You really can’t talk about a late-career record like Wanda Jackson’s The Party Ain’t Over without mentioning Rick Rubin’s work with Johnny Cash. For better or worse, the prolific recordings Rubin produced for Cash in his last years have provided a sort of formula for revival records. Rubin, though, certainly had an aesthetic, and you can hear it come across with ham-handed force on the lesser of Cash’s late work. Jack White, too, has an aesthetic, but here, in working with Wanda Jackson, he not only seems to fit the project well, but more than that, the two sound very much in step with one another. Where Rubin seemed to be pushing Cash to surprise us, on The Party Ain’t Over, White gets Jackson to surprise herself with the power of this sound.
Knowing he’s dealing with the First Lady of Rockabilly, White was clearly not interested in making anything about this record tame. Jackson, whose music career began back in 1955, is positively incendiary on these tracks. Her rangy voice — which can shift from gravelly howl to sultry coo and back again — commands nearly all of the attention on this record. Straight from the opener, a churning version of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ “Shakin’ All Over”, it’s Jackson’s singing that cuts through the surf-rock-big-band size of the song. Similarly, “Rip It Up”, a song she knows well from her early rockabilly days, sounds both vintage and utterly fresh.
The collection of songs here pays homage to Jackson’s country and rock past, with healthy doses of gospel and, in that bright horn section, some big-band power. Still while many of the covers remain faithful to their original form, they aren’t without their own distinct flourishes. The country-waltz of “Busted” is blown up into a drunken, three-ring circus. “Rum and Coca Cola”, originally recorded by the Andrews Sisters, has the same playful bounce of the original but with a newly found muscle. What Jackson and White do best, though, is something Rubin couldn’t quite pull off with Johnny Cash. The more modern covers, in particular a take on Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good”, sound right at home next to the classic tunes. In fact, Jackson sounds downright natural singing it, twisting Winehouse’s song into something more ragged and, somehow, more satisfying.
Jackson and White also rework “Thunder on the Mountain”, a Bob Dylan tune from 2006’s Modern Times, but rather than rest on the humble country-blues shuffle of Dylan’s take, this version explodes with energy and, yes, White’s guitar theatrics. As band leader here, White doesn’t stay on the sidelines. You know when he’s playing, and his sharp hooks create a compelling back and forth with Jackson’s vocals. The two aren’t at odds with each other, but rather, they’re communicating, one feeding off the vitality of the other.
The gentler moments here — from the acoustic closer “Blue Yodel #6” to the subtle funk of “Dust of the Bible” — work just as well, making The Party Ain’t Over a varied and powerful rock ‘n’ roll record. You may have heard some of these songs, in plenty of different versions, a thousand times before, but if you can’t find something new in them this time around, you’re just not paying attention. It’s no real surprise that teaming one of today’s great rockers with one of the great rockers of all time would yield such great results, but the surprise here is in how natural they sound together. Rubin and Cash surely produced some brilliant moments, but they never had the chemistry that is all over this great record.