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POP MUSIC REVIEW : What's New, Tom Jones? A Few Songs, Little Else

February 21, 1989|JIM WASHBURN

As most recently shown by the all-star help that went into the late Roy Orbison's comeback, contemporary artists are more than willing to save our elder pop idols from obscurity.

But who will save them from fame? The Art of Noise may have put Tom Jones back on the charts with their novelty version of Prince's "Kiss," but Jones' performance Sunday at Anaheim's Celebrity Theatre showed it will take more than microchips to teach him new tricks.

Although it's a point easily forgotten after Jones' 2 decades of Las Vegas gloss and grind, his big Welsh baritone once earned the awe of American soul singers, the Beatles and other '60s contemporaries. But almost from the day he first hit with "It's Not Unusual" in 1965, Jones has squandered his vocal gift on one hackwork song after another while developing a pandering rug-chested-love-god stage act that made him a joke to most sentient beings.

His 16-song set opened with portents of change: His pit band introduced him by playing a reasonably funky version of the Talking Heads' "Mr. Jones," and Mr. Jones himself, sporting the "Kiss" video's black duster, performed his "Help Yourself" with nary a bump nor grind.

But, as Jones announced, "this was just foreplay," and he trotted out his old moves for the remainder of the show. All of which he does very well for a man nearing 50, although they hardly prompted the rain of female fans' panties that once was a staple of his performances.

Jones' voice has lost none of its power and range over the years, but, with his schmaltzy material, it is a bit like using a giant redwood to make paper pulp for the National Enquirer.

The set rounded up the usual suspects, including "Green, Green Grass of Home," "Delilah," "With These Hands," "What's New Pussycat?" and "It's Not Unusual."

Jones also performed a tremendously well-sung, but overblown, mock-operatic ballad from his import-only "Matador" album, and introduced three songs from a forthcoming album. Two were airy syntho-pop ballads, which, although seeming contrived to cash in on his "Kiss" success, were still a good sight better advised than his cover of the Escape Club's hideous "Wild Wild West."

The third new song, by writer Chris DeBurgh, hinted at what Jones might achieve with better material. Singing the words of a father who fears the world he has brought his daughter into, Jones conveyed a dramatic feeling in his voice that went beyond the professional sheen he brought to the rest of his show.

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