Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Tom Jones - Praise & Blame

Tom Jones turned 70 last month, even his famously dark and fulsome head of hair has finally ceded to the inexorable passing of time, but the voice is as luxuriant and colourful as ever. That's not a gratuitous hair reference either, it appears significant, because on Praise & Blame the Welsh pop legend seems at long last to be acting his age. After playing the pop world's equivalent of your wedding-dancing grandad for too long, Jones has adopted a new, sophisticated gospel and blues style on this record, picking up comparisons all over the place to Johnny Cash's final albums.

It's a dramatic change of direction for Jones, after years of shaking his hips and belting out pop tunes, he's stripped all that away to reveal the raw singing talent that we all knew he had. It is undoubtedly a good move, it's just a shame it didn't happen a decade ago, depriving us of years of material as good as this in favour of albums like Reload was frankly criminal.

High Points

Praise & Blame is packed with rootsy American RnB, gospel and blues tracks, mostly covers of lesser known songs by the likes of Mahalia Jackson, John Lee Hooker and Bob Dylan. Hooker's 'Burning Hell' is the rawest track on the album, featuring the trademark Tom Jones vocals accompanied by a thunderous guitar riff. Jones's gravelly howl is at its most effective here as he contemplates his final destination be it heaven or "burning hell".

Mortality is a recurring theme of the record, as evidenced by Jones' haunting rendition of 'Ain't No Grave' (which also featured on Cash's final album), but that doesn't mean Praise & Blame is a maudlin experience, there are uplifting moments too. The simple call-and-response of 'Strange Things', for example, evokes Mississippi cotton-fields and the strength of the human spirit therein.

The Verdict

While I'm no aficionado of his work (a shameful admission for a Welshman, I know), this surely has to be Tom Jones' finest work for some time. Comparisons to the Johnny Cash 'American' series of albums are a no-brainer; one of music's elder statesmen settles down to make a stripped back, raw and emotional record, pondering life, death and spirituality. Snap. And the results are similarly impressive too. Here's to many more albums in this vein before Jones shuffles of this mortal coil.

Final Score: 78%


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