One album this year that jumped up and surprised me was Unvarnished, the newest album by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. It’s comforting to know that not alot changes with Joan. You know when you put on her album you’re going to get loud guitars, her timeless vocal sneer and the songs will probably get stuck in your head. I didn’t even pick this up right when it came out. I got it a bit later. Then I wondered why I didn’t get this right when it came out. It’s that good. In fact I have to say this album reminds me of how much I liked the original I Love Rock N’ Roll album as a kid. While there’s a lyrical maturity on some of Unvarnished, the band’s intensity is as strong as ever.
The album kicks off with a bit of a surprise. “Any Weather”, listed as “606 Version” is Joan Jett at Dave Grohl’s studio “606”. If you’ve seen the documentary Sound City, you know that this studio is built around his purchasing of the mixing console from the famous Sound City studios. Dave is listed in the credits as “Dave Grohl: 100 Different Instruments”. However the song has every bit of the punch a Blackhearts tune would. This is followed by the glam goodness of “TMI”, a song about people no longer seeing a need for their own privacy in the social media age. The band, including longtime writing partner Kenny Laguna and guitarist Doug Needles really give this one some punch. “Soulmates to Strangers” laments a relationship that was never meant to be but in classic Joan Jett style.
“Make It Back” kicks off with classic Chuck Berry style riffage in a way that Joan is always great at reinterpreting through her ears. “Hard To Grow Up” rounds out the first half , as Joan laments people she’s lost and the difficulties of coming of age when you refuse to live like a grown up. This is one of the more immediate tracks on the album and one of my favorites.
The second half of this ten song set starts with “Fragile”, which starts out like a classic Joan Jett floor stomping rocker, but brings in a string section, which is new ground for her. It eventually steers the song into a bigger bombastic place. This track definitely shines. Next is “Reality Mentality”, a song directed at the plague of so-called reality television and the world’s addiction to it. “Bad As We Can Be” is a rip-roaring track where Joan is in pursuit of a bad girl to be no good for each other happily ever after. “Different” scales things down to a sleazy grind in the vein of Nazarath’s “Hair of the Dog” as she takes on bullying in her own way. Another stellar song here. On the regular album, the album winds down with a ballad (as ballad as Joan gets anyways) called “Everybody Needs A Hero” that is about how we all have days we need someone to turn to.
The deluxe MP3 edition (why not the CD??) contains four more bonus songs. “I Know What I Know” is a hard rocker with a happier tone that just sounds like it wasn’t quite ready to make the cut chorus-wise. “Seriously” is a great one here where Joan snarls and vents more than sings about people’s’ ridiculousness and fakeness around her. “Different” is here again in a demo version, but this time the rhythm section has something different going on with the bass line. It’s only about a half of a song unfinished and I have to say the finished version is far better. Then lastly of these we get a Blackhearts version of “Any Weather” that has revved up guitars in place of the piano in the “606” version. This version is just as good as the “606” version so it’s nice to have both to compare. On the deluxe MP3, “Everybody Needs a Hero” is pushed to the end of the bonus tracks, so that either way you listen, the ballad is last.
I’m impressed that Joan Jett and the infamous Blackhearts are still around kicking ass and taking names. Joan has been a trailblazer for many strong female artists to come along and she continues to prove that she’s worthy of any titles bestowed on her. She proves that more women need to pick up a guitar and let the attitude fly.
Check out these videos and performances from the album:
“TMI” (Live footage from Shindig Festival in Baltimore):
The View appearance including a performance of “Any Weather”:
“Bad As We Can Be” (Audio Only):