By Allison Stewart
Almost every male crooner over 60 has his Johnny Cash Moment, when he stops making drecky adult contemporary (or country, or pop) albums and returns to his purportedly natural state of grave artistic seriousness, even if, like 70-year-old Welsh legend Tom Jones, he was never all that serious in the first place.
Jones made his fortune as a hip-swinging, winkingly louche purveyor of lounge pop in its purest, giddiest forms. On his latest comeback album, "Praise & Blame," he's appropriately restrained, somber, even, but wise enough not to try to out-serious Neil Diamond, who performed on his own comeback disc as if he was singing from inside the tomb, or Cash, who almost was.
Jones is no stranger to hipness makeovers. In recent years he's collaborated with Wyclef Jean, covered the Arctic Monkeys and grown the kind of goatee last seen in Brooklyn in 2006. "Praise" could be merely a maneuver, but the disc, produced by Ryan Adams's frequent collaborator Ethan Johns, feels real. It's Jones's "O Brother," "Raising Sand" and "Ain't No Grave" all rolled into one, a mixed bag of roots-related styles - blues, gospel-lite, country-folk, rockabilly, soul - stripped of all fat and reduced to the barest elements of voice and spartan, if often electrified, instrumentation.
The song choices are impeccable, from a thunderous cover of Bob Dylan's "Oh Mercy" standout "What Good Am I?" to a holy roller redo of John Lee Hooker's "Burning Hell," all propelled by Jones's remarkable voice, still a marvel of quaveriness and bluster and sinew after all these years.
Recommended tracks: "What Good Am I?," "If I Give My Soul"