In 2011, Wanda Jackson had a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 29 studio albums to her credit and undoubtedly very little to prove. Even so, the dazzling first lady of rockabilly snagged a date with Jack White, teaming up with him for The Party Ain’t Over, her aptly titled release for his Third Man Records. Just over a year later, Jackson’s back with a new album, Unfinished Business, and a new man at the controls, Americana singer/songwriter Justin Townes Earle. Some people just don’t slow down.
The pair delivers a record that favors tenderness and brassy swagger over production tricks or stunt-casting song selections. It’s a different party than White’s, who exploited the whimsy in having Jackson get radical – cooing a Jimmy Rodgers tune, sure, but also frisking up to Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.” He put Jackson in the middle of calypso beats and scratchy guitars and soaked her vocal in reverb. Earle takes a different tack, laying off of the contrast and focusing on the delivery. Unfinished Business has a welcome session feel, like Jackson’s end of the contract required her to simply do what she does best: show up, put voice to old frustrations, and flirt with new exploits.
To that end, Earle gives Jackson space to ramble. Shuffling drums, honkytonk piano, and strutting riffs act as support beams to songs built on the bedrock of Jackson’s voice. The songs succeed in spades. “Tore Down,” an old Freddie King rag, is a gut-punch of blues. “Am I Even a Memory?” pits Jackson with Earle in a country duet of lonesome hearts. The girl-group pop of “Pushover” is a saucy rebuff of a wannabe flame. Jackson even takes on the gospel with Townes Van Zandt’s “Two Hands.” “I ain’t gonna think about trouble anymore,” she swears on the track, leading us along a clapping beat and joyful harmony only to confess the return of “an old weakness coming on strong” on the next number (“Old Weakness”).
Jackson’s wheelhouse is her knack for putting the last word on these old troubles of the spirit. Her conviction doesn’t require fancy footwork, only sure words. “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome?” she asks on the Earle penned tune and while there’s certainly no answer, listeners can at least take heart that even Wanda Jackson has unfinished business now and then.