[21 April 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Here it is, BLUESAmericana. Kevin Moore’s 11th full length album released under the name of Keb’ Mo’. Anyone who has followed him this far into his career knows that Keb’ Mo’ is not the type to experiment wildly. The only curveballs he’s thrown us over the years were two albums of mostly covers (Big Wide Grin and Peace…Back by Popular Demand) and a Christmas EP (The Spirit of the Holiday), and even those didn’t shortchange us on any of the down home country blues that he’s molded into a style of his own. Keb’ Mo’ is like your favorite stew—you know how it’s going to taste, which is why you keep going back to it. You refer to it as “consistent” rather than “predictable”. The return of the same traits comfort instead of bore you. As my wife said when I played this album in the living room, “it sounds like… Keb’ Mo’!”
Even if you got your hands on a karaoke mix of BLUESAmericana, you would know that it’s a Keb’ Mo’ album. Just from the first few bars, the andante banjo, soft harmonica and no nonsense drums are likely to give you a flashback to any of your favorite Keb’ Mo’ albums. By track three, that resonator from the front cover of his major label debut makes its return. Mo’ Keb’ is good Keb’. The one form of musical deviation gives us the album’s most memorable song, “Old Me Better”. Co-written with John Lewis Parker and performed with the California Feetwarmers, its honking kazoos, oinking tuba and sinewy reeds and brass put you squarely in the French Quarter. The lyrics are just as entertaining, with the main character lamenting the loss of his old self: “You made me a brand new man / But I like the old me better”. Even when he sings “I was a lot more fun”, this is the most fun moment on all of BLUESAmericana.
BLUESAmericana can be a bit of a buzzkill too. Hey, it’s the blues, isn’t it? The press release refers to a “challenging patch” that Keb’ Mo’ and his wife went through during the songwriting process for the album. I don’t know what that patch was, and I don’t blame the couple for not wanting to air all their dirty laundry for everyone to see. But the same press release refers to its “happy resolution”, so I assume that everything’s okay at home now. There are two songs that take a serious look at marital discourse. “For Better of Worse” finds the couple sticking it out, persevering through the talks and hard truths. “So Long Goodbye” finds another couple calling it a day—and it’s the last track of the album. Mercy.
But Keb’ Mo’ worked with producer Casey Wasner to nail down “pure” sounds (at first, BLUESAmericana was going to be just Keb’ Mo’ and a guitar), and with pure music comes pure lyrics. Wasner doesn’t futz with the gospel flavorings of “Somebody Hurt You” or the Midwestern chug rock of “Move”. And on the 12 bar blues cover “That’s Alright”, something that Keb’ Mo’ does surprisingly little of, no modern elements are carelessly dropped into the mix. Besides, the protagonist of the Sam Chatmon tune is totally indifferent to his two-timing old lady. The dude in the center of the album’s opener “The Worst Is Yet To Come” takes his bad luck much harder. He wakes up from a bad night’s sleep, misses two meals, gets news that he’s about to lose his job, then notices that his car’s burning oil. Then the last verse: “Got back to my house, opened up the door / She took everything I had, and a dog took a shit on the floor / Lord have mercy, even the bedbugs up and run”.
About the least “pure” moment of BLUESAmericana is a Fender Rhodes-propelled shuffle called “I’m Gonna Be Your Man”. With some oddly placed major thirds and sevenths, it’s almost too purty to be blues or Americana. But so what? Keb’ Mo’ has made a long career out of avoiding commitments to genres, especially those that tend to snootily revel in purity and rawness. That purity may be what he was aiming for with Casey Wasner, but sometimes the man just can’t help himself. He’s Keb’ Mo’. BLUESAmericana is not his finest album, but it’s got plenty inside to remind you of why you like him in the first place.