Review: Tom Jones’ “Praise & Blame”

Aug 12, 2010 10:30am

The idea of Tom Jones recording and releasing what is essentially a gospel record might be puzzling to some.  Here’s a man who has made his career based on sex-appeal, even if it was always in a winking and nudging, tongue-in cheek sort of way.  Throngs of women were once put under his spell.  But times have changed for Tom. He’s turned over a new leaf.  Having just turned 70, he’s now letting his grey hair show.  He’s even got a grey beard.  No longer is he trying to play on his sex-symbol status.  For those of us who always found this aspect of Jones’ image puzzling, this is a fine development.  Truth be told, he wouldn’t be where he is today if he was just a pair of awkwardly tight pants.  He’s where he is because he’s an excellent singer with a dynamite set of pipes. (If you think about it, he’s like the male Shirley Bassey!)  He’s fully equipped vocally to handle a gospel record. There’s no doubt in that fact.  The disconnect lies in the outside cultural inferences of such a move.  Why?  And why now?  Well, perhaps he, (or the people around him) felt he was getting too old for the once classic routine.  (It has been reported that his son doesn’t want him doing the old type of performances anymore.) The idea of some grey-beard collecting panties off the stage might freak some out in this somewhat ageist society. But that argument may not fly because as Tom Jones has gotten older, so have his fans and they might want to see the same kind of show and hear the same kind of music they remember.  This album is not a bid for commercial success.  While Christian and gospel music are popular in many circles, the acts that do somehow make it to the pop charts don’t sound quite like this. To many, it’s an extremely polarizing genre.   Jones’ last States-side brush with pop success was his 1994 single, “If I Only Knew” from his album, “The Lead And How To Swing It.”  The video got played on MTV and it even got a few spins on top forty radio.  Now, MTV doesn’t show videos very often and pop radio is more closed than ever, so success there with this record was obviously not seen as being in the cards.  This album was released on Lost Highway, a record label known for more country, blues and folk fare.  “Praise & Blame” is Tom Jones’ stab at credibility.  Before, it seemed like such a concept didn’t matter to him.  He was always willing not to take himself too seriously. That was actually part of his charm.  Evidently, things have changed.  This is his attempt at a legacy record. The album sets off with his cover of Bob Dylan’s “What Good Am I.”  From his somber tone, it is evident that this is going to be different from the rest of his work.  There’s a strange, stirring stillness in his delivery. He sounds like a doomed man taking stock of his life, asking his final questions before he meets his maker.  It’s not an upbeat start, but then again, it’s one that promises a bit of intrigue.  There’s a knowing sense of otherworldly wisdom in his voice. It’s a dark and wounded feeling; the kind of approach you’d expect to hear from let’s say, Leonard Cohen.  Yes, Tom Jones has one hell of a presence, and as bafflingly bleak as this opening may seem, it also isolates and points out his dynamic power as a singer.  It’s a safe bet to say that Tom Jones has never sounded quite so stark. The sound and mood pick up on his cover of Jesse May Hemphill’s “Lord Help.”  He and producer, Ethan Johns turn the track into a fresh, whiskey-soaked roadhouse blues number.  Johns’ guitar line makes the track burst with vigor. The song is however well over a minute too long.  It gets repetitive, especially since its lyrics are mainly a laundry list of people the “lord” should “help.”  (Sample lyric: “Lord help the motherless children in this land.”) It possesses enough sonic gravitas to carry it through to its end, but it needs a good edit.  Susan Werner’s “Did Trouble Me” finds Jones again in a mellower tone, singing lines like, “When I raise my voice a little too loud, my lord did trouble me.”  With his booming voice, this material runs the risk of sounding self-righteous, but when the banjo comes in, it gives the track an earthiness.  Again, Jones is way off of his normal grid, but still delivering interesting work.  If you have any doubts of the appropriateness of this record and whether Jones is actually suited for this material, listen to his version of Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things.”  He nails it to the point where you might even want to shout, “Sing it, brother!” He even works well with the background singers.  It’s a cheesy touch but it works.  Gospel, after all is just a religious extension of soul music, and Tom Jones has always had a somewhat rich, soulful vocal range.  He seems very comfortable here.  He seems even more at home handling John Lee Hooker’s “Burning Hell.” Again, Johns delivers some fire-fueled guitar work.  It’s the kind of rich performance that should please fans of the Black Keys’ most recent record.  Jones has deep huskiness in his voice, like he’s really digging deep down to find the roughest, rustiest bit of sound he can muster.   His voice is just as powerful as ever.  It has not weakened in the least.  Both men are in top form here and they play a slick game of call and response throughout.  Billy Joe Shaver’s “If I Give My Soul” is given a folky treatment.  It's the kind of backdrop Johns usually reserves for his work with Ray LaMontagne.  Jones sings about how he was once a “sinner” and how he’s now “in search of Jesus.”  Read into this what you will, given his past image, but performance-wise, it’s pretty solid.  His character in this song is a boozing musician with an estranged son hoping his faith can assist him in putting his life back together.  Jones understands how this material should be interpreted. Johns’ guitar line again takes center stage on Jones’ version of the Staples Singers’ “Don’t Knock.”  It comes off as part surf-rock and even a touch psychedelic.  Like he did on “Strange Things,” Jones commands the room, again doing well even with some over-the-top background singers.  Such vocal call and response is a hallmark of the genre and while it may seem a little quaint and dated, it still has its place.  This is another decent take. Tracks 8-11 are listed as being by Tom Jones and Ethan Johns, although I sense this means more the arrangements rather than the songs, since I know that some if not all of these are traditional.  The first of these tracks is “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.”  Again, Jones is surprisingly gruff yet subtle here, delivering a rich, raspy performance.  Johns again gives the track an extra bit of juke-joint soul with his guitar line.  The song builds and Jones’ voice ascends into the stratosphere as he bellows in hopes of earning redemption.  At the end, he simmers down back into a near-sandpaper whisper.  “Didn’t It Rain” doesn’t work quite as well.  It’s the disc’s only slightly awkward moment.  Johns tries to give it a little rockabilly edge, but that only makes Jones sound a little out of place. He’s a versatile singer, but for the first time on a record where he’s been forced to wear many hats he’s not used to donning, he sounds like he’s putting on a mood.  Something is ever-so-slightly off.  Jones isn’t the problem.  It could be the song itself.  With its lyrics about Noah and the flood, it sounds more like a parody of a gospel tune.  It sounds like the kind of thing The New Main Street Singers would’ve tried to perform in “A Mighty Wind.” Luckily all is redeemed with “Ain’t No Grave,” a semi-gothic meditation on the ultimate end.  This is part field-holler, part country lament and all soul. It’s odd how comfortable Tom Jones seems backed by a backwoods banjo.  But in his production, Johns is able to give the track a telling sense of urgency.  Jones inserts the right level of earnest, apocalyptic wisdom into his performance.  This would’ve worked well in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” “Run On” closes the record and for many, it will be the most familiar track on the disc. Fans on Moby’s landmark 1999 album will remember that he issued his remix of sorts of a version of this song as a single.  While this version isn’t nearly as memorable as that one, it’s still a worthy take and fitting close to this collection. “Praise & Blame” could surprise many. It’s an experiment that for the most part works.  People who want to read too much into this record could say that it’s Jones’ attempt at redemption after years of being a sex-crazed poster boy.  Those people are taking this album too seriously.  In all truth, this record could very well be just a one-off experiment, paying homage to material that Jones likes.  Maybe it influenced him musically in some way.  It’s definitely a good way to showcase his soulful side.  The religious element of this record will no doubt turn off many of his fans, which makes the existence of this record all the more confounding.  The idea of this record seems much more like a joke than the reality.  After a certain point in time, many artists try these niche genre records just to momentarily branch out.  This album works far better than let’s say Willie Nelson’s reggae album (Yes, such a record does exist!) or Cyndi Lauper’s blues album. What does this record ultimately mean?  It’s hard to say.  Only time will tell.  I will say (even though I have never understood his sex-symbol status) that if that part of Tom Jones goes away completely, it’s a pretty sad statement about our society.  We are so obsessed with age and youth in this culture that we have it engrained that there is a set point where people are supposed to be serious and stop having fun.  Jones is in good shape.  If he can still handle the kind of performance he used to do and his fans still want it, there’s no reasonable reason why he shouldn’t be still grabbing panties off the stage.  This Tom Jones is still a stellar performer, but he doesn’t quite sound like he’s having a very good time.  This album is a fascinating yet bizarre career landmark, but now Tom Jones should be allowed to be Tom Jones again.  It’s only right.

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