First Listen: JD McPherson, 'Let The Good Times Roll'
Two stretched concepts made the rock 'n' roll coming out of Sun Studios in the 1950s unlike other music of its kind: time and space. In a shabby little room near downtown Memphis, Sam Phillips gave the men and kids he recorded all the room in the world. "Spontaneity" was Phillips' mantra, which was particularly potent for the youngest Sun cats. Following it, Elvis and all the other rockabillies shambled their way toward coherence, made mistakes, got wild and kept tweaking country music and the blues until the sound hitting Sun's wooden walls turned new.
It's sad, then, that so many musicians who've tried to revive the Sun spirit reject spontaneity the way they'd turn down a Gap knock-off of an authentic vintage bowler's shirt. That's what makes JD McPherson stand out: Though his music honors mid-century sounds with laser precision, the Tulsa bomber takes so many little chances in his songs that they never sound like mere replicas. McPherson's first album, Signs & Signifiers, burned through the wall of its own references — to Elvis and Eddie Cochran, Little Richard and Big Joe Turner — on the strength of the singer's kerosene tenor and his band's masterful looseness. Working with a new producer, Mark Neill, on Let The Good Times Roll, McPherson goes one step further, finding that genre-defying mix that made early rock 'n' roll the sexiest thing on the radio.
Little, crucial details open up McPherson's sound on Let The Good Times Roll. His bassist and right-hand man, Jimmy Sutton, goes electric in the title track, giving the band a push in rave-up mode. In "It's All Over But The Shouting," McPherson and Neill play around with essential '50s recording techniques like echo, making them weirder than before. "Bridgebuilder," the ballad McPherson wrote with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, hearkens back to pre-rock pop and doo-wop. "The All-American" reminds McPherson's fans that he's only one man in a long lineage with its direct nod to the great post-punk rock band The Blasters.
These subtle shifts keep McPherson and his band moving, sparring and playing these songs like games with tight finishes. He's singing more soulfully than ever — at times, his voice mellows to invoke Sam Cooke; at others, he lets a real blues edge into his snarl. Addressing the eternal themes of desire, emotional uncertainty and the need to bust out, Let The Good Times Roll is more than just a reconstruction: The feelings McPherson and band raise press close right now. But the album is also a great history lesson precisely because it reminds us that those musical moments we fetishize were, in their origin, as messy as the ones we live today. The first bursts of rock 'n' roll went all over the place. That's why they're still worth revisiting.
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