In a 45-year career marked by shaking hips and tossed panties, Tom Jones has cut many kinds of albums. But never has he recorded anything like "Praise and Blame," a stripped-down reach for the mythic core of American roots music. It's not exactly "Unplugged," given the many electric instruments it employs. But it is "au naturel," a move tipped off by the promo art, in which the 70-year-old (!) star finally lets his hair go white.
The clearest role model for this mangy work would be Johnny Cash's final, Rick Rubin-produced CDs, all of them marked by bone-rattling music and a God-fearing point of view. One song Jones chose for the disk, "Ain't No Grave," even mirrors the title of Cash's very last work.
The result has drawn criticism from an unlikely source: David Sharpe, an executive at Island Records, which distributes Jones' music. Sharpe called the disk a "sick joke," likening his $2 million signing of the star to buying "a Mercedes and ending up with a hearse." Ye-ouch!
Since "Praise and Blame" appears on Island's rootsy Lost Highway imprint, Sharpe should have been tipped off to the fact that Jones was unlikely to lounge through another take on "It's Not Unusual" or grind his way through more covers like his hit version of Prince's "Kiss." But neither does the album sound like Jones' older country disks. Never has the Welsh star aimed for the particular intersection of gospel and blues that forms this CD's core.
The material focuses on traditional spirituals, from Rosetta Tharpe's "Strange Things" to "Pops" Staples' "Don't Knock." Yet there's also room for Dylan's ruminative "What Good Am I?" from his 1989 CD "Oh Mercy." That song, which opens the CD, may find Jones offering the perfect voice for its questioning content, but it sends a misleading message about what's to come. It's a rare whispered passage from the singer, a moving whimper.
From there, Jones makes ample use of his trademark bark, but for an inverted purpose. Instead of expressing lust and confidence, this time it channels fear, guilt and subservience. In "Did Trouble Me" or "Nobody's Fault But Mine" (a blues standard best known from Led Zeppelin's version), Jones provides a wrenching sense of consequence.
That's not to say he doesn't exude a certain bluster. "Burning Hell" has the gruff blues power of Zeppelin or Captain Beefheart, while his take on the Staples Singers' "Don't Knock," shakes the ceiling with its ecstatic faith. However much he may have wanted to mirror late-period Johnny Cash, though, when Jones sings "Ain't No Grave" he sounds nothing like the man in black. Cash delivered it facing literal death. Jones' instrument has far more fire and brimstone - enough to make this elder statesman sound more virile and alive at 70 than ever.