Under Review: Tom Jones – Praise & Blame

Oh.  Hell.  Yes.  Not that I’m the hugest fan of Tom Jones, but this was just one of those records that I knew I’d love.  Jones has been the impeccable showman since first hitting it big in the early ‘60s.  After his commercial peak, Jones’ career decisions started to get weird.  He covered Prince with the Art Of Noise, did a duets album that featured Portishead and the Stereophonics, and, um, was in Mars Attacks!.  However, it was his late-‘70s venture into country music that most strongly informs his latest album, Praise & Blame.

The closest cousins to this album are the American Recordings of Johnny Cash.  In fact, some of the songs on Praise & Blame, such as “Run On” and “Ain’t No Grave,” also appear on those final albums of The Man In Black.  The difference here is that Jones isn’t saddled with an overbearing producer the way that Cash was.  Instead, Praise & Blame is helmed by Glyn Johns’ son, Ethan, who’s worked with Ray LaMontagne, Ryan Adams and The Jayhawks.  Johns adds an appropriately weary-sounding production to compliment Jones’ ever-powerful but increasingly vulnerable voice.  This humbled inflection matches well with the album’s song choices, which are mostly in the country/gospel range.  Inspired moments include a version of Susan Werner’s “Did Trouble Me,” and Billy Joe Shaver’s “If I Give My Soul.”

Though pensive meditations make up most of Praise & Blame, Jones still indulges his flashy side with a number of gritty stomps.  John Lee Hooker’s “Burning Hell” features a monster blues guitar and Pops Staples’ “Don’t Knock” makes room for a barreling piano. The whole concept of Praise & Blame is the kind of thing that might not sound too appealing in writing (even I don’t think I’m doing it justice here), but works incredibly well in practice.  The shift from flamboyant stage shows to restrained ballads might seem jarring to those who only know Jones’ biggest hits.  Jones is certain to be aware of the surprise that Praise & Blame is sure to be met with.  After just one listen, though, you’ll find that the album’s biggest surprise is in its terrific execution.

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~ by E. on August 9, 2010.

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