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Review: Tom Jones, 'Long Lost Suitcase'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Cover art for <em>Long Lost Suitcase.</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist.
Courtesy of the artist.
Cover art for Long Lost Suitcase.

Tom Jones bills his newest album as a companion to his autobiography, Over The Top And Back. And were you to judge the facts of his life based exclusively on the Ethan Johns-produced, American-style roots music that makes up Long Lost Suitcase, you'd be hard-pressed to discover that the life lived was that of a 75-year-old from Wales who's ranked among the planet's most popular singers of standards and schlock, a heartthrob to a worldwide army of fans. Then again, for male singers of Jones' generation, Elvis Presley was a hell of a drug.

The King casts a long, dark shadow on Jones' Long Lost Suitcase, most obviously via a cover of Gillian Welch's "Elvis Presley Blues," in which the night of Elvis' death is recounted as a memory of a time when the Memphis boy was a budding God who "shook it like a chorus girl, shook it like Harlem Queen." This line strikes an obvious chord with Jones' own life, which has featured its own proclivity to shake it in Vegas. As expected, Jones' voice here is nothing less than the grand gallop of a knowing show pony, yet Johns bathes it in the tremolo feedback of a guitar, a classic rock 'n' roll drone. This isn't just an abstraction of a blues. It's also a hyperbaric chamber — especially when Elvis' tale mutates into John Henry's and, though the hero beats the steam-drill, Jones closes by asking, "What's wrong with me?" Could you sense the singer's tears flood his breaking voice there at the end? Has the forward march of pop and technology and time finally caught up with the nature of the "shake"?

None of these questions could usurp Jones' class, nor Johns' expert handling of it. This is how songs by Lonnie Johnson (the smooth "Tomorrow Night"), Willie Dixon (a swampy "Bring It On Home"), Little Willie John (a version of "Take My Love" that sounds as if it were recorded at Chess) and Hank Williams Sr. (a campfire hoot of "Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used To Do?") evolve into Dave Van Ronk (the stately "He Was A Friend Of Mine"), The Rolling Stones (a bluegrass read of "Factory Girl") and William Bell ("'Til My Back Ain't Got No Bone"). Eventually, the album even makes way for the relative modernity of songs by Los Lobos, Welch and — hell, why not — The Milk Carton Kids. Exquisitely chosen and masterfully interpreted, they all feel of a piece.

Long Lost Suitcase closes with "Raise A Ruckus," one of those songs whose melody and many verses have been wandering the colonies since America-bound Brits of English, Irish, Scottish and, yes, Welsh persuasions first landed here in the 1600s and 1700s. Amid the strings and banjos, Jones brings the song his big boom of a voice. Is it reclaiming anything? Absolutely not. It's simply a hearty acknowledgement that it's part of his story, too.

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