The North Mississippi Allstars are fully aware of the importance of a young band’s third album, especially a band like themselves, one steeped in the rigid traditions of the blues. Their audacious debut album Shake Hands with Shorty was a supercharged interpretation of blues songs by their Northern Mississippi heroes, including Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough, as covers like “Shake ‘Em on Down” and “Goin’ Down South” burst with youthful energy, in a Jon Spencer Blues Explosion-meets-Allman Brothers kind of way. 2001’s 51 Phantom was just as good, if not better, as the band’s two leaders, brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, proved they were more than capable of writing some great, original blues-rock songs of their own, as they turned up the volume and distortion on such wickedly raunchy tracks as “Snakes in My Bushes” and “Mud”. So where would the band head next? Would they keep going forward, or would they stick to the comfy rut of blues rock, likely to wind up being lumped in with other jam bands like Phish and Rusted Root?
The fact that the Allstars have continued to evolve as a band is hardly a surprise, but the direction they’ve decided to take on Polaris sure is. To instantly declare that the band has “gone commercial” would be tempting for many diehard fans, and it’s definitely a shock to hear this album for the first time, but once you start to delve deeper into this fascinating record, you begin to realize just how much depth there is here. It’s blues, it’s pop, it’s soul, and it’s Southern Rock, all at once. Simply put, it’s a mighty fine Americana album, more ambitious than the Drive-By Truckers, less gimmicky than Kings of Leon, not as jam-oriented as the Derek Trucks Band, and nowhere near as mind-numbingly self-indulgent as Phish.
Polaris is an album that’s rich in ideas and hooks, and certainly, some of the credit goes to Luther and Cody’s dad Jim Dickinson, whose production work with such notable artists as Big Star, the Replacements, Spiritualized, and Primal Scream has had a huge influence on his sons, who were often present at many of their father’s sessions. The album, which was recorded at Ardent studios in Memphis, where their father worked for so many years, seems to mine all those great sessions from years ago, making it much more intelligent than your average rock record. You hear the extent of that depth instantly on the opening cut, “Eyes”: it begins with a loud blues guitar lick, followed by slick drum fills by Cody, as the band sounds like it’s going to go into a rough-edged jam. But the song shifts gears quickly, the guitars soft and chiming this time, Luther and the band going into a soulful call-and-response chorus of, “I can’t take my eyes off you”, with a melody so accessible and sugary sweet, it’s going to catch longtime fans off-guard. They’re singing about girls! And they sound happy! Perish the thought.
The first seven tracks are especially great, as the band dabbles here and there in various styles, but keeping the sound consistent throughout. Right on the heels of “Eyes” is the smooth, relaxed rendition of Junior Kimbrough’s “Meet Me in the City”, Luther’s slide guitar sounding dreamy and wistful. “Conan”, on the other hand, is an acoustic, fingerpicked, country blues number, really playing up the Allman Brothers vibe that the band has always been so good at, while “All Along” has a more nocturnal feel, with its dank, nasty, gut-rattlingly low riff, and Luther’s gritty vocals. Then comes the upbeat, ready-for-radio “Otay”, sung by Cody, but it’s merely a precursor for the real gem on the album, “Kids These Daze”, a blast of unabashed romanticism, clearly influenced by those Replacements sessions the Dickinson brothers witnessed, with Luther delivering his own attempt at some Westerbergian lines (“Singin’ in the crowd like Charlie Brown / Jump up and down”). The ballad “One to Grow On”, which features Oasis’s Noel Gallagher on background vocals, is pulled off surprisingly well, its choruses soaring just like those great old Big Star ballads thirty years ago.
The last half of Polaris doesn’t quite have the luster of those opening seven songs, but they still adequately hold their own. “Never in All My Days” is straight-up, swampy blues, as Cody Dickinson and bassist Chris Chew provide a stomping, thunderous rhythm section. “Bad Bad Pain”, arguably the weakest track on the record, gets dangerously close to Santana territory (and I’m not talking about good Santana, either), while “Polaris” (featuring Noel Gallagher again on backing vocals) is a decent ballad, but can’t quite match the feel of “One to Grow On”. The album ends very strongly on “Be So Glad”, a warped hybrid of blues, dance, psychedelic pop, and hip-hop. There’s so much going on in the song, from the speed-rapping of Cody Burnside (grandson of R.L. Burnside), to the rough vocals of Otha Turner (who passed away this past April — not to mention his famous cane fife, which has appeared on every Allstars album), to the layers of guitars, organ, and electric piano. It’s a busy, but brilliant pastiche of different musical genres, the most inventive song the band has ever recorded.
The album closes with the fun instrumental “Goin’ Home”, showing that the band has not lost their ability to pull off a killer jam on a record. They’re still blues at heart, but they’re a blues band with peripheral vision, completely unafraid to stretch out, trying any kind of musical style they feel like. Sometimes it works, sometimes not so much, but with Polaris, the North Mississippi Allstars continue to cement their reputation as one of the most versatile young bands out there today. Like Cody says, “It’s all good. Otay.”