Review: Wanda Jackson- The Party Ain’t Over
Y’all remember who came to save the movie business a couple of years back? When the films became more formulaic than ever, including Oscar nominees. When CGI was seen as an adequate replacement for a good story and a talented cast and crew. When the safety of remakes was seen as a better option than the untested waters of creativity. Yes, I realize that Hollywood is still stuck in the era I just described, but the question still remains. Who was the only truly prominent person to fight against that system? Was it Vin Diesel? No. Nicolas Cage? Hell no. It was some 80-year-old guy named Clint Eastwood who should have retired a decade ago but decided instead to release classic film after classic film and lay them out on America’s table as if to say “This is how you do it. This is what art is about. It’s not about a huge budget or the latest gizmos. It’s about doing it with your heart.”
It’s too bad Mr. Eastwood has displayed in several past roles that he’s not a great singer (although Honkytonk Man is an excellent film), because at this point somebody needs to give the music industry the same kick in the ass that Clint has been giving Hollywood. Truly great artists have been buried further and further underground as grassroots labels such as Fat Possum have become the home to badly-dressed corporate posers with the nerve to refer to themselves as “indie rock.” (Sam Phillips is rolling in his grave.) Americana and alt. country have begun catering to the NPR crowd, slowly but surely removing any hints of creativity and edginess and leaving a bland semi-rootsy mess. And, of course, Nashville and pop (the two terms are more ambiguous than ever these days) continue their downward spiral into bubblegum hell.
Today’s pop world has a wide array of manufactured artists for your average Joe to choose from down at the local Wal-Mart, ranging from Nickelback to John Mayer, but the emphasis in the past few years has been on the ladies. You have the sweet, innocent girls next door like Taylor Swift, the wannabe badass chicks like Kesha, all of the in-betweens such as Rhianna and Katy Perry, and whatever the fuck Lady Gaga is (besides a bad Alice Cooper impersonator).
I wrote all of the preceding just to illustrate exactly where we stand at the moment and to demonstrate how far our favorite artists are being put onto the backburner. We are in the middle of a gigantic forest made out of shit and there seems to be no light anywhere. Then all of a sudden that light finally appears in the form of 73-year-old rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson and her new record The Party Ain’t Over, which is easily the best and most important album released by a veteran artist since Johnny Cash’s original American Recordings back in 1994.
Yesterday I threw some older Wanda Jackson material on the stereo and checked out a few videos on YouTube, just as a quick reminder before I began this review. Her legendary ’50s output displayed an artist who was truly ahead of her time and who paved the way for everybody from the Shangri-Las to the Runaways. She had a true passion for performing and conveyed that energy and her love of music to the audience with every line. And, at the risk of sounding shallow, she was also drop-dead gorgeous and, as a listener, you knew this without even glancing at the album cover. It came through in her voice, in her personality, and in the songs themselves. In that sense, she really was, as some early critics dubbed her, “The Female Elvis.”
The Wanda Jackson pictured on the cover of The Party Ain’t Over is 50 years older, but that vibe still comes through the speakers, especially on the first single, a cover of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.” She begins by meeting a guy in a bar who is dressed in a skull t-shirt and three verses of sensual lyrics and one Roger Moore reference later, Jackson has successfully knocked Brittney Spears off of her throne and regained the title she first earned over half a century ago.
Of course, much of the credit for the album must go to producer Jack White. Everything he touches turns to gold and this record not only fits perfectly in the trajectory of Jackson’s career, but also within his as well. Judging from the track listing, one would expect something similar to Loretta Lynn’s wonderful Van Lear Rose, which White produced in 2004, but the sound actually comes closer to the Dead Weather with a mid-’60s Memphis horn section. It is White’s unique arrangements coupled with Jackson’s God-given talent that turns tunes as over-performed as Harlan Howard’s “Busted” or the ’50s rock standard “Rip It Up” into something new and exciting.
This album is nothing if not eclectic. Acoustic Jimmie Rodgers numbers sit comfortably alongside songs popularized by the likes of Dinah Washington and the Andrews Sisters. Not to mention “Dust on the Bible,” a classic gospel hymn delivered so passionately that even the worst of sinners will almost be convinced to do as the song says and “redeem your poor soul.”
Yet the best track here is “Thunder on the Mountain.” Jackson’s version of this latter-day Dylan tune perfectly executes the songwriter’s vision by flawlessly melding the two disparate elements of Old Testament retribution and the quest for worldly success. On this number, Wanda is to Dylan what Waylon was to Billy Joe Shaver: the perfect artist who can pull off material in a way that is even more honest and more expressive than the writer himself ever could. That she changes a few lines here and there (“Alicia Keys” becomes “Jerry Lee,” “damn” becomes “dang,” and the verse about “tough sons of bitches” is removed completely) only makes the song more personal to her. This is the rare cover, in the same category with Elvis’s “Hound Dog,” Janis’s “Bobby McGee,” and Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” that ends up being more than a cover. Dylan wrote this song for Wanda Jackson and whether or not he knew that at the time, he does now.
Wanda Jackson and Jack White are here to save the music industry from itself and all of it’s excesses. They are here to wash away the sins of over-production, over-generification, and, in the case of some of the more atrocious “indie” bands, over-pretentiousness. This is hands-down the best album of Jackson’s career (although considering she was at her peak in the era of the single I wouldn’t necessarily call it her best work) and also one of Jack White’s best efforts thus far. This album is a rare thing in today’s music industry, especially on a major label. It’s real music played by real musicians. Nothing fancy, just heart and soul. The question is this: is the music industry ready for these two to come along and spoil the party for them?