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Published: 2002/01/23
by Chip Schramm

51 Phantom – North Mississippi AllStars

Tone Cool 34047-1182-2

The North Mississippi AllStars' follow-up to their critically lauded
Shake Hands With Shorty debut album was released after an initial
delay, yet still with plenty of fanfare. As the mainstream media was
salivating in expectation of a spectacular collection of songs from the
Grammy award nominees, the band's management was content to let the tension
mount through the fall of 2001. Especially with the widespread notoriety of
The Word, their collaborative effort with Robert Randolph and John
Medeski, this one was bound to get a lot of attention one way or the other. First of all, Jim Dickinson, the daddy of guitarist Luther and drummer Cody,
produced the work, so the expectations were automatically high. Names like
Dylan and Allman dot his performance and production resume. At the same
time, while all of the songs on Shake Hands With Shorty were covers
of traditional blues songs and tunes taught to them by Junior Kimbrough or
Otha Turner, this album is mostly originals. However, while there are many bright, compelling moments, the album never strays too far from the hill-country blues idiom mined so very well on Shorty.

The title track is a roadhouse rambler, full of allusions to a bootlegger
driving from Memphis to New Orleans on the mythic highway 51, with a stash
of "white lightnin'" to help him on his way. As both the title track and
first song on the album, this sets the tone and makes it clear that there is
no thematic departure from Shake Hands With Shorty. "Snakes In My
Bushes" seems kind of like a mongoose theme song, but sounds musically
similar to "Drinkin' Muddy Water" from the previous album. Even "Sugartown"
seems both lyrically and musically similar to the previous album's opening
track, "Shake 'em On Down", with both that lyric and the "all night long"
verse thrown in for good measure. This raises my central point of criticism, as in many respects 51 Phantom sounds too similar to its predecessor (to the point that one can imagine it as the second disc of a double-CD set).

Nonetheless, there are many subtleties on this album that are worthy of note. First,
Luther Dickinson's vocals have developed nicely. "Storm" and "Leavin'"
showcase this best out of the 11 tracks on the album, and it's clear that his confidence and vocal range have improved vastly since the band's first release. His dad doesn't mask it with
distortion or effects nearly as much as his sons did on their self-produced
album. "Storm" also benefits from well-blended backing vocals from Cody,
while the latter tune has bassman Chris Chew doing the same.

"Freedom Highway" is one of the few covers. The Pops Staples' tune is one of
the most symbolically powerful songs on the album. Full of references to
Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement in general, this is
yet another example of how two skinny white kids and one big (I couldn't say
huge, right?) black bass player can mesh their backgrounds and colors
without giving up any of their identity or integrity. Those that can
identify with life in Memphis, Tennessee or Horn Lake, Mississippi certainly
know where these guys are coming from. True, lots of the arrangements and
riffs on 51 Phantom were already on the table with the first
offering, but the raw soul of this album is every bit as strong.

Probably the most intriguing thread to this album is the gospel feel to
three of the songs near the end. "Circle In The Sky", "Ship", and "Up Over
Yonder" all contain the words and phrases from spirituals passed down
through the oral traditions of 19th century southern slaves working in the
fields. Often they were coded messages about plans to escape from bondage.
Much like Moses led his people to freedom from the Egyptian Pharaoh in
biblical times, the whole idea behind liberation theology is that the
Christian traditions that were forced onto blacks by whites slave-owners
back during colonial times ended up being what inspired them to ultimately
free themselves. Such ideas were revisited even after the American civil war
by socio-political leaders in Latin America as well.

Wait a minute, wasn't I writing a CD review here?

Anyway, "Circle In The Sky" still has a heavy blues bottom to it with plenty
of guitar effects and a nifty cane fife solo from the timeless, Otha Turner.
"Ship" is more of an example of the liberation theological slant with both
the "Yes Lord, waiting for my ship to come in" verse and some stellar
backing vocals from gospel singers Brenda Patterson, Susan Marshall, and
Jackie Johnson. "Up Over Yonder" is really like the final track to the
album, and seems like an allusion to heaven and the after-life (or freedom
from worldly pain) more than anything else.

"Mud" is the fast-forward at the end of the album. The last track contains
break-beats and a boatload of vocal effects with some white-boy rapping
thrown in for good measure. It does add a bit of homemade hip-hop to an
otherwise traditionally-grounded album, again showing the Memphis roots of
the group that claims Mississippi as their home. Overall 51 Phantom
is a good album, and if it were their debut CD, I would say it was a great
album. But they spoiled me the first time. And I suppose next time I'll be
expecting even more.

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