North Mississippi Allstars: Polaris

Adrien Begrand

North Mississippi Allstars


Label: ATO
US Release Date: 2003-04-22
UK Release Date: Available as import

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."

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.