North Mississippi Allstars

Electric Blue Watermelon

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Although they may mix elements of hip-hop and alternative rock into their repertoire, the North Mississippi Allstars are really at their best when they blow out the rust on the kind of Mississippi folk-blues numbers they learned first hand from the likes of R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Othar Turner. The lead track here, a blisteringly ragged version of Charley Patton's "Mississippi Boll Weevil Blues," is a case in point. Stripped down and raw, it thunders along on Cody Dickinson's drums, throwing dynamics to the wind until the end, when it breaks down to just washboard and drums, then rises back up into a furious, marching stomp rhythm, before winding wistfully away on Luther Dickinson's slide guitar work. It's a wonderful rendition, and it reestablishes the past in the present without doing damage to either, a balancing act that the NMA do as well as anyone currently on the rock or blues scenes. Produced by legendary Memphis producer (and the father of Luther and Cody) Jim Dickinson, Electric Blue Watermelon has lots of similar moments that reach back to older songs, but instead of re-imagining them, as many artists would do, the Allstars simply amplify what is already there, a bit like tweaking out (but not replacing) the engine in an old stock car. This means the songs still carry the original package of nuts and bolts that made them work in the first place, but with the added kick of being covered by a top-notch band that understands that no one gets anywhere without understanding the past. This doesn't mean that the NMA reproduces the past, just that they understand it. For their version of Odetta's "Deep Blue Sea," for instance, the Allstars actually speed things a hair, but keep the churchy feel of the original, and the result is a delightfully nuanced and bluesy folk hymn that is reverent to its source, but expands on it as well. Two of the songs here ("Teasin' Brown" and "Hurry Up Sunrise,") were worked up by Luther from tapes of the late fife-and-drum-master Othar Turner talking and improvising lyrics on his front porch, while "No Mo" and "Stompin' My Foot" feature Mississippi rapper Al Kapone doing essentially the same thing ("Stompin'" also features some blazing pedal steel guitar work from the amazing Robert Randolph), and all of it ends up sounding like it was cut from the same sturdy bolt of cloth. Another highlight is "Moonshine," a NMA original that sounds a bit like an alt rock version of the Allman Brothers Band, thanks to Luther's Duane Allman-like slide tone. The North Mississippi Allstars call what they do "world boogie," and that's a fine term, but what they really are is a 21st century version of a good old Southern rock band who know all too well that the hills of North Mississippi are alive with real folk music. Just like the final track here, Turner's "Bounce Ball," which starts out as a relentless fife-and-drum march before giving way to the sound of crickets and frogs in the Mississippi night; this is a band that has found a place to stand that makes sense.

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