If for no other reason than it is more insinuating than rambunctious, Set Sail is like virtually nothing else in the discography of the North Mississippi Allstars. But then such distinction is only natural, an extension of brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson’s most recent efforts to stabilize the foundation of the group they instituted in 1996. In 2017’s Prayer For Peace, the pair utilized a rotating cast of accompanists, but confirmed a more set lineup on the aptly named Up And Rolling two years later.
In keeping with its own title, Set Sail furthers the progression with the enlistment of new personnel in the framework of a four-piece band. The reinvented NMAS nevertheless draw on their well established Southern hill-country roots here. But, even as the gospel-inflected soul evident in the vocal of newcomer Lamar Williams Jr. (offspring of the late Allman Brothers bassist circa Brothers and Sisters) is of a piece with Luther’s carefully-etched slide guitar on ‘Part 1” of the title song, the strings recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis is something altogether more extravagant than anything they’ve produced in the past.
Most importantly, the arrangement works, right in line with a suitably restrained performance. As such, it sets a tone of novelty for the album in the best sense of that adjective. Certainly, Cody’s style of quick hard thumps on his drums sounds familiar on “Bumpin,” but the spacious mix he also engineered here leaves room to hear how newcomer Jesse Williams’ bass aligns with his rhythm partner’s kit. And while the syncopation at the heart of “See the Moon” isn’t all that new for the Allstars, the sustained understatement certainly is; that subdued attitude may startle long-time fans used to a more uproarious approach, but that doesn’t deny how effective is the carefully-wrought approach.
It’s certainly worth noting the courage of the Dickinsons in parlaying this fundamental change in style. But this transformation is all the more palatable for the taste with which it is rendered, as with the quiet addition of keyboards like John Medeski’s Wurlitzer on “Outside” (this friend of Martin and wood also mans Hammond B3 organ on the pedantic closer “Authentic”). And the elder Dickinson’s winsome singing on “Didn’t We Have A Time” makes a good contrast with that of Stax Records legend William Bell’s on “Never Want to be Kissed;” the man who wrote “Born Under A Bad sign” with Booker T. also co-wrote and co-produced the latter track to (again) include picturesque orchestration.
As the violins and cellos mesh with background vocals from Phyllislorena Smiley, this music morphs into quintessential modern r&b/soul. Meanwhile, the appearance of horns on “Set Sail Part II” renders even more clear the connection of that genre with archetypal NMAS blues-rock, this despite the fact that earthy atmosphere deepens even with only the slightest touches of Art Edmaiston’s tenor saxophone, Jim Spake’s baritone saxophone and Marc Franklin’s trumpet. But if there’s an overriding premise to Set Sail, it is one of musical values grounded in restraint and self-discipline, virtues that only sound more admirable (and suggest further potential) with repeated listening(s).
North Mississippi Allstars Photo by Jason Thrasher