One thing no one can accuse The North Mississippi Allstars of is resting on their laurels. The band's debut, the all-covers "Shake Hands with Shorty," which reinvented hill-country blues as jam-band rock, made them, for a brief time, a media cause céläbre and an immediate cult band live. They could have gone on for a decade playing stretched-out versions of "Shake 'Em on Down" for appreciative crowds. Instead, they set out to prove they could write original songs in the classic blues vein and did so, quite well, on their next album, 51 Phantom.
On the band's third album, the long-delayed Polaris (Tone Cool/ATO; Grade: A-), which is scheduled to hit the racks Tuesday, September 9th, the band takes another big step forward, evolving from a jammy blues band to an ambitious, wide-ranging blues-based rock band. Along the way, the Allstars have added another permanent member in guitarist/singer Duwayne Burnside, giving the band four capable vocalists and further cementing their commitment to both their hill-country blues heritage and (however unintentionally) their status as a model for New South interracial partnership (where they're clearly preferable to, say, Hootie & the Blowfish).
The opener, "Eyes," marries Luther Dickinson's nimble Allman-style guitar explorations --which have always been a point of rapture or rejection, depending on the listener --and blues-referencing lyrics ("I ain't never been to heaven/But I've been told/Angels in heaven got sweet jelly roll") to the band's newfound bent for spacey arena rock, setting the tone for the rest of the album.
The Allstars still tackle traditional fare. There's a lovely, laid-back take on Junior Kimbrough's "Meet Me in the City" with Burnside on lead vocals, which is spiked with some invigorating guitar and piano interplay near the end. And the band turns in a meditative rendition of Earl King's "Time for the Sun To Rise" that features some of the record's simplest but most soulful guitarwork. Polaris closes with the public domain "Be So Glad," in which a rap from guest Cody Burnside segues into the kind of long guitar eruption that was standard on previous releases.
The band also still writes blues originals. "Conan" is an acoustic-based blues that swings with a sharp, light touch before devolving into a bit of slow, dull guitar noodling. "Never in All My Days" is stomping bar-band blues with slide guitar, and "Bad Bad Pain" is solid contemporary urban blues with Burnside again on lead vocals.
But what makes Polaris such a departure are the pop and modern-rock songs on which the blues sound is more buried: "Otay" probably overdoes the vocal effects a little (a couple of the more awkward vocal moments are reminiscent of Dirk Diggler's recording session in Boogie Nights), but at its best, it's every bit the pure-pop bliss it aims to be, while "One To Grow On" sounds more like a Big Star outtake than like any of the region's rootsier forebears. "Kids These Daze" is straight-up alt-pop with kids-going-to-rock-shows lyrics that seem truer to the band's actual world than the blues tropes they normally traffic in, while the title track is full-on arena rock suffused with pop melodies. (Oasis' Noel Gallagher provides vocals somewhere on Polaris, though they aren't readily apparent.)
Ultimately, Polaris sounds like a bid for independence --a notion reinforced by the fact that the record was produced by the Dickinson brothers rather than by papa Jim Dickinson. It's a coming-out party for drummer Cody Dickinson in particular, who plays six instruments, arranges strings and horns, and seems most responsible for putting such a pop stamp on the record. Look for more on the North Mississippi Allstars later this month when the band celebrates Polaris with a local release show Friday, September 26th, at the New Daisy.
Culling 23 odds and ends and alternate takes recorded between 1999 and 2002, the completest Demos II (On/On Switch; Grade: B+) is not the record you want to start with if you don't own a record by the Lost Sounds, perhaps Memphis' most unique rock band (I vote for the epic, brutal, yet beautiful Black-Wave, which just gets better every time I listen to it), but it does give you a handle on what the band's all about: The computer-generated effects on the opening "Random Signals" explode into the post-punk clamor of "Trails/Fears," and then we're off --whiplash riffs fighting through the noise, abandoned equipment urged back to life, vocal chords shredded, synthesizers warning of impending doom, and the little loving touches you get from incendiaries who also happen to be rock-and-roll true believers.
While there's plenty here to stand with the band's best ("Taken Away," "Get Off My Planet"), you'll also have to wade through song intros, sonic experiments, a two-minute bass solo, and other worthy detritus (though the piano solo "Lost Waltz" is a charming change of pace) that may only be of interest to band devotees. For those fans, the full-color, show-poster-laden sleeve (including fliers for the band's debut show and one where they're dubbed "The Lost Souls") is alone worth the price.
Live from Cell Block D (Memphis International; Grade: B+) by Tracy Nelson is the latest release from upstart local label Memphis International, whose varied roots stable has boasted Alvin Youngblood Hart, Carla Thomas, and the late Harmonica Frank Floyd.
As the key voice with the band Mother Earth in the late '60s and early '70s, Nelson was something of a female equivalent to Gram Parsons, even if her envelope-pushing (by Nashville standards) version of Cosmic American Music never quite developed the same level of subcultural cachet. These days, the better comparison is to Charlie Rich, Nelson's soulful, powerful voice and bluesy piano putting across a vision of American roots music that transcends genre boundaries.
On Live from Cell Block D, Memphis International's David Less produces Nelson performing for inmates at the West Tennessee Detention Center with a crack, Memphis-heavy band behind her (including keyboard king Charlie Wood and saxman Jim Spake). Nelson's gospel-heavy vocals are in fine form here, particularly on "After the Fire Is Gone" (for which she was once Grammy-nominated for a duet version with Willie Nelson, who provides liner notes on this release) and "Tennessee Blues," a particularly touching song and performance considering the setting: When Nelson sings the opening lines, "If I had my way, I'd leave here today/I'd leave in a hurry/I'd find me a place where I could stay with nothing to worry," you can hear a male inmate shout "Go on, baby!" Nelson gets a different kind of response --a more joyous one --from the female inmates (Nelson and band recorded two concerts, since male and female inmates weren't allowed to mingle) during her jaunty rendition of Patsy Cline's "Walkin' After Midnight."
Live From Cell Block D isn't quite Live at Folsom Prison (one wonders how anyone has the guts to do a prison record after that), but the unique forum adds an audible tension-and-release atmosphere that works some similar magic, resulting in a fine showing from Nelson and from Memphis International.