There are a variety of holiday gifts that are generally considered colossal disappointments. At the top of that list are socks. Interestingly enough, when singer-songwriter JD McPherson was deciding on a title for his new Christmas-themed album, socks came to mind.
“I’ve had people tell me it's both the best and the worst holiday album title. It’s been pretty divided,” McPherson admits while speaking with the Observer via phone from his Nashville home.
A decade and four albums into his career, McPherson’s swinging mashup of rockabilly and R&B has built a steady audience that appreciates both his innate songwriting ability and his fearless ability to mix things up onstage and let loose. While other artists might shy away from writing a holiday-themed collection of songs, McPherson naturally gravitates toward the challenge.
Socks is an album that grabs hold of the nostalgic and festive themes of the season. Written, produced and arranged by McPherson and his longtime bandmates, the 10-track collection is rooted in 1950s rock 'n' roll, old-school rhythm and blues and quirky representations that have long been hallmarks of his sound.
“There was a point during a few rehearsals where I thought for a quick second: ‘What if this was a psych-rock record,'” McPherson says with a chuckle. “We then quickly rendered ourselves back on course. To me, all my favorite music for the holiday season is from that ['50s and '60s] era. The focus on that time period helped getting our sound down when we started.”
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The album has several perspectives to sort through, which makes for an entertaining listen that never wears thin. On “Bad Kid,” we follow a juvenile terror who pilfers his way through Christmas presents with little remorse. On “Holly, Carol, Candy, & Joy,” we learn about a man’s infatuation with four different women, all of whom share holiday-themed names. There's also a sauntering duet with Lucie Silvas called “Claus vs. Claus” that sets to music an airing-of-grievances conversation between the most famous couple of the North Pole.
“I definitely sat down to focus on writing these songs. The songs are brand new and came together pretty quickly, considering how tumultuous my relationship is with usually writing for albums,” he explains matter-of-factly.
He admits that Christmas music isn’t for everyone, especially when it seems to seep into our conscience earlier every year. After all, who doesn’t groan a little when they hear radio stations and shopping centers programming holiday hits into constant rotation the day after Halloween.
“I do have a rabid 5-year old’s enthusiasm for Christmas,” he says with a laugh. “Then again, I also have a veneer of cynicism, so I felt like it would be a good idea to appeal to both the Scrooges and to the Tiny Tims. I think deep down people like hearing these tunes even if they won’t cop to it.”
Recorded live in the studio during a few sweltering spring and summer sessions in Nashville, McPherson, his band and recording crew did their best to mimic the holiday spirit despite the dates on the calendar.
“You realize quickly that pretty much all Christmas albums are recorded at that time of the year,” he says. “You talk yourself up by turning the air conditioner down low, putting up a tree and watching a lot of Charlie Brown Christmas with a steady diet of Vince Guaraldi. Those things will usually get you there, even in Nashville when it’s 90 degrees outside.”
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McPherson and his band are on the road now, taking the holiday-themed show out for a 16-date tour. After all, this is the holiday season, a time when even some of the biggest homebodies around are looking for reasons to go out and celebrate.
“When I lived in the Oklahoma City area, my old band and I would constantly drive down to Dallas, and the crowd really embraced us,” says McPherson, 41. “We’ve had a long relationship with Dallas, and it always gets better. We’re looking forward to being there as it gets closer to Christmas Day.”
Even if you aren’t attending one of his live shows, Socks makes for a worthy addition to a holiday party playlist, a festive night of drinking or that early Christmas morning present-opening session. It's one kind of Socks no one will mind finding under the tree.
The KXT Holiday Concert featuring JD McPherson starts at 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 13 at The Statler Ballroom, 1914 Commerce Street. Tickets start at $25.