Don’t be fooled by the title. Alive, the first new album in 10 years by Tommy James — of Tommy James & the Shondells fame (“Hanky Panky,” “Mony Mony,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Crimson and Clover”) — is not a concert album.
Its title is borrowed from its song “I’m Alive” (featuring Gene Cornish of The Rascals on guitar), a statement of purpose in which James declares he’s “doing my thing and singing my song” and that “I know what I think and what I believe” in a voice that has held up as well or better than the voices of virtually any of his ’60s pop-rock peers.
James sounds great throughout this album, which takes more surprising twists and turns than you might expect from a veteran singer-songwriter such as he.
Sure, there are some tracks that are pretty straightforward, such as the love songs “So Beautiful” and “Who Speaks for Love.” But elsewhere, James seems intent on trying out as many different styles as possible.
“Rising Water” is a gospel-rocker, and “From the Neck Up,” a half-spoken, country-flavored novelty song.
“A Doo Wop Shuffle (Part 1)” and “A Doo Wop Shuffle (Part 2)” are medleys that allow him to have some fun with golden oldies such as The Marvelows’ “I Do,” The Hollywood Flames’ “Buzz Buzz Buzz” and Bobby Day’s “Little Bitty Pretty One,” “Over and Over” and “Rockin’ Robin.”
The most unexpected track is “One Helluva Ride,” which introduces a Mephistophelian character (voiced by James in a gruff purr) based on Morris Levy, the record industry mogul and convicted organized crime figure who played a big part in James’ career (James wrote about him in his 2010 book, “Me, The Mob, and The Music: One Helluva Ride With Tommy James and the Shondells”). I definitely wasn’t expecting that.
James adds a guest rap (by T.O.N.E-z) and a chilly, modern beat to his cover of The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.” But he saves some of the biggest surprises for remakes of his own hits. “Draggin’ the Line II” features another T.O.N.E.-z rap and a gritty guitar solo by Steven Van Zandt.” And his acoustic remake of “I Think We’re Alone Now” adds a melancholy, wistful quality that wasn’t there in the original version, or other covers.
James wrote on his website, tommyjames.com, that Alive “started out as an acoustic album, but little by little I realized that there was no way I could interpret all of the songs acoustically, so I gave into electricity!
“It was a very long time in the making. Some songs go back 30, 40, and even 50 years and some are brand new. There are lots of different kinds of songs. If there’s one big theme it’s that there’s absolutely no theme. I wasn’t listening to the radio or what was going on around me musically, I just recorded songs that I had wanted to do for a long time or now.”
Tommy James & the Shondells perform at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City on July 27 at 9 p.m.; visit ticketmaster.com.
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