Saturday, March 5, 2011

No Fun: Wanda Jackson's The Party Ain't Over

In 2004, former White Stripes band member, Jack White produced Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose. The album was an excellent mix of traditional country and contemporary pop. At age 70, Lynn also proved to be a versatile singer as White shaped the sound of the songs to reflect her experience and yet capture something new in her voice. Van Lear Rose succeeded on so many levels that it was one of the most successful selling albums in Lynn's career. At the 2005 Grammy Awards, it won Best Country Album and it peaked at number 24 on the Billboard 200 chart.

Looking to capture some of that same magic, White hooked up with veteran rockabilly singer Wanda Jackson last year to record The Party Ain't Over, an album whose best intentions sadly fall short. Jackson was born in 1937 in Oklahoma and was encouraged to take up music at an early age by her father. By 1956, she had learned to sing and play guitar earning a regular radio show in Oklahoma City. After graduating high school, she launched a full-fledged career in music that was a mix of country and rock 'n roll. She was known as the “Queen of Rockabilly.”

Wanda Jackson was a high-energy performer who wanted to sing like Gene Vincent. That commitment to her sound and look featuring dresses (designed by her mother) paid off for Jackson in 1959. She recorded "Let's Have A Party" a year after Elvis Presley and it was a Top 40 national hit which led to the release of more singles and several albums on Capitol records until 1965. As rockabilly music declined, and she matured, Jackson turned to more traditional country music and gospel recordings. Her career slowed down considerably after that, until a recently renewed interest in rockabilly music in Britain restored her career. Even a few years ago she performed on stage in Europe playing the music of her youth to wider acclaim.

Wanda Jackson and Jack White
The Party Ain’t Over opens with a heavy version of "Shakin All Over" made famous by Chad Allen and the Guess Who in the mid sixties. While the arrangement of the guitar and horns is good, Jackson's voice is processed to "vibrate" on the song's title phrase. This mess of a mix is followed by "Rip it Up" featuring a heavy backbeat. But Jackson's performance is too full of echo to sound convincing. It fact, it comes across as brutally flat. Most of the tracks lack musical currency and as nostalgia it ends up ringing false.

Two tracks come close to sounding respectful of Jackson's years: Bob Dylan's "Thunder on the Mountain" and the closer, Jimmy Rodgers' "Blue Yodel." The former is a tribute to Jerry Lee Lewis and the great rock 'n roll artists that Dylan grew up with in his youth. It truly kicks because she gets to sing it in her key. But Jackson seems ill-equipped to perform the others because they're arranged in a completely different key. Jack White seems to have missed the point. Maybe Jackson wanted to “rock out” one more time, but her producer should have done more to show off her versatility rather than hire a kick-ass band that literally blows her off the stage. Take a look at some recent youtube videos and compare her old stuff with performances featuring Jack White. It makes one cringe, I dare say.

I wish The Party Ain't Over had more of the beauty and simplicity of Rogers' “Blue Yodel” because it's just Wanda singing accompanied by Jack White on acoustic guitar. Perhaps the two, who obviously have a artistic chemistry, should have started with music more reflective of Jackson’s age and experience, rather than try to recreate the past.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

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