Album: Tom Jones, Praise & Blame (Island)
Friday 23 July 2010
Embarrassingly denigrated as a "cruel joke" by some cloth-eared Island executive,
Praise & Blame is Tom Jones's equivalent of Johnny Cash's American series of back-to-the-roots albums, an association confirmed by its inclusion of the song that gave Cash's final album its title, "Ain't No Grave".
That anonymous executive should be squirming, not just for his faux pas, but for apparently being in the wrong line of work, as Praise & Blame is clearly one of the best albums of Jones's entire career. The ingenious Ethan Johns handles production chores on the collection of blues and gospel standards, and he's devised a blend of raucous blues riffs in the skeletal style of The White Stripes or The Black Keys, punctuated by more subtly-textured arrangements for reflective pieces such as Dylan's "What Good Am I?" and "Ain't No Grave", which with its relaxed guitar fingerpicking and decorative tints of pedal steel over a gentle tattoo of drum and tambourine, strongly recalls T-Bone Burnett's work on Raising Sand.
The material has been chosen to reflect both Jones's roots in the gospel and blues traditions of the late 1950s, and to offer a loose thematic unity based on the notion of a spiritual rite of passage. Accordingly, tracks such as "Didn't It Rain" and "Strange Things" are tackled with a rolling guitar boogie shuffle that harks straight back to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, with jaunty piano added to the latter's later stages, in the unobtrusive but crucial manner of Johnnie Johnson on Chuck Berry's hits; while the former features a pleasing elastic tug back and forth between the guitar and voice, which acts like a coiled mainspring at the heart of the song. Further echoes of early rock'n'roll can be discerned in several other songs: "Don't Knock" is a Little Richard-style gospel-rock rave-up, while at the opposite extreme, Billy Joe Shavers's "If I Give My Soul" is a gentler country-gospel number that's exactly the kind of thing one can imagine Tom and Elvis singing together after-hours in Las Vegas, full of striking images like "the years flew by like a mighty rush of eagles".
The mood is altogether dustier on "Did Trouble Me", which blows in on a wheeze of harmonium and plaintive banjo, with a ghostly hum of backing vocals oozing into the last verse, as Jones exults how his Lord is going "to make me human, to make me whole". Elsewhere, the standard warning to errant sinners, "Run On", is treated to a John Lee Hooker/ Canned Heat boogie itch, while Hooker's own "Burning Hell" provides Jones with his most impressive vocal showcase, those 70-year-old pipes bursting with passion as he affirms his refusal to make any deal with the Devil.
Overall, it's an extraordinary achievement: Praise & Blame represents the kind of reconnection with his core creative fire that was hinted on a few tracks of his last album, 24 Hours, but is here left naked and bleeding raw, bereft of showbiz blandishments.
DOWNLOAD THIS Burning Hell; Didn't It Rain; Ain't No Grave; Strange Things; Did Trouble Me; If I Give My Soul
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