Steve Wilson. On music.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

REVERBERATIONS NO. 1 (TIE) - JD McPherson - Signs and Signifiers (Histyle-Rounder Records)

In previous years Reverberations conducted a marathon, day by day, countdown of the top 25 albums from the waning year. This year we will take a bit less ambitious approach, chronicling only the top 10 releases of 2012.  In January, in addition to reviews of brand spanking new music, we will also make occasion to reflect on some of the year's other fine recordings.

For our top 10 countdown, many of these selections will have been covered previously in Reverberations, in which event we will simply link you to the earlier review. A few of these, however, will require new reviews. 



If JD McPherson didn’t exist it would be necessary to, as Voltaire suggested about the Almighty, invent him.

Bedrock rock ‘n’ roll was crying for an emissary brash and original, wild and devout.

JD is that guy.

Somehow this Oklahoma born newcomer manages to capture the essence of early rock ‘n’ roll, but without a slavish obedience to any particular performer, genre, or idiom, and without a hint of the precious or restorative. Even the best rockers with a fix on an idyllic past tend to lapse into moments of the arch that occasionally land the music in the mausoleum. The magic that McPherson manages is to evoke absolutely the full range of performers from Little Richard and Larry Williams, and Buddy Holly to Bo Diddley (as well as stellar, less known lights like Joe Liggins and Amos Milburn), without ever sounding like a mimic.

Recorded essentially live, with analog mics and equipment, Signs and Signifiers crackles with the immediacy of performance. There is no layered, processed studio glop standing between you and McPherson. Those voices, instruments and amps sound like they are in the damned room with you. That in 2012 such a record would sound so stunningly present is funny, really. For Cossimo Matassa, cutting tracks in New Orleans with Fat Domino or Little Richard, or Sam Philips harnessing the hysteria of Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun in Memphis, this was business as usual. They would say, well – that’s how you make a record. You get a good singer, good song, great players, and capture the best performance you can. Face palm!

So, the shock of the old, to paraphrase the noted fine arts observer, Robert Hughes (author of The Shock of the New) applies here. What was commonplace in1955 is revelation now.

But this talk of process diminishes McPherson’s achievement. There are plenty of clucks out there ready to emulate Chess sides from the late 50s. No shortage, whatsoever. McPherson triumphs because of the fine songs he brings to the table, the support of an awesome band, and the tenacity of his vision. Because rather than focus on any one artist, studio, or era for inspiration, on Signs and Signifiers McPherson presents a tableaux of primal rock, invigorated for the present.

Listening to Signs and Signifiers over the last several months my estimation has only deepened. With each listening its sheer entertainment value increases, at the same time my appreciation for McPherson’s mastery of his sources grows.

“North Side Gal” is the perfect introductory statement. Is it Little Richard? Is it Billy Lee Riley? The answer is yes, but there a host of other mystic chords of memory tugging at this one rock ‘n’ roll song. The tenor solo is pure Lee Allen, McPherson’s following solo is Chuck Berry city. But it’s beyond a catalog of influences. The pace is set with this song. The story is that producer Jimmy Sutton, a Chicago studio engineer who ‘discovered’ McPherson’s demo, walked the studio during rehearsal for each tracking, helping the band find the right dance tempo – not too fast, not too slow, but right in the groove. Sure as hell worked.

McPherson’s intuitive genius shows on “Country Boy,” a Felice and Boudleaux Bryant song popularized by Little Jimmy Dickens, which McPherson turns into something that sounds like a cross between Big Joe Turner and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. Alex Hall’s piano captures that Pete Johnson thing nicely. Hall plays piano on certain tracks, while Scott Ligon covers the keys on six cuts, bringing his discreet sense of Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Johnnie Johnson astutely to bear. 

 Signs and Signifiers balances the dance floor burners like “Fire Bug,” “Scratching Circles, ”B.G.M.O.S.R.N.R.” with moody pieces like the title cut and “A Gentle Awakening.” The latter is suffused with melancholy. Brimming with a modern poetic sensibility that is miles from retro-rock – hell, it’s closer to Rilke than Little Richard.

The former lurches forward with Bo Diddley tremolo, which younger listeners will undoubtedly mistake for Johnny Marr’s borrowing for “How Soon is Now.” Hell, McPherson may have heard it there first. He is an acknowledged aficionado of bands like Nirvana, the Ramones, Dead Boys, and the Pixies. Not that the originators of rock, who so clearly and primarily inspire McPherson’s work, didn’t have plenty of brash irreverence, but the channeling of later rock essences has, I think, an indefinable but real impact on McPherson’s music. It lends a vitality that makes the Blasters sound retro. And I like the Blasters, a lot.

“I Can’t Complain” features guitar work that evokes Lowman Pauling’s underrated work with the Five Royales; “Wolf Teeth” is singular proof that this guy is no Straycats mannerist. It follows the title tracks’ Bo Diddley infused guitar with another shot at Bo’s bough, but the song itself is performed with the manic intensity of Charlie Feathers. And man you don’t hear much that screams Charlie Feathers here in the age of Pitchfork.

Well, there it is. Signs and Signifiers is an instant classic, built for speed and comfort both. Refreshing at first listen. But I hardly knew then it would be my (co)-album of the year. That’s why I keep listening. Listening intently, deep, hard. Wait, that sounds dirty. But you know what I mean. It’s where satisfaction lies. And Signs and Signifiers is satisfying.