Sound check: Tom Jones is growing old groovily

Evening Standard   21.05.10 21-45-tom-jones500

Sir Tom Jones is blessed with one of the most powerful voices in pop but, while his grunts and hollers send hen parties wild, I'm afraid they've always left me cold. Once, when I mocked him in a review, his manager sent me a furious letter commanding me to take Tom more seriously but somehow his choice of material — a novelty cover of Sex Bomb? — has made that a tough ask. Now I'm finally ready to praise him. I've heard his new album, Praise & Blame, and it's brilliant — the raw, rugged sound that Tom Jones's heavyweight voice is made for.

It sees Jones united with producer Ethan Johns, whose name should be familiar to fans of his former charges Kings of Leon, Ryan Adams and Ray LaMontagne. Johns provides a live band as well as hooking impressive collaborators such as Stax legend Booker T Jones on keyboards and folk darling Gillian Welch on backing vocals.

Jones's job is to give gravitas to 11 gospel and country covers including Bob Dylan's 1989 slowie What Good Am I?, John Lee Hooker's Burning Hell and Jessie Mae Hemphill's Lord Help the Poor and Needy.

It's a similar trick to the one pulled off by Johnny Cash on his American series of recordings — stripping back the instrumentation, avoiding modern computerised sounds and allowing a too-familiar voice the space to shine again. Praise & Blame even features Ain't No Grave, the portentous Claude Ely track that gave its title to Cash's most recent album. But if that sounds too serious for those who just want to be entertained, rest assured that even when Jones rumbles on about sinners and hellfire, there's still quite a twinkle in the eye.

Didn't it Rain and Strange Things have a swinging boogie-woogie sound, while the savage blues guitar of Burning Hell could almost be The White Stripes. You can hear the latter in advance at

This is the Welsh Presbyterian who has talked of singing The Old Rugged Cross with fellow gospel fan Elvis Presley in the latter's Las Vegas hotel suite. That love of ancient music was lost amid the chest-hair cultivation and kitsch balladry.

More recent revivals — such as his 1999 album Reload, which saw him duetting with Robbie Williams, Stereophonics and Cerys Matthews — have involved him allowing younger musicians to give him often unfortunate makeovers, a grandfather in a tight T-shirt. In 2002, there was a catastrophically awkward union with hip-hop producer Wyclef Jean for the flop album Mr Jones. All that these efforts did was reinforce the image of Jones as a gyrating tan willing to give a growl and a wink to anything that might keep him in the charts.

His 2008 album, 24 Hours, was a step in the right direction. It saw Jones involved in the songwriting process for the first time instead of simply lending out his mighty pipes but it still sounded like a man trying a bit too hard for a piece of Winehouse and Duffy's retro soul pie.

Since then, most tellingly, he's stopped dyeing his hair. Turning grey and recording a new album that at last offers a depth and soulfulness worthy of that remarkable voice, it looks like this perpetual playboy might have grown up. Just in time for his 70th birthday next month.

Praise & Blame is released on Universal/Island on July 26.