JD McPherson: “Fire Bug”
From time to time, an artist comes along who has the remarkable ability to tap into sounds of the past and both replicate and update them in a way that sounds entirely fresh without sounding gimmicky. The Blasters did it back in the ’80s, The Squirrel Nut Zippers in the ’90s, Amy Winehouse in the 2000s, and more recently, Adele. Okay, so the Squirrel Nut Zippers may have sounded a little gimmicky at times, but still, they were fully committed to their sound. The point is, there aren’t many who can do the retro thing really well with original material, but all of the above did.
Add to that list JD McPherson, whose April 2012 release Signs & Signifiers is a stunningly authentic album of original 1950s rockabilly- and R&B-influenced tunes. If it weren’t for the clean recording, you would swear that most of this album was recorded back then. The melodies, lyrics, and instrumentation are perfect replications of that era’s best moments — but it never sounds like McPherson is playing this as mimickry. He just has that music running through his veins, and he gives all indications of there being no way of getting his songs out in any other form but this. He seems anachronistic on the one hand, but these songs are so good it somehow seems modern nonetheless. It doesn’t hurt that he has the perfect voice for this style, much as Phil Alvin did with the Blasters. Never does a false-sounding note ring from these tracks.
It really is such a consistent album that it’s hard to choose one to feature here, but “Fire Bug” seems as good a choice as any. It’s a Little Richard/Eddie Cochran amalgam, with a little “Shakin’ All Over” (the Guess Who version) thrown in. Even the lyrics are a perfect throwback to the rockabilly era:
I took her to the winter ball and melted all the snow.
That little gal starts dancing and she torches up the floor.
Fire bug, fire bug
She’s my little fire bug
She can start a fire when she begins to cuttin’ up the rug.
“Fire Bug” is a definite high point in an album full of them. And it will be fascinating to see where McPherson goes from here: will he continue in the same vein, or does he have some other way of expressing these sounds somewhere up his sleeve?