If there was any justice, the panties thrown at Tom Jones these days would be the size of parachutes, but the fact is that Jones, who turned 70 in June, has built an audience populated with the granddaughters of his original fans. He covered Prince’s “Kiss” with Art of Noise in 1988, and his 1999 album Reload was a set of hip cover duets with the likes of the Cardigans, Portishead and the Stereophonics. Jones is aging with Paul Newman’s elegance and grace. Amazing grace, as it happens; Jones’ new release, Praise & Blame, his latest in a catalog exceeding 60 studio, live and greatest hits albums, is a raw, raucous, Gospel-drenched, Soul-infused marvel.
Jones has long claimed Mahalia Jackson as an early influence and he proves it conclusively on Praise & Blame, a collection of traditional and contemporary songs concerning the search for salvation. Jones opens with a reflective acoustic take on Bob Dylan’s “What Good Am I,” his extraordinary voice exhibiting equal measures of restraint and power over the track’s tribal pulse, followed by “Lord Help,” an explosion of snarling Blues electricity. Jones goes pure Gospel on “Did Trouble,” swings with chapel-rattling force on Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happen Every Day” and tears into John Lee Hooker’s “Burning Hell” with a visceral glee, while his robust and defiant take on “Ain’t No Grave” stands in stark contrast to Johnny Cash’s end-of-life resignation.
Praise & Blame easily stands among Jones’ best work. If he and producer Ethan Johns translate this vibe into his next Pop album (Rick Rubin and T Bone Burnett must be kicking themselves that they didn’t pull this assignment), Tom Jones’ triumphant return to the top of the charts will be assured.
When Crowded House began two and a half decades ago, they were a minor offshoot band from the quirky and cultish Split Enz and, by industry standards, a dead certainty to attract even less of an audience than the group that spawned them. Still, Capitol signed them (when they were calling themselves The Mullanes) but didn’t see any potential in the group, which made them a low promotional priority, even at home in New Zealand. The band’s first two singles did moderately well on the NZ charts and little to nothing in the U.S., but “Don’t Dream It’s Over” took the top slot at home and broke the band big in America, with the single climbing all the way to Billboard’s No. 2 position and paving the way for Crowded House’s international success.
Although Crowded House has never repeated the massive commercial response that (eventually) greeted their eponymous debut and its most exalted single (“Don’t Dream It’s Over” was voted the seventh greatest Australian song of all time), the album and song perfectly teed up the band’s subsequent work. The residuals from the massive first album allowed Crowded House to experiment freely on everything that came after, from the low-key melancholy of Temple of Low Men to the wonderfully skewed Woodface to the artfully cool Together Alone.
After the band’s 1996 dissolution, frontman/creative spark plug Neil Finn focused on his solo career and continued working with his brother Tim in various projects. The suicide of founding drummer Paul Hester finally spurred Finn to reconnect with bassist Nick Seymour and Crowded House reunited three years ago to record their fifth album, the elegantly mournful Time on Earth, originally slated to be Finn’s next solo album but retooled as a band effort.
Even before Hester’s tragic exit, Neil Finn was counterpointing his deepest sorrows and anxieties with the most gorgeous melodies. It’s only made sense that Finn’s found inspiration in The Beatles; McCartney’s effervescent light and Lennon’s brooding dark exist side by side within him, and there are moments on Intriguer, Crowded House’s sixth album, that Finn sounds like he’s in the throes of his Sgt.
Finn and his House (Seymour, drummer Matt Sherrod, multi-instrumentalist Mark Hart) weave a fascinating sonic tapestry on Intriguer, with psychedelic swirls and swells bubbling up through the band’s exquisite Pop balladry and coming together in perfectly unexpected ways. Finn has always been an impassioned writer and performer, but the combination truly comes to a head on Intriguer, as his flawless sense of Pop melodicism crashes headlong into his freewheeling experimentalism with all of it tempered by his bruised maturity and hard-won wisdom, epitomized in the album’s opening track and first (and decidedly unsingle-like) single, “Saturday Sun.”
Finn proved long ago that he can toss off an obvious Pop masterpiece at will, and as a result he paints in subtler shades, evidenced by the atmospheric Pop of “Amsterdam” and the brilliant R.E.M.-meets-Procol Harum shimmer of “Isolation” (a duet with his wife Sharon). And while Finn may be singing about love in “Twice If You’re Lucky,” you can hear the echoes of a guy who’s grateful for success in two highly respected bands and a solo career in lines like, “In the course of a history, hey/It all makes sense to me somehow” and “As if we create something magical, honey/There are times that come/These are times that come/Only once in your life/Or twice if you’re lucky.” I’m pretty sure that’s skill on your end, Neil; we’re the lucky ones.
Steve Poltz’s success with The Rugburns on the band’s 1996 college radio hit Taking the World by Donkey was like a cherry bomb compared to the megaton attention that mushroomed around the singer/songwriter when he co-wrote the worldwide hit “You Were Meant for Me” with his friend Jewel. Poltz parlayed his hit status into a solo Mercury contract but he only pushed out one album, 1998’s One Left Shoe, before extricating himself from the label in order to self-release a series of off-kilter masterworks, including Answering Machine (a collection of 56 songs clocking in at less than a minute that had served as Poltz’s outgoing messages), Live at Largo’s, Chinese Vacation and a live DVD. After a nearly five-year gap, Poltz returned with a pair of CDs that drifted just slightly away from the serious smartass direction of much of his catalog; 2008’s Traveling (distributed through regular channels) and Unraveling (sold only at shows).
On Poltz’s latest, Dreamhouse, he continues in the sonic and stylistic vein of Traveling/Unraveling, working a groove that straddles ’60s Pop, ’70s Folk Rock and contemporary Indie Pop. Poltz has also found a nice balance of comedy and gravity on Dreamhouse, from the Harry Nilssonesque Pop lilt of the title track and the Todd Snider funny Folk roll of “Killin’ Myself (To Be With You)” to the Jimmie Dale Gilmore-meets-Jorma Kaukonen waltz of “Dreams #23” and the jazzy Loudon Wainwright III-channeling-Willie Nelson dream Folk of “A Dog in Bosnia.” He even pulls off a magnificently spartan and completely unironic reading of “The Way We Were.”
Poltz typically has a masterpiece on every masterpiece and Dreamhouse is no exception. “License Plate Eyes” plays like a Sgt. Pepper outtake reimagined by Jon Brion while touching on many of the aforementioned reference points. It’s hard not to go overboard on the superlatives when talking about Steve Poltz, and Dreamhouse is simply the next in a series of great albums by a singer/songwriter who should be lionized with Hall of Fame fervor.
Judy Collins possesses one of the most beautifully crystalline vocal instruments in any genre, but it was perhaps by divine grace that she was introduced to the world by way of Folk in the ’60s. Starting out as a brilliant translator of other songwriters’ work, finding the beauty and depth and meaning in songs of protest. joy, sorrow and lives lived hard but well, Collins soon graduated to songwriter status herself, proving that she had learned well from the writers that she covered. But as she astutely points out in the liner notes to the Collector’s Choice reissue of her Top 40-charting 1973 album, True Stories and Other Dreams, in many instances, her version of a songwriter’s song was the first recorded document of the work. In more than a few cases, songwriters who scored recording contracts after having their songs transformed by Collins were put in the unenviable position of having to follow her glorious “original” with their own “cover.”
In recent years, Collins has become the grande dame of Folk/Pop, putting her indelible stamp on everything from show tunes to children’s music to Jazz standards to Christmas songs, but her early work has largely faded from public consciousness. Thankfully, Collector’s Choice is rectifying the situation with the digital remastering of nine of Collins’ early releases for Elektra Records, where she recorded for 35 years.
Among the titles in the Collector’s reissue series are 1965’s Fifth Album, when she was still under the influence of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, whose work inspired her to pick up a guitar and abandon her Classical piano studies (she was a piano prodigy). There’s also 1966’s In My Life, where Collins shifted from traditional Folk arrangements to more lushly conceived sonic surroundings in a direction that was identified as Baroque Folk and which featured songs by unknown songwriters Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman.
Whales and Nightingales (from 1970) was a field recording of sorts, as Collins took her clarion soprano to Carnegie Hall, Columbia University’s St. Paul Chapel and the Manhattan Center to record songs by Bob Dylan, Jacques Brel, Pete Seeger and her soul-stirring arrangement of “Amazing Grace.” The aforementioned 1973 album, True Stories and Other Dreams, featured five of her own compositions, the most she’d ever included on any of her albums to that time. (The series also includes 1976’s Bread & Roses, 1980’s Running for My Life, 1982’s Country-flecked Times of Our Lives, 1984’s Home Again and 1997’s Christmas at the Biltmore.)
The early albums are wonderful to revisit after 35-plu years, monumental proof of Collins’ unfailing sense of songcraft and interpretation, bringing her stately classical elegance to a branch of music that had been sanitized by clean cut and commercially viable groups in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Collins combined a beautiful presentation with the original intent of Folk music, which was social activism and shining a light on injustice, creating work that was both commercially accessible and socially responsible, no small feat in a time when the industry in particular and culture in general forced artists to pick a side.
The fact that Judy Collins is still a viable musical force at 71 — her latest album, Paradise, features subtle anti-war sentiments and a fabulous version of Tom Paxton’s “Last Thing on My Mind” in a duet with Collins’ former paramour Stephen Stills — is solid evidence of her enduring talent, artistic brilliance and timeless appeal.