[31 July 2011]
Keb Mo’s 1994 eponymous debut showcased a guitar-playing, blues-inflected troubadour who owed as much to Robert Johnson and Son House as anyone else. Times have changed, though, and Keb Mo’ has changed with them, shedding his down-home blues-folk leanings in favor of the slicker soul stylings of recent records such as 2004’s Keep It Simple and 2011’s The Door. His latest album is a continuation in that vein. The acoustic guitar is scarcely to be heard in this collection, and the blues are an increasingly faint influence. Lush arrangements and soulful crooning are the order of the day.
This is not to say that this is a bad record. It’s enjoyable enough, but it’s a far cry from the Keb Mo’ that some of us have been carrying around in our heads for the past 15 years or so.
Lead tune “The Whole Enchilada” is an enjoyably smooth, mid-tempo soul tune that features some fluid guitar work and Keb Mo’s smooth-as-syrup vocals. It is hampered, though, by a fairly silly chorus that rhymes “Now that you got her” with “the whole enchilada.” Really, it’s tough to take the song too seriously after you’ve heard somebody say that a couple times. At least there’s plenty going on: between the guitars and percussion, the noodling bassline and vocals both upfront and backgrounded, there is a lot of sonic meat for your ears to dig into.
Such songs are the album’s most successful. When Keb Mo’ slows the proceedings even further and goes out on the limb of wistful soul crooning, the record wobbles and threatens to collapse altogether. Songs like “Crush on You”, the horn-inflected “All the Way”, and “The Reflection” bring the listener close to boredom, sounding too much like too many other songs we’ve heard. Is it just me, or does “The Reflection”, with its jazzy chords and free-floating melody, sound eerily like 1980s Stevie Wonder?
Despite these lulls, there is always something with a little more muscle just around the corner to rescue the proceedings. These livelier, or more complex, or just more rocking tunes—take your pick—are what saves the record. “Inside Outside” benefits from a quietly urgent bassline and sophisticated percussion, while “My Baby’s Tellin’ Lies” keeps the classic-soul vibe, but injects a little oomph into his vocals. “My Shadow” ramps up the funky bass a notch or two and is much the better for it. When Keb Mo’ brings us songs like these, we’re not thinking of him as a bluesman-turned-soul singer; we just think of him as a musician.
Ironically, the back half of the album may be stronger than the front, as there is a good deal more energy on display and fewer saccharine ballads. “Just Lookin’” is a fun uptempo number with elements of funk energy, as are both “Walk Through Fire” and album closer “Something Within.”
Longtime fans of Keb Mo’ will have to decide whether they want to support the singer’s exploration of new musical territory. The production of this album is smooth and balanced, and the singer certainly isn’t struggling with the material. Given the vast difference between his earlier work and these songs, though, it may be his fans who are left struggling.