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In choosing his side projects and production efforts, North Mississippi Allstars' Luther Dickinson has been as discerning as he has been diverse. Witness The Wandering, Sisters of the Strawberry Moon and New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers, to name just a few, and now add his collaboration with Eric Johanson to the growing list. The latter guitarist, singer and Louisiana native's second album (third if you count his duo CD from last year with Tiffany Pollack) bodes well for his future as a prestigious blues musician, particularly if he maintains connections with such esteemed company as he keeps here.
Work like these twelve tracks will no doubt attract kindred spirits as Johanson has in the past: he spent years on the road with among others, Anders Osborne and JJ Grey. Yet he needs no associations to validate his authenticity because songs such as "River of Oblivion" and "Changes the Universe" achieve that end in and of themselves. And the musicianship on Below Sea Level deepens the impact even further and certainly out of proportion to the three-piece ensemble: producer Dickinson's sibling Cody plays drums fused into a rhythm section with bassist Terrence Grayson (Ray Jacildo plays organ on the aforementioned latter track).
Economy is the hallmark of cuts like "Never Tomorrow" and no doubt Luther Dickinson encouraged that concise approachhe's a past master of the pithy in playing and recordingbut self-discipline is one of his co-producer Eric's main attributes too. As such, this precocious artist's sense of restraint imbues bracing novelty to the otherwise familiar changes of "Have Mercy," while his slide work adds style to the lumbering riff at the heart of that song. Likewise, during "Open Hearted Woman," he exhibits an innate knowledge of British blues-rock of the Sixties at its best, a connection that precludes slavish imitation of Cream or Savoy Brown or, for that matter, any copycatting of like-minded contemporaries such as Davy Knowles.
The vintage sound the players conjure up on "Down to the Bottom," is rough and unadorned. Yet, even with nothing fancy added, this aural document manifests multiple sonic textures, all of which were captured through the engineering expertise of Kevin Houston at NMA's Zebra Ranch Studios (combined with the mix of M. Allen Parker, The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach's head engineer, as well as the mastering of Chris Chetland). Pounding drums underscore resounding bass that together serve to help propel razor-sharp guitar lines.
The end effect is to amplify the antique ambiance of classic blues records as the bedrock of this album even as Eric Johanson is developing his own lexicon in song via tunes like "Dose of Forget." This healthy progression is in keeping with the varied vocabulary he's honing on both the electric and acoustic guitars and that, in turn, also mirrors his natural and unaffected singing throughout this record; not surprisingly that latter virtue is most evident during "Love Is Rebellion," the understated 'wooden' tones of which are an ideal setup to "Riverbend Blues," the dobro-based track that follows and closes the record with such style.
The author of these dozen originals is a ripe candidate for guitar hero status. Yet, as is in evidence throughout this LP, Johanson is not interested in merely showboating with his instrument. Rather, his chosen means to the end of creating music comes through loud, clear and potent on "Nowhere to Go" where the trio boogies with insouciant glee, no one more so than the leader, who sounds equally gratified and empowered to have such kindred spirits right in sync with him. Still, it's a tribute to Eric's own rapidly maturing charisma that he can elicit such simpatico and elevate it a notch or two himself so often.
Buried Above Ground; Down to the Bottom; Changes the Universe; Never Tomorrow; Hammer on the Stone; Have Mercy; River of Oblivion; Nowhere to Go; Open Hearted Woman; Dose of Forget; Love is Rebellion; Riverbend Blues