North Side Gal by JD McPherson (7.1) (Ups to Ford/Grandpa Joe on the recco: “Best way I can describe that album is think of The Starlighters from Back to the Future, but with Marty McFly as their full-time singer/guitarist.” (N.B. You nailed it)) Consider this the coda to Oklahoma Music April, Tulsa high school art teacher cum rock revivalist, JD McPherson.
JD McPherson prolly also completes a first half of 2012 (not that there’s going to be one for the second half) triad with Alabama Shakes and Jack White of rock’s argument against being dead in that it only has to recycle itself in modulated ways to persevere. There is a crowd of people/music fans (N.B. The sticker on the album cover shrink wrap read something like “engineered to restore your faith in rock and roll” – NPR Music) to whom JD McPherson’s arrival seems more timely and vital than even Jack White’s triumphant return to that amorphous phenomenon called rock-n-roll. Inarguably, this has much to do with JD’s hipster retro-ness/shunning of modern technology, denim jacket and dappity-dooed hair all of which (in my opinion) serve only to detract from how good the music actually is and instead hope to give it unnecessary context. I can hear it. Don’t dress it up, because it’s already pretty good. The title track, Signs and Signifiers, is a marvel that won’t get out of my head. The whole album, if you deploy it properly and if you’re so inclined, will the best album you’ll ever (literally) cook to. I’m not joking. Get in your kitchen and cook whatever it is you cook (because we all cook something) and JD McPherson will make it better. I promise.
But after I purchased Sign and Signifiers and started wondering if rock-n-roll was something in which faith needed to be restored, I got to thinking again about my old buddy Dave Grohl and a post I’d long sense given up on stemming from his unfortunate soliloqui at the MTV Awards. And then wouldn’t ya know it, Foo Fighters and Arcade Fire were the musical guests on the season finale (of a terribly underwhelming season) of SNL along with the grandaddy of them all, Sir Michael Phillip Jagger, and the atmosphere seemed charged for me to revisit.
Interestingly, the Foo and the Jags put together a little medley, and I have to admit, it seemed kinda rock-n-roll in a “fuck it, let it all hang out” kinda way. But enjoying it made me understand what rock is to me now. And frankly, it’s a little boring, a little safer, because I’m those things now (yes, even safer). And rock for me now is a regurgitation of my memories of Dave Grohl as nothing more than the hair flinging drummer of the biggest band in the world and the memories I couldn’t have (but somehow do) of when Mick wasn’t a willowy and withered icon, but instead the front man of the baddest fucking rock band on the planet. Now rock is really just recalibrated memories.
But I also know what I want rock to be to Mr. generic 19-year-old, and it wasn’t what was on SNL this week.
So what is rock-n-roll, asshole music critic?
Perhaps I go Justice Potter Stewart:
“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [rock-n-roll]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…” (N.B. Brackets added. He was writing about porn)
So how do I know it when I see it?
How do I know it when I hear it?
How do I know that this isn’t rock, just by looking at it?
How do I know this isn’t rock by hearing the first 8 bars (N.B. and I don’t know what 8 bars are. I just assume they’re the beginning part)
Am I a snob?
Because rock can just as easily be this group of middle aged white Canadians:
And can just as easily not be this tawdry girl:
Is rock the medium through which cool is transferred, and if that’s the case are any of us (late-stage Gen-x’ers) qualified anymore to make a judgment call on what is and what isn’t rock? We’re prolly not.
But a lot of people think they know what rock is. Maybe everyone’s wrong and everyone’s right.
All of that (JD McPherson/Jack White/Alabama Shakes) retro-ish stuff feels like rock, like it has to be. But that can’t mean M83’s synth-pop and the Lips at the Zoo with confetti guns and man-sized bubbles aren’t, because they are most definitely are rock.
Is rock that snarled and drug-addled fuck the world attitude? If so, you’re saying Kings of Leon (sighs) are rock and Fugazi isn’t.
Is rock unbelievably sexy Alexis Krauss, tatted and screaming and crowd surfing, or is it Brittany Howard’s voice impaling you, projecting her soul at you, from her sturdy perch? (N.B. There is literally no tactful way to covey “big chick.” “Sturdy perch” was the last of about 12 tries). Because both of those girlies are rock in the best kinda way.
How is Nickleback telling you they’re gonna be big rock stars definitely not rock, but AC/DC saluting those about to rock definitely rock?
How are all 68 years of Mick Jagger still rock?
I realized I don’t have any answers to those questions, so maybe I should revisit Dave Grohl’s MTV Music awards speech for which I held him in so much contempt. To wit:
“I just want to say: Never lose faith in real rock and roll music, you know what I mean? Never lose faith in that. You might have to look a little harder, but it’s always going to be there.”
So here is what I decided: He’s prolly right, but he’s right in a boring way. He’s right in the way I’ll be right when I give the G-Unit advice like “sarcasm is great, but kindness works better” or “have fun, but stay clear of the needle.” (N.B. Sorry, gratuitous DBT reference) a rightness born of experience trying to pass on some nugget that can never be passed on, but can only be learned.
How boring is it to tell a young rock star or a rock fan to “never lose faith in rock-n-roll” like it’s something you should have faith in and will always shake out in the end, like it’s some all-controlling force capable of divining “cool” for generations to come? Rock is not something for the young to have faith in. Rock is something for them to create, with rebelliousness and charm and weirdness. May it carry them for as long as it will, because (unless they’re Mick or Bowie or The Boss) they won’t be rock-n-roll forever. Because that’s rock’s nature.
So don’t have faith in rock. Live it. And leave the faith to Dave Grohl and Mick and me. Because not believing in it is maybe the most rock-n-roll thing you can do. And the ever regenerating ability of the young and the gifted to create it, hopefully without knowing, certainly without intending to, gives me faith in it.
So what is rock-n-roll? I still don’t know. Should JD McPherson give you faith in it? I hope not.