North Mississippi Allstars hit hard with their 1999 debut album, Shake Hands with Shorty, an American roots music fest with a blast of punk rock energy. Featuring the snarling guitars of Luther Dickinson and the propulsive drumming of his brother Cody, Shake Hands with Shorty came by its edginess honestly. It was, after all, teenage Luther who had played the metal-tinged solo on “Shooting Dirty Pool”, a noisy highlight from the Replacements’ 1987 classic Pleased to Meet Me (produced by the Dickinsons’ dad, Jim Dickinson).
More than two decades since their debut, North Mississippi Allstars – who currently include the Dickinson brothers along with bassist Jesse Williams and vocalists Lamar Williams Jr. and Sharisse Norman — are still creating memorable music but from a decidedly more mellow state of mind. That’s evident from the first notes of the opening title track from their new album Set Sail.
“Set Sail Part I” finds the band riding a languid groove as Williams Jr. – son of Allman Brothers bassist Lamar Williams – relates a story of overcoming difficult times and moving forward. The song is accented by subtle but vital strings and horns. Originally a ten-minute long jam, “Set Sail” has been broken down, with “…Part II” winding up in the seventh slot of the album’s line-up.
“Bumpin'” features another mellow groove, accentuated with sexy lyrics about bumpin’ so hard and making love and shaking tambourines and whatnot. The track is fine, but the album really picks up with “See the Moon”, featuring Williams and Norman. “See the Moon” is a catchy, highly danceable tune that conjures up thoughts of both George Benson’s “Give Me the Night” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” without necessarily sounding like either one of them.
“Didn’t We Have a Time” finds North Mississippi Allstars at their most laidback and meandering. “Didn’t We Have a Time” slows the album again, but if you think of “Didn’t We Have a Time” as the last track of side one (which it is on vinyl copies of the album), then its placement makes a bit more sense.
While “See the Moon” is a clear highlight of Set Sail, it is rivaled by “Never Want to Be Kissed”, featuring the legendary singer/songwriter William Bell, whose presence is always welcome. Despite Bell’s fame as an essential part of the Stax Records fold, “Never Want to Be Kissed” is an homage to a different classic Memphis label, Hi Records. The stings and horns and the backing vocals are right out of the classic Al Green playbook. “Never Want to Be Kissed” is a refreshing blast of retro-soul for the 21st century.
“Set Sail Part II” follows “Never Want to Be Kissed” and then gives way to two funky tracks, “Juicy Juice” and “Rabbit Foot”, before the album ends on a quietly anthemic note with the autobiographical and philosophical “Authentic”. While “Didn’t We Have a Time” might have felt like the perfect album closer for Set Sail, it’s clear that North Mississippi Allstars want the positive messages about respect and authenticity contained in “Authentic” to be the central takeaway for listeners. From that perspective, “Authentic” is, indeed, a better closer than “Didn’t We Have a Time” would have been.
Finally, music fans who still prefer compact discs are in for a pleasant surprise. The CD version of Set Sail contains two bonus tracks not available elsewhere: a bluesy original, “Red Rooster and the Kingfish”, and a faithful cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Peace in Mississippi”. While neither track is essential, both are enjoyable.