When Oklahoma retro-rock revivalist JD McPherson decided to record his first-ever Christmas album, Socks, he asked himself one key question. “What do we exclude?” says McPherson. “What are the first things that most bands want to do when making a Christmas record and how do we not do those things?”
The resulting 11-track album of all original songs, out now via New West Records, stays true to McPherson’s list of exclusions: there are no jingle bells, no cover songs and no schmaltz. Instead, Socks overflows with vintage rock & roll tidings of comfort and joy, including the nostalgic warmth of “All the Gifts that I Need” and “Every Single Christmas,” and the jubilance of “Hey Skinny Santa” and “Santa’s Got a Mean Machine.”
Throughout Socks, McPherson’s impressive garage-rock guitarwork channels classic R&B, rock, blues and rockabilly with snappy, growling riffs (“Bad Kid”), slinky, reverb-drenched passages (“Holly, Carol, Candy & Joy”) and smooth, jazzy shuffles (“Ugly Sweater Blues”). Along the way, he’s pitch-perfectly backed by his four-piece band of Jimmy Sutton on bass, Raynier Jacob Jacildo on keys, Jason Smay on drums, and Doug Corcoran on saxophone, steel guitar and glockenspiel. McPherson also invited a few guests to help round out the sound, including vocal trio the Giardinaires and singer-songwriter Lucie Silvas on the sizzling duet “Claus vs. Claus.”
For McPherson, the sonic direction he and his band wanted to explore contained a subtle-yet-substantive distinction. “Instead of, ‘Let’s just make a Christmas record,’ we wanted to first and foremost make a rock & roll record that then fell into the seasonal genre,” he says.
Growing up in rural Oklahoma, McPherson says he was somewhat insulated from the imposing commercial machine of the Christmas season and its accompanying “same 12 songs” soundtrack. As such, he never became jaded about holiday music. “I know there’s certainly a vocal minority that seemed stoked to let everybody know that they are very much anti-Christmas music, but it’s a really interesting genre to me and something I never really tire of,” he says. “I can always get excited about hearing Darlene Love come through the speakers.
“In fact, some of the greatest recorded music was created for the sole purpose of being played during the holiday season,” adds McPherson, pointing to Phil Spector’s iconic 1963 album A Christmas Gift for You as being the best example of that. “That’s an incredible record with incredible arrangements of holiday standards. Spector completely reinvented all those songs and his versions ended up becoming the classics.”
For Socks, however, McPherson challenged himself to write new songs about topics that don’t often get addressed in holiday fare. That initial brainstorming session birthed the title track — a swaggering ode to a kid’s inability to hide their disappointment with an unwanted gift — that ended up setting the tone for the rest of the album’s songwriting sessions.
Other outside-the-box writing exercises guided McPherson to two of the most infectious songs on the record, “Holly, Carol, Candy & Joy” and “Hey Skinny Santa.” The former was inspired by the “what if” scenario of having the legendary songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller write a Christmas song for the Coasters (“Yakety Yak”). “They wrote Christmas songs for Elvis, but they didn’t write any Christmas material for the Coasters, who were the perfect instrument for their other non-holiday songs.”
For “Hey Skinny Santa,” McPherson received some co-writing help from his utility player Corcoran. “I solicited ideas from the band and Doug showed up with a song that had eight verses and a chorus idea, all related to cities and food. We settled on three cities that are music towns — Chicago, New Orleans and Memphis — and combined some of the verses, cut some stuff out, and added the bridge,” says McPherson. “It was one of the rare times when you have more song than you need instead of trying to pull an anvil across the finish line.”
Now comes the time for McPherson to unwrap the tunes live onstage: he and the band are currently on their Socks: A Rock ‘N Roll Christmas Tour through December 16th.