I've never been sure what "Americana" means as a musical label. But if it's going to have any strictly musical relevance, it should be for an artist like Memphis' John Paul Keith, whose sixth-sense virtuosity with innumerable distinctly American musical styles lends his music a classic sound without a self-consciously retro feel.
On this third solo album since landing in Memphis — produced live-to-tape by Roland Janes at Sam Phillips Recording Service and with ace accompaniment from Mark Edgar Stuart (bass), John Argroves (drums), and Al Gamble (keys) — Keith sounds as in-the-pocket as ever.
Fitting the sound and production style, Memphis Circa 3AM is almost structured like a vinyl-era album. The first side is a testament to Keith's musical command: The bluesy opening gallop of "You Really Oughta Be With Me" giving way to the swamp-rock groove of "We Got All Night" and the soulful power pop of "Everything's Different Now" and the barroom country of "Ninety Proof Kiss" and the swooning roots rock of "Walking Along the Lane" and the piano-pounding rockabilly of "True Hard Money."
Mastery established, the second "side," starting with "New Year's Eve" and ending with "Baby We're a Bad Idea," blooms into a multi-song love-gone-wrong lament worthy of the dark romanticism of the album's title. In fact, the first three songs — "New Year's Eve," "There's a Heartache Going Round," and "If You Catch Me Staring" — might all be taking place at the same place on the same night, at that titular time.
John Paul Keith plays the Levitt Shell on Friday, September 20th. Showtime is
How many times can you go to the same well? On World Boogie Is Coming, the North Mississippi Allstars — Luther and Cody Dickinson, credited as a duo here — suggest their answer is at least four. This 17-song opus — not including an additional five bonus tracks and four music videos available as companion downloads — is at least the fourth of the band's seven studio albums to take the hill-country blues not only as its sound but as its subject and theme.
The band's 2000 debut, "Shake Hands with Shorty," was about an expression of mastery, the band asserting its place as new artists in an old continuum. Electric Blue Watermelon was about memory, looking back at the experience of coming-of-age in the culture. Keys to the Kingdom was about inheritance — paying respects to father and mentor Jim Dickinson but also taking the baton from him as purveyors of a blues-based style the elder Dickinson dubbed "world boogie." Now, World Boogie Is Coming is about the band taking its place as ringleaders of a scene that's undergone a major generational shift since they first emerged.
Made up mostly of hill-country blues standards, the album is short on notable individual songs but long on feel, with nearly every scenemate joining in. This makes the album sound like a great hill-country picnic, especially down the stretch, when two Otha Turner tunes wrap around the blues standard "My Babe" then segue into songs from Bukka White and Sleepy John Estes. This a party specific to a place but timeless — especially if the brothers Dickinson and their cohort have anything to say about it.
The North Mississippi Allstars play the Mid-South Fair on Tuesday, September 24th. Showtime is 8 p.m.