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Published on June 6th, 2013 | by Ballard Lesemann


JD McPherson Explores the Texture and Rhythm of Rock

For Oklahoma-based singer/guitarist JD McPherson, it took years of intense research of early-era rock ‘n’ roll to develop his own style of retro-inspired, carefully orchestrated bash ‘n’ croon. He dug deep into vintage New Orleans R&B, shouty Motown soul, Western swing, edgy Chicago blues, and swingin’ Southern rockabilly before composing the eclectic set of tunes that comprise his debut album Signs & Signifiers (released on Hi-Style last year).

The raucous, melodic mix of American genres clicked with listeners and critics alike. Signs & Signifiers made a big splash on Americana radio and earned McPherson and his skillful backing trio solid cred among rock purists and modern indie scensters.

“We’re this mix of really energetic and rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ stuff, but there’s also a quiet or atmospheric side to it,” McPherson says. “It can both ways.”

At 36, it seems like McPherson should have been more into the MTV grunge, hair metal, and pop bands of his generation than the early movers and shakers of 1950s and ’60s rock, R&B, and soul. He admits that he veered into a strange music detour as young musician.

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JD McPherson (provided)

“I had so many interests growing up, and I listened to all sorts of crazy stuff when I was young,” McPherson says. “Through my older brothers, I listened to great music like Cream and Hendrix and guitar stuff like that. Then I turned into the weird teenager in the 1990s and got into stuff like the Pixies, Jesus and Mary Chain, and college rock, where the guitar was textural. I liked guitarists who weren’t really considered to be guitar heroes, like Daniel Ash [Bauhaus, Love & Rockets], Robert Smith [the Cure], and Johnny Marr [the Smiths]. Those guys are really experimental and all about suiting the song. That rubbed off on me for sure.”

McPherson brilliantly ties the classic and modern elements together on much Signs & Signifiers. Things start out sounding very authentically ’50s. Hard-bouncin’ opening tune “North Side Gal” bops along like a lost Little Richard number, and the clicky “Country Boy” follows with a slinky blues beat and a raunchy baritone sax solo. “Scratching Circles” recalls the greasy fun of Bill Haley and His Comets and Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee.” Alex Hall’s brushy beats propel the snappy “You Love” (All I’m Missing)” — one of the most dapper tunes of the set in which McPherson shows off his impressive soul singer chops.

The moody, mid-tempo title track, however, overlaps a oscillating Bo Diddley-meets-Johnny Marr into the mix. He pulls off a similar trick on the Cramps-esque “Wolf Teeth” (the band’s traditional show closer these days). With it’s sultry melody and waltz rhythm, he slow and echo-laden “A Gentle Awakening” could easily work well on an Adele album.

“When I first started getting into early rock ‘n’ roll, I really liked the textures of everything,” he adds. “I don’t consider myself a very good guitar player, but I do have a requirement for sound. I try to keep it tasteful. Subtle and tasteful guitar plating is what I prefer. I know I could never be a dazzling guitar hero guy.”

The percussive playing style and vast rock history knowledge of bassist, guitarist, and studio producer Jimmy Sutton perfectly complemented McPherson’s swingin’ songs and hepcat rhythm guitar work on the album. “Jimmy obsessed with tone, and he’s such a stickler for sound and the breathing room of it all,” McPherson says. “He comes from the upright bass blues tradition, so it’s a really good fit.”

McPherson is equally fortunate to have been surrounded by terrific drummers over the last few years. Alex Hall provided most of the bounce and beat on Signs & Signifiers. The dazzling Jason Smay — of Los Straightjackets and the Hi-Risers fame — signed on as the trio’s touring drummer this year.

“To me, the drummer often makes the band,” McPherson says. “Alex is a super genius drummer who played on and helped engineer Signs & Signifiers. He’s got a really strong 1920s vocabulary and all of the old Earl Palmer licks. Jason is a great drummer, too — and one of hardest-hitting traditional grip guys I’ve ever seen. He looks like he’s going to break the drums whenever he hits them, and he’s a blast to play with.”

While he might not rip solos like some the flashiest cats out there, McPherson’s solid rhythm work deserves plenty of praise. He handles the chords and licks with a delicate touch, an appropriate sense of restraint, and an appreciate for the complexity of simple passages. Sophisticated arrangements and classic pop sensibilities might be the foundation of McPherson’s forthcoming studio efforts.

“These days, I’m more interested in everybody playing parts instead of solos, from the instrumental passages to the choruses. Certainly, on the latest record, there are plenty of sax, piano, and guitar solos, but as I write more music, I’m more into the orchestration of it. I’m into the texture and rhythm of it and approaching it with a modern sensibility for structure. That’s what happens as you move along; your ideas and philosophies start changing a bit. We’ll see where that goes.”

“I’m so ready to make a new record,” he adds. “I love recording and mixing and coming up with album art — all that stuff. We’ve been hitting hard for the last two years, especially over the last year. Having some time off and putting some time into recording new music will be great this year.”

McPherson and his band swing through Georgia and the Carolinas before heading to next week’s Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn.  They  are set to perform two shows at the TD Arena at 301 Meeting Street (moved from the original Cistern location) as part of Spoleto Festival USA’s concert series — at 9 p.m. on Fri. June 7 and on Sat. June 8. Tickers are available for $30. Visit jdmcpherson.com and spoletousa.org for more.




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About the Author

Ballard Lesemann

is a musician and writer. Born and raised in Charleston, S.C., he spent years playing in bands and working for Flagpole Magazine in the bustling music town of Athens, Ga. He returned to his hometown and served more than seven years as the Charleston City Paper's music editor. He's better at drumming than he is at playing guitar.

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