“Queen of Rockabilly” Wanda Jackson effectively rebooted her career with 2011’s The Party Ain’t Over, a collaboration with producer Jack White that gave Jackson’s commercial profile a decades-overdue boost. If there was a real knock against the album, it was that White’s show-offy aesthetic and fetish for authenticity too often overshadowed Jackson’s spirited performances. In producing Jackson’s follow-up, Unfinished Business, Justin Townes Earle doesn’t make those same mistakes. Earle’s production choices consistently highlight Jackson’s feisty vocal turns, and the album finds the 75-year-old dynamo as rowdy and fearless as she’s ever been.
Jackson and Earle’s clever, genre-spanning choices of cover songs ensure that the singer has plenty of material worthy of her one-of-a-kind talent. The songs run the gamut from the classic R&B of Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” to the contemporary folk of “California Stars,” one of the highlights of the Mermaid Avenue project on which Wilco and Billy Bragg fleshed out some unfinished Woody Guthrie tunes. Jackson is such a powerful presence on record that she’s able to take songs from such disparate sources and make them sound like natural fits for her own trademark style, which incorporates elements of classic rock n’ roll, traditional country, and rockabilly. To that end, her blustery rendition of Sonny Thompson’s “Tore Down” has the kind of swagger that would be impressive for a singer of any age, while her take on Townes Van Zandt’s “Two Hands” is a fiery gospel rave-up that teems with palpable joy.
It’s Jackson’s irrepressible positive energy that makes Unfinished Business such a vibrant album. Although she capably sells the album’s two country-tinged ballads (“Am I Even a Memory,” a duet with Earle, and “What Do You Do When You’re Lonely”), she’s at her best when she’s able to unleash her inimitable growl on a song like “The Graveyard Shift” or standout “Pushover.” If Jackson has undeniably lost some of the power in her voice over the years, her attitude and distinctive sense of phrasing are still fully intact.
Earle, for his part, is wise to keep the focus squarely on Jackson. There’s range to the arrangements on the album (the two-step shuffle on “Pushover” is a nod to Jackson’s rockabilly roots, while the 12-bar blues structure on “Tore Down” gives that track a hefty punch), but the production doesn’t draw undue attention to itself. From the light-handed use of pedal steel on “Am I Even a Memory” to the subtle flourishes of a Hammond organ on “It’s All Over Now,” Earle’s decisions are always in service to the individual songs and complement Jackson’s dynamic performances without overshadowing them.