SURROUNDED BY TIME Tom Jones (EMI/ S-Curve) *****+++
At 81 Tom Jones has just released a new record, his 41st, and it’s a beauty. Surrounded By Time continues the late career renaissance he started with 2008’s 24 Hours- not as impressive commercially as Johnny Cash’s final run, but no less remarkable artistically. This is destined to be one of the year’s standout releases.
If you’ve heard songs like What’s New Pussycat or Green, Green Grass Of Home and think you know Tom Jones, prepare to have your bell rung. Tom started working with producer Ethan Jones (Joe Cocker, Kings Of Leon, Crowded House) in 2010 with the record Praise & Blame, and this is their 4th disc together. Each of those albums has a surprising depth and unexpected vulnerability that you wouldn’t expect from a belter and one time Vegas hack like Tom Jones. Though he was 80 when this was recorded last year, he hasn’t lost a step vocally since his prime in the 60’s. If anything his voice is deeper and richer with a strong vibrato and total command of the lyrics he sings.
Tom Jones is not a songwriter so one could consider each of his records a ‘covers’ album, but no moreso than anything in Frank Sinatra or Kenny Rogers’ history. Neil McCormick of The Daily Telegraph really nailed it when he said of Surrounded By Time that “it is more a series of songs that Jones and his cohorts have taken into the repair shop, stripped down to the bare bones, and rebuilt in the shape of their new front man.” Having bought everything Tom has done since 2009’s 24 Hours, I’d say that description applies to everything he has done since.
Familiar as I am with Tom Jones’s early stuff- he was one of my mom’s favorite singers- everything he’s done in the last decade is so far above that musically and emotionally it’s almost ridiculous. From the musicians involved to the song choices to Ethan’s production and Tom’s voice, these records (Praise & Blame, Spirit In The Room, Long Lost Suitcase and now Surrounded By Time) are easily as potent as Johnny Cash’s American Recordings produced by Rick Rubin. This is also Tom’s first album since the death of his wife Linda in 2016 from lung cancer- they were together since they were kids- so with this in mind it ads more gravitas to songs like I Won’t Crumble With You If You Fall and I’m Growing Old.
Tom and Ethan aren’t chasing pop success, that’s a young man’s game. Instead they’re choosing material written by people like Todd Snider, Cat Stevens, Tony Joe White and Bob Dylan that resonates with them, making the records they want to make, and in doing so, success is finding them. Reviews have been universally positive, and this disc debuted at #1 on the UK charts. No wonder there- Surrounded By Time is a great album.
KEY CUTS: This is The Sea, I Won’t Crumble With You If You Fall, I’m Growing Old
FRAMPTON FORGETS THE WORDS Peter Frampton (Ume) *** ¾
Peter Frampton’s new album is all instrumental, his first such record since 2006’s Grammy winning Fingerprints. Frampton Forgets The Words is a more elegant affair, a disc of sumptuous tones and aural gorgeousness.
Whereas the aforementioned Fingerprints is more of a rock record covering songs like Black Hole Sun, FFTW is a relaxed tour de force of subtle guitar greatness. Frampton never particularly enjoyed the trappings of pop success, wanting to be judged instead on his guitar playing, and now he’s getting his wish. Covering songs here by the likes of Lenny Kravtiz, Radiohead, Marvin Gaye, David Bowie and Roxy Music, his playing (and that of his band) is powerful and tasteful at the same time. Produced by Peter with Chuck Ainlay, this was recorded at Frampton’s Phenix Studio in Nashville. His main axe was his legendary 1954 Les Paul Phenix, pictured on the cover of Frampton Comes Alive, lost in a 1980 plane crash and recovered more than 30 years later.
I’m willing to bet a lot of guitar players are taking Frampton Forgets The Words seriously as Peter puts on a clinic on tone, phrasing and nuance across the entire record. He’s not some rock & roll Troglodyte bashing out chords, never really was. Peter Frampton has always been a player’s player and is only improving with age and experience. He’s been moving slowly but surely towards this kind of record, particularly as you consider the aforementioned Fingerprints as well as Hummingbird In A Box, a somewhat obscure disc from 2014 that started as a project in conjunction with the Cincinnati (I think) Ballet. And, like other artists at this stage in his life and career, he’s making the music he wants to make- which gets nothing but respect from me.
I own a couple of guitars but would never call myself a player- yet as a music fan I have no problem appreciating great playing. I find it beneficial to be in a particular headspace to commune with a fully instrumental record like Frampton Forgets The Words, and today his exquisite phrasing and delicate touch are making the notes from his guitar land like soft bombs as his playing makes the hair on my arm stand up. A very good sign.
KEY CUTS: If You Want Me To Stay, Avalon, Loving The Alien
YOU AND ME Nancy Wilson (Carry On Music) **** ½
Heart, along with every other band, has been off the road for over a year now. Rather than wait for her ‘day job’ to resume, Nancy Wilson elected to step out from that long shadow and make a proper solo album. The result is You And Me, a mostly soft and reflective effort that on occasion likes to get up and rock- all in all an enjoyable mix.
In an interview with Associated Press, when asked what made this the right time for her first solo album, Nancy said “I’ve been on the road since my early 20’s, Heart has been the main job for decades of my life. The (pandemic} shutdown was, for me, a blessing in disguise.” And the biggest challenge? “Grappling with the bravery of writing new songs outside of the Heart framework was really a lesson in survival and a lesson in character study of my own original self.”
You And Me is Nancy Wilson originals and some well chosen covers. She takes on Simon & Garfunkel’s The Boxer with some help from her old friend Sammy Hagar, The Cranberries’ Dreams, and a surprisingly grungy remake of Pearl Jam’s Daughter. Her take on Springsteen’s The Rising, written in the shadow of 911, takes on fresh, relevant meaning with the ongoing Covid pandemic. If you feel like rocking out, Nancy got Duff McKagan and Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins to drive Party In The Angel Ballroom. As a fixture on the Seattle music scene Wilson was aware of and friends with Alice In Chains front man Layne Staley, and The Dragon pays gritty tribute to his losing battle with heroin. And, while on tour years ago she gave Eddie Van Halen his first acoustic guitar; 4 Edward is a bluesy remembrance of the first song he wrote with it.
Most gratifyingly, You And Me is Nancy Wilson being herself. It’s a mix of dreamy acoustic ballads and eclectic covers along with the heartfelt (pardon the pun) tributes mentioned above. For Heart fans- and I’ve been once since 1975- this is also a chance to get an unobstructed view of what Nancy brings to the band, her Fleetwood Mac-ishness to sister Ann’s Zeppelin-osity. Give this a couple of spins, you’ll like it.
KEY CUTS: The Dragon, You And Me, Daughter
REVEL Nineteen Hand Horse (independent) *****
Country music with a decidedly punk attitude; that’s Revel, Northern California’s Nineteen Hand Horse’s debut album. It’s a delirious mix of outlaw country and classic western with dashes of rock, blues and alternative rock played with bar band enthusiasm and hard earned chops. In other words, Revel is extremely large fun.
19HH is singer Nathalie Archangel, a double platinum songwriter noted for her work on Bette Midler’s Some People’s Lives album. Guitarist Mark Montijo grew up on the sounds of AM country radio and the Bakersfield sound. They each grew disillusioned with the music biz and settled into work in the healthcare field where they met, fell in love and got married. Nathalie is a nurse and Mark became a psychologist. Nineteen Hand Horse was formed when they met Mark “Lemonade” Monroe, a harmonica/ woodwinds player who has accompanied Loretta Lynn, Jerry Reed and Shania Twain. They eventually added drummer/ singer Lowell Stevenson, bassist Ralph Ruiz and guitarist Brad Sears, who owns the facility where the album was recorded. Once we get engineer/ multi-instrumentalist/ producer/ vocalist James Early into the mix, we have a legendary band in the making.
Revel is a great sounding record that combines the grit, honesty and clarity of an old Sun Records session with sharp lyrical observations that come across like Cole Porter meets Townes Van Zandt. In the title cut Nathalie observes “I have worked with this population and it is no cliché/ to say that aging is not for sissies, especially in the good ol’ USA”. In the chorus of The Withering Romance of Trains she sings “fuck the train I want a Tesla/ cuz I gotta get to work.” Of that song she says “I LOVE trains and mean no disrespect- but I am a practical person with places to be…” The final track, Ghost Train, resurrects Peter Gunn for a whole new generation.
On Revel 19HH tell stories that resonate with angst and joy in a way that everyone can relate to, country soul with a wealth of life experience informing each lyric and melody line. The band’s affection for country music is clear and doesn’t feel ironic, but if you think you don’t like country I’m willing to bet this disc will sit well with you anyway. It’s smart, witty and well played- one of my very favorite albums of the year so far.
KEY CUTS: The Withering Romance Of Trains, Ghost Train, Revel
DARK SIDE OF THE BLUES: LIVE IN PRAGUE Pat Fulgoni (Chocolate Fireguard Music) ****
Pat Fulgoni’s new album isn’t actually new- it’s the reissue of an album (and DVD) previously only available as an export from the Czech Republic. Dark Side of The Blues was performed live on Breakfast TV, at Faust Studios in Prague. Though you don’t get the typical energy exchange between band and audience, this is guitar driven blues performed live in a studio environment- the best of two worlds you might say.
The Pat Fulgoni Blues Experience includes Lukas & Jan Martinek on guitars, providing some tasty fretwork (sounds like Teles or Strats) to accompany Fulgoni’s impassioned vocals. According to the bio Pat’s dulcet tones can also be heard on many modern electronic productions care of BBC Radio One, leading The Wire Magazine to call him “the Jack Bruce of the e-generation”. That thought never occurred to me on first listen, but now that it’s been mentioned, the vocal similarity between Pat and Jack is noticeable.
Dark Side Of The Blues includes covers of material by heavyweights like SRV, Ray Charles, BB King, John Lee Hooker, Zeppelin, Bill Withers and Thin Lizzy. There’s a satisfying sense of groove throughout the entire album, the songs each well played with nothing ‘phoned in’. The band was gearing up and rehearsing for a tour when the pandemic hit so this particular album, a fan favorite, was released as a stop gap measure to keep their public engaged. Not to worry on the live front, though; as of this writing Pat is already penciled in for The Sumperk Blues Festival this coming November. It’s a glimmer of sunshine as the shadow on our world slowly begins to lift.
Pat’s singing has been praised by Billboard Magazine; “Pat Fulgoni could sing a pearl from an oyster” while Rock ‘n’ Reel calls his style “immaculately hewn rock-soul vocals”. While I usually prefer live blues greasier and dirtier than this, Fulgoni is an exciting singer and the Martinek boys’ guitar work does justice to the legendary artists and their material that the band chose to play for the broadcast. Dark Side Of The Blues is a fine outing that makes you want to catch the band on stage. It’s cleaner than your standard live album, but it’s still very much worth a spin.
KEY CUTS: Rock Me Baby, Crossroads, Help Me