Albums with a serious vintage aesthetic — in terms of writing, arranging, and production values — have been enjoying a renaissance the past few years. Prominent throwback artists like Jack White have certainly played a part in reconnecting fans with the classic tones of the 50s and 60s. It also helps that so much music from the analog era was just plain good, recorded on technology that — while often challenging in its limitations — also required a keen ear for detail and a sophisticated understanding of sound. J.D. McPherson and Signs & Signifiers producer Jimmy Sutton clearly share such an ear, reflected in a tightly crafted album that harkens back to the earliest years of American rock & roll.
Of course, it is possible to take the vintage vibe too far, sacrificing originality for an overindulgence of historical authenticity. Signs & Signifiers treads close to that line at times, but maintains enough footing in the present that you wouldn’t necessarily do better by simply downloading a collection of classic Buddy Holly or Carl Perkins tunes.
Some tracks on the album, like “North Side Gal” and “Your Love (All that I’m Missing),” certainly echo the diners, drive-ins, and finned automobiles of the 1950s. But Signs & Signifiers is thankfully more than Eisenhower-era fetishism. J.D. McPherson merges the riffs and beats of the time with a more contemporary songwriting sense, in addition to borrowing from other genres (and even sampling) where appropriate. The slow burning “A Gentle Awakening” melds the southern gothic sense of T-Bone Burnett with a more Motown R&B inspired orchestral backing. One of my favorites cuts on the album is a cover of Tiny Kennedy’s “Country Boy.” While staying true to the original song, McPherson injects the tune with a subtle but killer Muddy Waters style swagger.
The band is tight, with the bass (Sutton) and drums (Alex Hall) laying down classic Sun-era rockabilly rhythm. The not quite in-tune but not quite out-of-tune barroom style piano is also a nice touch. J.D. McPherson is a solid guitarist who has clearly spent considerable time absorbing the style and technique of classic rock & roll guitarists. Consistent with the era, the guitar fills and solos cut straight to the point, with a minimum of wankery. That said, it would have been cool to hear a Scotty Moore-style twanger sit in with the band on a track or two.
Signs and Signifiers is a great listen, if not quite a career-defining album. I’ll be looking forward to future output from J.D. McPherson, who is fighting the good fight in keeping authentic, analog-era rock & roll alive in the 21st century.