Album Review: Unvarnished by Joan Jett and The Blackhearts

Joan Jett is not back. She never left. This is a point I have to make on an on-going basis to my pop-music loving friends who listen to the deplorable noise known as mainstream radio. With Unvarnished, Joan Jett reminds us who the Queen of Rock'n'Roll is, just in case some of us had forgotten.




Jett is not a time capsule. She's not an artist who had one or two great songs in the 1980's and put out a string of mediocre albums that sold millions of copies. We've got Bon Jovi for that. (Yes, I did go there. I'm ready for the backlash. That's also a Joan Jett song title by the way. See how I did that?) In fact, for Ms.Jett the reverse is true. Yes, she's covered some great songs, but she's written an equally fair share of her own that deserved a lot more recognition than they've ever received. She's had to fight for every single record she has sold. And she's been writing, recording, and touring all this time. She never left. Never gave up on the dream.

That legacy began in her first band, which was the pioneering, female-powered Runaways. The 1970's weren't ready for what The Runaways had to offer. The world was not kind to the teenage girls that were judged among the rank and file of 20-30 year-old guys that made up "normal" rock bands. But they soldiered on. The Runaways were born in 1975 and they ended exactly 25 days before I was born, in January of 1979. Joan Jett was one of the band members that rose out of those ashes and continued being a pioneer. She wrote songs, performed them with wild abandon, and if you were lucky enough to be in the audience, captivated you with her intense gaze. That was then, and this is now.

If you look up the meaning for "unvarnished", one of the synonyms that comes up is "pure; simple". Pure and Simple was another Jett album and the fact of the matter is, Joan Jett is still Joan Jett. Unvarnished is an album that shows off Jett's mature simplicity in the art of songwriting. Truth be told, as a long-time fan, I've never had trouble seeing that in her music. For all of the folks who only know her for her multi-platinum selling single "I Love Rock'n'Roll", picking up Unvarnished when it comes out next week on September 30 will allow you to understand just how skilled a songwriter she really is. And that voice you've come to know and love: it's still there, just as comforting as it once was, while easily being able to kick you in the ass when the chorus or bridge hits.



There is no filler on Unvarnished. This is a difficult achievement in today's music industry, where EP's of 3-5 songs are slowly bled out to the iTunes-infatuated public while the bands releasing them frantically write and record more material to catch up to the fame they haven't earned yet. With Unvarnished, on a track by track basis, the songs stand on their own. Every one of them is a "good song". But it's as a body of work that Unvarnished really shines, at least for this reviewer. Jett was quoted as having said she felt as though she had writer's block during the writing process for Unvarnished, before realizing that she had to simply sit down and "do the work". Listening to the first single "Any Weather", which she co-penned with Dave Grohl, it's obvious that the demon of writer's block was completely exorcised. It's catchy, it's got great vocals, and it reminds me of a time in my life when things were simpler; a time when spending all of my disposable income on cars, guitars, food, bubble gum, and records didn't leave me feeling guilty.

Jett's social commentary is both welcome and spot on in the tracks "TMI" and "Reality Mentality". In fact, deep down inside it warms the cockles of my heart to think of the Queen of Rock'n'Roll watching an episode of Criminal Minds or Law & Order instead of Jersey Shore or Extreme Cougar Wives. It symbolizes the existence of intelligent life in today's over-shared world.

"Soulmates To Strangers" (co-written by Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!) is a song I've been humming to myself since I heard it performed live this past June, and the recorded version is one that I was anxiously anticipating because I love the chorus. Jett doesn't disappoint and her tenacious guitar tone is everything it has always been: lean, mean, and tight.

"Hard To Grow Up" and "Fragile" cut right to the core of life's toughest moments, and how we rise above them as we heal. Jett deals with loss the way most artists can't, which is the same way she deals with everything else: by being real, relatable, and giving the audience a kick-ass crunchy sound with a humbucker-equipped Melody Maker. Once again, Joan Jett is right, by the way: it IS hard to grow up. Especially if you're in a rock band and you have to decide between a new guitar and a car repair or between a new amp head and putting the cash towards your child's college fund. Don't get me started. Junior better end up at Harvard at this rate or mommy is selling the farm to surround herself with 4x12 cabinets in her old age. I won't be able to hear by then anyway, so it won't matter.

"Bad As We Can Be" gives us a gentle reminder that the sexy intensity of Jett's gaze is still there for those who dare to look up. This is a "grown up" rock'n'roll record, but it's still got the rock and the roll if you know what I mean. I can totally imagine myself in the front row listening to this song as she growls out the line "I see you walkin' down the street/Just like candy you're so sweet...." and feeling almost embarrassed that she's staring directly at me. See, I've been down this path before, and if Joan Jett has ever locked eyes with you and winked at you while she's on stage, it's an intense thing. It makes you feel happy, scared, and excited all at the same time, especially when she breaks the stare by giving you that trademark playful grin of hers, almost like she knows the feelings she evoked in you. You feel vulnerable and you like it, and she knows you like it. In "Bad As We Can Be", Jett has her trademark gaze locked in and she holds on to you till the song is over. You feel it and it's totally undeniable. This is real rock'n'roll people. It grabs you through the speakers and doesn't let you go till it's done with you. It gives you what you came for. And you love her for it, just like you always have.

The brilliantly crafted "Everybody Needs A Hero" with the string, oboe, and French horn arrangement, didn't catch me by surprise. As a long time Jett fan, it reminded me of several compositions that show her "emotional" side, such as "A Brighter Day", or "Little Liar". It shows off her vocal chops and it's a beautiful ending to a great record. And she's right, everybody does need a hero. I'm just glad that one of my heroes found the courage to write a great record and not care about whether it gets played on the radio or not. Joan Jett bore her soul on this record. You owe it to her to check it out, because in this culture of immediacy and mediocrity we've become accustomed to, she still understands - and reminds us - that a good thing can't - and shouldn't - be rushed. This is a record 7 years in the making, and it was well worth the wait. Buy this record next week. Buy one for your mom, your dad, your best friend - heck, even your grandma if you're still lucky enough to have her around, and let's send the record companies, radio, and MTV a message: I value good music. Good, good music.

Congratulations Ms.Jett. You've done it again: graced our aural senses with your virtuosic simplicity. I'm ruling Unvarnished a triumph.