“I’ve always loved Christmas music, especially popular Christmas music from the 1940s and ‘50s,” says JD McPherson. “There’s something classic about that sound. Something that keeps you coming back, year after year.” SOCKS, McPherson’s fourth album, dives headfirst into the world of original holiday music.
Written, produced, and arranged by the frontman and his longtime bandmates, it’s a record rooted in the same timeless influences—from 1950s rock & roll to old-school rhythm & blues—that inspired his breakthrough release, Signs and Signifiers, back in 2010. The result is a return to McPherson’s musical wheelhouse, mixing new songs and classic tones with his band’s sharpest performances to date. “This kind of music has always felt like home for us,” he says. “We love the sounds and rhythms of rock & roll’s early years. That’s the world in which this album lives. We experimented beyond that sound on recent albums, but I’ve learned it’s OK to go back. Fans of our first album are going to flip out.”
It was fellow songwriter Nick Lowe who helped inspire McPherson to pick up the pen and begin writing Christmas songs that were both imaginative and personalized. “Nick is both a friend and a personal hero of mine,” McPherson explains, “and before he recorded his own Christmas album, Quality Street, he wanted to know if I could recommend any Christmas songs that were a bit under-the-radar. That got me thinking. And when I heard Quality Street, which is the most dynamic and incredibly conceptual Christmas album I’ve ever come across, it made me feel inspired to write.”
Additional motivation arrived in the form of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s autobiography, Hound Dog. The two songwriters had helped shape American popular music, playing a large role in the careers of Coasters, Elvis Presley, and the Drifters. A wildly devoted fan of music from the same time period, McPherson found himself inspired to approach his own Christmas album as though he were a mid-century rock & roll crooner, too.
After all, he’d crystallized his own version of that sound with Signs and Signifiers (an album hailed by Rolling Stone for its “raw, straight-to-tape Sun Records-era rock & roll”), then explored a wider set of influences with 2015’s Let the Good Times Roll and 2017’s Undivided Heart & Soul. He’d proven himself to be not only driven, but diverse, too. Now it was time to go back to the place where he’d started, revisiting the classic sound that had launched his career in the first place.
Recorded in McPherson’s adopted hometown of Nashville, SOCKS’ 10 songs were captured in a handful of live-in-the-studio performances. McPherson shared production duties with his bandmates, resulting in a “committee effort” that captured the electrifying energy of the group’s shows. Stacked high with electric guitar, saxophone, upright bass, piano and a steady percussive pulse, SOCKS sounds every bit as vital and original as the three albums that preceded it. “It’s eleven original songs. I think it’s some of my very best lyrical work. The band played beautifully. It was the most fun we’ve ever had in a studio together.”
McPherson is right; the lyrics that fill SOCKS’ eleven songs are equal parts charming, cheeky, and characterdriven. More importantly, they’re unexpected. “Bad Kid” explores the holidays from the perspective of a juvenile delinquent, while “Holly, Carol, Candy & Joy” tells the story of a ladies’ man who’s infatuated with four women, all of them with holiday-themed names. In the album’s slinky, sauntering title track, an excited child rips open his Christmas gifts, only to unveil unexciting pair after unexciting pair of socks. “Santa, how could you let me down?” McPherson sings, while his band’s doo-wop harmonies slowly give way to a swirling organ solo worthy of Christmas morning mass.
“There’s definitely a wry, tongue-in-cheek approach to much of the album,” he explains. “The goal was to approach Christmas music in a different way, and evoke all the feelings of those classic songs without doing anything that was too on-the-nose.”
Like all of JD McPherson’s best work, SOCKS is a wonderful collection of opposites: new compositions inspired by old influences; familiar themes explored with fresh angles; classic sounds reinterpreted by a modern band. It’s the rare kind of holiday album that packs a punch at any time of year. “A lot of my favorite artists never got to make a Christmas record,” he adds. “The Coasters never did. This album grew out of a personal challenge, where I basically asked myself ‘Well, what if I did?’” And SOCKS is the answer.