Although they may mix elements of hip-hop, classic metal, and alternative rock into their repertoire, the North Mississippi Allstars are really a power blues trio whose members lean heavily on the kind of Mississippi folk-blues numbers they learned firsthand from the likes of R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Othar Turner, an approach that has given the NMA a solid grounding in local blues history as well as a solid sense of place. The two-disc The Early Years packages together the group's first two albums, 2000's Shake Hands with Shorty and 2001's 51 Phantom, and the two outings fit seamlessly together. Shake Hands is made up entirely of NMA versions of classic old blues numbers originally done by the likes of Fred McDowell ("Drop Down Mama," "Shake 'Em on Down," "Drinkin' Muddy Water," "Someday Baby"), Burnside ("Po Black Maddie," "Skinny Woman," "Goin' Down South"), Furry Lewis ("KC Jones"), and Kimbrough ("All Night Long"), and the local North Mississippi modal drone approach offers the Allstars a perfect springboard into a loose, ragged, but powerfully tight sound that somehow manages to seem both reverently traditional and completely contemporary at the same time. Phantom features mostly NMA originals (they do tackle versions of Kimbrough's "Lord Have Mercy" and Pops Staples' "Freedom Highway"), like the impressive "Snakes in My Bushes" and the ancient-sounding "Sugartown," that build on old blues templates until there is essentially no difference in tone or feel between the group's original songs and the blues covers they do. The North Mississippi Allstars seem to straddle two worlds with their sound, the old one with fife-and-drum bands playing "Sitting on Top of the World" and the new one of the 21st century with its drum machines, looped samples, and sharp edits. The Allstars make it all sound like one big muddy Mississippi world, and having the group's first two albums paired together like this just widens that world until it feels more than substantial.
AllMusic Review by Steve Leggett
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2