The Middle of the Road Turns Left: Tom Jones & Petula Clark.

In the 1960s, there was the pop music I listened to:  Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, etc.

Clark-LostThen there was the pop music my parents listened to: Wayne Newton, Engelbert Humperdinck, Jim Reeves.

Tom Jones and Petula Clark stradled that line but with a decided tilt toward the latter camp.   Theirs was the sound of brassy string and horn laden pop tunes like “What’s New Pussycat,” “Delilah,” and “Downtown.”  While some of those were great songs, especially Petula Clark’s “Downtown” and “I Know A Place,” there was little in their world that seemed relevant to mine.

There’s no denying Clark’s charm.  She always seemed like a favorite young aunt rather than a pop star.  Tom Jones on the other hand, had the whole Las Vegas thing going:  tight pants, shirt unbuttoned to reveal his hirsute chest, and big, showtune productions.  But Jones also had a genuine side.  He wasn’t conventionally handsome, more rugged than pop-star pretty.  Despite woman throwing their  underpants and room keys at him on stage, he was self-deprecating, even self-mocking at times.  He had the guy-on-a-barstool demeanor of a man who grew up in a coal mining family and worked in factories and construction in his native Wales.  And like many English musicians of his generation – The Stones, Eric Burdon and Eric Clapton -  he was steeped in American blues and soul.

Tome-Jones-SPiritYou rarely heard that side of Tom Jones in his pop hits, but I remember watching the Tom Jones Show on television with my parents between 1969 and 1971,  waiting through the usual production numbers and hack Vegas acts like Anthony Newly, Racquel Welch and Don Ho, hoping to catch the odd rocker like The Moody Blues, Julie Driscoll – Brian Augur and the Trinity, and Janis Joplin who also appeared on the show.  In the midst of all that I remember being floored by Jones’ rendition of “16 Tons. ”  It was stripped-down, Jones alone on that square stage surrounded by the audience.  I heard him get to the core of this Merle Travis song from the mid 1940s,  to its futility and strength in the face of unbeatable odds.   Although the song was on his 1967, Green, Green Grass of Home album, his television performance was the only time I heard him sing it.   Yet, whenever I think of that frequently recorded tune, Jones’ rendition is the only one that comes to mind.

Now both Tom Jones and Petula Clark have returned in 2013 with new albums that aren’t exercises in nostalgia.  They don’t play to their older audiences’ memories.  Instead, Tom Jones goes to the core of his music sources and Petula Clark delves into new, more contemporary terrain.

Tom Jones Then

Tom Jones Then

Tom Jones’ “Spirit in theRoom” is stripped down, featuring  mostly guitar, piano, bass and drums.  It follows up his equally powerful Praise & Blame from a couple of years back. Reportedly recorded in live takes, Jones rolls through an inventive collection of songs, highlighted by his doomy, dystopian rendition of Leonard Cohen‘s “Tower of Song.” You can imagine him singing it in a bombed-out landscape accompanied only by acoustic guitar.   “Bad As Me” was originally recorded by Tom Waits in 2011 and harkens back to the clanging  screed of his Bone Machine album.

Tom Jones Now

Tom Jones Now

Tom Jones grabs a hold of the tune like a raging pit bull, roaring through its jaundiced world view with blues-drenched middle-eastern junkyard glee.

I would have never expected an album of this passion from Jones so late in his career.  A lot of the credit goes to producer Ethan Jones who creates the setting for Jones, much of it with his own guitar, dropping in e-bow glides and electric slides.  He helps the 72 year old Tom Jones sound like he’s just turned 27.

While Jones returned to his roots, Petula Clark takes a contemporary turn on her Lost in You CD.  It’s a gorgeous song-cycle that mixes plaintive acoustic guitars with electronic orchestrations without condescending to electro-pop cliches.

Petula Clark Then

Petula Clark Then

At 80, she’s eight years older than Tom Jones, but you could put this album right next to artists like Bat For Lashes, Christina Perri and The XX without a moment’s hesitation.   The opening track, “Cut Cover Me,” originally sung and co-composed by Sarah Naghshineh, sets the pace with atmospheric, but spare production from John Owen Williams.  That sound also works in the service of her hit, “Downtown.”  The original was an upbeat celebration of life in the city, finding joy in the face of sadness.  Here, Clark slows it down into a wistful reminiscence, centered on acoustic guitar, with gentle strings and Mellotron flutes.  It is beautiflly bittersweet, going out on an electronic heartbeat pulse.

Petula Clark’s original “Downtown.”

Petula Clark Now

Petula Clark Now

Lost in You has contemporary embellishments, but the voice is one of experience, casting back on a long life.  Clark touches on dreampop, turns Cee Lo Green‘s “Crazy” into a country tune, and trips-out on the American Songbook with a haunting version of Gershwin’s “He Loves and She Loves.”  The only false notes are her covers of John Lennon‘s “Imagine” and Elvis Presley‘s “Love Me Tender.”  Her renditions are heartfelt, but miss the mark  with a sentimentality that fails to tap the depth of each song.

I’d say welcome back to Tom Jones and Petula Clark, but I don’t think either of them has ever been to this musical place before.

~John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

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