LONDON (Billboard) - A French expression best describes the latest news from a Welsh phenomenon -- Tom Jones has gone au naturel, and not just by finally letting his gray hair show.
Weeks after his 70th birthday, the legendary singer is adding another page to his resume with his gospel-flavored album “Praise & Blame.” Interpreting songs by the likes of John Lee Hooker, the Staple Singers and Mahalia Jackson, he adopts a rootsy style that’s clearly close to his heart as well as his R&B roots.
“We wanted it to be of a gospel nature, but an earthy gospel,” Jones says. “So we listened to a lot of gospel records, the Staples Singers and Elvis, of course, but I wanted to take it somewhere else. The idea was to do a live, honest type of thing, but songs that meant something. There’s some on there I feel that will stop you in your tracks.”
“Praise & Blame” was produced by Ethan Johns, who secured guest appearances from Booker T. Jones and Gillian Welch for the recording sessions, which took place at Real World Studios, near Bath in England’s west country. By Jones’ own description, it’s the most back-to-basics recording he’s ever made.
“I’ve never worked that live before,” Jones says approvingly. “There was no separation between the musicians. They just brought in these tape machines and we did it all in the one (room). It was like rehearsing something and then taping it, and there’s some (tracks) on there that are only one take.”
The result is a big departure from Jones’ more familiar pop-soul sound, last heard on 2008’s “24 Hours,” which reached No. 105 on the Billboard 200 and sold 54,000 U.S. copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. A regular on the Billboard Hot 100 since the ‘60s, Jones has accrued U.S. album sales of 2.5 million during the SoundScan era.
The new album, whose tracks include Bob Dylan’s “What Good Am I?,” the Hooker cover “Burning Hell” and “You Don’t Knock,” previously recorded by country star Don Gibson, is set for release July 27 in North America on Lost Highway, and a day earlier internationally on Island. The record launches Jones’ new worldwide deal with Universal Music.
The labels are pinpointing the right promotional vehicles -- but they’re likely to be different from Jones’ usual mainstream slots, with the singer already making a June 1 appearance on U.K. alternative network BBC 6 Music.
“We’ve kept stuff open on purpose,” Jones says. “I’ve got to do two weeks in Vegas in August, because I’ve got a contract there, but now we’ve got to work to (choose shows that will) present the album properly.”
Regarding his new musical direction, Jones says, “I’ve got the ability, I know that. And I love trying things.”