Friday, January 28, 2011

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts - Wanda Jackson

It is tempting to base a review of the stunning new Wanda Jackson album The Party Ain’t Over entirely on its producer and guiding spirit Jack White, but Miss Jackson herself is so compelling a figure that she actually outshines White’s light. It is also almost impossible to NOT compare this album to Van Lear Rose, the album White produced for another country legend, Loretta Lynn, in 2004. While Van Lear Rose was a sweeping, epic, ballads album, The Party Ain’t Over is a claustrophobic, jumpin’ good-time album, where the stars of the show - Miss Jackson’s incredible, cartoonish voice, and White’s revved up guitar sound - are inches from you face and everything is squeezed up tight into the middle of the sonic field stimulating that maximum excitement. Just like hits in the 50’s and early 60’s used to sound. They knew how to make that single, mono speaker in the middle of your dashboard sound like heaven back then and Jack White in his Third Man Studio really knows how to get that sound.
It’s not really correct to call Wanda Jackson country because even though her roots are clearly in that genre, she is truly the queen of rockabilly. Her first hits (in 1955) are a groundbreaking fusion of country and early rock and roll that make Elvis look like a stroll in the park. She had a gutsy vocal style and an appreciation for pulse-quickening tempos that made her a true pioneer. And, amazingly, she seems to have lost none of her fire. On The Party Ain’t Over White helps her choose a perfect program of classic and modern rockers that just light up the speakers. Kicking off with the great Johnny Kidd and The Pirates hit “Shakin’ All Over” it is clear that Jackson still has her pipes and has surrounded herself with a young kick-ass band that can really rock. Numbers like “Rip It Up,” “Nervous Breakdown,” “Rum and Coca Cola” and “Busted” really play to her obvious strengths, allowing her the comfort and room to stretch out her phrasing and make the songs her own. White’s production is so completely on the money - paying tribute to her heritage while yanking her into the present - that you have to wonder how he figured it all out. I’ve always hated when adults talk to kids like they are stupid and can’t understand what you are saying. Likewise, I have hated when young people show older, more experienced folks too much deference, denying their viability as still active members of the human race. That line is walked with such gentle precision on this album that one has to say bravo! Jack White, bravo! He gets how special this woman is, but that’s not going to stop him from turning it up to 11 and doing what he knows his fans want.
Possibly the two greatest performances on The Party Ain’t Over are covers of Bob Dylan and Amy Winehouse, respectively. On Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” Jackson takes a completely modern lyric and tune and makes them feel like they were always hers. She inhabits the bittersweet lyrics and finds a ray of optimism in an otherwise bleak tune. The real masterpiece here though is her completely wild take on Dylan’s “Thunder On The Mountain” from his Modern Times album. Propelled by a punchy horn chart and White’s stinging lead guitar, the song explodes with energy and joy - things that used to regularly be part of rock music. Jackson cleverly changes Dylan’s name check of “Alicia Keys” to “Jerry Lee” in a perfect nod to her place in history. Apparently her old friend Bob Dylan was the one who suggested she do this tune, and it is an absolute stroke of genius.
The Party Ain’t Over is such an unexpected blast of pure rock fun, that it is tempting to doubt its veracity. It’s for real folks! Check this video of “Thunder On The Mountain” (below). If that doesn’t get you excited and wanting this album, better check your pulse.
-Paul Epstein

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