Wanda Jackson has racked up a resume -- in just the past 10 years -- that rivals singers less than half her age.
The rockabilly queen and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer could be content resting on her fringed laurels. (Really, we wouldn't blame her.) Jackson, still sprightly at 74, has influenced a legion of female singers in almost every conceivable genre. (Adele says "Rolling in the Deep" wouldn't exist without Jackson.) But Jackson is no mere retro act. Her recent works have included collaborations with Elvis Costello, the Cramps, Dave Alvin and Jack White, who produced 2011's raucous "The Party Ain't Over."
"Unfinished Business," Jackson's 31st studio album, teams her with Justin Townes Earle, another relatively young upstart. (It's online and in stores today.) But where previous projects have pushed Jackson past her comfort zone, "Unfinished Business" revels in the sounds that made her a star. She's surrounded by rockabilly, country, gospel and even a bit of pop.
From the terrific opening line -- "Well I'm tore down/Almost level with the ground" -- it's clear Jackson is in her element. This is the most traditional album she's done in years, but it feels fresh and urgent, thanks to stellar musicianship and Jackson's still-searing vocals. It also captures the gritty essence of her live shows.
"The Graveyard Shift" boasts stellar guitar work, and there's solid rockabilly in the strains of "Old Weakness (Coming on Strong)," "What Do You Do When You're Lonesome" and "Down Past the Bottom," which Jackson handles with ease. At best, these tunes capture the electric roar of her early work.
Earle lends a plaintive vocal to "Am I Even a Memory?" a haunting heartbreak ballad that plays like a classic country tune. Jackson is girlish and flirty amid the do-wop groove of "Pushover," and "It's All Over Now" (written in the '60s by Bobby and Shirley Jean Womack) has a smoky, Dusty Springfield vibe in its guitar chords.
Earle lets Jackson mostly do her thing, but it never feels lax or lazy. She sounds equally at home on the rousing gospel of Townes Van Zandt's "Two Hands" as she does on the dreamy pop of Woody Guthrie's "California Stars."
Jackson spent years breaking new ground. "Unfinished Business," then, lets her, and us, enjoy the mark she's made.
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