Throw your panties at the CD player, Tom Jones is back
In these troubled times anything that makes your feet move involuntarily is a good thing. That’s what happened when I was flying to Canberra recently.
I put the earphones on and pushed play for the new Tom Jones record, Praise and Blame.
Jones is a transplanted Welsh singer who’s made Las Vegas home. He’s done pretty well everything in a 50 year career, including some more than passable country records in the 70s and some very unforgettable disco/dance efforts a decade later.
The first track of his new effort is a little known Dylan song, What Good Am I? from the Oh Mercy disc, which is a delicious country-soul prayer, carried along by the basic rhythm section assembled by musician/producer Ethan Johns. The indigenous tom tom beat and the gentle guitar work to give this tune a cathedral feel.
But as soon as that fades a Jesse May Hemphill tune kicks in. And “kicks” is the right word. This had my feet dancing around in that little space on the plane. The drum beat and the blues guitar, making a driving sound that manages to pull together Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and the White Stripes – and that’s before the Jones voice demands “Lord help!” This is a real blues/gospel rock tune that pleads with the Lord to look kindly on the motherless, the fatherless, the needy, the poor, the sinners and – most of all – the war torn peoples. The guitar and organ will make you want to dance.
As Jones might say in this simply brilliant collection of songs, “My Lord”.
The mournful Did Trouble Me, a confessional delight written by Gospel Queen Susan Werner, is possibly one of the only banjo tunes that could make you cry. As soon as this ends, Jones goes teenage and rockabillies into Strange Things, with plenty of barrelhouse piano and snare-rich drums. It’s no surprise this is written by the brilliant Rosetta Tharpe.
From there we swing into Burning Hell, a John Lee Hooker whack song that, like Lord Help, jumps off the record. A fuzz guitar – a bit of Hendrix, maybe – and we’re here: “I’m going down/To the church house/Get down/On my bended knee…”. This a 70-year-old Welsh crooner blowing the walls down. My, my. When Jones finishes with “maybe there ain’t no heaven/no burning hell” you know this is the Devil’s work. There’s even a place check on the Crossroads.
Bill Joe Shaver’s If I Give My Soul is a stunner. We have an achy-breaky heart version of a tearful piece of country-soul. “Oh the years flew by/Like a mighty rush of eagles/My dreams and plans/Were all scattered in the wind…,” sings Jones, bleeding Shaver’s own songwriting blood.
No gospel album would be worth having without some Mavis Staples and it’s here with Don’t Knock, the song she wrote with her dad Roebuck “Pops” Staples. It’s quickly over-run by Nobody’s Fault But Mine, the first of the tunes “written” by Jones and Johns. It’s a real southern, hot church morning piece of blues gospel that has some bayou guitar running around the big, big vocal of Jones. “My mother taught me how to pray/If I die and my soul be lost/Nobody’s fault but mine…”
The other songs – Didn’t It Rain, Ain’t No Grave and Run On – are adapted traditional songs. From the upbeat, piano backed song about religious rain to the genius of Ain’t No Grave – written by Claude Ely in the early 50s but covered and interpreted by everyong (including Johnny Cash on his last ever record), Jones is show-casing his jaw-dropping vocal.
The last song, Run On, has featured on recordings by Elvis and Cash but this time Johns – a producer with a Rick Rubin like ability to just get his artist – gives it that Jimmy Reed feel that lifts it to the top shelf of country-rockabilly music.
I first heard about this record when David Sharpe the vice president of Island Records wrote a memo asking who was the idiot who let Lost Highway make this music? It was either a dumb publicity stunt or one of the great mis-calls of modern music. This record more than works. It reinvents Jones and makes one of the great CDs of 2010. Throw your panties at the CD player now!
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