While Luther and Cody Dickinson, the two-brother team that is the impetus behind the North Mississippi Allstars, have drawn on the region's roots-music scene for much of their career -- including their 2000 debut, "Shake Hands with Shorty," and its follow-up, 2001's 51 Phantom -- the band's latest effort, Polaris, marks a definite departure from their well-established blues-rock sound.
"We had a three-record plan," explains Cody, drummer, keyboard player, vocalist, and co-producer of Polaris. "A lot of bands that we admire, like the Jimi Hendrix Experience, really stretched out on their third album. We always intended to make a psychedelic album, and this was the end result."
"The Allstars are in the middle of a big transition," Cody says, pointing to the addition of Duwayne Burnside (son of hill-country blues great R.L. Burnside), who contributes vocals and guitar to the group, when not relieving Cody behind the drums. "In late 2001, I started hanging out in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and I'd ride up Highway 78 to Memphis with Duwayne," Cody says. "He gets so much respect. People would just run to greet him when we'd come into town. I was this lone kid hanging out with the 'president' of Memphis, and he taught me so much about life."
When he wasn't running around South Memphis with Burnside, the 27-year-old was flying across the Atlantic to visit other friends. "I got to hang out with [Oasis'] Noel Gallagher while [Oasis was] recording Heat and Chemistry," Cody says. "One of the biggest perks of being a rock-and-roll musician is getting to meet -- and work with -- high-caliber players like Noel and Carter Beauford [drummer for the Dave Matthews Band]."
"It's really cool to be able to collaborate with all these kindred spirits," Cody says, noting that his relationships with Gallagher and Burnside inspired much of his songwriting on Polaris. "These songs are all blues lyrics disguised in a sea of pop melodies," he says.
"We were at a really good place creatively when we began recording Polaris," Cody continues. "We had more time, more freedom, and more money, so we decided to record in a big studio," he says, explaining why the band eschewed father Jim Dickinson's Zebra Ranch facility for Ardent Studios in Midtown.
"As a four-piece, we couldn't even fit into the home studio. We wanted to play live -- and loud. I had click-tracked a lot of our songs, then we set up our instruments in Studio A and went at it." John Hampton recorded the Ardent sessions, which took nearly three weeks. For the first time, the Allstars played their road gear in the studio, cutting to analog tape before adding instrumental overdubs. While on tour, the Allstars cut their vocals on a remote system. "I'd record tracks on my laptop in the van," Cody says. "But there's no mistaking where this album was made. We got that Ardent sound."
"This is our Memphis record," Cody proclaims. "First of all, Luther and I lived in Midtown, right down the street from Ardent, while we were recording. 'Country boys move to the big city' -- that could be our headline. I bought a piano, a Baldwin spinet, from the Amro Music Store on Poplar, and cut parts for 'Eyes' and 'Meet Me in the City' in our living room."
But Cody is quick to add that Polaris was definitely a group effort. "I just wrote three songs," he says. "They do sound drastically different, but they are just a small part of the album. We all have a voice -- me, Luther, Chris [Chew], and Duwayne. This is a cohesive piece of work."
Engineer Kevin Houston accompanied Luther and Cody to London, where they added tracks -- including backing vocals by Gallagher on the song "One To Grow On" -- at Air and Abbey Road studios. "I hope this wasn't unfair to our diehard fans, but we felt a great freedom in the studio to do whatever we want," Cody says, citing such seemingly disparate styles as gospel, country, and English rock songs -- all components of the new album.
"While we were in the studio, we never looked back at all," Cody says. "When we were sitting at the Grammy Awards ceremony [the Allstars' second album was up for Best Contemporary Blues Album], I thought, Thank God Solomon Burke won, because we're not a contemporary blues band."
"We've achieved the ultimate goal as a band: We've got an identity and a sound," Cody says, explaining that "our live show is always gonna be what it is, but a lot of jam bands get caught in the trick bag of trying to capture their live sound in the studio. Our bread and butter is in touring. We do 150 shows a year. To most of our live fans, I'll always be the Ringo of the group -- a singing drummer. I could write the next 'Imagine' and sit down to play the piano, and someone would shout, 'Where's the fucking washboard?'" he says with a laugh.
"Polaris is something completely different. It's meant to be a listening experience for one person sitting down with a set of headphones and tripping out. People seem to either hate it or love it, but no matter what material we're playing, we sound more like a group than ever," Cody concludes. "The Allstars are this crazy, living thing that changes and morphs all the time."
Polaris CD-Release Party, with Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band
The New Daisy Theatre
Friday, September 26th
*The North Mississippi Allstars will also be playing a free in-store set at Cat's Records in Midtown at noon that day.