Joan Jett's first album in seven years, 2013's Unvarnished, starts off with a big bang. "Any Weather," her rocked-out collaboration with Dave Grohl, sounds like a classic Blackhearts track with loud, tight guitars, a killer chorus, and Jett's growling voice front and center. It's a bracing call to arms that lets the listener know right away that Jett hasn't forgotten how to rock, not even a little. It's Grohl's only appearance on the album, but it's a perfect way to start. The rest of the record features her longtime bandmates Dougie Needles on guitar and Thommy Price on drums, plus her mentor and co-writer from the very beginning, Kenny Laguna. Their presence speaks to Jett's ability to keep her friends close, but it's also important because Unvarnished sounds like a vintage Jett album, from the handclaps to the way the guitars are recorded. Just like on her best albums from long ago, there are songs that conjure up the Glitter Band (the stomping "TMI"), simple good-time rockers ("Down the Track"), angry blasts of punk energy ("Reality Mentality"), and melancholy ballads (the sweetly sad "Soulmates to Strangers"). Delivered in classically sneering style by Jett, who sounds truly inspired and tough as nails, the songs have all the hooks and style of her classic era. The only thing that's different are the lyrics as Jett delves into matters of loss, mortality, and getting older. Sometimes a little awkwardly, but always with an endearing honesty that makes it work. For example, "Hard to Grow Up" could have sounded cliched, but Jett's sincere vocals and the huge guitar sound paste right over any lyrical concerns. The only song that lets the side down a little is the last one, "Everybody Needs a Hero." It's the only song not written by Jett, and while it's cool to hear her rough-hewn voice singing with strings backing her, the mawkish nature of the words and melody is a handicap she can't surmount. Despite this slight stumble, Unvarnished is exactly the album Jett fans have been wanting since she took an unfortunate turn toward the mainstream in the late '80s. She's done some stuff that has come close since then -- Pure and Simple had some nice moments and Sinner was a solid outing -- but this is the first time she's recaptured the sound, feel, and punch of her early work over the course of an entire record. It's not exactly a comeback, because she never went away. It's more of a rousing welcome to anyone who might have forgotten how great she was in her prime. Whatever you want to call it, Unvarnished is a great rock & roll album from a true rock & roll survivor, and if the words rock & roll mean anything to you, it's an album you need to hear.
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