North Mississippi Allstars: 51 Phantom

The North Mississippi Allstars emerged out of the Southern swampland in 2000 with Shake Hands with Shorty, a raw and brilliant debut that fused country blues with rock and a heavy dose of punk attitude. With 51 Phantom, brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, along with bassist Chris Chew, have put together a formidable, if more polished, followup. Unlike their first album — which featured covers of classics from Mississippi Fred McDowell, Junior Kimbrough, and R.L. Burnside — the group wrote most of these songs themselves, and as a result, the cuts show their diverse influences. Pinning down those influences ain’t easy, though — alternately sounding like ZZ Top, AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Dead, Led Zeppelin, and a gospel ensemble, they slide easily between the down-and-dirty rock of “Sugartown” to the more melodic and gentle “Storm,” then have no problem cranking it up again on songs like “Snakes in My Bushes.” Luther Dickinson’s vocals are weak in the tradition of many fine bluesmen, and it doesn’t matter one bit. He sings and plays some seriously fuzzed-out guitar with great emotion, which is far more important than a five-octave range. Cody Dickinson’s Bonham-like beats add pop even to cleaner tunes like the gospel classic “Freedom Highway” and their own gospel creation “Ship.” But like the mysterious freight train that gives the album its name, the North Mississippi Allstars sound best when running at full steam, as they do with the nasty rockabilly swing of “51 Phantom.”

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