Music Review: JD McPherson – Signs and Signifiers

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JD McPherson
Signs and Signifiers
Available now on Rounder Records (April 17, 2012)

If there’s a way to go straight forward while looking
backward, JD McPherson has found it.

McPherson delivers a dozen straight ahead, no-nonsense
R&B rockers on Signs and Signifiers, all with an eye on rock and roll’s
formative decade. To be sure, this is no regression, just an exercise in
honoring the past without falling into a nostalgia trip. With a voice that
calls to mind Little Richard, McPherson joyfully belts out songs designed to
get feet on the dance floor.

“North Side Gal,” the opening track and first single, is a
sure sign of what’s in store. McPherson strums on his six string, focusing more
on his vocals, while Jimmy Sutton and Alex Hall put down a smooth rolling
rhythm. That’s primarily the formula throughout: McPherson’s raspy, yet
smooth-around-the-edges vocals glide along over beats that sound like they’d be
at home in a 1950s dance hall.

“Wolf Teeth” is perhaps the roughest cut, as McPherson veers
his farthest into rough rock territory, but he proves he can work his way
around a smooth, slower-tempo number as evidenced in the title track and
“Country Boy,” a cover of Tiny Kennedy’s tale of a farm hand who only knows
working the land. Sutton, who also produced and plays upright bass, shines on
the latter, plucking a bass line that frames the whole affair without getting

While it would be easy to shoot for a sound that captures an
era and miss, McPherson’s aim is true. He’s not singing about malt shops, sock
hops or any other number of ’50s archetypes, yet he has managed to capture the
feel of rock and roll music from a bygone era. Signs and Signifiers is R&B that honors
its roots. The themes are timeless, the band is tight and McPherson has a voice
too big to contain in a museum piece.

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