Weird At My School: Wanda Jackson

Well this is embarrassing: A 73 year-old woman has got me feeling all hot and bothered.

No, I haven’t embarked on a May-December romance; I’ll leave those kind of sordid exploits to Hugh Hefner. I’m referring to the flush of excitement that’s come over me since I heard The Party Ain’t Over, the new album by Wanda Jackson (in stores January 25). Working in cahoots with Jack White, the Queen of Rockabilly has cooked up a platter that, by surveying a broad spectrum of material — from Jimmie Rodgers to Amy Winehouse — shows off all the sides of her persona, from sex kitten (“Teach Me Tonight”) to born-again Christian (“Dust Off the Bible”) to country icon (“Blue Yodel #6″).

Despite her regal nickname, this feisty singer from Oklahoma has never been easy to pigeonhole. Her most interesting work has usually been a weird hybrid of one or more styles; even though late 60’s tunes like “My Big Iron Skillet” and “The Box That It Came In” were considered country singles, they still displayed the defiance associated with her influential rockabilly sides. Heck, in the 70’s she even recast The Monkees‘ 1966 chart-topper “I’m A Believer” as a devotional ditty. The Party Ain’t Over provides plenty of instances for Jackson to continue pushing at boundaries. Backed by organ and tub-thumping drums, her reading of the Andrew Sisters‘ oldie “Rum and Coca Cola” sounds almost evil, while her versions of “Shakin’ All Over” and “Nervous Breakdown” literally quake in the speakers, turning what could be construed as a handicap — Jackson’s widening vibrato — into another cool component within White’s oddball arrangements.

Sure, Jackson’s pipes sound a little rough around the edges. What do you expect? She’s been injecting a feral growl into her recordings and live shows for over fifty years now. Nevertheless, White coaxes unusual vocal performances out of her that compensate for any diminished technical skill with sheer character and seasoned experience, highlighting her lifelong outsider status and increasingly refined abilities as an interpreter. Jackson’s already made a couple of interesting albums in the 21st century — most notably 2003’s Heart Trouble, featuring collaborations with Dave Alvin, Elvis Costello, and The Cramps — yet The Party Ain’t Over transcends even those. Under White’s guidance, the overall sound of the arrangements and production is just as integral to the album’s personality as Jackson’s voice. This disc doesn’t measure shoulder-to-shoulder with Dusty Springfield‘s Dusty in Memphis, but like that 1969 masterpiece of blue-eyed soul, this record really does create a fascinating universe all its own.

Wanda Jackson has long known that rules were made to be broken. When she started cutting tracks like “Fujiyama Mama” and “Let’s Have A Party” in the late 50’s, women weren’t supposed to dip their dainty toes into the seething cauldron of rock music, and the first time she played the Grand Ole Opry, while still a teenager, she got in trouble for showing up in a gown that bared her shoulders. She and White aren’t going to curtail her wild side now. Perhaps some listeners will find it embarrassing to hear a senior citizen digging into the sensual sentiments of “You Know I’m No Good” or stopping just short of novelty song-territory on the lurching, waltz-time “Busted.” But me? I’m completely smitten.

Besides, would you just take a look at that wig? Damn.

DJ El Toro hosts the variety mix show on Wednesday nights from 9 PM to 1 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and His weekly rant, Weird At My School, appears infrequently on the KEXP Blog. Please follow DJ El Toro (aka Kurt B. Reighley) on Twitter and/or Tumblr!

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