Early in the recording of his third full-length album, 2017's spirited Undivided Heart & Soul, JD McPherson paused the process to take Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme up on his offer to come jam at his studio in what amounted to a kind of creative jump-start -- a way to get the juices flowing again. While it's unclear if anything they played made it onto Undivided Heart & Soul, it certainly sounds like it could have. Rife with gritty R&B tones and a driving punk energy, the album sounds like something QOTSA might have made if they'd come into their own in the '60s garage rock era instead of the alt-rock 2000s. Which means, for longtime McPherson fans, the album feels both familiar and like a conscious attempt to shake things up; not a huge leap off the stylistic cliff, but a dance on the edge nonetheless. Recorded in Nashville's historic RCA studio B with producer Dan Molad, Undivided Heart & Soul once again finds the Oklahoma-born belter joined by longtime bassist and collaborator Jimmy Sutton, as well as his regular touring lineup of pianist/organist Raynier Jacob Jacildo, drummer Jason Smay, and guitarist/saxophonist Doug Corcoran. Making guest appearances are Lucius' Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, Nicole Atkins, and Raconteurs guitarist Jack Lawrence. Also helping McPherson disrupt his own sound here are several songwriting collaborators including nervy pop stalwart Butch Walker, fellow Oklahoman Parker Millsap, and former Semi Precious Weapons-guitarist-turned Nashville-psych-singer/songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan. The result is that McPherson's brand of vintage Americana sounds even more stylistically cross-pollinated. Cuts like the lushly romantic "Hunting for Sugar" and the driving "On the Lips" somehow touch upon classic Memphis and Chicago soul sides just as much as they evince '80s Squeeze and the edgy garage rock of the Strokes. Furthermore, while there are certainly a handful of well-honed chorus hooks here, tracks like the yearning "Jubilee" and the Tommy James-esque "Under the Spell of City Lights" deftly subvert anticipation with downplayed choruses that come just a hair later than you'd expect. These are subtle shifts that speak to McPherson's ever-growing songcraft. Thankfully, what hasn't changed is his knack for crafting memorable pop hooks, as evidenced by the Eddie Cochran-esque groover "Crying's Just a Thing That You Do," and the acidically bluesy "Lucky Penny." Both are kinetic anthems that make great use of McPherson's highly resonant, bell-tone vocals and strikingly literate lyrics. A former art teacher who grew up on a ranch, McPherson has always distinguished himself as both imagistic poet and dirt-on-his-boots troubadour. It's a dichotomy that informs much of Undivided Heart & Soul. On "Crying's Just a Thing That You Do," he sings "You're sipping your Darjeeling/And staring at the ceiling/You dream about it splitting in two," and later "I kinda held my head down for most of the ride/Skimming through Rossetti and Poe." Arty tropes aside, with Undivided Heart & Soul, McPherson continues to pull all of his varied stylistic influences together into his own vibrantly coherent brand of visceral, emotive rock that grabs you by the collar and demands your passion.
AllMusic Review by Matt Collar