In their new releases, JD McPherson and The Bo-Keys cling resolutely to almost-ancient styles — for the better, argues our critic.
Headline writers have been saying that “everything old is new again” since the Publick Intelligencer was accusing Shakespeare of recycling Plutarch. (Just take my word for it.) But it seems the phrase has never been more relevant than when looking at the current state of popular music, where styles and sounds more than ever mimic what came before.
On top 40 radio (what’s left of it) you have Lady Gaga channeling Madonna and Cee-Lo Green doing his best to emulate that other Green, Al; and in the indie world, Gaslight Anthem worships at the altar of Bruce Springsteen, while Arcade Fire sounds like the Talking Heads if the Talking Heads recorded in a Canadian barn. Maybe Dylan was right: “If there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now.”
Still, all those artists bring something new to the table: Gaga’s Grand Guignol excess, Green’s dirty words (OK, word), Gaslight Anthem’s fusion of Springsteen’s anthemic bombast with post-Clash punk frenzy. They may be firmly rooted in the past, but when push comes to shove, they’re decidedly of the now. But what about artists who seem to cling resolutely to almost-ancient styles — who not only embrace the past, but seem to live there?
JD McPherson, ‘Signs & Signifiers’
Two recent releases in particular raise the question: One, JD McPherson’s “Signs & Signifiers” (Hi-Style Records) is a low-fi rockabilly triumph. His guitar alternately jangles with Buddy Holly longing and thumps with Johnny Cash-like drive; the bass clicks and slaps, the piano rolls and the drums pop, while a sax rolls its way along in the background. It’s not only hard to imagine this album being recorded anywhere but a one-room studio in Memphis in 1956 — it’s practically impossible.
What’s amazing about McPherson is the breadth of his influences — he’s clearly suckled for years on sounds produced before Little Richard entered the ministry. Richard is one pioneer whose influence can be heard clearly on rollicking piano-driven tracks like “Scandalous,” but he’s far from the only one.
“Scratching Circles” is an ode to “hot licks, cheap kicks [and] pretty women” that amounts to a joyous amalgam of Jackie Wilson and Clyde McPhatter, a James Brown growl permeates the howler “Wolf Teeth,” and the ghosts of long-gone groups from the Coasters to the Diamonds to the Imperials seep in from the corners of song after song.
Lyrically, McPherson seems determined to remain rooted in a time well before Cee-Lo could get away with recording a hit song with an unmentionable title. References to “sweet rock ’n’ roll” and Cadillacs and Chevrolets abound; things get a little darker on moodier numbers like the title track and “A Gentle Awakening,” but even those topics — gossip mongers and a search for a higher power — are timeless.
Which is a good word to describe “Signs & Signifiers” in general: It sounds old, but not like an oldie preserved in amber. Instead, it’s a reminder of the vibrant origins of a sound that got splintered in so many directions it’s often hard to remember where it came from.
‘I Got to Get Back!,’ The Bo-Keys
Jump ahead from 1956 to 1972 or thereabouts, and you’ll find another new release that sounds anything but: “I Got to Get Back!” by The Bo-Keys (Electraphonic Records). Founded by 30-something Memphis musician and producer Scott Bomar, The Bo-Keys differ from McPherson in that many of its members are actually of the era they’re emulating. But they’re similar in their clear desire to capture a particular time and sound unadulterated by modern recording techniques or new millennia references.
And do they ever succeed. The horns and organs that drive instrumentals like “Hi Roller” and “Just Chillin’” groove like the greatest of Stax classics, while “Jack and Ginger” and “Sundown on Beale” could easily be long-lost Booker T B-sides. Meanwhile, “90 Days Same as Cash” rides an unabashed wave of ’70s wah-wah guitar not played with a straight face since the “Shaft” era.
But it’s the numbers with vocals that really remind modern listeners what they’ve been missing since music lost its soul. Otis Clay and Percy Wiggins in particular capture a mixture of Sam-and-Dave playfulness and Al Green sensuality on songs like the title track and “Catch This Teardrop,” and on “Weak Spot,” when William Bell sings, “If I had a nickel for every time we’ve been apart, I’d be a rich man with a broken heart,” he’s as smooth as any of his contemporaries during their Stax record heyday.
Is it bad that they don’t update the sound with sampling and hip-hop beats, or dirty words and references to rehab? It’s a fair question, but I have to come down on the side of no. What artists like McPherson and The Bo-Keys bring to their music is a tremendous sense of craftsmanship and respect for their influences and musical history. Like a great noir film or a classically constructed novel, their music doesn’t feel stale or stodgy, or even old, even if it’s been decades since music like this has muscled its way onto the radio.
In fact, they manage to make both the music and its listeners feel young again — and that may be their greatest feat.
Peter Chianca writes about Bruce Springsteen and other rock music topics on Blogness on the Edge of Town. Contact him at email@example.com.