Keb' Mo' doesn't fail, but he's too safe and limited in launching his new label.
It's been about 15 years since Keb' Mo' released his first CD, although he's been on the scene for much longer. Now he's got his own label, Yolabelle International, and with that label, the opportunity to release his first independent record. Oddly, rather than release a proper record of any sort, he's come out with Live & Mo', a mix of six live tracks, three new cuts, and a studio re-working of an older song of his. The combination of this material is at once disjointed (unsurprisingly, given the various sources) and somehow still on the borderline of cohesive and same-y. The disc makes for a pleasing listen, but it's not much of a statement.
For the most part, the album flows well. The live cuts are well recorded and technically pretty precise. Aside from some applause, the tracks aren't out of place with the studio material. Of course, the similarity begs the question why Keb' Mo' would bother with the live work. They're variations on material fans might be familiar with, but they aren't strange or unusually energized recordings. I'd believe that cuts like "The Action" were studio renditions.
The new studio recordings are more message-based than the live tracks. That's not essentially a plus or a minus, but in this case it can be a bit much. "Government Cheese" is playful piece about everyone's favorite food (though I'd have sworn that government cheese jokes were a thing that came and went while I was a kid). "A Brand New America" attempts to provide an Obama-inspired uplift in response to the country as viewed in songs like "Change", but it lacks both the lyrical strength and musical structure to serve as anything more than forgettable hope-light. The two songs close out the album, making its finish a bit of a stumble.
Opener "Victims of Comfort", a studio return to a 1994 cut, fares better, and sets a nice tone for the album. The lyrics work reasonably well, and position Keb' Mo' in an honest setting, uncomfortable with where he is, yet still there. If it's tapping into Biblical concerns about camels and needle eyes, it's also striking at the challenge of figuring a way out of a condition that most of culture doesn't see as a condition at all, while playing with the idea of "victimhood".
The rest of the album doesn't quite match up to that song, but if there's some sense of listener dislocation due to the sources for the album, there's not an incoherence. In fact, the album even suffers a little from consistency. The songs vary tempo to a small degree, but don't shift tone enough to sustain interest throughout a full album.
This material and its collection create a remarkably safe album, which only makes sense -- if at all -- from a business perspective. There's no failing here, and it's not an unenjoyable record, so it's a reasonable way to launch a new label, step into new indie territory, and the like. The problem is that Keb' Mo', having been an important voice for the better part of a generation, had the opportunity to do something bold, and he chose to do something odd, but not not striking. If it's safe, it's also limiting, and a little bit disappointing.