Just ‘Roll’ with it: JD McPherson returns to Oklahoma with new album in tow
For The Oklahoman / NewsOK
There’s a mobility in perception about Broken Arrow artist JD McPherson that evades explanation.
The onion skin is basic, essential throwback rock ’n’ roll, a partial assessment that leads diehard rockabilly fans and unresearched reporters alike to see McPherson as, in his words, “all poodle skirts and leather jackets.”
And ultimately, I guess, there’s no real harm in taking the sock hop version of McPherson at face value if that’s all you’re looking for. But there’s more to him than that.
Whatever it is, it’s why he and his band have jumped from opening for neo-country star Eric Church in April to a string of late-May dates with Robert Plant. It’s a timelessness coupled with experimentation that’s captured the ears of NPR, David Letterman, The Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone. It’s taken McPherson from an invitation to play with Queens of the Stone Age last fall to a headlining slot at Guthrie’s Queen of the Prairie Festival.
“Maybe people sort of see the patina of somebody who’s been committed to something for a long time and also maybe isn’t trying to treat it as a Civil War re-enactment,” McPherson said. “It’s being treated with some kind of dignity and as a living, breathing, functioning thing. Just trying to do something maybe a little different with it. I’m really not sure.”
On the record
McPherson’s debut album “Signs and Signifiers” was released first in 2010 on bandmate Jimmy Sutton’s Hi-Style Records (Sutton also produced) and then widely redistributed by Rounder Records in 2012. It is a surefire good-time album, heavily rooted in ’50s R&B but with glimmers of experimentation, in inspiration, in instrumentation and in a tight lyricism — with meaning — that’s easy to overlook if you’re just trying to have a good time.
“Let the Good Times Roll,” released in February, is the other side of the coin. According to McPherson, “Every aspect of this record is different in every possible way than the first time around.”
Notably, the new album features production from Mark Neill (The Black Keys, Old 97’s) and includes McPherson’s longtime touring band (bassist Sutton, drummer Jason Smay, pianist Ray Jacildo and saxophonist/guitarist Doug Corcoran) performing the instrumentation.
McPherson said about the studio experience, “I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t lifted the thing and placed it squarely on my own shoulders. But I do know the band very well, and it was wonderful to be able to put some trust in some people.”
That trust didn’t materialize easily, as McPherson notes he was hesitant to bring his new batch of songs to the table.
“I’ll just be honest; I was in a really paranoid place with these new songs,” he said. “I didn’t show the songs to anyone until we got to the studio. It was a strange journey, and difficult.”
Why, with McPherson apparently at the top of his game and surrounded by his own band, would recording these songs be any harder than the last go-round?
“That’s a controversial question, but let’s just say I had some very personal things to say, and I needed to do it in a sort of ‘plant my flag in the ground’ way,” McPherson said.
“I needed to assert myself. I had some songs that were a direct product of a couple of hard things I’d gone through, and I needed to have control. I needed to wrangle control.”
There are multiple biting lines on the record, like, “Did you win a black ribbon for breaking hearts?” from “Bossy” and “I was shaky from the day that I started to walk / I carry such a heavy load” from “Shy Boy.” Then there’s the Dan Auerbach (Black Keys) co-write, the gently heartbreaking “Bridgebuilder” — “Wading in shadows and old merry times / I fear I may sink to the bottom.”
The album benefits from the ebb and flow of rock beats with moments of anticipation … weariness and energy, everything in its right place.
“Let the Good Times Roll” is still in some ways a feel-good record — “It Shook Me Up” and the title track in particular — but it is, as McPherson said, vastly different from its predecessor in so many ways, and ironically titled, to boot.
“It is absolutely,” McPherson said. “Almost no one gets that.”
Show me some ID
Despite the hard knocks during the production of “Let the Good Times Roll,” it’s a bold step forward, a statement album not just for McPherson in the studio but in the broader terms of what JD McPherson is or, more easily identifiably, what he is not.
Yet I don’t actually detect any fear of artistic misunderstanding from McPherson, whose interviews in recent months have contained everything from being laid off from his teaching job to tales of songwriting inspiration drawn from “Frasier” episodes to him admitting he likes listening to his own album.
“Nine times out of 10, they’re the same questions,” McPherson said, “but there’s a repository of things I haven’t revealed and probably never will. If people aren’t picking up on things, that’s probably my fault … and also kind of a relief.”
Perhaps all of that contributes to the indefinable-ness of JD McPherson, in a way — the not knowing what the mystery is, or not quite being able to tell if there is one. It’s a rock ’n’ roller who loses his cool in front of his idols. It’s not expecting to hear the hard truth from a nice guy. It’s the complex reality of letting the good times roll.