Tom Jones

Praise & Blame

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For those who think Tom Jones is nothing but kitsch, camp, and sex appeal, this rootsy, poignant, and highly spiritual album will come as a shock. On the other hand, for those who have kept up with his recent activity, Praise & Blame seemed inevitable with Sir Tom’s appearance in Martin Scorsese’s The Blues being the big clue. In the PBS documentary, Jones displayed a shockingly deep knowledge and deeper love of the American songbook, just as he does here. Perfectly chosen numbers from John Lee Hooker (“Burning Hell”), Rosetta Tharpe (“Strange Things”), and Jessie Mae Hemphill (“Lord Help”) support the album’s rite-of-passage theme as the now-70-year-old Jones rages and regrets throughout this selection of hallowed material. Producer Ethan Johns (Kings of Leon, Ray LaMontagne) is right in tune with Jones, helming gutsy band performances that are either a barroom punch in the gut or a dustier version of the Daniel Lanois sound. The best example of the latter is the incredibly bold opener “What Good Am I?”, a Dylan song performed with surprising restraint in what is arguably the singer’s most poignant performance to date. All of the ballads are naked, raw, and haunting in the most Scott Walker-like way imaginable, and while the guitar-driven blues rave-ups offer relief, it takes repeated listens to smooth out the drastic changes between the two styles. Of course, rich albums often demand return visits to reap all the rewards, but Praise & Blame goes beyond, and could be considered a life partner that yields new truths -- often painful truths -- as the listener grows older and wiser. The second half of the set is filled with adaptations from Jones and Johns, and if you don’t believe that it stands up to the first half, it’s just because you haven’t heard it. It does because these men were well above inspired, they were possessed, and Praise & Blame winds up an undeniably excellent album that you’re either ready for or you’re not. Much had been made of the leaked pre-release memo from Island’s vice-president, which called this masterpiece a “sick joke.” Just another example that there are tin ears at the top of the music business, but more than that, the statement is proof that high-rise living can suck the life out of you and that the meek -- of which Jones is now officially a member -- shall win in the end.

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