Singer/songwriter JD McPherson's 2010 debut album, Signs & Signifiers, is a rockin', bluesy, forward-thinking album that subtly breaks the conventions of most vintage rock projects. Produced and recorded with the retro expertise of bassist/guitarist Jimmy Sutton, the album is a gold mine of '50s-inspired rock and R&B, with some rockabilly twang thrown in for maximum effect. That said, McPherson actually draws from a wide and eclectic array of influences including Son House, Charlie Feathers, the Wu-Tang Clan, and sundry blues and soul artists from Guitar Slim to Sam Cooke. The through-line that ties all of these influences together is McPherson's powerful and robust voice, which balances the shouter style of mid-century legends like Lloyd Price with a smoother, more controlled approach that falls somewhere between Gene Vincent and Clyde McPhatter. McPherson is a singer/songwriter in the truest sense, and his original tunes are a cut above the average retro-rockabilly artist both melodically and lyrically. Such songs as the driving, Twist-ready leadoff single, "North Side Gal," and the explosive album closer, "Scandalous," bring to mind jukebox-fueled impromptu dance parties. Which isn't to say McPherson is merely interested in old-school sounds. On the contrary, tunes like the bluesy, spiritual-inspired title track (which borrows the Smiths' oscillating guitar intro from "How Soon Is Now") and the soul-blues dirge "A Gentle Awakening" with its symphonic strings and piano background bring to mind classic '60s cuts by Ray Charles, as well as contemporary numbers by Alicia Keys. The album does benefit greatly from the vintage, live-recording aesthetic that Sutton and engineer Alex Hall have perfected over the years with other similarly inclined bands like the Four Charms and the Del Moroccos. It also doesn't hurt that McPherson is backed here by a bevy of roots musicians including drummer Hall, saxophonist Jonathan Doyle, guitarist Joel Paterson, and others. Ultimately, as the album's conceptual title implies, Signs & Signifiers paints a picture of McPherson as a kind of post-structuralist retro-rocker, living in the moment with one boot in the past and the other boot in the future.
Signs & Signifiers Review
by Matt Collar