Thursday, February 10, 2022

North Mississippi Allstars - Set Sail

There was this music documentary a year or two back.  The legendary drummer Bernard Purdie was on it, recalling a session for those studio-tanned perfectionists Steely Dan, after a gaggle of other skinsmen couldn’t satisfy them on a track.  “We don’t want a shuffle!”  Fagen and Becker insisted.  “Yeah sure,” Bernard thought to himself, “but you ain’t heard the Purdie Shuffle yet.”  Then he started playing his patented rhythm – but quietly, using just his fingertips on the snare drum.  “What the fuck is that?!” exclaimed the Royal Scammers - instantly ensnared, as it were.
North Mississippi Allstars audition for a remake of The Usual Suspects
A subtle approach, you see, has its own power.  And so it is with this latest outing from the North Mississippi Allstars, aka the brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson and whichever pals they’ve co-opted this time around.  When I first came across NMA, via their crackling 2000 album Shake Hands With Shorty, their modus operandi was shake, rattle’n’rollin’ North Mississippi Hill Country blues.  Nowadays though, the brothers are more like cognac poured over ice – warm but chilled, dudes.
So here we have drummer Cody Dickinson adopting a Purdie approach on both the opener ‘Set Sail Part I’ and the following ‘Bumpin’’, tip-tapping away at mischievous stop-start rhythms.  On ‘Set Sail Part I’ this accompanies spare, low slung guitar fills from brother Luther, who then harmonises with the guesting Lamar Williams Jr (son of the late Allmans bassist) on a cool, mantra-like vocal about how “The water may rise again”.  Dickinson adds occasional slide guitar frills, and then for good measure they introduce shivers of strings and moaning horns.  ‘Bumpin’’ is then similarly low key, with some laid back guitar’n’bass chit chat between Luther and bassist Jesse Williams, as they create a vibe to reflect the line “Life is but a dream”.
There’s less-is-more percussion on ‘Didn’t We Have A Time’ too, something of a throwback to the title track of their previous album Up And Rolling.  It starts off simply, with some shimmers of guitar and lap slide, then nifty little themes gradually take shape, swirling around on guitar and vocals, while electric piano adds further remarks.  It all gets quite psychedelic, like they’ve been at the mushroom tea again.  The rhythmic groove is a smidgen more emphatic on ‘Rabbit Foot’, but still low key on a reverie reflecting on a classic blues lyrical theme – death.  “Give me an unmarked grave, and a box of bones” they sing, and if that sounds pretty morbid, it’s stirred into life by spells of iridescent blues-jazz fusion.
There’s upbeat fun going on too though.  ‘See The Moon’ has a soul-funk groove grounded in a solid backbeat and throbbing bass, coming over like Prince with the kink ironed out and replaced by swampiness.  Luther D sprinkles guitar glitter over the top while glistening keys flutter in and out, and Lamar Williams and Sharisse Norman get together on some guy/girl call and response vocals.  ‘Never Want To Be Kissed’ is classic Memphis soul, graced by the classic, rich soul voice of William Bell, who weaves himself around a simple melody with a great hook.  It’s embellished by swooning strings, nods and nudges of horns, and Motown-like female backing vox, with filigrees of teasing guitar to the fore on the coda.  And ‘Juicy Juice’ has a bass-pumping funk groove over a slippin’and’trippin’ drum pattern, with some borderline hip-hopping backing vocals adding another rhythmic texture – all in all rather like a relaxed take on something from Beck’s Midnite Vultures album.  I’ll leave it to you to ponder exactly what beverage they’re enthusing about.
The closing ‘Authentic’ just about sums up the North Mississippi Allstars.  You could call it a manifesto, but that sounds too kinda radical, ya dig?  Call it a meditation maybe, on community, and on love, peace and respect.  In mellow, cheerful style, they proclaim harmoniously that “We don’t need to see the guns in the streets”, and “Music and love is what I believe”.  NMA are indeed for real, but always with the audio equivalent of a knowing wink, right the way to Luther Dickinson’s grinning, witty lap slide excursion to finish.
Set Sail won’t be everyone’s cup of cappuccino – too blissed out, not enough geetar horsepower.  So be it.  While the Dickinson brothers continue to be true to themselves, we can always bank on some musical originality and humanity coming down the line.  Dig it, people!
Set Sail is released by New West Records, available digitally now, and on CD/Vinyl from 1 April.

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