Posts Tagged ‘ Wanda Jackson ’

Three Country/Folk Tribute Albums

Today’s review looks at a few older tribute albums that I have. I’m interested not only in whether they are good, but what makes a tribute album worthwhile in itself.


Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows cover

Various Artists – Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows

For example, Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows is a well-deserved tribute to John Prine. Its songs feature trendy-but-not-mainstream artists from the folk and country scenes, basically aiming this at the modern version of Prine’s audience. The covers are very faithful to the originals, but that actually speaks to the range and influence of those songs. Josh Ritter’s version of “Mexican Home” sounds exactly like a Josh Ritter song, and the slick country packaging of “Spanish Pipedream” is perfect for The Avett Brothers. (Justin Townes Earle’s “Far From Me” actually sounds like what Earle should be writing.) The only misfire is “Wedding Day In Funeralville”, in which Conor Oberst sounds like an eager kid begging to sit at the adults’ table.

These are excellent performances of powerful songs, but the album still can’t help but feel a bit slight. They basically are Prine’s songs, just polished up a bit for today’s audiences. But Prine’s originals hold up well, and are still well-regarded enough in the modern folk community that the people buying this have little reason not to just buy his albums. Broken Hearts is a good collection, but more in the sense of a greatest hits disc or a remastered update, not in the sense of something new.

There are tribute albums that recast the subject in a new light or bring an artist to a new audience’s attention. This doesn’t do either. Though it’s too well done to be thought of as a cash-in, it is obvious that these (very good) tracks will be forgotten before they are as old as the originals are now.

Grade: B-


Twistable, Turnable Man cover

Various Artists – Twistable, Turnable Man

Twistable, Turnable Man fills a very different role. Few people are aware that Shel Silverstein wrote songs, and many who do discover them are put off by his rough voice and joking delivery. He was a master songwriter, though, and a tribute like this is long overdue.

The performances here generally position Silverstein in the same folksy songwriter territory as Prine (he even appears here, in fact), though it has more variety than Broken Hearts did: Black Francis is a perfect choice for the exaggerated rock sleaze of “The Cover of the Rolling Stone”, and Dr. Dog’s pastoral approach to “The Unicorn” captures the hippie vibe. The artists represent multiple generations, from Ray Price and Bobby Bare, Sr. to My Morning Jacket and Andrew bird. Plenty of Silverstein’s recognizable humor is here, though he came from a less ironic era, and had a surprising amount of sentimental songs as well. “The Giving Tree” and “Daddy What If” both appear here to represent that. I don’t find them worth the re-listens of Silverstein’s other work, though. (My favorite song in that vein is “Comin’ After Jinny”, but it’s not included.)

With those exceptions, there isn’t a bad song here. Even better, you have probably heard of almost none of them, even though they sound like folk classics here. The only other track that casual listeners are likely to recognize is “A Boy Named Sue”. Todd Snider does a good job with it, but Johnny Cash already sang the definitive cover. However, “The Winner” sung by Kris Kristofferson deserves its place in the pantheon right next to that song. (Seriously, you need “The Winner”. It is another humorous song about a tough brawler, and just as good as the song Cash made famous.)

Twistable, Turnable Man doesn’t just introduce Silverstein’s songs to a generation that had no idea they existed. It also makes an editorial decision to present him as a sober songwriter with the occasional joke. In reality, Silverstein had many facets, and was predominantly a counterculture prankster. Though the artist selections here are impeccable, I find myself wishing for some of today’s libertines and stoners to cover songs like “Polly In A Porny” and “I Got Stoned And I Missed It”. They wouldn’t fit in on this album, though. The style presented here is an intentional artistic decision.

The songs on Twistable, Turnable Man are great on their own terms, just like those on Broken Hearts. But this album also serves a larger purpose, both drawing attention to a little-known artist and providing its own bold take on the works. That turns the whole work into something essential.

Grade: A-


Hard-Headed Woman cover

Various Artists – Hard-Headed Woman

Song by song, Hard-Headed Woman generally doesn’t live up to the standard of quality set by the above albums. However, Wanda Jackson arguably needs a modern update more than John Prine does. Her recording career began a generation earlier, and so the songs feel a little more dated today. Also, despite being adored by her fans as the “First Lady of Rockabilly”, she’s not generally well-known. (This is less true today, since Jack White engineered Jackson’s comeback album, but she definitely deserved more recognition when this compilation was made in 2004.)

This Bloodshot Records tribute loses Jackson’s personality and doesn’t try to copy her vocal tricks, but it offers honest appreciation and modern production. Also, it avoids presenting only one of Jackson’s faces. I’m sure it would have been tempting for this label, still early in its “country-punk” days, to focus on the proto-riot-grrl of “Hot Dog, That Made Him Mad” and “If You Don’t Somebody Else Will”. But they gave equal time to her wholesome country side with, among other songs, the prayer of “One Day At A Time”.

The main problem with Hard-Headed Woman is that the best tribute albums sound like they’re coming from peers acknowledging their influences. Here, the performers are obviously still living under Jackson’s shadow. Several have since become moderately big names, including Robbie Fulks, The Asylum Street Spankers, and Wayne Hancock, but the only real star is Neko Case. (If you’re a fan of Case’s pure country days, though, her version of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” is a must-have. Never mind that Jackson isn’t one of the first five people you’d associate the song with.) The bulk of the album, though, is filled out with the people best known for rounding out Bloodshot compilations: The Bottle Rockets, Rosie Flores, and others. Aside from Neko Case’s standout, though, I actually think most of the best performances here come from the lesser-known artists.

It should also be said that the Bloodshot crew seemed more willing to adapt the songs than the stars of John Prine’s tribute did: Trailer Bride’s drone gives “Fujiyama Mama” a foreign, threatening feel, and The Cornell Hurd Band provide a funkier, country trash version of “This Gun Don’t Care Who It Shoots”. It’s easy to dismiss this as a bunch of covers thrown off from a small label, but they made a lot of their own artistic choices without any real missteps.

This album is far from essential, but it’s surprisingly fun and heartfelt. Plenty of music fans today know little about Wanda Jackson, and this tribute makes an introduction to her. The original songs would work as well, but these ones document her influence in a way that isn’t obvious from the old recordings themselves. In that way, this provides a unique justification for its existence.

Grade: B-

 

Wanda Jackson – Unfinished Business (Music Review)

Unfinished Business

Wanda Jackson – Unfinished Business

In addition to releasing his own album, Justin Townes Earle also recently produced Wanda Jackson’s Unfinished Business. He’s a very different talent than Jack White, who produced The Party Ain’t Over for her, and their two albums make an interesting contrast. Though I now think I was a bit harsh on Party, my basic criticism stands: White brought in an energetic rock band that drowned out the aging Jackson. Earle brings a gentler band in, emphasizing the swinging country side of Jackson’s rockabilly legacy, and she sounds a lot more confident now.

The song selection is strong throughout. It’s unfortunate that these are all covers, but Jackson came of age in a time when it was expected that other people would write the songs she sang. Today, that apparently means that she sings previously-released songs, instead of having someone write her new material. However, these are mainly underplayed songs that deserve her attention: One track from Earle appears here, as does one from his father Steve and namesake Townes Van Zandt. All feel appropriate for Jackson’s style and persona, even though only a few are from her heyday. The only one that falls short is “California Stars”. The Woody Guthrie/Wilco song is a good choice, but the delivery feels rushed.

Unfinished Business doesn’t have the high points of The Party Ain’t Over, but it more than makes up for that by feeling like a coherent album without the missteps either. Jackson is charismatic and comfortable, and her throaty growls sound as good as ever. While she’s obviously not young anymore, she and Earle never sound like they’re stretching beyond her capabilities.

I wonder if I’ll ever get to hear Jackson perform new material with supporters of this caliber. Probably not, but at least this is a fun album, and a worthwhile tribute to her influence.

Grade: B-

 

Wanda Jackson – The Party Ain’t Over (Music Review)

The Party Ain't Over cover

Wanda Jackson - The Party Ain't Over

When Jack White engineered a comeback album for Loretta Lynn, the result was stunning. Van Lear Rose’s collection of both covers and originals introduced Lynn to a new generation, and presented her as a still-talented and interesting woman. Now White is trying again with Wanda Jackson’s The Party Ain’t Over, but with less success.

As one of the first rockabilly singers, and still one of the few notable female ones, Jackson deserves this recognition as much as Lynn. However, she hasn’t aged quite as well. In some ways, a direct comparison to Van Lear Rose is unfair, since Jackson’s harder style favors youth, and original songs were never as central to her persona. However, it’s still the natural approach. Either way, this collection of competently-performed covers can’t avoid being disappointing.

She still has a distinctive growl on songs such as the “Shakin’ All Over” and “Nervous Breakdown”, but little range or energy. White tries to compensate with a band of talented young rock musicians, but there is only so much they can do. This is supposed to be Jackson’s album, and even though the music occasionally threatens to drown her out, she stays at the center. They never aim to be more than a good cover band.

Of the more rocking songs, “Thunder On The Mountain” is by far the best. This five-year-old Dylan song has gone almost uncovered to date, and it takes some serious instrumental scaling up and lyrical paring down to bring it in line with Jackson’s style. It’s the one song here that feels transformed into something new, and while it still would have benefitted from a different vocalist, it realizes the vision that White must have had when he decided to record albums with his influences.

Jackson is at her best with slower, sultrier songs, such as “Teach Me Tonight” and a surprising performance of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good”. She brings a world-weary perspective and experienced sultriness to these works, turning her age to a strength.

The main problem with The Party Ain’t Over may be that it sets its aims too low. It rarely tries to do more than pay tribute to classic songs, and that leaves no room for a tribute to Jackson. Without exception, these songs can easily be judged to be worse than the originals, and worse than Jackson could have done in her prime. Her personality barely comes through, with “Dust On The Bible” being the only choice that sounds like it came from Jackson’s heart. Winehouse’s “little carpet burns”, the gimmicky “Rum And Coca-Cola”, and the overreaching energy just don’t feel right for Jackson today. White succeeded with Lynn’s Van Lear Rose by making it into an honest snapshot of its subject, but this new work buries Jackson under all the glitz and fancy production. It’s hard to tell whether this was a miscalculation or the only thing that would work for her, but either way, it doesn’t do justice to this rock-n-roll icon.

Grade: C