In 1969, when Elvis Presley made his return to live performing at Las Vegas's International Hotel (later to be renamed the Las Vegas Hilton) his goal was to create a musical experience that contained all of the great forms of American music: folk, pop, rock, country, blues, R&B, gospel. His Vegas period is often thought of as the worst point in his career and is lampooned by critics, music fans, and impersonators alike. Elvis himself even became fed up with performing there after a while. Yet, at least during the first few years, he succeeded in his goal musically.
The entire career of Welsh singer Tom Jones invites comparisons to Presley's Vegas period. In fact, the two men were good friends who often attended one another's shows (during one particularly interesting show, Jones introduced Elvis to the audience and asked him to perform a song. He declined, deciding to entertain the audience with a 20-minute karate demonstration instead. It was 1974 and he acted weird on stage quite often that year) and Elvis was even inspired to record "Green, Green Grass of Home" after hearing Jones' take on the song. The similarities don't end there though: both share a unique and powerful voice and an excellent taste in material to record. However, Jones did not have the groundbreaking string of classic music that Elvis did from 1954-1958, so critics let him get away with far less. Thus, as Jones' reputation as an extraordinary entertainer grew with every pair of panties thrown onto a Las Vegas stage, his estimation in the minds of music fans and critics lessened.
"Lost Highway to release Tom Jones", I read here a few months back. I was aware of only a few of Jones' pop hits, his phenomenal vocal chords, and his reputation for being an entertainer above anything else. I was unaware that he had recorded a string of country albums back in the '70s and '80s, so my first thought was that the label was attempting to cash in on the stripped-down successes of other aging artists in recent years: Johnny Cash, Robert Plant, Neil Diamond, etc. Then I heard the first single.
I'll tell you about that in a few minutes, but first I will share with you another similar experience. A couple of years ago I watched a film entitled Reign Over Me. The star of the film was Adam Sandler and I had always enjoyed him as an entertainer and a comedian. I wasn't expecting a masterpiece, just a few laughs at the end of a long day. But as I watched Sandler's character sitting in the lobby of a psychiatrist's office weeping as he told of his family who had been killed in the September 11th attacks, I began to respect him as an actor. By the time the credits rolled, I was amazed at what I felt, and still feel, to be an Oscar-worthy performance. Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I sat listening to Tom Jones' take on the blues standard "Burning Hell," half expecting to be amused by the entire thing. Instead my image of Tom Jones changed from a set of vocal chords ready to please a crowd of old ladies to a serious recording artist. (I ask that long-time fans of Jones not be too hard on me. After all, I'm sure that there were some people unaware of the musical genius that is Neil Diamond prior to 12 Songs.)
"What good am I if I'm like all the rest?" the 70-year-old singer nearly whispers to open the album. Is the question rhetorical? Is he talking to himself? The performance, a cover of a somewhat obscure Dylan tune where Jones is backed up by only a sparse rhythm section, is almost prayer-like in its gentle quietness and with its heartfelt vocals. Yet no answer is given to this or Jones' other questions throughout the song, leaving the listener to ponder the answers and making it a quite haunting piece of music.
Things speed up a lot on "Lord Help", a blues-rock spiritual where Jones shouts a request to the Lord to help the poor and needy, the sinners, the fatherless children, and the war-torn people of this land. The band is especially brilliant here with blistering electric guitar and organ. This track is almost Hendrix-like in a way.
"Did Trouble Me" is the third track and it sounds as if it was recorded inside of a church confessional. "When I let things stand that should not be," he pleadingly sings, "My Lord did trouble me/When I held my head too high, too proud, my Lord did trouble me/When I raised my voice a little too loud, my Lord did trouble me." The main attraction here is not the excellent voice, but rather the emotion and heart behind it. It is peculiar to say this of a track by a white Welsh singer known for playing Las Vegas, especially of a track that prominently features the banjo, but this is soul music at its best.
"Strange Things" is another traditional spiritual, this time given a rockabilly arrangement. The band really is smoking here and Jones manages to sound half his age.
"Burning Hell" is the first track I heard from the album and it is still one of the best. This version of the John Lee Hooker classic could almost be described as hard rock or Zepplinesque. Jones defiantly bellows "Maybe there ain't no Heaven, no burning Hell" as if taunting Satan himself before quietly speaking the line "When I die where will I go?" in a way that would make ZZ Top green with envy.
"If I Give My Soul" is perhaps my favorite track here. Written by Billy Joe Shaver, with this truly heartbreaking rendition Jones gives the definitive reading of it and, although I am admittedly in no position to make a statement like this, possibly the best recording of his career. He sings the tune as if he is telling his own life story. Maybe he is. When he speaks of "playing music, traveling with the Devil's band", the voice in my head immediately screamed "Sin City" and when he talks about making his peace with Jesus as a way to gain back the love of his wife and child, I felt sorry for him. The emotion here is all real and it is really the only time on the album where Jones sounds anywhere near 70.
"Don't Knock" is a spiritual done in the style of Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard. Jones' passionate singing is equaled by the musicianship of the band and the call-and-response vocals with the gospel choir are excellent although it is a relatively minor track here.
"Nobody's Fault but Mine" is a deep south blues tune, delivered here with an atmosphere somewhat similar to the work of Tom Waits. The deeply spiritual tune finds Jones admitting that "If I died and my soul be lost, it's nobody's fault but mine" before a Creedence-like guitar solo takes over.
"Didn't It Rain" is a traditional upbeat gospel number and this version perhaps is the best display of Jones' vocals as well as the instrumental prowess of the piano player.
"Ain't No Grave" is given an arrangement very similar to the version by Johnny Cash. This is not the definitive version of the song, nor the best performance on the album although there are really no problems with it.
"Run On" is the album's final track and it has been recorded by countless singers including Elvis and Johhny Cash (as "God's Gonna Cut You Down"). So what is amazing is the fact that Jones and producer Ethan Johns managed to give it their own incredible twist, complete with a Jimmy Reed guitar riff.
I hadn't really intended to write a review of this album so soon. It doesn't even come out for another two weeks. I had simply sat down to write down a few initial thoughts and began writing the review anyway. In closing, you should know that not everybody is a fan of this album. In fact, David Sharpe, the VP of the album's distributor Island Records publicly made an ass of himself upon hearing the album for the first time (follow that link if you want to know, in a nutshell, everything that is wrong with the music business). His own label is against him, which must be a strange feeling for a man who has tried for the better part of five decades to please everybody. But as a wise man once said on a classic record, "You can't please everyone, so you got to please yourself". Tom Jones made this album for himself, but I think you will enjoy it as well if you just give it a chance. So what if his voice would lend itself just as well to a Broadway musical as it does to these old gospel numbers? We can't all be Bob Dylan.