strumming accompaniment which sounds quintessentially Southern Gospel in its authenticity and tone. The only offering which seemed a bit contrived was his rendition of the John Lee Hooker song “Burning Hell,” of which his vocals sound very contrived as if he’s just trying too hard, and the tune is sort of overtaken by an electric guitar that makes this song feel like an unwanted speed bump on an otherwise well paced CD. Two standout tunes are by far “Strange Things” and “If I Give My Soul” during which I fond myself singing along to and can visualize Jones leading a huge choir of churchgoers in a heartfelt frenzy of seductive worship. “Praise & Blame” is definitely one to put on your must-buy list, whether you remember the 1970s Tom Jones or are a music fan who wasn’t even born in that era but someone who really wants a good listen to hear what a simple, clear, melodic musical revival sounds like.