JD McPherson: Signs and Signifiers
Signs and Signifiers
There is an often told tale of a NASA time capsule sent to the dark regions of outer space in late 1977. The capsule, intended to be discovered by beings light years away, was festooned with various sounds that would give a clue as to life on mother earth; the rustling of leaves, the sound of water flowing gently over a riverbed, a baby's cry, or the clackety racket of internal combustion engines. Also included were quartets from Bach, symphonies from Beethoven and the odd bit of popular music like "Maybelline" from the early rock 'n' roll master, Chuck Berry. Just recently, shocked scientists reported having received a response from the remotest regions of the universe. Gathering round, they expectantly deciphered the solitary message: "Send more Chuck Berry!" Right on cue is JD McPherson's new album on HiStyle/Rounder Records. Signs and Signifiers, an album powerful enough to single-handedly reconstitute the remaining fragments of old route 66 or perhaps restore belief in primordial rock 'n' roll. So, slick back your hair, stuff a pack of Marlboros under your t-shirt sleeve, turn up the volume and prepare to cruise the open road in a classic 1959 Buick Roadmaster.
Yet with all due seriousness and respect, no mistake should be made about the fact that this is modern, cutting edge, witty music written by a young, vibrant, multi-talented singer, song-writer and guitarist. And although harkening back to the magical, near mystical time when rhythm 'n' blues morphed into rock 'n' roll and rockabilly lay not too far behind, the classic sound is brought up to date by the sheer exuberance, spirit, fervor and tenacity with which these tunes are presented.
"We wanted to do a record that was timeless and that didn't lie," producer Jimmy Sutton says. "We didn't want it to be a fake 50s, early 60s record. We wanted to take what we loved from that sound and then bring it into context. A lot of what JD was writing was outside the box, he gave it a twist and it makes the listener enter this music through a different door. There was so much that happened before in my life and in JD's life that was all building up to this moment, it really did. It was the meeting of the minds, we worked together and got out of each other what we needed. It was the best recording experience I've ever had in my life."
Cosimo Matassa, sitting in his dank and humid mid-1950s New Orleans recording studio on Rampart Street would likely place this album right alongside the punchy horn driven records of early Fats Domino or Little Richard. Sam Phillips, literally and figuratively at the crossroads of American music in Memphis' Sun Recording Studio, might likewise feel justified in believing that perhaps wildman Jerry Lee Lewis was behind the barrel house piano playing found herein. The 2012 listener, however, has the benefit of access to performances that are precisely in the here and now, as McPherson and band wind their way across the country with the oracles of rock 'n' roll in hand.
From Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, McPherson has a Masters degree in fine arts and worked as a secondary school teacher for a time. Fortuitously for us, he was let go and took advantage of the opportunity to delve deeply into his passion for music, while honing his writing and playing skills. Initiating his foray into the world of live performance in a punk band, McPherson soon became enamored with old time rock 'n' roll after hearing a compilation of Buddy Holly and other early rockers. Progressing to a rockabilly-type sound, McPherson eventually came to the attention of Jimmy Sutton, impresario of HiStyle Records out of Chicago, Illinois.
"When I was goin' up there to Chicago," McPherson has explained, "I knew I could really nail the sound of Chess Records, that type of sound. I want a Chuck Berry sound, but not like people think of Chuck Berry as all fast....but a slow, rolling, languid thing."
Working out of HiStyle's attic studio, equipped with vintage tape recorders, tubed amps and classic microphones, the duo began writing songs and preparing for the eventual recording project. With Sutton's guiding hand, a band was assembled from musicians the producer had surrounded himself with over the years, and forged a band he felt was appropriate for the sound they were shooting for. Speak of power trios, with McPherson writing, singing and guitar slinging, Sutton producing and hugging that big old stand up bass, and Alex Fox engineering and mixing the effort along with his audacious drumming, the team created a self contained rock 'n' roll factory that's rightfully bringing back some soulful manufacturing sector to the heartland.
Impressed from the start, McPherson relates: "Right off the bat, the drummer takes out his keys and places them on the cymbal and then he puts a wallet on the snare and it gave it a rollin' sound, like flat tires! They know that vocabulary so well."
Opening with the rollicking "Northside Gall," the album sets its tone, plants its feet and rumbles to life. Rolling snare drums introduce us to McPherson's raspy voice and tough guy stance. Backing horns evoke the primitive, thumping power of good time rhythm 'n' blues, with strong hooks and solid pacing. At a recent performance in Hoboken, New Jersey, crowds romped and sang along with this bona-fide, soul stirring anthem which is getting ample radio play.
McPherson shows off his writing skills and sensibilities with the apocalyptically dense, "A Gentle Awakening." With lines like "Hear the wounded Mockingbird sing its mournful serenade," he sets a sultry, deeply blue and beautiful mood, showing a different side to the young rocker as his solemn singing serves as a tuneful wake up call worthy of the prophets of old. "Your Love (All That I'm Missing)" displays another aspect of the chameleon like voice he can bring to the proceedings. Here, the smooth crooner entices with velvety, restrained tones. The band, here as on the rest of the album, more than carries its weight adding fire to the mix. Excellent tenor sax work from Jonathan Doyle, included in the touring band, brings additional depth and direction. "Scandalous," which closes the set, is an outright rocker that explodes with jumping piano, knockout lyrics, superb singing, blasting baritone sax and fiery guitar licks that could wake the dead. McPherson may very well be a Major in Fine Arts, but in this man's army is clearly the General of rollicking rock 'n' roll. At the close of a recent performance of the song, the packed audience very nearly hoisted the pianist on their shoulders and carried him off.
"The audiences have blown my mind!" McPherson adds. "You have an extremely diverse crowd age-wise, scene-wise. We got punk rockers, frat boys, every night it's incredible............. everybody dances."
Truly, dissecting this album does it a disservice. Its individual parts could never explain the way they work together and purr along on all cylinders. Tubes, tape and teetering on the edge of distortion may play a part, but as a whole the effort is a sonic tribute to McPherson, Jimmy Sutton, Alex Hall and the vision with which they approached the project. Signs and Signifiers works because of its joyful spirit, overall balance, good taste and eternal sound. You do not have to be a savvy record exec, a verbose music writer nor a wary concert goer to believe that this is one of the outstanding albums of the year.
Tracks: North Side Gal; Country Boy; Fire Bug; Signs and Signifiers; Wolf Teeth; Scratching Circles; A Gentle Awakening; Dimes For Nickels; B.G.M.O.S.R.N.R.; I Can't Complain; Your Love'; Scandalous.
Personnel: JD McPherson: guitar; Jimmy Sutton: upright bass; Alex Hall: drums; Jonathan Doyle: tenor saxophone; Josh Bell: baritone saxophone.