The news that country and rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson was collaborating on a new studio album with Jack White has been kicking around for so long that the album’s emergence almost feels like an anticlimax. Despite that caveat, many will no doubt be keen to hear whether or not White can repeat the trick he pulled off with Loretta Lynn on Van Lear Rose. If anything, White’s trademark sound is an even stronger presence here – the songs are often interrupted by bursts of his searing guitar and the band features his wife Karen Elson and members of The Raconteurs. The whole project is bathed in affected nostalgia, the classic cover art harking back to a very different era.
But the idea that The Party Ain’t Over represents a comeback for Jackson is somewhat misleading. She continued touring throughout the ’80s and ’90s, particularly in Europe, and she made two studio albums in the last decade; Heart Trouble in 2003, which featured collaborations with The Cramps and Elvis Costello, and I Remember Elvis in 2006. There can be little doubt though that White’s presence should give audiences a high profile reminder of her talents. Jackson claimed her favourite London venue was the sadly now defunct Luminaire in Kilburn. She may find herself playing to larger audiences when the tour in support of this album hits the UK.
The song selection is a pick and mix collection of classic rock ‘n’ roll (Johnny Kidd And The Pirates‘ Shakin’ All Over, Rip It Up, a song previously recorded by Jackson herself among others) and modern retro compositions (Bob Dylan‘s Thunder On The Mountain, Amy Winehouse‘s You Know I’m No Good). Many of the songs are bolstered not just by White’s pyrotechnics, but also by some jubilant and invigorating horn arrangements.
The older songs come off much better than the more recent material. Jackson completely inhabits Shakin’ All Over. Whilst the treatment is not a world away from the original recording, her snarling, animated vocal still makes the song her own, even if Thunder On The Mountain is a trickier song to claim. Kitty Wells‘ Dust On The Bible is another astute selection that Jackson handles well. Dylan’s brilliantly unexpected line about Alicia Keys is altered to the much more predictable Jerry Lee and, in this context, Jackson’s voice sounds a little polite and one-dimensional. The song has limited melodic potential and simply needs Dylan’s withered growl. Similarly, at 73, Jackson’s voice lacks Winehouse’s dynamism and imaginative phrasing, and the arrangement of You Know I’m No Good sticks far too closely to the original.
No doubt White’s treatment of Jackson’s voice relies only on authentic period recording techniques, but there’s something curiously unsatisfying about the slightly distorted, reverb-laden, pinched, nasal quality of her voice on some of these tracks. It would be unfair to expect Jackson to retain the same vocal qualities she had in the ’50s and ’60s, but the slightly artificial sound captured here may well be doing her a disservice. She is at her best here when gifted with material on which she can impose some kind of character and individual authority. On the song selections where she cannot, she sounds rather imprisoned and uncomfortable. It’s also arguably a shame that Jackson hasn’t been encouraged to write new songs of her own.
Still, there’s no doubting the vibrancy and attack of White’s musical accompaniment, and the visceral thrill it often induces. The Party Ain’t Over may well be dogged by obvious comparisons with Van Lear Rose, but Jackson’s effort deserves to be judged on its own terms. Whilst the results are mixed, its best moments are captivating.