Having been to the intoxicating heights of panty-throwing Vegas indulgences with old running mates Sinatra and Elvis, we assume Tom Jones is well aware that the Devil does indeed have the best tunes. Yet the man justifiably known as ‘The Voice' also possesses a set of lungs that could rival God's for earth-shattering reverberations; we've found that any top-volume spin of ‘Delilah' can still crack safes at 30 paces. Like a kind of Snoop Dogg of theology, then, with ‘Praise & Blame' Jones unites the secular and spiritual gangs in a way which, on the likes of ‘Lord Help' - as it threatens to run into Yeah Yeah Yeahs' debut EP territory in the fade, having just blasted along on a gothic Americana boogie - sounds like Jones wants to soundtrack an episode of ‘True Blood'. Calling upon the Lord to help the poor, needy, gambling and sinning, he seems equals parts in prayer for and admonishing those he's watching over.
Remember ‘Green, Green Grass Of Home', ‘What's New Pussycat?', ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On'? Even 2008's long-player ‘24 Hours'? Forgot about it. Instead of expansive string arrangements we get low-key embellishments from Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings; swampy, atmospheric keyboard runs from Booker T; sparingly but perfectly used sassy interjections from a small female chorale; and raw, earthy production from Ethan Johns.
Recorded live, it does for Jones what the ‘American' recordings did for Johnny Cash - a parallel borne out by ‘If I Give My Soul', where Jones wonders: "If I give my soul, will he stop my hands from shaking? / Will my son love me again? / Will she take me back again?" It could easily have come in cracked beauty from ‘The Man In Black''s late output; and though, at 70, Jones' voice is in far greater shape than Cash's, for him to make such benign sentimentality sound as though his life's blood depends on it is no small feat.
As its title suggests, this record is no endless stream of religious doctrine. With the likes of ‘Did Trouble Me', ‘Ain't No Grave', ‘Run On' and a cover of Bob Dylan's ‘What Good Am I?' the songs have been carefully selected to tease different nuances out of a system of complexities built on judgement, forgiveness, supplication and fear. That Jones has done it so essentially and convincingly is exactly why he deserves to be known as ‘The Voice'. Take those hats off and launch them into the air for one of the most uplifting, career-topping albums anyone could have released, regardless of age.
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