JD McPherson first came on my radar when a couple of friends started talking him up in February, and I planned on seeing him at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas in March.
I missed McPherson's handful of gigs at SXSW, unfortunately, but I finally got to see the former middle school art teacher turned rock 'n' roll revivalist on Oct. 9 at Toronto's pleasantly packed Horseshoe Tavern. He was suffering from a bad cold but, along with upright bassist/producer Jimmy Sutton and the other members of a very talented band, still put on a solidly entertaining show.
I finally listened to McPherson's Signs & Signifiers debut album (which was issued by Rounder Records in April after originally being released independently two years earlier) a few times this week, and it's a shoo-in for my year-end best-of list. McPherson and friends can cut it in the studio as well as on stage.
The record opens with the first song I heard from McPherson online earlier this year, "North Side Gal." It has all the makings of a rockabilly classic and the YouTube attention attained by its self-directed video (shot in Sutton's all-analogue Hi-Style studio in Chicago) was the first step in McPherson landing his deal with Rounder.
"Country Boy," one of the 12-song album's two covers, delves further into blues territory. "Fire Bug," appropriately enough, is smokin' hot and will force the shyest wallflowers to move to the groove at least a little bit. McPherson slows down on the title track, which is rich with his tremolo guitar.
"Scratching Circles" is a great jump blues tune with piano and saxophone. "A Gentle Awakening" is a slow and sinister song featuring violin and cello, but the fun factor returns on "Dimes for Nickels."
"B.G.M.O.S.R.N.R." is short for "big gold mine of sweet rock 'n' roll," which is an apt description of Signs & Signifiers. That point is driven home down the stretch with another jump blues number called "I Can't Complain" and a saxophone-infused cover of Joey Simone's "Your Love (All That I'm Missing)," which proved that it being one of the highlights of the Horseshoe show was no fluke.
"Scandalous," a honky-tonk rocker that would do Little Richard proud, ends the album on almost as high a note as it began.
The songs on Signs & Signifiers average less than three minutes each, which makes the album short enough that you'll want to hear it again as soon as it's over.
McPherson has the songs and the backing musicians that help bring them to life. Now I just want to see the Oklahoma native perform them at full strength so I can fully appreciate just how good he can be.