NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Island Records recently asked Tom Jones to do a Christmas album, he balked at the idea, opting for a different, spiritual path.
On Jones' 36th studio album, "Praise & Blame," which is set for release next week, the 70 year-old singer returns to his childhood roots with gothic-tinged gospel ballads and rockabilly tunes at the forefront -- not the swinging lounge-oriented sounds of his more popular work.
"I've been wanting to do this stuff for years," Jones told Reuters. "Sometimes (songs) don't have to be musically fantastic. The simpler, the better."
That is not to say Jones hasn't dabbled in roots music before -- in an attempt to revitalize his career, he released a handful of country albums during the 1980s -- but those failed to reach the commercial success he'd previously known.
For "Praise & Blame," Jones teamed with producer Ethan Johns (Kings of Leon, Ryan Adams), who helped assemble arrangements and Jones' backing band. Included are Americana act Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Booker T. Jones of Booker T and the MGs.
Along with traditional covers, Jones tackles Bob Dylan's "What Good Am I?," John Lee Hooker's "Burning Hell" and Billy Joe Shaver's "If I Give My Soul."
Changing things up musically is not a new concept for Jones. In recent years, he's been quite successful in trying out different forms and collaborations.
"Reload" (1999) paired Jones with many contemporary artists such as the Cardigans, Robbie Williams and Portishead. It has sold 5 million copies worldwide, but was never made available in the United States. "Mr. Jones" (2002) was another completely different direction, where Jones teamed up with Wyclef Jean for an album of modern R&B.
Compared to those recent releases, "Praise & Blame" is quite spare, and Jones said he tested his voice in different keys to find out which was more natural sounding.
"It was like being in a rehearsal hall, when I started first off and had a rhythm section in Wales and we were playing clubs and stuff," he said. "That was the atmosphere. It wasn't like being in a recording studio at all."
Spare, spiritual reinventions of aging singers isn't necessarily a new trend. Country legend Johnny Cash found late career success with his "American Recordings" series, which paired his voice with mainly an acoustic guitar as he worked through melancholy cover tunes.
In 2005, Neil Diamond released "12 Songs," a batch of sparsely recorded originals, which ended up being one of his most critically acclaimed albums of his career.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte