Review Summary: Wandas never cease.
For as long as there have been musicians in their twilight years, there have been those that have guided them through it and created something remarkable – reflections of timelessness and transcendence, rather than numbers and age. Who could forget the final Johnny Cash albums with Rick Rubin at the helm; or Julian Raymond's great work with Glen Campbell on his 2008 covers album Meet Glen Campbell
. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco recently had Grammy-winning success with soulful songbird Mavis Staple and her You Are Not Alone
record; and even Loretta Lynn found her music introduced to an entirely new generation with 2004's Van Lear Rose
. The latter was produced by one Jack White, who has decided to give the over-70s market another go with the woman many regard to be the defining female voice of rockabilly: miss Wanda Jackson. It's certainly a challenge, but has lightning struck twice for Mr. White with the end result of this collaboration, The Party Ain't Over
? You bet your sweet bippy, mister.
With a dream songbook of numbers, it's clear from as early as the opening seconds of the album that White was the man for the job of producer, lead guitarist and bandleader. We're introduced with the slick rockabilly take on Johnny Kidd and the Pirates' “Shakin' All Over,” complete with a punchy horn section, skittering electric guitar and drums that shake, rattle and roll whenever's appropriate – sometimes all three simultaneously. Then, as if out of some isolated corner of Hell, comes Jackson's voice. Holy Mother of God, that voice
. What time has done to that sweet, sassy voice that first came to prominence some fifty-odd years ago is beyond difficult to describe properly. It's ditched the sweet-and-sour styling and added a certain sting. There's grit in this voice, a nastiness that would normally be untoward of a woman in her seventies. It's a voice that scratches out its r's (“rrrrrrrrrrright up close to me”) and howls out its o's (“quivers down my backbooooooooooone”) - a voice that's come with years of sex, drugs and a healthy dose of the Devil's music. Whether it's echoing off the walls or getting dipped into distorted reverb, White does everything within his power to make it sound as rock & roll as possible.
This is a set of custom-fit covers, occasionally twisting around style and lyrics in order to tessellate with Jackson herself. The groove, for instance, is maintained with their version of the late Amy Winehouse's “You Know I'm No Good,” but the overt sexuality is toned down (“thinking of you in the final throes” becomes “thinking of you, but no-one knows”). Normally, this would come across as prudish or timid, but in this instance it assists in shifting emphasis towards the desperation and helplessness conveyed within the song. The shuffle of Bob Dylan's “Thunder on the Mountain,” from 2006's Modern Times
, is here given a kick into overdrive with stabs of horns, rolling snare hits and White intervening every couple of minutes with piercing, fiery guitar solos. The guy hasn't wailed this hard since The White Stripes' cut “Ball & Biscuit” back in 2003, and it's clear that Wanda is bringing out the rockabilly devil within him. Only minor lyrical changes here – some verses are moved around, and the reference to Alicia Keys is replaced with one to Jerry Lee Lewis (poor Wanda might not even know who Alicia Keys is). Similarly, it seems insignificant on paper, but in the midst of the song itself it manages to work very much in the song's favour.
If The Party Ain't Over
proves anything, it's that Wanda Jackson is flat out refusing to go out quietly. Retirement is for quitters, boys and girls. Rock & roll, on the other hand, is a lifelong commitment – and it's something that both White and Jackson are very much dedicated to. This is bold, brash and remarkably vital music – not an afterthought in an extensive discography, but something to be held proudly alongside her finest moments.