The original rockabilly queen returns with a vengeance on her sassy, spirited new album Unfinished Business, following up last year’s solid Jack White-produced comeback set The Party Ain’t Over. This time around, Jackson swaps out White for Americana star Justin Townes Earle as producer as she takes on another set of classic cover tunes mixed with some newer material.
Unfinished Business draws material from a variety of
genre wells spanning classic country, blues, R&B, and rock and roll. The album kicks off with a bang as Jackson tears into a rollicking rendition of Sonny Thompson’s “Tore Down.” Kenny Vaughan injects a searing guitar riff into the tune that serves as a perfect match to the raw energy and grit of Jackson’s performance. Certain choices might not fare well in comparison to previous renditions – We’ve heard superior versions of “Old Weakness (Comin’ On Strong)” by Patty Loveless and Tanya Tucker, while Jackson’s take on Bobby and Shirley Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” sounds surprisingly tame. But even at their weakest, Jackson’s versions are always enjoyable for what they are, and there are no real duds in the bunch.
Jackson nods to her country roots with the sweet pedal steel-laden ballad “Am I Even a Memory,” a duet with Earle, as well as the aching “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome” – a fine country shuffle if ever there was one. But it’s not an entirely gloomy affair, as Jackson balances out the melancholy material with upbeat fare such as the Townes Van Zandt gospel rave-up “Two Hands,” which she sells with infectious joy. Though Jackson’s vocal power may have deteriorated, her natural spunk and sense of presence more than make up for it, as toe-tappers such as “The Graveyard Shift” and Etta James’ “Pushover” show that Jackson can still belt and growl with the best of them. The album closes with a beautiful rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “California Stars,” featuring some lovely steel guitar work by Paul Niehaus.
Considering Wanda Jackson’s musical style has long drawn from an amalgam of influences, it’s fitting that she here draws from such an eclectic selection of material. What’s particularly impressive is that she is able to take songs from different genre origins, and make them sound like they belong together, blended by the unique flair of her performances. Similarly, Earle’s production approach borrows elements from varying genre influences, and brings them over to traditional Wanda Jackson territory, creating an album that sounds diverse without sounding disjointed.
Indeed, though Unfinished Business pays tribute to Etta James, Sonny Thompson, Bobby Womack, and Woody Guthrie, among others, the star of the show is Jackson. It’s not so much a country album, a rock album, or a blues album as it is simply a Wanda Jackson album – a fun, entertaining collection that serves as a testament to the enduring legacy of the talented rockabilly legend. Her place in music history may already be secure, but as hinted at by the album’s title, Wanda Jackson is clearly not resting on her laurels.
Top Tracks: “Tore Down,” “Pushover,” “California Stars”