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As a visual artist, Broken Arrow, Okla., native JD McPherson is well versed in the process of working within clearly defined formal parameters, and he employs a similarly rigorous discipline with his music. On Signs & Signifiers (Rounder, April 17), McPherson's seductively kickass debut album, produced by JD's musical partner, Jimmy Sutton, this renaissance man/hepcat seamlessly meshes the old and the new, the primal and the sophisticated, on a work that will satisfy traditional American rock 'n' roll and R&B purists while also exhibiting McPherson's rarefied gift for mixing and matching disparate stylistic shapes and textures.
"There are little subcultures within the roots scene, where people are really into rockabilly, traditional hillbilly stuff or old-timey music," JD points out, "but there aren't a whole lot of folks making hard-core rhythm & blues hearkening back to Specialty, Vee-Jay or labels like that. That's what Jimmy and I really like, and our only intention going in was just to make a solid rhythm & blues/rock 'n' roll record. But I didn't want to make a time-machine record, so we tried to make something relevant but with all the things we love about rock 'n' roll and rhythm & blues and mesh it all together. We both have eclectic tastes; Jimmy likes the Clash as much as he likes Little Richard, and I like the Pixies, T.Rex, hip-hop and all kinds of stuff. So we came up with a couple of weird songs and put them on the record, hoping that it wouldn't scare off any of our ultra-selective fanbase."
JD needn't have worried. It's highly unlikely that even the most discerning listeners would guess that the arrangement on his cover of Tiny Kennedy's R&B chestnut "Country Boy" incorporates not only the tambourine beat of Ruth Brown's 1955 Atlantic single "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean," but also Raekwon and RZA's "abstract, out-of-tune piano loops" on Wu-Tang Clan's innovative '93 LP Enter the Wu-Tang; or that the mesmerizing churner "Signs & Signifiers" is powered by an unchanging tremolo guitar figure modeled on Johnny Marr's part on the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now." Then there's "Firebug," which JD "wanted to sound as if Stiff Little Fingers had recorded at Del-Fi Records." And while it may not have been specifically what McPherson and Sutton were going for, the haunting dreamscape "A Gentle Awakening" seems to chart a course from "Heartbreak Hotel" through Terence Trent D'Arby to Amy Winehouse.
Never has an album of so-called "retro" music been laced with such a rich payload of postmodern nuance. But that was precisely the intent of what JD describes, only half-facetiously, as "an art project disguised as an R&B record."
"It's weird," says Sutton, "when you grow up being a fan of 'older' music and all of a sudden you're making a record, you're thinking, are we just recreating something-a museum piece-or are we actually bringing it forward? It's interesting, because if you make something today and it moves you today, in that sense it's contemporary. I like that juxtaposition of classic and fresh, something old yet new that can actually take you somewhere now."
Of course, pushing the genre envelope doesn't work unless the artist has the chops and feel to capture the form in its pure state to begin with. Check out, for example, "Dimes for Nickels," McPherson's vital evocation of the very moment when R&B and hillbilly music had a baby and they called it rock 'n' roll, or the Jackie Wilson-meets-Elvis exuberance of "Scratching Circles," or the lascivious ecstasy of the Little Richard doppelganger "Scandalous," (although the "gold- capped tooth" reference in the first line is lifted from the Leiber-Stoller Coasters classic "Love Potion #9"). But for all we know, these tracks, too, may have been secretly embedded with elements from far afield, their stylistic twists hiding in plain sight. This cat is wicked-clever-and man, can he ever deliver this righteous shit.
McPherson took a circuitous path to get to this point. Broken Arrow butts up against Tulsa, a cultural oasis in the Heartland that has long been not only a musical hotbed but also a bustling center of the contemporary arts. "Tulsa's got a lot of resources for people who are into weirdo art," JD points out. And he gravitated toward it. "I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Oklahoma in experimental film," he says. "I wanted to paint, do installation, make video art, performance stuff, sculpture. I'll bet I'm the only person to have received graduate credit hours in card magic." He wound up with an M.F.A. from the University of Tulsa in open media, a discipline designed specifically for his interests and ambitions.