Somewhere in the landscape of modern blues, between the country fields of Corey Harris and the smoky nightclubs of Robert Cray, lie the commercially polished soul-blues of Keb' Mo'. On this, his fourth release since emerging as a solo artist, the man born Kevin Moore continues to stake out a comfort zone of grit-free music. And while he never cuts loose with either joyous or furious abandon -- driving to the crossroads squarely in the middle of the road -- he cannot be dismissed as a mere slick lightweight.
The slinky and catchy groove of the title track and the acoustic romp "Loola Loo" show a willing versatility; there's even some booty-movin' on blues-rap numbers like "Stand Up (and Be Strong)" and the horn-fueled "Gimme What You Got." No one questions his guitar chops, his great sense of rhythm, or his reassuring voice, but few will be able to stomach Mo' and his cowriters' more egregious lyrical clichés and rhymes, which would make even junior-high poetry students retch ("It's about that time/Baby please don't go/I really wish you'd stay/'Cause I really love you so"). Likewise he is no convincing interpreter of standards, reducing Elmore James' normally searing "It Hurts Me Too" to a jaunty funk exercise that falls utterly flat.
What is striking, though, is how Mo' excels in the more character-driven numbers: Note the lonely janitor in "Don't You Know" and the proud homeless man looking for "Change" in more than one sense of the word. These numbers speak with authority. Hell, Mo' even manages to turn the story of an estranged daughter/ ex-hooker in "Mommy, Can I Come Home?" -- cowritten with Melissa Manchester -- into a touching slice of life, avoiding every obvious chance to embarrass himself.
Keb' Mo' performs with Alvin Youngblood Hart Sunday.
Related links: Carefree Theater
The Door will undoubtedly open a few for Keb' Mo', the release resting comfortably between Bonnie Raitt and Sting, the kind of adult-contemporary blues to blast with the Beamer windows all the way down. His music is more about smooth sailing than rocking the boat, but he sure does it with a style all his own.
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