Like it or not, the music industry is often all about image. And, when it comes to images, few musicians have a more defined one than Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, purveyors of punk rock anthems and tough-girl attitude.
With album titles like ‘Bad Reputation’, ‘Notorious’, and ‘Sinner’, Joan always makes it clear exactly what kind of vibe to expect from her music.
So with the release of ‘Unvarnished‘ in September 2013, fans everywhere seem justified in expecting more of the same.
With that in mind, the opening track sets a different tone than what listeners may be expecting. In fact, the album starts on a note that sounds polished and even downright shiny. Leading in with a catchy piano line and upbeat melody, “Any Weather” falls squarely into the territory of harmless pop-rock. It sounds like the sort of tune you might hear playing behind a montage in a family-friendly movie.
While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, fans hoping for a more aggressive sound will be relieved when the second track rolls around. “TMI” is classic Jett, featuring a driving-yet-simple drum beat, crunchy guitar, and a shout-along chorus. Songs like “Different” and “Reality Mentality” follow the same formula, providing that trademark swagger fans have come to expect from The Blackhearts. This is especially true of “Reality Mentality”, which is just oozing with anger and disgust aimed at modern reality TV culture.
Elsewhere however, “Soulmates to Strangers” and “Fragile” both show an introspective side to Joan that rarely comes out in her music. The former paints a poignant picture of love gone wrong, while the latter ponders mortality and the fragility of life. Both are great compositions, but the violin on “Fragile” is a particularly nice touch, especially considering that much of the album is rather lacking in instrumental flair.
Between the fist-pumping punk, the straight up rock and roll, and the more emotional pieces, ‘Unvarnished’ is a fairly diverse album. For the most part it manages to flow smoothly from one musical mode to another, but there are a few jarring surprises. For instance, “Bad as We Can Be” opens with a riff that bears an uncanny resemblance to Poison’s “Talk Dirty to Me”. This is mostly likely unintentional, but nonetheless throws the listener for a loop.
When it comes to surprises though, the album closer “Everyone Needs a Hero” takes the proverbial cake. The violins from “Fragile” return, but this time they’re wrapped around what sounds like a rejected musical number from an animated film. It’s interesting to see Joan and the Blackhearts branch out in a different direction with this song, but ending the album on such a subdued note can only be described as a questionable decision at best.
Speaking of questionable decisions, ‘Unvarnished’ follows the recent industry trend of being released as both a regular version, and a “Deluxe” version with bonus tracks. There’s absolutely no need for this. Of the four bonus tracks, “I Know What I Know” and “Seriously” are pretty solid, and should have been included on the regular CD. The other two are alternate versions of “Any Weather” and “Different”, neither of which really add much to the package.
Still, regardless of which version you choose, ‘Unvarnished’ is a sincere effort which in many ways defies expectations, for better or for worse. The title may evoke imagery of a stripped down punk sound, but, after a few listens, it seems that maybe the punk aesthetic was the varnish all along. With this album, Joan Jett strips away some of her larger than life image. Some fans may be disappointed by this, seeing it as the band “going soft”. However, those who are willing to approach the new material with an open mind will likely come to enjoy it for what it is: honest, good-old-fashioned rock and roll.