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Album Review: Wanda Jackson – The Party Ain’t Over

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I have been assigned the strange task of reviewing The Party Ain’t Over, the new release from rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson, after the disheartening announcement of The White Stripes’ demise.

Let’s be clear: this is a Wanda Jackson album, not a White Stripes or Jack White album, and the objective of this review is not to start a garage rock pity party. But seeing as White’s fingerprints are all over The Party Ain’t Over(He served as the album’s producer and the instigator of the entire project), that shocking bit of knowledge casts this comeback into a whole new light.

In a way, White couldn’t have picked a more appropriate time to pull the plug. Party may be an album about a lot of things—sex, love, betrayal, the blues—but most of all, it’s about new beginnings. For Jackson, the self-declared “First Lady of Rockabilly” (who later ventured into country and evangelical gospel), the album serves as a bold step back into the recorded spotlight. After finally earning a long-anticipated spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a 2009 induction, she’s riding a heatwave of good fortune, and in Jack White (the king of off-kilter, unmodernized cool) she’s found the ultimate ying to her yang.

White’s musical personality is too intense for sideline relegation. There’s his signature production stamp—crunchy, dust-blown textures drifting by like tumbleweed. Then there’s his playing—white-hot guitar solos, stinging slide riffs, and unmistakable, un-washable bad-ass blues-rock gusto that permeates every inch of this recording. Jackson, for all her brilliant vocalizing and pitch-perfect characterizations, is inevitably overshadowed in the star power department. But that fact holds little to no bearing on the success of this Party.

Traversing several decades worth of covers and a handful of genres, Jackson and White color these old-fashioned tunes with fascinating details: whirring Hammond organ, layers of horns and guitars, and an always sturdy rhythm section. And it’s no surprise—these are no ordinary session players (guests include My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel, Raconteurs/Dead Weather bassist Jack Lawrence, and Raconteurs drummer Patrick Keeler). The originally mild-mannered Johnny Kidd and the Pirates tune “Shakin’ All Over” is given a dirt-ridden makeover, exploding with car-chase lunacy while Jack White lives out his wildest blues mega-band fantasies. He’s grooving with a horn section, spreading thick layers of nervous, up-close tremolo over Jackson’s voice, and ripping through one of his trademark alien-blues guitar solos like his life’s on the line.

Behind the mic, Jackson is on fire, morphing from a smoky, demon-possessed croon to a squeaky wail: a perfect demonstration of her subtle eclecticism.

So even though White’s spirit looms large, Jackson is far from anonymous, ripping through this rocking grab-bag with the poise of a clear veteran. Demons of all shapes and sizes are exorcised—she may be “busted, flat broke, no bread,” but she finds solace in “Rum and Coca Cola.” It’s a testament to Jackson’s expansive, fidgety voice that she’s able to cover both Amy Winehouse (“You Know I’m No Good”) and Bob Dylan (“Thunder on the Mountain”) without breaking a sweat. But what’s even more impressive is that, as filtered through the Jackson/White kaleidoscope, the two sonically divergent tracks sound distinctly brand new.

It’s all harmless, lightweight fun—nobody involved seems to be aiming for any kind of grand statement, instead relishing an opportunity to just let loose. For White, Party is a neatly-packaged summary of his undeniable talents as a guitarist, producer, and all-around sonic sculptor. The White Stripes might be a thing of the past, but who cares? With all his endless side-projects and producing gigs, we’ll all probably have a tough time avoiding him. For Jackson, it’s a well-deserved victory lap, an emphatic middle finger to the masses, proving there’s still plenty of juice left in the tank.

Here’s to turning a new leaf.

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