When JD McPherson performed live last year at a Midwestern college town dive bar, the place was invaded by duck-tailed greasers and poodle-skirted honeys from a city more than an hour away who wanted to get their rockabilly punch cards punched.
It was cool, but the retro vibe was a bit strange. A table of grey-haired couples kept complaining that they couldn’t get bottle service in a place that doesn’t even have a wait staff — just a bartender.
But when the music started, the out-of-towners really cut a rug to McPherson’s ’50s-style stuff and showed the college kids the matrix from which modern rock emerged. McPherson’s music provided a bridge across generational and class lines by going backward to move into the future.
McPherson decided it was time to do something different on his latest release,
Undivided Heart and Soul. Sure, it has a golden oldies heart. Songs such as “Hunting for Sugar” and “Jubilee” could pass for unreleased masters by the Duprees or the Skyliners from back in the day, the kind of slow dance doo-wop ballad that set the atmosphere for falling in love — at least in the backseat of one’s car. But the new album does have a more complex vibe. The turns of phrase, the sudden changes of tempo, and a more meta approach to the topics show McPherson stretching out. He’s more self-conscious about what he’s doing, which allows him to take chances instead of just getting lost in the hot sauce.
McPherson recorded the music in Nashville’s historic RCA Studio B with his usual bandmates: bassist Jimmy Sutton, pianist/organist Raynier Jacob Jacildo, drummer Jason Smay, and guitarist/saxophonist Doug Corcoran with producer Dan Molad. These guys understand how to let the layers of sound frame McPherson’s vocals in a way that seems old-fashioned and modern. Take the title cut, a slab from the Gene Pitney stylebook that would sound right at home at a contemporary club. Or the heavily instrumental, “Bloodhound Rock” that evokes Link Wray and Josh Homme (the latter of which invited McPherson to jam together at his home studio). While Homme doesn’t appear on the album, he does appear to have influenced McPherson to play looser and louder.
While not listed as contributing musicians on the recording, McPherson co-wrote some of the songs here with a number of talented artists including Southern rocker Butch Walker on the Delta funk of “Crying’s Just a Thing You Do”, fellow Oklahoman Parker Millsap on the wild and wooly “Desperate Love” and the faux sophisticate Aaron Lee Tasjan on the groove-heavy “Under the Spell of City Lights”. The collaborations seem to have sparked McPherson’s imagination as these three songs share little in common except for the fact that they are exciting and new.
The songs McPherson wrote by himself and or with members of his band are just as enjoyable as those with the noted special guests. Of particular note are the nasty sneer, “Lucky Penny”, the ode to heartbreak and boredom, “Let’s Get Out of Here While We’re Young”, the bass-driven pile-up, “On the Lips” and the more Mod-style “Style (Is a Losing Game)”. These songs allow him to explore the kinships among various past genres while putting them squarely in the present moment. That’s true for the album as a whole.
McPherson has shaken things up a bit. His music is less genre-bound than his past endeavors. Heck, some of this record resembles the work of ’60s girl groups or even ’70s New Wave pop. But as the title of
Undivided Heart and Soul suggests, he’s unbroken at the core.