Album Review: Wanda Jackson — Unfinished Business

Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. | November 19th, 2012

wandajacksonunfinishedIn 2011, The First Lady of Rockabilly declared “The Party Ain’t Over” with her rollicking, Jack White-produced album of the same name. A year later Wanda Jackson returns to take care of some unfinished business on a sassy, brassy album, produced by Justin Townes Earle, that showcases Jackson’s growling, inspired versions of rock, blues, folk, and country songs.

Delivering straight ahead rock and roll, fueled by Kenny Vaughan’s blistering guitar, Jackson tears the house down with a scorching version of the Sonny Thompson blues standard, “Tore Down.” Vaughan’s sizzling solo is one of the highlights of the album. On “Two Hands,” a joyous and rambunctious gospel song, written by the late Townes Van Zandt, Jackson’s voice dances along with Skylar Wilson’s barrelhouse honky tonk piano and the beatific background chorus of Amanda Shires, Larissa Maestro, Tristen, and Hailey Collier. “What Do You Do When You Get Lonesome” is country shuffle at its best, guided by Mike Bub’s ingenious plucking of the upright bass and Paul Niehaus’ skittering and glimmering pedal steel. If pop maven Lesley Gore’s poor, pitiful me (“It’s My Party,” “Judy’s Turn to Cry”) had had Jackson’s ballsy attitude in “Pushover,” Gore’s boyfriend would never have had a chance to cheat on her. Jackson doesn’t let herself get taken, holding out for “a love that’s for real, not an imitation” in this pop-inflected cover of the soul classic that Etta James made famous; with that energetic rockabilly guitar driving it, Jackson’s version rocks steadier than James’.

Some songs don’t work as well as others. Jackson’s cover of Bobby and Shirley Jean Womack’s standard, “It’s All Over Now,” lacks the energy of The Valentinos’ (produced by Sam Cooke and led by Womack himself) version, and her take on “Old Weakness (Coming on Strong)” can’t match those by Patty Loveless and Tanya Tucker.

The highlight of the album is Jackson’s take on “California Stars.” The haunting pedal steel guitar, whose twinkling licks mirror the sparkling of the stars, backed by the angelic voices of the background singers transports us out into those starry skies into which Jackson gazes in the song.

Jackson’s paved the way for so many other women in rockabilly, and it’s good to have her soulful, still strong voice back taking care of business.

4 Stars

Preview or purchase Unfinished Business

  1. Ben Foster
    November 19, 2012 at 11:41 am

    I heart Wanda. This album has been in heavy rotation around my place lately. Just love it. Especially enjoy “Tore Down,” “California Stars,” “Am I Even a Memory,” and “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome.”

    I do agree that her version of “Old Weakness (Comin’ On Strong)” isn’t as great as Tanya’s or Patty’s though.

  2. Rick
    November 19, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    When vocal artists go way past their prime, I completely lose interest. I’m glad that albums like this are made for what they represent in a sentimental sort of way, but I would never actually buy one.

  3. jon
    November 23, 2012 at 1:14 am

    Rick, you’re a close minded person. I feel sorry for you. You’re missing out on great albums.

  4. Paul W Dennis
    November 24, 2012 at 12:43 am

    I don’t think Rick was referring to an artist’s commercial prime but rather their vocal prime. I have many great albums by artists past their commercial prime but almost none by artists whose voice has degraded badly. Frankly, I don’t want to hear a new album by Loretta Lynn, Jimmy Dickens or George Jones any more than I ever listen to the last few albums released by Frank Sinatra (I have all of them) . I prefer to remember them as the great artists they were, not the vocal wrecks they’ve become

  5. luckyoldsun
    November 24, 2012 at 5:26 am

    PD–
    That actually makes for an interesting topic.
    There are some artists who are worth listening to even when their vocals are pretty well shot and some who are not. Johnny Cash and Tony Bennett are two singers who really rehabilitated their images and enhanced their stature with works that they did when their voices were depleted.
    I guess it has to do with whether the artist still seems to have something to communicate in whatever state he’s in.

    You mention that you’re not interested in hearing anything new from George Jones, now that his voice is degraded. I sort of agree with you, but I very well might want to hear something new from Haggard when his voice is equally battered.

  6. Rick
    November 24, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    Someone’s accusing me of being “close minded”? I’m shocked! (lol)

    I want to listen to singers at their vocal best, not after their vocal abilities have declined for whatever reason. That’s just my taste preference which has been hardened by years of enduring the “Opry Legends” on the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts.

    I don’t care either for vocalists that can’t stay on pitch. This means most Texas singer-songwriter troubadour types are outside of my taste range, well except for Ernest Tubb that is. Some listeners think that rough hewn vocals of that nature have character, but I just consider it really annoying.

    I don’t see any loss in not listening to new music I will have no interest in due to it’s inherent nature. To each their own.

  7. Barry Mazor
    November 24, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    This is the difference, to me, between focusing on the short-lived gift of “having a voice” , as opposed to singing ability, which is something quite different, involving emotional smarts in interpreting and getting the most out of the song–and not just the lyric, starting the probably, but also the music..

    When somebody’s brilliant at those things, such as the mentioned Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett (who were very aware of how they were phrasing and could discuss it) or George Jones (who doesn’t think about it, or have much to say about it–not his job–but is a genius at it), they are, to me, still very worthwhile listening to when the physical vocal gifts go. (And, in fact, I may be and am very taken with many performers who don’t have anything like smooth or pretty voices or even perfect pitch but sing the hell out of a song. Those are no less artists for having been dealt a different hand to play.

    I can reach a point where an elderly singer starts to get problematic for me, too, though–and that’s a point sometimes reached where their breath control and power is so limited that they can’t really produce the singing results they mean to any more. Then the singing itself has been damaged.

  8. Barry Mazor
    November 24, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    PS: I want to add that plenty of smart older or elderly singers learn how to adjust to the physical changes. It’s like learning to place your pitches when the fastball leaves you.

  9. Jon
    November 25, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    “This is the difference, to me, between focusing on the short-lived gift of ‘having a voice…’”

    Yep.

  10. Jeremy Dylan
    November 26, 2012 at 7:41 am

    Johnny Cash and Tony Bennett are two singers who really rehabilitated their images and enhanced their stature with works that they did when their voices were depleted.

    I saw Mr. Bennett in concert a few months ago and would take issue with the idea that his voice has been depleted in any way. He sings with more range and power than most 20-somethings.

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