The Blues That Got Away: North Mississippi Popstars?

The North Mississippi Allstars (NMA) are a Southern blues/rock group from (where else?) North Mississippi. Formed in 1996 and consisting of brothers Luther (guitar, vocals) and Cody Dickinson (drums, vocals) along with an array of other members over the years (including Dwayne Burnside, Lightnin' Malcolm, and Chris Chew), they have helped to bring the blues into the 21st century with their blend of North Mississippi hill country blues (a la Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and Mississippi Fred McDowell), rock 'n' roll, and other more contemporary styles of music.

In 2003, the NMA released their third album, Polaris. Although it was critically acclaimed by some upon release, with Sean Westergaard of AllMusic noting its ambitiousness, many listeners were put off by the combination of the NMA's trademark blues/roots sound with elements of sunshine pop and even hip-hop/rap in parts. I imagine some fans may have been concerned about the band possibly selling out. Subsequent NMA albums returned to more of the roosty sound that they developed on their first two albums, and their live set since 2003-2004 has rarely included tracks from Polaris, making it something of an anomaly in their catalogue. Though they blended blues with more contemporary music in subsequent releases, they never did so as overtly as on Polaris.

So, is Polaris deservedly the black sheep of the NMA discography? Not exactly. While the pop elements certainly are striking, there are enough helpings of the NMA's signature sound that it still sounds like the same band that delivered updated classics like "Shake 'Em On Down" only a few years earlier. The album opens with a killer riff on "Eyes", which couples Mississippi John Hurt-esque fingerpicking in the verses with bright, sunny backing vocals on the choruses. It's a catchy number that kind of reminds me of The Wallflowers, but there's enough soulful grit to make you not feel guilty for enjoying it. "Conan" is similar in its combination of fingerstyle blues and modern sounds, but overall it's a little closer to the NMA's jam rock style. They cover Junior Kimbrough's "Meet Me In The City" in a laid-back, swinging shuffle, with an overall sound almost reminiscent of the Allman Brothers. There's also an Earl King cover with "Time For The Sun To Rise", although the thin, reedy lead vocals (it is not clear who is singing this one) are somewhat of a mismatch for this gritty New Orleans tune. There are solid blues riffs in "All Along" (a dark sounding, semi-acoustic piece), "Never In All My Days", "Be So Glad" (which also incorporates bits of rap, although in a creative and tastefully unobtrusive way), and the hidden instrumental "Goin' Home" (rerecorded 10 years later as a bonus track on their World Boogie is Coming album), which is probably the one track on this platter that is most reminiscent of the sound of their debut album, Shake Hands With Shorty.

What about the rest of the album? That's where the pop music elements come through most prominently. The tracks "Kids These Daze", "One To Grow On", and "Polaris" are well-crafted catchy pop tunes that are almost devoid of the North Missisippi hill country blues sound and sound reminiscent of the pop/emo-style music that was in vogue during that era (especially with the occasionally thin lead vocals). At times, the lyrics are generic and insipid. That being said, these pop offerings are still fairly enjoyable, even if they are unlike anything the NMA recorded before or since. "Kids These Daze" is a particular favourite for me, with a pump-it-up type of chorus that seems to capture and celebrate the vibe at live concerts, and "One To Grow On" has a quasi-gospel feel along with a string section. Another highlight for me is "Bad Bad Pain", which pairs a solid blues song with a drum machine, creating an overall sound that is reminiscent of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" (in a good way). My only gripe with this track is that it's too short; as soon as you start enjoying the groove, it packs up. Interestingly, Noel Gallagher supposedly guests on the album, but his contribution does not stand out (unless the liner notes were referring to a different Noel Gallagher and not the former Oasis songwriter/guitarist).

All in all, Polaris might not have been the most promising new direction for the NMA to pursue in their quest to continue the North Mississippi blues tradition in the 21st century, but it's not an effort to be ashamed of either. While I would not recommend it as an introduction to what this band is all about, it's still a solid record that is well worth hearing.

Tune in to CJSR's Señor Blues every other Saturday to hear tracks from albums like Polaris and other similarly underrated, rare, and/or lesser known blues gems as part of the semi-regular "Blues That Got Away" feature.

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