JD McPherson’s new album is a foot-stomping, ass-shaking thing of beauty. If your idea of Valentine’s Day romance is being cozy with a loved one in front of a fire, don’t put on this album. Its songs will make you want to go out and find a dance floor to chase away these winter doldrums.
Let the Good Times Roll is a follow-up to McPherson’s debut album from 2010, Signs and Signifiers, whose title references elitist literary theory but whose sounds hearken back to 1950s rockabilly. The debut album had its origin in songs that McPherson sent to Jimmy Sutton, Chicago-based standup bassist and producer of roots music and R&B, who had a recording studio and was beginning a new label, Hi-Style. Sutton liked the demo, invited McPherson up to record, and they made the album in a few weeks. Hi-Style released it in 2010, along with a video of one song, “North Side Gal”, that quickly became a YouTube hit. Executives came calling, and McPherson signed with famed independent label Rounder Records, who re-released the album in 2012. Awards followed for Signs and Signifiers, including best hard rock album from the Independent Music Awards.
Second albums following a successful debut can be difficult: Do you strike off in a new direction and risk losing your audience? Do you repeat the first album, wanting to continue success? McPherson, with Let the Good Times Roll, has done something difficult in that he’s kept the general sound of the first album but has pushed the boundaries considerably. In a CMJ interview last fall, McPherson was asked to list his favorite post-1950s rockabilly albums; a surprise on that list might be Songs the Lord Taught Us, an album by the rockabilly-influenced punk band the Cramps. McPherson glossed the album by saying “Rockabilly? Punk? Same difference!” Like the Dead Kennedys or the Ramones, whose songs are fast and aggressive, McPherson cranks up the drums and bass on Let the Good Times Roll. Adding lots of rhythmic percussion and an occasional organ part, he plants a snarly vibe just underneath the rockabilly sweetness.
McPherson opens his album with the title track, an incredibly catchy dance song whose lyric belies the title. To his “little darlin” the speaker says “I miss you so, every time I fall away”, and then asks repeatedly “Why can’t you see I am standing at the door.” The lyrical refrain, repeated numerous times, suggests apocalypse: “Let the sky open up little darlin / Follow me when I go.” McPherson explains the hilarious genesis of “Let the Good Times Roll” in the album’s artist notes assembled by Chris Willman: “This song only exists because of expired Tylenol PM. I was sick in bed, and took this expired cold medicine, and it was the worst thing ever. Time slowed down, and I was having trouble breathing. Meanwhile, I was watching this Frasier episode where they were remembering a childhood Shakespearian production, and I’m seeing Niles holding this skull, saying ‘Alas, poor Yorick.’ And I just started thinking about high school Shakespeare, and I wrote this song about one of his plays. I don’t know if I want to give that part away. The thing to carry away is that this is maybe the strangest song I’ve ever written.” Strange, and I would maintain, one of the best songs he’s written.
There’s an unmistakable knowing style to everything McPherson says about his music. A musician who knows craft from the inside as he composes songs and plays them live, he can reference borrowings that few of us would ever hear. For example, several of the songs have considerable plate reverb, that McPherson says he got at this time by listening to “a ton of Link Wray, and the Allen Toussaint-produced Irma Thomas stuff”. He chose an engineer and producer, Mark Neill (who produced the Black Keys’ Brothers), in part because Neill likewise feels free to pull in musical styles and riffs from anywhere. “We listened to so much David Bowie making this record,” McPherson says. “We’d play Primal Scream’s Screamadelica to listen to how they suddenly started making dance records, and then Mark would play us Marilyn McCoo singing ‘Marry Me, Bill’ over and over again, I guess trying to re-wire our brains.”
If you don’t have a library of 10,000 records in your head, as it appears McPherson does, don’t worry — you don’t have to know the references to feel in your muscles and nerves that something different is happening. While the album has several slow and beautiful songs (“Bridgebuilder” and “Precious”) my favorite songs are the fast, visceral songs that contain a rockabilly core but enlarge the sound with the addition of electric bass, rhythmic percussion, and organ. “Bossy”, “Head Over Heels”, “You Must Have Met Little Caroline?”, “Mother of Lies” and “Let the Good Times Roll” create a style unique to J D McPherson. If you get a chance to see a concert, go — the band and the live show are terrific.
McPherson was an art major (experimental film) at the University of Oklahoma, has an MFA from the University of Tulsa in open media, and taught middle-school art for years. Though he had always loved music and played in bands, it wasn’t until his thirties that his professional music career began. With this album and the tour that he’s beginning, with the national exposure about to come his way, that career is ascending rapidly.