Retro music fetishists are a dime a dozen in the digital age. Sure they are a talented and earnest group of devotees, but more often than not, something essential is lost in the translation of their decade hopping musical pursuits. And to the uninitiated, it might seem like JD McPherson is simply another ’50s malt shop jukebox worshipping casualty, kneeling before the analog altar with generous offerings of Pomade and denim. But this Oklahoma native is no secondhand slouch or cheap imitation. In fact, he has been honing his craft for the greater part of the last decade, fronting the excellent Tulsa rockabilly outfit the Starkweather Boys and clearly learning a thing or two about originality in the process. Now he’s arrived in solo form, a rough-and-tumble rock n’ roll savant, plain and simple.
On Signs & Signifiers, his debut Rounder Records release, McPherson employs a wide array of mid-century musical affectations without succumbing to the overly reverent idol worship plaguing many of his roots-rock contemporaries. This is no easy feat either. A great deal of credit must go to bass player/producer Jimmy Sutton, a long time fixture of Chicago’s rock n’ roll revival scene and bandleader of the Four Charms. Recording and writing with Sutton in his home studio proved to be a momentous decision. And to be sure, with its vintage production aesthetic and live take feel, the songs on Signs sound “old” in the best possible way. But there are also enough smatterings of modernity sprinkled throughout to remind you that Dwight Eisenhower is not the current president. And thank God for that, right?
From the opening moments of the record, it’s McPherson’s voice that reels you in. His versatile delivery, which cherry picks from the best of the early R&B vocal stylists, is a definite high point. On “North Side Gal”, the album opener, he kick starts things in raucous fashion, charging his way into a solo section that alternates between doo-wop sax and Chuck Berry guitar licks. This could easily be a Specialty Records single spun at 45 rpm, but it also shines with the exuberance of a 21st century guy thrilled just to play this stuff. After all, this is an artist claiming to be equally enamored of Wu-Tang Clan as he is Little Richard.
The title track is evidence of this juxtaposition of new and old, beginning with of all things, a Johnny Marr (yes, that Johnny Marr) tremolo guitar homage. McPherson shouts, “I’ve got signs and signifiers / The gossipers and liars, twist me every way they want to go.” Preach it! Haunting percussive work by multi-instrumentalist/engineer Alex Hall only adds to the swampy Louisiana feel that runs throughout the course of the track.
On “Scratching Circles”, McPherson does his best Jackie Wilson and the results are simply uncanny. The fittingly jive lyrics, “Rock salt by the door / Scratching circles on the old dance floor,” only help to showcase this up and comer’s knack for writing a memorable hook. Even the two covers, Tiny Kennedy’s “Country Boy” and The Bellfuries’ more recent “Your Love (All That I’m Missing)”, are well-suited to McPherson’s particular brand of jump blues gusto.
Signs & Signifiers hearkens back to an era when rock n’ roll was fresh out of the gate and no one knew quite yet what particular ingredients went into it. But they knew it was special. Like those original artists, McPherson has his creative sights set on the future even while his inspiration remains firmly rooted in the past and any number of musical genres. Hopefully, JD and his associates will continue to build on their fruitful collaboration in this same spirit. But will they add their own individual stamp to the rock n’ roll pantheon in the process? All signs point to yes.