Anyone who says that there is nothing new in the blues obviously forgot about the North Mississippi Allstars. Their marriage of blues (from the North Mississippi hill country) and rock was unleashed on a largely unsuspecting public on "Shake Hands With Shorty" to great acclaim. The band looks set to repeat that success with "51 Phantom."
The album opens with the title track, which offers some reassurance that this is one band who have no intention of selling out. They have retained the rough and ready edge to their sound (due at least partly to producer Jim Dickinson) that came through so strong on "Shake Hands With Shorty." This is confirmed on the ensuing "Snakes In My Bushes" which chugs along nicely.
Lyrically at least, "Sugartown" appears to owe a small debt to "Shake 'Em On Down" a la Burnside. Chris Chew, in particular does a terrific job in anchoring the song on bass. The neat guitar work is supplied by Luther Dickinson who always seems to manage to keep things just about under control without straying off into heavy rock territory. "Sugartown" is followed by the only cover on the album. The late Junior Kimbrough's "Lord Have Mercy" is interpreted in a style that calls to mind some of the Jimi Hendrix's blues work.
By way of contrast, "Storm," is positively laid back. Given that the song is basically about a forthcoming downpour, the title does seem somewhat ironic. As if to prove the point that they are not a one trick pony, the band then get a little funky on "Freedom Highway," and later on fuse funk and gospel influences on "Ship."
Perhaps the highest praise that can be paid to "Circle In The Sky" is that it sounds like it could have easily have been penned by Junior Kimbrough. The song certainly captures the spirit of some of Kimbrough's work, and has the added bonus of an interlude on cane fife from hill country legend Otha Turner. The more subtle side of the band is then very much to the fore on the excellent brace of "Leavin'" and "Up Over Yonder," before the album closes out with the rousing foot-stomper "Mud."
With "51 Phantom" the North Mississippi Allstars appear to have struck gold once again. It may not have the instant accessibility of its predecessor, it is worth persevering with it. Repeated listenings are required to fully appreciate just how good an album "51 Phantom" really is. Although it seems hard to believe, "51 Phantom" is even better than its predecessor. On this showing the North Mississippi Allstars better get themselves a bigger trophy cabinet, because they are going to need it.
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