Unvarnished is Joan Jett and The Blackhearts’ first studio album in over seven years, but it was more than worth the lengthy wait. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it a career high point, each of its 10 studio tracks being raw, uncut diamonds. In other words, these songs might be rough around the edges, but they’re perfectly shiny at the same time.
The album opens with “Any Weather,” an up-beat, up-tempo earworm Joan co-wrote with none other than Foo Fighters’ main man and rock legend Dave Grohl. Better still, Dave plays most of the instruments on the ’70’s-influenced track, drums included. Joan sings — as passionately as ever — and plays rhythm guitar, but he does everything else from the groovy bass guitar to the sweet little slabs of piano to infectious hand claps to the energetic chanting of “hey!” throughout the track. If I’m being 100% honest, I wish the drums were a little more prominent in the mix, being a big fan of Dave’s drumming, but that’s a very minor complaint. It’s a super catchy song and one that should have Joan tearing up rock radio once again for the first time in years.
You’d think that opening the album with the Dave Grohl collaboration would set the bar too high, that the rest of the album couldn’t possibly live up to that, but it actually does. Track two, “TMI,” is actually my favorite song on the album and it fits perfectly with “Any Weather,” right down to its delightful use of the clapper. The song is Joan’s witty commentary on social media and our constant need to over-share: “Don’t need to know what you’re up to / Who you eat or what you screw,” she sings. “Don’t care about your situation / And how you join the conversation.” Joan’s always been a brutally honest punk rocker at heart and her lyrics on Unvarnished have her sarcasm meter set on 10 throughout most of the tracks.
The album has another high profile, turbo-charged collaboration in the form of “Soulmates to Strangers,” which Joan co-wrote with Against Me singer Laura Jane Grace after they met on the 2006 Warped Tour. “We were fated to be together / We were fated to be apart / We were soulmates and then we were strangers,” goes the highly addictive chorus.
Another strong point is the vibrant and inspired track “Make it Back,” which Joan wrote after personally witnessing the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Her neighbors were among the hardest hit and Joan saw how people came together after the storm firsthand and was truly touched by the beauty of the human spirit, which moved her to write this song. Interestingly, if you just heard the song without knowing what it’s about you’d probably think it’s about Joan’s determination to become a musical success once again. That said, it’s clearly about what happened after Sandy with lyrics mentioning the storm and river and lightning other specifics. “I hope this train won’t fall off the track, ’cause I – I’m gonna make it back,” Joan sings during the fist-pump-worthy chorus and it should serve as a fitting anthem for anybody with an obstacle in front of them to face.
The album’s final studio track — there are also four live tracks — is a sweet little ballad called “Everybody Needs A Hero,” which could also very well be about Sandy. Whereas most of the songs on the album are clearly ’70’s rock-inspired, this one is more than likely informed by The Beach Boys with its especially warm melody and a swirling ’60’s pop rock vibe complete with flourishes of orchestration. If Joan Jett was ever *your* hero then now is the perfect time to get reacquainted with her. And if you’ve never bought one of her albums then this is a perfectly good one to start with without a bad song in the bunch.