But there's a big world outside of adoring Memphis, and as a follow-up to "Shake Hands With Shorty," 51 Phantom presents the band with at least two hurdles -- the necessity to prove themselves as songwriters after a debut that was composed entirely of covers and the desire to solidify a fan base outside of the loyal, college-oriented jam aficionados that typically pack their concerts. 51 Phantom is a likely success on both counts.
Produced by patriarch Jim Dickinson rather than the band itself (as was the case with "Shorty"), 51 Phantom is a leaner, more rock-oriented record with some harder, heavier riffs and tighter compositions -- only two songs pass the five-minute mark. The lead/title track encapsulates the band's strengths: Chris Chew's locomotive bass drives the song, Cody Dickinson's forceful drumming gives it power, and Luther Dickinson spikes it with quick, strong slide-guitar runs. The song moves forward with purpose, with no wasted space, and Luther makes up for his pedestrian vocal skills through the sheer verve of his delivery, clearly having a blast by adding a warbling, ghostly "wooooo" to the end of some verses.
The song also answers the songwriting question straightaway. "Late in the evening about this time of night/51 Phantom gets to feeling right/Memphis to New Orleans, the 51 I ride/White lightning flashing 'cross the Mississippi sky," Luther sings, showing a way with lyrical blues tropes that catches up to his mastery of musical ones.
In fact, 51 Phantom includes only two covers. One is Junior Kimbrough's "Lord Have Mercy," which sounds like an outtake from "Shake Hands With Shorty" in that it duplicates the relative strengths and weaknesses of that record. The band's soulful but never overly reverent way around the riffs and rhythms of hill-country blues has never been more evident, but near "Lord Have Mercy"'s three-minute mark (this is one of the over-five-minute songs), Luther takes off on one of those high-pitched, Allmanesque guitar excursions that split Allstars fans right down the middle. In concert, this stuff sends some in the audience into overdrive; it sends me back to the bar.
The other cover, surprisingly, is the Staples Singers' civil-rights-era "Freedom Highway," revealing a gospel bent -- perhaps enhanced by the band's recent work on the instrumental gospel record The Word, not to mention Chew's own church-music background -- which also comes through on originals such as "Ship" and "Up Over Yonder," the former featuring some nice call-and-response vocal interplay between Luther and Chew.
All in all, 51 Phantom is strong continuation of what the band started on "Shake Hands With Shorty," even if it ends with a thud. I can see how the almost metal-ly, chant-driven "Mud" might be redeemed as a concert staple, but on record it's a failed experiment. It does, however, make nice use of Cody's electric washboard. -- Chris Herrington
The North Mississippi Allstars will be at Young Avenue Deli on Friday, November 23rd, and Saturday, November 24th, with Burnside Exploration. 51 Phantom is set to release on Tuesday, December 4th.
The Tight Bros From Way Back When
(Kill Rock Stars)
Remove your tongues from your cheeks and raise your fists in the air to testify to the beauty of well mid-'80s AC/DC. Not the first niche I would choose for a feverish updating in the new century, but what do I know? I do know that AC/DC's Flick of the Switch (1983) is an overlooked, hitless masterwork, and the Tight Bros know how to use that record as a springboard into the current punk/indie lexicon. Perfectly, I might add.
The Tight Bros emerged in 1998, jumping from the ashes of leftfield hardcore weirdos Burn the Prophet NLSL and a Melvins' facsimile known as Karp. They quickly established themselves as a bullshit-, in-joke-, and pretense-free pure rock band that shined in a live setting but sporadically translated well to record. Luckily, Lend You a Hand, their third full-length, breaks that trend. Its positive, light-speed, good-time boogie walks a perfect balance between a "brothers and sisters" MC5 schtick (and sound) and a street-punk-injected version of the aforementioned AC/DC record. That comparison comes to fruition at the sound of Jared Warren's vocals, which are a dead-on approximation of Brian Johnson (not Bon Scott, as some will claim). Yes, time could have stopped in 1983, as Lend You a Hand blares from the blown speakers of a Chevrolet Citation en route to an abandoned racetrack open-air festival. -- Andrew Earles
1st Born Second -- Bilal (Interscope): D'Angelo for Dummies, with too much atmosphere and not enough song. But he does have a decent falsetto and a sense of humor, which come together on the following Inspirational Verse: "You got me wishing I didn't have home training sometiiimes." ("Fast Lane," "All That I Am," "Sometimes")
Beats, Rhymes, & Battles Vol. 1 -- DJ Red Alert (Loud): "For those of us who fear that one day someone will say that hip hop started out with Jay-Z, Puffy, or Ja Rule," DJ Red Alert comes to the rescue with a history lesson on five of the music's classic battles: the "Roxanne" songs, MC Shan vs. KRS-ONE, Kool Moe Dee vs. LL Cool J, Doug E. Fresh vs. Salt-n-Pepa, and Antoinette vs. MC Lyte. First- and second-generation hip-hop heads will have a blast; young 'uns will learn something. ("Roxanne's Revenge" -- Roxanne Shante, "The Show" -- Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick, "10% Dis" -- MC Lyte)
Right Between the Promises -- Freedy Johnston (Elektra): Previously one of his generation's finest songwriters, this time he covers '70s bubblegummers Edison Lighthouse for his radio bid -- and this time he needs it. ("Waste Your Time," "That's Alright With Me")
All This Sounds Gas -- Preston School Of Industry (Matador): Actually ex-Pavement guitarist Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg stepping out on his own, with a lot more guitar sound at his disposal than lyrical sense or vocal personality. Not as good a solo move as his Pavement partner Steve Malkmus made earlier this year but at least as good as Keith Richards or Jimmy Page ever managed. ("Falling Away," "Encyclopedic Knowledge Of," "Doping For Gold")
Free City -- St. Lunatics (Universal): Nelly and crew with the posse record of the year, redeeming a dubious genre through producer Jay E's St. Lou-bred shimmy-shimmy-cocoa-pop and sheer affability. ("Summer in the City," "Midwest Swing," "Dis Iz Da Life")
Made in Medina -- Rachid Taha (Mondo Melodia): Actually made in Paris, London, and New Orleans, this is the Algeria-born/Paris-raised Taha bringing rock and techno energy to the Algerian pop form rai. The liner notes' lyric translations help English speakers find their way, but the polyglot groove and rough-edged vocals suffice as pure body music. ("Barra Barra," "Foqt Foqt," "Garab")
Tomb Raider Soundtrack -- Various Artists (Elektra): What should have been another obscenely useless bit of cross-promotional marketing product miraculously manages to be a fine alt-rock-meets-electronica-meets-hip-hop mix tape, a utopian glimpse at a bit of pop futurism that actually seemed like the future five long years ago. Doesn't redeem the movie, though. ("Elevation [Tomb Raider Mix]" -- U2, "Get Ur Freak On" -- Missy Elliott featuring Nelly Furtado, "Speedballin'" -- OutKast, "Where's Your Head At" -- Basement Jaxx)