Spirit in the Room (Island ***1/2) Even when he became a big pop star and the quintessential Las Vegas showman in the '60s, with hits such as "It's Not Unusual" and "What's New Pussycat," Tom Jones was a more than credible singer of blues and R&B. It's a talent he revealed again on 2010's great, gospel-drenched Praise and Blame, and more recently on his Jack White-produced cover of Howlin' Wolf's "Evil."
On Spirit in the Room, the 72-year-old Welshman tackles bluesman Blind Willie Johnson's "Soul of a Man," but he also ventures into different territory. Most of the material comes from contemporary songwriters such as Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Tom Waits, Richard Thompson, and Joe Henry. Jones shows the old sexy strut on Wait's boastful "Bad as Me," but mostly he takes an understated approach that reflects the stripped-down but evocative arrangements. The mood is often autumnal or reflective, but thanks to Jones' unerring and worldly-wise interpretations, the performances still pulse with spirit.
By Nick Cristiano