Let’s be honest. The chances of Wanda Jackson putting out some groundbreaking, landmark album these days are slim. Her immeasurable influence spanning country, rockabilly, and rock and roll is undeniable. But at age 75, you’re not looking for something sensational, you’re just looking for something solid, something that rekindles the memories of her past magic and imparts some new memories along the way.
Same thing goes for these celebrity producerships that seem to be all the rage in music these days. You just want them to work. Hey, I’m one of the first to fall for them hook, line, and sinker. I see a high-caliber producer name attached to some upcoming project and my music pants start going crazy, and certainly that was the case when I heard Justin Townes Earle was producing Wanda’s Unfinished Business. But really, what is the success rate of these celebrity producer collaborations? Are big name musicians really qualified to be producers, or is this all marketing?
There’s been some hits with this formula, like Jack White’s work with Loretta Lynn on the album Van Lear Rose. And there’s been some, well, not hits, like when Jack White hooked up with Wanda on her last album The Party Ain’t Over. The result was decent, but a little too much Jack and not enough Wanda.
A good producer’s job is not to be noticed, but to get you to notice the talents of whoever they’re producing. And that’s what Justin Townes Earle does in Unfinished Business. He gets the hell out of the way and let’s Wanda Jackson do her thing, while still lending a creative and influential hand.
Wanda Jackson’s greatest asset is her voice. Like a brand new switchblade polished with Windex, it cuts with class. At 75, her voice is probably going to show some age and we can accept that, if not even enjoy its character in patches. Possibly the reason Jack White felt inclined to bring in bellowing horn sections on the last album was possibly to bolster, or bury Wanda’s voice from fear of it showing its age. But what Jack’s approach did was suffocate what makes Wanda special.
With Unfinished Business, instead of setting up a one band, one formula approach for most of the album, Justin Townes Earle approached each song individually, and this is where this album shines: the customized treatment for each track that creates a brilliant contrast of moods. Where Jack White seemed wanting to make a statement through Wanda, Justin Townes Earle just wanted to have fun.
If Wanda Jackson’s greatest asset is her voice, her second is her coolness and style. Earle was wise to pick up on that and utilize that in composition, like in the first track “Tore Down”. Bringing in backup singers for Wanda’s version of the Etta James number “Pushover” was a brilliant call that also called on Wanda Jackson’s cool factor.
Great, great song selection on this album. “It’s All Over Now”, a song first cut by the Valentino’s that then went on to be The Rolling Stone’s first #1 hit in 1964 was an excellent selection for the track list. Lower Broadway revivalist Greg Garing’s “Down Past The Bottom” may be the best track on the album.
Justin Townes Earle may have made an effort to make sure this album wasn’t all about him, but he’s far from sitting in the background. Wanda’s hard country version of Justin’s “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome” is another standout track. And Earle shares the mic with Wanda in the somber duet, “Am I Even A Memory?”, where once again he does a great job playing the part instead of trying to stamp his signature on the song.
I’m not sure of the epicness yearned for in the ending track “California Stars” is captured, but the song is solid nonetheless. And I seem to always want to hear more of the Wanda rockabilly growl than what I get on her albums. But Unfinished Business touches on a tremendous amount of textures, styles, and moods, including lots of country and steel guitar, which is only appropriate because of Wanda’s wild, varying influence on American music. And most importantly, Unfinished Business let’s Wanda be Wanda.
As far as I’m concerned, Wanda Jackson has no “unfinished business” to attend to. She’s given her heart and soul to the music, and the music is better off because of it. She’s got nothing to prove, but she proves it anyway in Unfinished Business. And so does Justin Townes Earle.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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