Tom Jones has entered the era of his pop career during which he focuses on covers, flipping his way through the songbook and filtering the contents through his hip-swivel of a voice. Well, to be fair, he’s been riding on the “charisma and covers” plan for quite some time, making his return to the spotlight with 1999’s covers album, Reload, among others. While in other hands that kind of unoriginal goofiness can be shrugworthy at best or frustrating at worst, Jones’ guileless enthusiasm makes the whole exercise kind of charming. He seems to pick songs that he would either have a fun time singing or get some sort of spiritual kick out of, and then he does them. The same is certainly true of his latest album, Long Lost Suitcase.
The album comes as a companion to Jones’ new autobiography, Over the Top and Back, and accordingly explores an era of music that was very important for the Welsh singer’s development. Though he grew up thousands of miles away, Suitcase shows Jones’ love of American roots music, from Sonny Boy Williamson to Hank Williams Sr., from Willie Nelson to The Milk Carton Kids. For music obsessives of Jones’ age across the world, the American blues and folk traditions were major inspirations. That’s why he’s out there singing Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues”: Everyone wanted to be Elvis.
And while everyone wanted to be Elvis, Jones actually wound up getting pretty close. Hear me out: I’m not talking necessarily about the magnitude of his fame, the legendary nature of his career — though he certainly is a megastar, and a legend at that — but rather the undeniable, magnetic presence that drives audiences wild, a performer in the truest sense of the word. The excess of charm that oozes out of his vocal performances is the driving factor of his career, so it doesn’t really matter that this is his third straight album of covers — at their best, they’re just as charming as brand-new tracks.
Throughout, Jones’ voice carries the appropriate level of warmth that you’d expect from any old west showman, the kind of guy who’s been wandering the world’s dusty roads for decades now. He tones down the “Sex Bomb” side of his persona, in favor of a more molasses-y comfort; there won’t be many pairs of underpants thrown on the proverbial stage after his low-swinging take on Willie Nelson’s “Opportunity to Cry”. The same goes for traditional folk song “He Was a Friend of Mine”, a guitar twang giving space for Jones to mourn lost comrades. “Every time I think about him now, I just can’t keep from crying,” Jones sings, and considering the two became friends and the inclusion of Welch’s song about Elvis’ death, it’s hard not to imagine that he’s at least in part singing about the King. It’s no surprise that those two tracks, then, are his most engaging performances.
While the Rolling Stones might seem like a strange choice for an Americana record, his version of “Factory Girl” fits here because it reels off in a familiar bluegrass twang. Many might look at “Bring It on Home” as a Led Zeppelin tune, making its inclusion similarly strange, but it too digs deeper than those British origins — the track has blues roots, recorded years prior by Sonny Boy Williamson. The Stones and Zep were inspired by the same R&B and blues performers that Jones was. On Suitcase, he ties them all up in his own beguiling grin.
This music clearly means so much to Jones; some of these very song titles were used as chapter titles in his autobiography, after all, defining moments in his life. He unifies jazz guitarist Lonnie Johnson and Los Lobos in a single album because to him they are all tied to his musical life story. As such, some of the songs’ differences are sanded down, all glossed together in ultra-professional production. Whether these songs are as important to you as they are to Jones or not, you’ll find his tribute heartwarming, charming, and passionate — much like the singer himself.
Essential Tracks: “Elvis Presley Blues”, “He Was a Friend of Mine”