At the age of 72, most pure pop vocalists (if they’re still able to sing) are playing it safe, rehashing their tried and true work, or recording duets with friendly young stars to lift their visibility. Spirit in the Room,the new album from Tom Jones on Rounder Records in the U.S., is, however, nothing like that.
A couple of months back, I wrote at some length about the recording which is the opening tune on this album, namely Tom Jones’ rendition of “Tower of Song,” written by Leonard Cohen. I found it quite moving, brilliant and defining. I still do, and listening to the album which accompanies it does not disappoint. I think that any day would be a nice day to hear an album like this one.
There’s a certain kind of courage involved for a vocalist in tackling new material—material which has hardly been touched by other vocalists—and it’s on display here, albeit that the casual listener might not necessarily pick up on it. Since Dylan and the Beatles, the notion of “authenticity” has been very weighty in the sphere of popular music, and it’s inherently challenging for a singer to take on a song that has already been sung by those that have composed it. Tom Jones here, in collaboration with his producer Ethan Johns, shows no fear, but sings songs that have been recorded both very recently and quite brilliantly by the respective composers. That he pulls it off in each case without sounding ridiculous is no small achievement. And he generally does much better than that. Continue reading Tom Jones: Spirit in the Room→
Scheduled for release on April 23rd in the U.S. (on Rounder Records) is a new album from Tom Jones, titled Spirit in the Room. It was released on the other side of the pond last year. I confess I’ve only just become aware of it, and that was through my encountering on YouTube the video for Tom Jones’ rendition of Leonard Cohen’s great old tune “Tower of Song,” which is the first track on the album.
This is one of those cases where yours truly tries not to come across too hyperbolic and breathless, but, frankly, hearing Tom Jones’ performance of this song left me simultanously devastated and delighted. It’s one of those musical moments I would compare to tripping over a bag in the street stuffed with two million dollars in unmarked bills, and making it all the way home with it safely. Those are the good days. If you have not heard it, do take a listen to it via the embedded YouTube clip here and I’ll say a few more words of my own about it below.
(A side-note: Many other artists ought to watch that clip and learn that there are ways to make videos that neither detract nor distract from the song. Kudos to the director, one Paul Caslin.)
The song was first recorded by Leonard Cohen on his great 1988 album I’m Your Man. Leonard’s version features a sparse kind of piano/synth arrangement, with backing singers, distinctly low-budget but witty. Yet Tom Jones’ stripped-down rendition makes Cohen’s seem exceedingly ornate by comparison.
To me, at least, Tom Jones’ version of “Tower of Song” is one of those revelatory performances where a singer takes a song to a place that the songwriter himself could not have envisioned, and lives in it and makes it his own.
When Cohen wrote the tune, it was the song and testament of a songwriter. He sounded pretty darned old in 1988, singing this song and looking back (and to a degree looking forward) on his life and the vocation of songwriting and meditating both profoundly and humorously upon it. He was in fact about fifty-four years of age. (Who knew that twenty-five years later he’d be experiencing a peak of popularity, undertaking huge concert tours and continuing to write some of the best songs of his career? Certainly he, of all people, did not know it.)
There is a couplet in the song that I think is crucial both to the original rendition and to this cover version:
I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice
In Cohen’s version, this is an exquisite joke—a self-deprecating piece of irony. No one ever accused Leonard of having a golden voice, although many have accused him of having a voice comparable to considerably less precious substances. The couplet is both a gag and a metaphor: his gift, as we know, is actually that he is a writer. He is obliged by some ineffable commandment to write his songs, but he also finds that he must sing them himself, regardless of his voice, simply so that they will be heard.
Before this Christmas season draws to an official close (there are twelve days of Christmas, y’know), I thought it worth noting one new addition to the already-gargantuan and ever-increasing library of Christmas albums. (I love great Christmas music and am known to listen to it in July.) It is a record titled Baby, It’s Cold Outside by a lady singer named Cerys Matthews, who emanates from the nation of Wales. She is little known west of the Atlantic Ocean, though she’s had quite an interesting and eclectic career, leading a rock/pop band by the name of Catatonia during the nineties, later going to live and work in Nashville for a few years and producing more folky/countrified kind of work, and in more recent times recording and releasing her renditions of traditional Welsh songs (and this album features one titled “Y Darlun”).
With a title like Baby, It’s Cold Outside, one might well assume that this was a swinging Dino kind of Xmas record, but that track is very much the exception, and in more ways than one; in fact, it’s probably best to circle back to it at the end of this little review. In actuality, this is an album of traditional and predominantly religious Christmas carols, performed in a sparse, folk-like context, albeit pretty far from any idea of folk purism. The central success of the album is in enlivening and refreshing these old tunes, like “Good King Wenceslas” and “We Three Kings Of Orient Are,” with live-in-the-studio performances that are just off-center enough to be interesting to the ear (with the odd exotic instrument thrown in), and which at the same time communicate an infectious sense of joy and mystery. Even “Jingle Bells,” which to me is probably the most annoying song to have to hear again and again during the holiday season, is performed winsomely enough here with banjo and sleigh-bells to raise a fresh smile. Similarly, “Go Tell It On the Mountains”—surely about as hackneyed a folk-hymn as one could name—is performed here as if it was composed yesterday, with a fairly overflowing spirit of gladness and urgency. That’s no small thing.
A full-length example—although it’s a more modern song than most of the others—is the rendition of “Little Donkey,” which can be heard via SoundCloud below. Although this tune can be dismissed as a “children’s song” (as if children’s songs aren’t crucial both to Christmas and to the universe-at-large) I think the performance here evokes the genuine poignancy at the heart of it. It is sung and played with great love and care, as if it all really matters. (Someday we’ll find out if it does.) Coconut shells are the featured exotic instrument. Cerys Matthews’ vocal on this track is at a whisper level.
In the end, it is a Cerys Matthews album, and so her singing is the key color on the canvas. When I first heard her sing (not in the context of this album) I frankly didn’t like her style very much at all. Then, I happened across her in a different setting, and thought, well, that’s kinda something. Having now heard a lot more of what she’s done, including this current record, I would have to say that I’ve come to believe she’s a singer of quite remarkable nuance and range, although she comes across with deceptive simplicity. For one thing, she genuinely knows how to use a microphone. It was Sinatra who described the microphone as “the singer’s instrument,” and even in his day he mourned those singers who didn’t use it for all it was worth. Today, you only have to turn on one of those ubiquitous talent shows to see how many singers believe that they should basically plant the microphone on their lips and yell. And why not, when they get rewarded with huge applause for doing so? Matthews clearly understands how her use of the microphone helps manage the dynamics of the performance and the expression of the song. And when we’re talking about dynamics, the concept of restraint (or lack thereof) inevitably comes up. Matthews, as with the finest singers, seems to know as a matter of instinct and taste when and what to hold back, and when (which ought rightly to be rare) to let loose. She also seems wise about turning technical weaknesses of her voice to her advantage when it comes to emotional expressiveness. The variety of vocal tones and textures she applies just on this album are pretty impressive on their own merit. And, in the end, after all, she is Welsh; therefore a very special blessing of God is upon her vocal cords, and I think that she cannot be said in her use of them to squander that particular element.
And so, back around to the title track. It was in 1999, while Matthews was still the lead singer for the rock/pop band Catatonia, that fellow Welsh citizen and pop-music legend Tom Jones connected with her to record the old Frank Loesser classic, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” for a new Tom Jones album and as a Christmas single in Britain. They did the complete treatment, a total throwback, with the right kind of band. No great effort for ol’ Tom Jones, a truly old-school professional vocalist, you might well say, but how did the rock & roll chick figure into it? Well, she acquitted herself with aplomb. It was a relatively minor hit in the U.K. at the time, but, as with the best of these Christmas things, it has stuck around and people remember it year by year. Cerys Matthews had apparently planned to build a follow-up Christmas album around it herself, but the project has waited all the way until now. What she delivered in 2012 is of a rather dramatically different spirit to that track, although it could be said that the concepts of joy and of fun are common denominators. The song has been sung by many greats over the years, but rarely if ever has it been done with the kind of chemistry that Tom and Cerys put forth, especially in their live performances, one of which is embedded below via YouTube. Matthews hams up her half of the vocal to the nth degree, but that doesn’t prevent her from bringing it all home in the end.
As for the album as a whole, a record that evokes the joys and the mysteries of the true story of Christmas as charmingly as this one does deserves to be remembered for many Christmases to come.