A French expression best describes the latest news from a Welsh phenomenon-Tom Jones has gone au naturel, and not just by finally letting his grey hair show. Just weeks after his 70th birthday, the legendary singer adds another page to his résumé with the release of his gospel-flavored album "Praise & Blame." Released July 27 in North America on Lost Highway, and a day earlier internationally on Island, the record launches Jones' new worldwide deal with Universal and is, by his own description, the most back-to-basics recording he's ever made.
"Praise & Blame" was produced by Ethan Johns, who secured guest appearances from Booker T. Jones and Gillian Welch for the sessions, recorded at Real World, near Bath in England's west country.
"I've never worked that live before," Jones says approvingly. "There was no separation between the musicians. They just brought in these tape machines and we did it all in the one [room]. It was like rehearsing something and then taping it, and there's some on there that are only one take."
The end result is a big departure from Jones' more familiar pop-soul sound, last heard on 2008's "24 Hours" (Parlophone/EMI), which reached No. 105 on the Billboard 200 and sold 54,000 U.S. copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. A regular on the Billboard Hot 100 since the '60s, Jones' U.S. album sales during the SoundScan era total 2.5 million. "24 Hours" peaked at No. 32 in the United Kingdom, where Jones last hit the top 10 with "Tom Jones & Jools Holland" (Warner), a collaboration with the English musician and host of BBC TV's long-running live music series "Later."
The new album sees Jones interpreting the likes of John Lee Hooker, the Staple Singers and Mahalia Jackson in a rootsy style that's clearly close to his heart as well as his R&B musical roots.
"We wanted it to be of a gospel nature, but an earthy gospel," he says. "So we listened to a lot of gospel records, the Staples Singers and Elvis, of course, but I wanted to take it somewhere else. The idea was to do a live, honest type of thing, but songs that meant something. There's some on there I feel that will stop you in your tracks."
Jones introduced the album with a version of Bob Dylan's "What Good Am I?" on "Later" in May during which, he says, "you could hear a pin drop-which is always a good indication."
That song was then serviced to U.K. radio alongside the Hooker cover "Burning Hell," with the latter being playlisted by the country's most listened-to station, AC-formatted BBC Radio 2. A second U.K. double-sided release, featuring the Susan Werner-penned "Did Trouble Me" and "Don't Knock," previously recorded by country star Don Gibson, is due July 27.
Jones performed a well-received London showcase June 3, attended by international executives and media.
"Everyone was blown away by the amazing performance," Universal Music U.K. international director of marketing Chris Dwyer says, "which explained more about the record than any words could."
Now both Island and Lost Highway are pinpointing the right promotional vehicles-but they're likely to be different from Jones' usual mainstream slots, with the singer already making a June 1 appearance on alternative network BBC 6 Music.
"We're being careful to choose media appearances that will preserve the integrity of the record," Dwyer says, although she says major TV appearances will follow in the fall.
"We've kept stuff open on purpose," Jones says. "I've got to do two weeks in [Las] Vegas in August, because I've got a contract there, but now we've got to work to [choose shows that will] present the album properly."
Kim Buie, Nashville-based VP of A&R for Lost Highway, says the U.S. label is also in the process of sifting through media opportunities. "Burning Hell" was serviced to triple A and noncommercial stations as well as alternative specialty shows the week of June 14, before an impact date during the first week of July. But while the new record seems likely to have more media credibility than Jones' '60s pop output, Buie is convinced the album will still have mainstream appeal.
"When you hear 'Tom Jones gospel,' that's going to give a different impression to 'Rev. Franklin gospel,' " Buie says. "It has impact when people hear it because there are genuine roots there."
"I've got the ability, I know that," Jones says of his new direction. "And I love trying things."