Business Is Good for Wanda Jackson

Anyone who saw 74-year-old Wanda Jackson’s performance at Venue this past October knows that there’s a lot of fire remaining in this, to use Bob Dylan’s term, fireball.

An industry veteran, Jackson has been riding a revival the past few years thanks in no small part to the guidance of younger stalwarts such as Jack White, who produced last year’s heater The Party Ain’t Over, and Justin Towns Earle, who makes as solid producer as White. (He also guests on the stellar “Am I Even a Memory?”)

With Unfinished Business, it is producer Earle’s turn to try to tame Jackson. Fortunately for us, he doesn’t tame her too much. There is plenty of hellcat strutting on this record, including the loose and lazy opener, “I’m Tore Down”. Earle has placed less of an onus on the white-hot licks, brass and drums that Jack White showcased on The Party Ain’t Over. Here, with no less a serviceable and at times smoking hot band, the spotlight is squarely on Jackson. Her vocals are a clear and present tool that require little if any production fiddling. (Certain modern pop stars could learn a thing or four from Ms. Jackson.)

She channels the spirit of Patsy Cline on the willow-weeper, “Am I Even a Memory?” Earle, for his part, sounds like a haunted, younger version of his father, Steve “Copperhead Road” Earle. Already a noted singer-songwriter in his own right, Earle shows a delicate, respectful touch as a producer. His approach is less hands-on, preferring instead to let the natural swagger and talent of Jackson and her ensemble to generate the heat for a good old-fashioned rock and roll throw-down.

Her southern turn on The Rolling Stones’ “It’s All Over Now” is a highlight on an album stacked with highlights. In fact, despite the brevity of the album (only 10 songs), Unfinished Business is a wholly satisfying meal.

The album closer is that most perfect of tracks from Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue albums, “California Stars”. Jackson gives the song a smoother, velvety touch, rephrasing the melody to give it her signature sound. The song remains wistful and emotive, but with Jackson behind the wheel, there is a greater depth of a life having been lived, a maturity that gives a song the weight that neither Bragg nor Jeff Tweedy could have hammered home.

In a year that has seen stunning records from other stunning seniors (Leonard Cohen, Bobby Womack, and Dylan), Jackson holds her ground. She is a uniquely blessed woman with a voice that is one-part moonshine and one-part hellfire. There is no mistaking when Jackson sings. No wonder that Adele calls Jackson her single greatest influence.

Jackson is one of modern music’s few remaining hold-overs from the earliest days of rock and roll; the pre-Beatlemania days when rock was just a strange hillbilly sound that threatened to morally corrupt American youths. Jackson is a vestige of the old time religion of the Biloxi blues, the honky tonk stomp and Blue Mountain yodeling, that when deep-fried packs that whollop of what we call country-rock.

This isn’t just one of the best albums of 2012, this is an album for all time.

Check out the official video for “I’m Tore Down” here.