“We wanted to go back to basics, go back to the source, it was just me singing live with a rhythm section - no overdubbing, no gimmicks, no complicated horn and string arrangements, just get the song down in an entire take, capture the meaning of the song, its spirituality, its life, and capture that moment, right there. And I think that’s what we’ve done,” says Tom Jones, the veteran singer from Wales, who turns 70 this year and who has just completed ‘Praise and Blame’, his follow up to 2008’s acclaimed ‘24 Hours’ and quite simply his finest work to date. “I’m immensely proud of what we’ve achieved here,” he continues, “It’s such a natural, honest record. And it’s a record that makes you think.”
It is a truly remarkable record, one that captures the Tom Jones who listened to Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe on the radio as a child growing up, who thought gospel music was “just like rock’n’roll, every bit as exciting but with deeper lyrics”, the Tom Jones who belted out The Lord’s Prayer as a jubilatory spiritual in school assembly, “because that was the only way I knew how to sing it, it was natural for me.”
This is Tom Jones going back to his roots on an album of gospel, blues, traditional and country songs, wearing his heart on his sleeve, emotionally raw and true.
Recording with producer Ethan Johns (Kings Of Leon, Ray LaMontagne, Paolo Nutini, Laura Marling) at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in the little village of Box in Wiltshire, coaxed the most exhilarating performances out of the singer.
“Box is where my grandmother used to live, she was a Baptist and she’d have really appreciated what we were doing. I really felt like it was an early sign, this record was meant to be,” says Tom.
With musicians including steel guitarist BJ Cole, keyboardist Booker T Jones (of Memphis soul legends Booker T and the MGs), Hammond organist Chris Holland and background vocalists Gillian Welsh, Alison Pierce, Dave Rawlings and Orin Waters at hand, Tom has quite simply delivered his tour de force. It’s him bearing his soul, singing from the heart, telling it like it is.
Whether it’s John Lee Hooker’s ‘Burning Hell’, Bob Dylan’s ‘What Good Am I’, Jesse Mae Hemphill’s ‘Lord Help The Poor And Needy’, Susan Werner’s ‘Did Trouble Me’ or Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘If I Give My Soul’, Tom stamps his own authority upon the songs, it’s as if they were written with him personally in mind.
When Tom conceived the concept for ‘Praise and Blame’, he jumped at the idea of working with Ethan Johns: “He had a particular vision,” says Tom, “a way of recording in that stripped bare studio setting, and it was exactly what I wanted and needed to do.”
The band nucleus, led by Ethan on guitar, mellotron and percussion and completed by drummer Jeremy Stacey and bassist Dave Bronze, fitted the bill perfectly. “Playing with them took me back to playing in the clubs in the ’60s with just a rhythm section and getting that earthier sound,” says Tom. “When I was making records for Decca in the ’60s I’d go into the studio and the songs would already have been arranged and you’d have to fit into those arrangements for better or worse. But here we are all playing off one another and that really comes across in the record. We would speak our mind, set the key and off we’d go. It was amazing. You could feel the shift in gears— it was like we were a pulse, we were as one. None of us used headphones—I sang right out into the room to them and they played with me acoustically, and if we did it wrong or it didn’t really happen we didn’t overdub, we just set off on the journey all together again.”
Next came the choice of songs. “They had to deal with matters of the spirit, they had to connect right to me and hopefully to others, and they had to have a message,” says Tom. As an album, ‘Praise And Blame’ follows the universal journey of a man through the rites of passage, “as he reflects, observes and comments on what is going on around him,” says Tom. It’s not necessarily autobiographical, “but there are bits in there that I definitely relate to and can learn from.”
What made it on to the album and what didn’t was simple. “It came down to whether we felt inspired by the song, if we could make the song our own and make it different or hopefully even better than what had already been done, then we’d do it. For example I really like Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Why Me Lord’, but you know I just didn’t think that could be bettered; the same with ‘Amazing Grace’, there are so many great versions of that I didn’t feel I could bring anything new or different to them.”
One of the first songs they committed to was a challenge from the start. “With ‘Run On,’ The Golden Gate Quartet do a great version of this as does Elvis, and I didn’t want to copy either of them. I knew that if we wanted to do it we would really have to bring something special to it. We decided to kick it up to a rockier version, which is what we did, and I’m happy to say it’s more alive, more earthy.”
It was the lyrics that drew Tom to Bob Dylan’s ‘What Good Am I’from his 1989 ‘Oh Mercy’ album. “‘What good am I, if I’m like all the rest? If I just turn away when I see how you’re dressed, If I shut myself off so I can’t hear you cry, What good am I?’ Well how can you not be moved by that? It’s such a poignant song, it makes me think and hopefully it will make the listener think. Likewise on Did Trouble Me, the words, ‘When I held my head too high too proud, When I raised my voice too little too loud, My Lord did trouble me’. I’ve done things in my life when God has given me a little slap - you know when you get a little bit too cocky, you get a little bit too sure of yourself, then something happens and you think, I can’t go on behaving like that. And Ethan plays banjo on this track, where traditionally there would have been a call and response with the vocals and backing vocals, but here he uses the banjo in that role and it really works.”
Elsewhere Tom tackles the traditional spiritual ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ and the hard core blues of ‘Burning Hell’. In his hands the former becomes a thoughtful lament and a showcase for vocal prowess, the latter a storming rendition redolent of The White Stripes. The rafters are raised with takes on ‘Strange Things Happen Every Day’,’Didn’t It Rain’ (Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson respectively) and the traditional ‘Ain’t No Grave’. Turns on ‘You Don’t Knock’ and ‘Lord Help The Poor And Needy’ produce a punky, rollicking blues, while completely captivating and expressive is a spine-tingling ‘If I Give My Soul’.
Tom describes the album as “Food for thought, it’s real, it’s natural, and in that sense it’s truly me.” We think after you give ‘Praise And Blame’ a listen you’ll totally agree.