A funny thing happened to the North Mississippi Allstars on their way to international acclaim: they became a nuanced, multifaceted and wholly experimental blues rocker unit, and their fourth studio album, the volcanic Electric Blue Watermelon, leaves them even more chameleonic than ever. Is this really the same band that roared up from below with 2000’s galvanizing Shake Hands With Shorty? No, and that’s not only OK, but exciting and above all, true to the mischievous spirit of all of the band’s musical father figures. After all, were not the late R.L. Burnside, Othar Turner and Junior Kimbrough slyly crooked in their manipulation of the Delta style’s essentials, and is not Dickinson patriarch Jim a protean rock producer (his prints are on “Watermelon”) of pantheonic stature? The more layers we get and the more mature this trio becomes, it’s clear Shorty was merely a jump off point, and that album was so sick and juiced-up, NMAS could have ridden its essential neo-traditionalist elements into the ground and none would have been the wiser.
If there’s been a misstep so far, it was 2003’s Polaris, and even that slicker, more classic rock-pointed entry was comfortably self-aware and took long drags off the vapors of the old timers when it had to get out of the box and breathe. Watermelon doesn’t just wade in the sound of the band’s home region, it soaks and simmers in the shit — from the Tom Foster-illustrated album cover (Foster has been churning out engrossing poster art from a Memphis home base for nearly four decades), straight through the live wire excursions and such bits of rural esoterica as Odetta’s “Deep Blue Sea,” a soul food treat called “Stompin’ My Foot,” a gospel treasure named “Horseshoe” (which is a just complement to NMAS concert staple “Freedom Highway”) and the old-as-the-blues ballad of the boll weevil, here gussied up as “Mississippi Boll Weevil Blues.” Luther Dickinson’s blazing, syrupy slide is ever-dominant. And continuing his development into one of the most brilliant and fiery guitarists of his day, he’s as unafraid of ambient psychedelia and even cheery pop twangs as he is willing to lay into those field-plowing, face-melting slide phrases he and other southern geniuses like Warren Haynes and Sonny Landreth have absorbed from the masters, and use to squish the competition.
The tendency with new NMAS albums seems to be about a half-and-half distribution of deeper tradition-burrowing (evidenced here on the above mentioned tracks and a spate of workouts on tunes by Turner and Burnside) and trying on new skins. As such, Watermelon has its experiments, and unlike Polaris, they round the effort instead of flatten it. The most outr