North Mississippi All Stars

Electric Blue Watermelon (ATO)

All vivacious jangle, thigh-slapping stomp, and grinning, good-ol'-boy charm, North Mississippi All Stars are the band Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer would've started if they knew where to get an electric guitar. Not to say that NMA's fourth effort is at all rustic or simple: On the contrary, its compact, soulful tunefulness reveals a well-refined trio totally aware of its copious assets. Abetted by bassist/secret weapon Chris Chew, brothers Luther (guitar and vocals) and Cody (drums) Dickinson look to their father, Jim, a lauded Nashville session player and veteran producer, to sculpt Watermelon's raw yet streamlined sound. The result is equally inspired by the Allmans' loose-limbed inventiveness as Social D's fist-pumping guts 'n' glory. Luther's wiry slide takes the lead on the dark boogie of "Mississippi Boll Weevil" and "Moonshine," an instantly hummable collabo with Lucinda Williams, but Cody and Chew let loose heavy rhythmic forces on the funky "No Mo" and raunchy "Stompin' My Foot," a juke-joint rocker with Robert Randolph screaming on lap steel.

Where Watermelon's first half is unabashedly fun stuff --capped by the old-school, barroom shout-along "Bang Bang Lulu" -- its final few songs show that NMA is capable of truly timeless music. Its breezy arrangement of gospel songbird Odetta Gordon's "Deep Blue Sea" truly soars, and the motley collection of a chorus on their own pastoral hymn "Mean Ol' Wind Died Down" imprints the song with front-porch, prayer-circle ecstasy. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band gives "Horseshoe" the best barn-dance coda in recent memory, which, bridged by atmospheric, evening-time cricket chirps, bleeds straight into deceased Hill Country patriarch Otha Turner's fife-and-drum lullaby "Bounce Ball." It's a tender, personal way to end an album that reveals these All Stars as the brilliant heirs to the North Mississippi's potent musical legacy. R.L. would be proud.

 
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