Review: Tom Jones — Long Lost Suitcase

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3.5 OUT OF 5 NUTS!

tomjones-longlostsuitcaseIt’s easy to forget that Tom Jones was a contemporary of all the British Invasion bands, and he got turned onto music as a pasty British lad through the same American blues, country and R&B acts that all the famous Rockers did. In a parallel universe, Tom Jones might have become a Rocker like the others.

But as it turned out, his unique vocal style — a semi-operatic baritone belter — had more in common with Tony Bennett than it did with Little Richard or Chuck Berry. Jones made the right decision to go the Vegas crooner route, but if you ever see clips of his TV show from the late sixties/early seventies, you see that he never lost the respect of the Rock community, because he always maintained his blues and R&B chops.

So it is only fitting that he returned to his roots late in his career, to get one last kick at the credibility can, a path Johnny Cash pioneered with his American Recordings series. This album is the third in Jones’ backward journey, and the third under the brilliant guidance of producer Ethan Johns. Johns not only arranged each finely-curated selection, but he also plays all the instruments with a high level of skill and touch. It’s a beautifully produced record.

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Jones was clearly aiming at touching all the bases of American roots music, but some efforts are better than others. The album opens curiously on a bit of a low note with Jones’ take on Willie Nelson’s “Opportunity To Cry”, a dreary little number that doesn’t allow Jones much room to show any of his strengths.

“Honey Honey” is a pleasant enough bluegrass duet with Imelda May, and “Take My Love” is a straight-ahead blues shouter that almost pushes the Welsh septuagenarian to his vocal limit, and who knew this guy had a vocal limit? Next came Willie Dixon’s slinky “Bring It On Home”, showing that Jones can still bring the sexy when he wants to.

There’s a nice grungy take on Los Lobos’ “Everybody Loves a Train”, and an amazing kick-ass version of the Yardbirds’ “I Wish You Would”, which gives you a taste of what Tom Jones might have sounded like if he had taken the Rock route of his contemporaries.

But the album’s highlight track is Jones’ version of the great folkie Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues”. It’s an outlier on the album because there’s nothing roots about it, other than the subject matter. Just a synthesizer drone and that big voice coming down from the mountaintop:

I was thinking that night about Elvis
Day that he died, day that he died

Just a country boy that combed his hair
And put on a shirt his mother made and went on the air
And he shook it like a chorus girl
And he shook it like a Harlem Queen
He shook it like a midnight rambler, baby
Like you never seen, like you never seen, never seen

It’s confessional, autobiographical, historical, powerful, and worth the price of admission alone. Full props to Mr. Jones for still bringing it after all these years. The album’s got its weak spots, but it’s worth having. And if you’re afraid of having a Tom Jones record in your collection, it will make for a hip stocking stuffer for Mom or Pops, and you can borrow it from them.

 

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