Tom Jones, Spirit in the Room. What is more inspiring than seeing someone on the back nine going for the gusto and bringing it all the way home? Singer Tom Jones has had a most invigorating career, from Swinging '60s hits like "It's Not Unusual" to a long run in Las Vegas as one of the city's poster boys. Now it's time to get serious as he looks into his time left. With producer Ethan Johns and, just as importantly, A&R man Louis Bloom, Jones takes another crack at finding songs that speak to the very soul of man and lets him lay it all the way on the line.
Starting with Leonard Cohen's "Tower of Song," Tom Jones bears down on the lyrics like he's wrestling with Father Time and will not allow himself to lose. A searing run at Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan's "Bad as Me" leaves nothing to the imagination, while Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day" and Paul Simon's "Love and Blessings" become prayers for salvation. Then there's Mickey Newbury's "Just Dropped In." The last time this classic came around Kenny Rogers was singing it with First Edition; Jones turns up the heat and brings out the ghosts. Modern whizzes The Low Anthem contribute "Charlie Darwin," where Jones is joined by a heavenly choir to usher us right up to the Gates of Heaven. The last song, Bob Dylan's "When the Deal Goes Down" puts a life in perspective, letting us in on the secret that having someone by your side at the end might be the greatest gift of all. It sounds like only Tom Jones can sing these songs in a way that allows them to hit us in the heart with the force of a ball-peen hammer, proving that life's surprises continue to astound and that everyone is capable of constantly changing as we waltz to the finish line. Maybe that's not so unusual after all.
Various Artists, Swamp People. Killing alligators for a so-called television reality show may or may not be a sign of the times, but one thing is for sure: millions of people can't tune it out. Who knew the South was going to do it again in quite this way, but between this show and Duck Dynasty it's just too bad Ronnie Van Zandt took that fateful plane ride to the end of the line. The Lynyrd Skynyrd frontman could probably be president by now.
This 13-song collection of Dixie-fried Cajun, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and country and western is like a combo plate that just won't quit. On one hand is a washboard-fueled raver by Buckwheat Zydeco and the other a Cajun kicker by Beausoleil. Also included, just to cover all the various points on a Louisiana map, are songs by the Neville Brothers ("Fire on the Bayou" of course), Hank Williams ("Jambalaya" naturally), Tony Joe White (what sportsman's paradise picnic would be complete without some "Polk Salad Annie"?), and the ultimate closer, Bobby Charles' "See You Later, Alligator." The only thing missing is Jon Foose's underground '77 classic "Gator Git Down," but hopefully a second volume will correct that omission. Until then, it's time to do the bon ton boogie and consider a revamped Swamp People show where two huge alligators are let loose in a hunter's house in the middle of the night with all the guns gone and the doors and windows locked shut. Turnabout is fair play: chomp, chomp, chomp.
Freddie King, The Complete King Federal Singles. Sometimes it seems like blues guitarist Freddie King was the lone wolf of The Three Kings: B.B., Albert and himself. He never quite got out of the ghetto, though, through the support of people like Eric Clapton and Leon Russell, King got right up to the edge of breaking through the White Curtain. Song for song, though, nobody could bear down on the blues like this big man. He towered over his Gibson guitar, playing in a swinging Texas/Chicago hybrid style that was like a laser beam of emotional eruption. Plus he sang with the grace of a wayward angel, walking that line between the spiritual and the street. Ask anyone who really takes blues seriously and Freddie King is always mentioned at the top of their list.
How could he not be with songs like "I'm Tore Down," "Have You Ever Loved a Woman" and his instrumental classic "Hideaway" having become permanent standards, and his premature death in 1976 at only age 42 bringing to an end what was a career that always looked like it was ready to be launched into the stratosphere? This two-CD set of 54 songs will cure everything that could ever ail a willing listener, and prove once and for all that Freddie King took a backseat to no one. His blues placed him on the mountaintop, and are what made the big man big. Long may he burn.