By Dave Tomar and Akie Bermiss AKIE BERMISS: Without a doubt, the very last place I expected to hear good new music was from someone like Tom Jones. When Dave told me it was a record I had to hear I was at first under the impression that he was joking. I mean we’re talking about Tom Jones here. You’ve got to be kidding me, right? The sex-bomb, the not-unusual, the tired cliche of a cliche of a cliche — Tom friggin’ Jones?! First of all, isn’t he like a billion years old? And secondly, what the hell is he doing making a record?
What the hell is that recording doing being so damned awesome?!
Listening to Praise & Blame – Jones’ new record — I’ve been forced to remember a few things. Firstly, though Jones is all kinds of cliche, he can sing a damned song if he wants to. Even at 70, when most singers’ instruments begin to go through the slow, inexorable decline of age, he’s got the same ear-rending voice he was always known for. The same rich baritone. The same semi-wide very masculine vibrato (some where between Dean Martin — on the low end — and Tony Bennet — on the high end). And, most of all, the same precision of pitch and diction. Yes, there is a bit more roughness to the singing (which is usually a sign of age) but you get the sense that the slight rasp is somehow a deliberate affectation. Maybe its something Jones always kept in reserve for the right occasion.
Secondly, I must admit that I’m no expert on the details of Jones’ past. I know him as the Unforgettable guy — that’s about it. I’ve saw a documentary about him a few years back and I’ve heard a good deal of his music (mostly against my wishes or in the kind of poor circumstance where you’re choosing between Tom Jones, Paul Anka, or the Boston Pops Orchestra’s Greatest Hits). And while, in comparison to what I might think of as real, serious artists he’s something a light-weight as far as content is concerned, Jones is no lightweight in the singing department. He can sing his ass off, really. There’s no two ways about it.
Indeed, a lightweight in times gone by and a lightweight today are two very different people. Jones sang pop music. He was Inglebert Humperdink on steroids, as far as I’m concerned. You think of middle-aged women throwing huge panties on stage when you think of Tom Jones.
Then again, if you go back and listen to some “classic” Tom Jones whatever you may feel about the material — he usually sings it well.
And thirdly, there is something to be said for someone who’s been in the business for something like 50+ years making a record like this at a time like this. We all grow up and get older and start to wonder what is going to happen to us when we die. Sometimes, we have to face that when we’re younger (for a variety of reasons). It is the desperate unknowable gulf of human existence… that is where the artist is most effective at his work. Even a mediocre talent, when faced with answering the greater questions or dwelling in the deeper waters of human experience, can rise to the occasion and make fine, fine art. Imagine what can happen when a great talent takes up the cause.
Jones is in an enviable position. He’s already made it. He’s famous. He’s been successful. He doesn’t need to make a name for himself. And so he can sing whatever the hell he wants. And, in Praise & Blame: he does just that. Listen to the terrified conviction of “Burnin’ Hell” or the quiet reflection of “Did Trouble Me.” This isn’t an “experimental” record. This is a reflection of the things within the soul of the artist. I feel ridiculous just saying this sort of thing about Tom Jones, but this is a beautiful record. It is unsettling, touching, and inspiring.
In fact, so well-made is this record it reminds me of the renaissance that Gil Scott-Heron pulled up just last year with I’m New Here. The records are very similar in their directness. The elderly men who are remaking themselves to cut through all the dross and detritus of this electronic age. You take Praise & Blame and you listen to the full 40-minutes straight through — you’ll not be disappointed. In point of fact, it really doesn’t matter who made this record — just that it was made.
Is that not the highest aspiration of the artist? To create a piece of work that, instead of seeming a fabrication of the artist’s conceit, seems like a creation decreed by the universe. On the simple opening cut, “What Good Am I?” Jones seems like a man who has entered a sacred space and begins the motions of prayer. He seems to say, I have been flawed, have I not. Do we not often acknowledge our mortality, first thing, when we approach the creator? (ask Rilke, but I bet I’m right) And by the final awesome tracks, “Ain’t No Grave” and “Run On”, we’re in the full-on ecstatic with Jones. Here he celebrates the uncertainty, the imperfection, the on-coming darkness.
I’d never have guessed it would turn out like this — but who ever knows how it’ll be? But here is Tom Jones… leading us in the great unknown. A sort of musical philosopher and prophet. Consumed in righteousness. The music and the musician are one. And both are transformed.
Praise and blame, indeed, Tom. Praise and Blame, indeed.
DAVE TOMAR: I have always liked Tom Jones. I think most people do. I respect anybody who can perform with such flagrant sexual aplomb while being rained down upon by granny panties. Really, with the unimaginable amount of bacteria in which he has been knee-deep, his longevity is astounding.
Until only recently though, my appreciation for Tom Jones has been strictly ironic. He’s hilarious. The bulge in his leather pants. The silk shirt unbuttoned to his navel. The style of ultra-swank that he seems to have virtually invented. The Welsh choogler is almost a caricature of rock and roll, reveling for decades in its excess and frequently dispensing of its substance in favor of its sexuality. He is all the raunchiness and comedic value of a mid-coital facial expression.
Perhaps, though, not a musical force.
So imagine my surprise when I was overtaken by the compulsion to play his new record a dozen times the first week I heard it. Praise and Blame is an old man’s legacy presented for reconsideration. Released this summer to general acclaim, this album is not ironic, it is not funny and it doesn’t seem very interested in sex. At his age, this would be a grotesque charade.
This record is not a fleeting moment of orgasmic emptiness. It is a terminal stage reflection on the grave.
Hooray for Tom Jones. 70 years old and he decided to make a Johnny Cash-I’m-probably-dying-soon-better-say-something-that-matters record. It won’t change the way most people think of him. He is still the Sex Bomb. Most people won’t hear this record. It doesn’t have the clubland appeal of 1999’s Reload, in which Tom Jones partners with the likes of the Cardigans and dabbles playfully with material like Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.” This was an awfully good record, if you catch my draft.
But Praise and Blame is a dark, charging record, clearly conceived in the spirit of Johnny Cash’s Rick Rubin productions. Producer Ethan Johns has paired Jones with an old-as-dirt songbook and the match is remarkable. The Tom Jones audience has always overlapped with middle-of-the-road figures like Neil Diamond and the Monkees. But there is nothing on this record for these listeners.
On standards like “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “Ain’t No Grave,” Jones is a much closer approximation to Son House. On Bob Dylan’s “What Good Am I,” Jones is pensive and filled with remorse. On John Lee Hooker’s “Burning Hell,” he is defiant and menacing. His voice is hoarse, forceful and convicted. The production is spare and respectful to the material.
Simply stated, the record is a tremendous accomplishment, channeling the ravages of aging into an artistic statement. And if in reflection on his career this is hardly representative of who Tom Jones is, it is a statement representative of rock music itself. For all of its bloat and superficiality, it remains a medium capable of producing the rare but devastatingly profound statement.
Read the review here