DAVE DAVIES, host:
Tom Jones has been a pop star since 1965 when his first hit "It's Not Unusual" was released. Since that time, he's remained a star overseas resurfacing periodically on the American pop charts.
Jones has just released a new album called "Praise and Blame," that finds him covering gospel, blues and R&B songs.
Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(Soundbite of song, "What Good Am I?")
Mr. TOM JONES (Singer): (Singing) 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?
KEN TUCKER: That's the opening song on Tom Jones' new album "Praise and Blame," a cover of Bob Dylan's "What Good Am I?" From the spear musical accompaniment that showcases a strong and subtle vocal instrument, it's pretty clear that the 70-year-old Jones is good for crooning with a pleasingly rough edge.
In this country, Jones has always been a figure of some ambivalence. He became a star here for pop hits such as "It's Not Unusual" and "What's New Pussycat," but when we first got a load of him on TV, he was a Welshman's variation on Elvis Presley all swivel hips, tight pants and growled menace. And in America, being an Elvis variation always means taking a sucker's bet you can't win.
Sure enough, Jones settled into middle age as a Middle American star, mostly on TV variety shows and in Las Vegas. He's made occasional stabs at retro-relevance, such as his surprisingly witty cover of the Prince song "Kiss" some years ago. "Praise and Blame" takes a familiar strategy for aging pop stars hook up with a hip producer, in this case Ethan Johns, who's produced albums for everyone from Kings of Leon to Rufus Wainwright
(Soundbite of song, "Burning Hell")
Mr. JONES: (Singing) Im going down to the church house. Get down on my bended knee. Deacon Jones, pray for me. Deacon Jones, please, pray for me. Maybe there aint no heaven. Maybe there aint no hell. Maybe there aint no heaven. No burning hell. No.
TUCKER: That's the first single from "Praise and Blame." It's a cover of the John Lee Hooker song "Burning Hell." Now, it's possible the idea behind singing this song may spring from a dubious motive roughly stated, the authenticity of Hooker's blues gives Jones a splash of authenticity-by-association. But that doesnt mean it also doesnt sound really good. Even as a knock-off of the American performers who originally inspired him, Jones has always had his moments.
(Soundbite of song, "Strange Things Happening Everyday")
Mr. JONES: (Singing) Oh we heard church people say theyre in the holy way. There are strange things happening everyday. Oh, the last man judgment day when they drive him all away. There are strange things happening everyday. Everyday. Everyday. Everyday. There are strange things happening everyday. Everyday. Everyday. There are strange things happening everyday.
TUCKER: On the other side of the pond, "Praise and Blame" got a publicity boost when an email from Jones' British record-label vice president was leaked expressing surprise at Jones' song choices. Actually, the quote was, "I have just listened to the album in its entirety and want to know if this is some sick joke," followed by four question marks.
Offended, Jones received an apology. The thing is, you know what this guy, David Sharpe, means his company lured Jones away from his longtime label, expecting to get hits out of him. This is something Jones did as recently as last year, when his version of The Bee Gees' "Islands in the Stream" went to number one in England. But the first record he turns in under his new contract is a bunch of blues and gospel covers? How disoriented this man Sharpe felt. How wily Tom Jones is.
(Soundbite of song, "Didn't It Rain?")
Mr. JONES: (Singing) Well didn't it rain children, rain, oh my Lord? Didn't it, rain? Didn't it, rain? Didn't it, oh-oh my Lord, didn't it rain? Well, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights without stopping. Noah came when the rain started dropping. Knock on the windows, knock on the door, come on brother Noah, can't you take no more? Whoa my...
TUCKER: This odd, fun, faux-hipster-roots move on the part of Tom Jones is unlikely to be a big success here. It's too far over the horizon of the American pop landscape. But that's almost irrelevant to the musician Tom Jones is at the moment. He's managed to make himself something highly unusual for a man at this stage of his career: unclassifiable, unpredictable. He's the Lady Gaga of Elvis impersonators, at once of the moment and eternal, disposable and persistently present. And to address that record executive's four question marks, Tom Jones is no joke.
DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Tom Jones new album "Praise and Blame."
Coming up, David Bianculli on the new season of "Mad Men." This is FRESH AIR.
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