Tom Jones, 'Praise and Blame' 4* Metromix Review

The Welsh singer shines on stripped-down, blues/gospel covers set The buzz: Welsh crooner Tom Jones has been many things: the hip-swiveling, blue-eyed soul shouter of his “It’s Not Unusual” heyday; the quintessential, sequin-shirted Vegas lounge act; the unlikely reinterpreter of modern pop hits like “Kiss” and “Burning Down the House.” Now he’s apparently ready to enter the elder statesman phase of his career, with this collection of stripped-down, spiritually charged covers.

The verdict: The old-fashioned covers album has become something of a cliché these days, with everyone from Robert Plant to Cyndi Lauper mining the great American songbook in search of a little late-career gravitas. But “Praise and Blame,” with its spare versions of classic blues and gospel tunes, sounds fresh—Jones’ booming baritone is well-suited to this material, and producer/guitarist Ethan Johns, best-known for his work with Kings of Leon and Ray LaMontagne, keeps the arrangements lean and hungry, often accompanying Jones’ weathered vocals with little more than guitar, bass and drums. Jones shows remarkable restraint on quieter numbers like Bob Dylan’s soul-searching “What Good Am I?”, but his most inspired moments come on grittier tracks like John Lee Hooker’s “Burning Hell,” which finds the singer wrestling his existential demons (“When I die, where will I go?”) over a swampy Delta blues stomp.

Did you know? Americana stars Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings lay down some backing vocals on a couple of tracks, and Memphis soul legend Booker T. Jones’ inimitable Hammond B-3 organ enlivens the juke-joint sermon, “Lord Help.”