Spirit in the Room
Tom Jones is dead. Long live Tom Jones.
Anyone who thinks that Jones now, at the age of 72, bears any resemblance at all to the bumping, grinding tight-pants Vegas and summer tent star of the 1960s and ’70s – fabled for dodging female lingerie thrown to the stage (often, you can bet, by audience plants hired for that specific purpose and endowed with tossable undergarments) – simply hasn’t heard about one of the most joyous recorded rebirths in modern music.
In 2010, Jones and producer Ethan Johns collaborated on a gospel album called “Praise & Blame” that reconnected the powerhouse singer with the golden Welsh voice to the gospel and roots music he loved in his childhood. No more blaring proto-Vegas bands doing big set arrangements, just the singer with a small group of musicians rediscovering from scratch his first musical loves.
And now he’s done it again, this time with a terrific disc of blues, roots music and artfully hand-picked songs by some of the greatest songwriters alive – Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Richard Thompson and Tom Waits.
Here is Jones telling Music Radar online magazine that once again, he’s reconnecting to the singer he wanted to be when he was growing up: “The album reminds me of all the stuff I listened to when I was growing up in Wales. The music I listened to early on was on the BBC. There was big band music and pop but occasionally we would hear a more raw sound and those were the blues records, the gospel records and some country things too. Tennessee Ernie Ford doing ‘Catfish Boogie’ and ‘Blackberry Boogie’ – to me records like that were the start of rock and roll.”
And anyone under the delusion that they’re innately superior to a gray-haired singer like Jones (when he sings in Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” “I was born with the gift of a golden voice,” he isn’t kidding) reviving the ’50s pleasure of listening to Ford simply hasn’t heard how wonderful Jones sounds these days.
He also told Music Radar that McCartney told him that the Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” was originally written in the hope that Jones would turn it into a single. He couldn’t do it at the time. What he’s singing by McCartney now is “(I Want to) Come Home” which is an obscure song originally written for the film “Everybody’s Fine” but is now a fully functional part of a great Jones disc that almost single-handedly revives the art of the great pop singer (as opposed to singer/songwriter).
Crucial to it all is the taste he and producer Johns display in picking songs to sing. Their taste is impeccable, from Cohen’s “Tower of Song” and Waits’ “Bad as Me” to Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man” and the Low Anthem’s “Charlie Darwin.” There isn’t a slack song on the disc; nor is there a single one that Jones sings as if he were filling up time on a TV show or soliciting hysteria or stalking for female audience members.
You can’t help think when listening to this that in the third act of his career he’s actively engaged in fulfilling everything musical that his fame has now made possible but had long interfered with so drastically before this.
– Jeff Simon
Jon Kimura Parker
Rite: Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and “Petrouchka”
One of the two greatest artistic events of the 20th century is fast approaching its May centennial: the first Parisian performance of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe. The riot that took place in 1913 was like nothing else that Paris was used to – the catcalls and boos from most, the shouts of encouragement and joy from a vocal minority who knew that something very new and extraordinary was busy being born in front of them.
Piano transcriptions of “The Rite of Spring” have by no means been everyday in the last half century, but they’ve not been that unusual either. This one by Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker is paired with his transcription of movements from Stravinsky’s earlier ballet masterpiece “Petrouchka.”
Parker – who claims in his publicity to have grown up on Genesis, Rush and Frank Zappa as much as Bach, Beethoven and Chopin – noticed when he discovered Stravinsky’s own piano duet arrangement of “The Rite of Spring” that “having arranged the duet primarily to facilitate ballet rehearsal, [it] was less fastidious with details than I had expected. I became so engrossed in adding instrumental lines that had been left out. From there it was a natural evolution to try to manage it all myself.”
The result is good if more than a little lacking in the pounding savagery that drove the Parisians so wild. It’s a quality that great piano virtuosos have been “fastidious” about making sure remained in their piano versions of the work but which Parker doesn’t quite preserve.
More interesting is Parker’s version of scenes from “Petrouchka” into which he made sure he preserved his daughter’s favorite part, the “Bear Dance.”
A worthy anticipation of the 100th anniversary of one of modern art’s greatest events.
As It Is On Earth
[Hog Space Records]
Spacehog released its debut album, “Resident Alien,” in 1995, and the timing was impeccable. Brit-pop was on the rise, and suddenly, the London of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” and the lush bombast of Queen were being celebrated on both sides of the pond.
On the strength of the gloriously glammed-out power-pop of “In the Meantime,” Spacehog most definitely appeared to have a dog in the race. That the band simply slammed audiences with decadent righteousness on the concert stage seemed to seal the deal.
And yet, here we are nearly 20 years on, and the group is only now releasing its fourth album. Something somehow went wrong along the way. The self-released “As It Is On Earth,” out this week, is Spacehog’s first album since 2001’s “The Hoggyssey.”
Happily, though times and tastes may have changed over the intervening years, Spacehog’s majestic power-pop has not. “Earth” is a beautiful album that, while it certainly displays a maturity in subject matter and in terms of arrangements, is full of the bravado, swagger and high drama of the band’s best work.
The Bowie influence remains, as it should, particularly in the vibrato-heavy emoting of bassist/vocalist Royston Langdon. He sounds fantastic throughout, whether flirting with “Lady Stardust”-style camp during opener “Deceit” – picture Scott Walker singing with Cheap Trick backing him – or getting a bit sleazy with a T. Rex-ish rocker like “Gluttony.”
“Earth” is more ruminative than earlier Spacehog efforts, and that’s to its credit. Langdon – backed by drummer Jonny Cragg, multi-instrumentalist Timo Ellis and guitarist Richard Steel – has crafted an album that suggests how glam-rock might mature with grace, tackling weightier subjects while retaining the icy cool of the terminally hip.
Many of the songs sound as if they may have been composed at the piano, which lends them a harmonic construction that avoids the clichés of guitar-based rock. That said, the big, bawdy chorus, the sleazy riff and the grandiose beauty of Langdon’s dramatic vocalizing make it plain that Spacehog may be older and wiser, but its members no less eager to kick up a fuss. Fans of early Bowie, T. Rex, Queen and Cheap Trick should eat this up.
– Jeff Miers