Wednesday, December 16, 2015

On the Road with Tom Jones’ Long Lost Suitcase

Tom Jones performing in Los Angeles, February 2015. (Photo: Michael Kovac/

Tom Jones has become an older version of himself. The man with the booming Welsh baritone who broke out in 1965 with “It’s Not Unusual” has delivered a new album, Long Lost Suitcase (Virgin) released December 4th to coincide with the recent publication of his autobiography, Over The Top and Back Again. Jones’ new record is not only a showcase of his versatility, it’s also a cross-section of American music at its finest. Every genre is explored here: country, rock, blues, gospel and R&B – with not a dud among the 13 tracks. Jones feels every beat, every musical hook and grasps the lyrics with gusto in his delivery. He’s also surrounded himself with first-rate musicians and an equally great producer, Ethan Johns, to make it happen with engaging success.

Listening to this unadorned and rather spare recording, it's hard to believe Jones is 75 years of age. He sounds fresh, immediate and completely in the moment on every track. He sings with confidence by planting his feet firmly in the soil and belting it out with gusto and bravado, where the word “nuance” is for sissies. But he takes nothing for granted on these songs, as if he’s hoping to pass an audition rather than reclaim his past glory. So unlike his peers, such as Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton who stepped out of their comfort zone to perform jazz Standards laced with nostalgia, Jones is only interested in pursuing excellence without being sentimental about it. On Long Lost Suitcase, which could be interpreted as a trip down memory lane, Tom Jones has decided to challenge himself by taking his audience on a musical journey with him.

To enhance the experience, Ethan Johns, producer of Jones’ last three albums, has added considerable echo to the vocalist’s microphone in an attempt to make him sound out-of-this-world. I thought of Elvis Presley on his early Sun recordings, such as the ethereal “Blue Moon” and for Jones it works well to achieve a dream-like presentation. Jones sings from himself; fully connected to the story within the song and often with a sense of mystery that pulls us in.

The album opens with “Opportunity to Cry,” written by Willie Nelson and also the most nuanced vocal on the record. Jones usually sings in variations of loud and quiet with very little middle ground. But on this track he sounds relaxed as he embraces the lyrics with deep affection. In contrast, “Take My Love (I want to give it)”, absolutely kicks, as if we're transported to the floor of Sun Studios in Memphis. Little Willie John first recorded it in 1961. This version is respectful of the original while carving out its own place in R&B because Jones’ performance is spirited, youthful and full of desire. He sounds half his age on this cut.

Jones carries the load on a superb version of “Everybody Loves a Train,” originally by Los Lobos on their 1996 release, Colossal Head. By the end of it, Jones really loosens up by totally committing to the excitement of the song with the full support of his band.

With its nod to the vintage sounds of the late thirties, I really love his version of the haunting Lonnie Johnson tune, “Tomorrow Night.” While Johnson's version yearns for another chance at love, Jones version is much more dreamy and romantic. This is as close as we get to any sense of nostalgia for a by-gone era in Jones’ life.

The record ends on a high note with the bright acoustic track, “Raise a Ruckus” originally by Jesse Fuller. It’s a good closer to the album and to the so-called trilogy by Tom Jones that explored his other musical interests, namely gospel on the companion records, Praise and Blame and Spirit In The Room. Those records offer up a mix of experimental and introspective songs granting Jones the chance to shape his sound a lot more than simply “belting it out.”

When I paid a visit to my local record store (HMV) to pick up the CD (which they didn’t have so I went elsewhere), the helpful clerk at the information desk reported that only the back catalogue of Tom Jones’ “hits” was of interest to their clients. Pity. Long Lost Suitcase is an album proving there's nothing unusual about this veteran singer any more.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. He's just finished Frank Zappa FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books) to be released in 2016.

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