Album: Tom Jones, "Praise & Blame" (Lost Highway)
Testifying requires a substantial amount of faith. Not just in the person delivering "the news," but in the audience; they need to feel the message in their bones, and if it does not penetrate the soul, it's clearly artificial. Tom Jones, the Welsh hip-swinger who has spent his five-decade career connecting with Saturday night desires, puts his faith in Sunday-morning preaching on "Praise & Blame" and delivers a convincing effort; he may soon have some converts.
Jones, 70, has walked an odd line during his career. The initial '60s/'70s image of him was as a younger, hipper version of Vegas Elvis, and years later, while he was recording decent funk and dance music, he never found the right visual image and often looked like he was headed to a Village People audition. The sepia-toned image in the middle of the "Praise & Blame" booklet casts Jones as a weary man, his eyes closed and arms extended in a pose suggesting his acceptance of the Lord. Clearly he has an art director who is taking this stuff seriously.
Jones unleashes a furious growl throughout the album, hopping from stark ballads -- there's a bit of latter day Johnny Cash in here -- to roadhouse rockers made all the more gritty by Ethan Johns' guitar, especially on Jesse May Hemphill's "Lord Help" and John Lee Hooker's "Burning Hell." It does seem odd, though, that Jones would keep the lyric "Deacon Jones/Pray for me" as sung by Hooker in the early 1990s -- Deacon Jones was Hooker's organist and bandleader; Tom should be asking for spiritual assistance from Johns, the album's producer.
After seven covers, Jones and Johns try their hand at originals, hitting all the expected notes within the idiom: the acceptance of blame for sin, references to fables, meeting angels in heaven and doing the Lord's work among ne'er-do-wells. Johns frames the four originals in guitar-driven boogie, a mash-up of Hooker and the sacred steel style made famous by the Campbell Brothers.
Jones was one of the surprise participants in Martin Scorsese blues-movies anthology. The singer suggested that this was his true influence, the music that spoke to his soul. It took 45 years of releasing albums, but he might well be making a case for himself as a keeper of the flame.