Keb' Mo' - Bluesamericana

Keb' Mo's 11th album is a sometimes folky, sometimes funky contribution to contemporary blues.

Additional Info

6.4

ALBUM: Bluesamericana

ARTIST: Keb' Mo'

2014

Blues

I find it a little precarious to evaluate the worth of a contemporary blues album. In a genre that gave birth to all different forms of American music and has stood steadfast through decades, what am I looking for? Am I searching for a reinvention of the genre itself? Like Buddy Guy did on Sweet Tea or R.L. Burnside on A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, am I looking for the artist to be reinvented?

Generally speaking, my ear tends to enjoy old, modern, and contemporary blues much more frequently than much of the rock music getting play on the radio nowadays. That's more of a testament to the genre of blues and its inherent natural pleasures than it is a criticism of other contemporary music. Something about blues music is just right: the pentatonic scale, the laments of unrequited love, the down-on-his-luck blues man who aches out a hopeful resolve. Something's in it—has always been in it—that works and has kept it alive, if not always in the spotlight, since its inception.

But I've wondered: what should a 2014 blues record do? What could possibly be added to the conversation that hasn't already been said? If nothing, what's the purpose of a new blues record? There are a few things that are reasonable to expect from such a record. First, can the artist sing? Gone are the days of Robert Johnson's frail voice shaking out of a scratchy recording. Regardless of the instrumental work, a contemporary blues artist ought to be able to sing, and I mean sing. Think Koko Taylor. Think Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose voice I've always thought has been underrated and under-appreciated.

Kevin Moore—whose stage name is Keb' Mo'—has this first criterion all locked up on his new record, Bluesamericana. You'd be hard pressed to find any sort of reasonable criticism of his vocal work. Like Koko Taylor, he's got a voice that's instantly recognizable. It's not that its raspy or coarse, but there's something about it that feels authentic, almost aluminum, as if he was born with a dobro in his throat. This hasn't been lost on his fellow musicians either, as he's been featured on a number of albums throughout his career, including two records with lauded jazz musician Marcus Miller. On Bluesamericana, Keb' Mo's voice shines right on through from start to finish, and he shows an admirable knowledgeable of the value of restraint. While he certainly could do so more frequently, he only briefly exhibits his full vocal range, and only at opportune times. This allows those brief moments to stand out while not taking too much focus away from the instruments themselves.

Secondly, it seems reasonable that a new blues record ought not try to reinvent the wheel of the genre, but at the same time give it a fingerprint that listeners might not necessarily expect when they press play. Keb' Mo' does this reasonably well on Bluesamericana, whether through the use of instruments we might not immediately expect to hear—such as the banjo—or with varied moods and cadences from song to song. In the first five tracks of the album, for example, you'll hear echoes of folk (the “americana” portion of the album's title), funk, rock, and jazz. Of course, the songs that result from these variations vary in quality, and not all of them inherently ask to be listened to again, but at all times the arrangement of instruments and sounds is so expertly done that it all feels natural.

Third, the lyrical content of a new blues record should make an effort to offer up a modern take on inevitably traditional blues ideas. A cheating lover, an ever-elusive financial stability, a hard-worked life: all of these things have been at the heart of the blues since it came to be. Probably the most challenging thing for this record to do is add new folds to such content. At times, it fails to do so. On “More For Your Money,” for example, we hear an attempt to add a modern flare to the old woes about money. Unfortunately, it doesn't feel authentic. On the other hand, that authenticity is all over the NOLA-inspired “Old Me Better.” While these efforts to be lyrically new aren't always successful, there's almost always an attempt to do so, and that's admirable in itself.

As someone who has spent and will continue to spend a whole lot of time listening to the blues—from Robert Petway to Albert King, from T-Model Ford to Joe Bonamassa—I enjoy Bluesamericana most when it is rooted heavily in a more traditional sound while adding subtle layers of variation that make it new. The record really falls off at the end, but there are several tracks here that fans of the blues will appreciate, both for the record's attention to history and its contemporary flashes.

"You made me a brand new man, but I like the old me better."

1. The Worst Is Yet to Come
A funky, folky entry point to the album, Mo' pairs a soulful groove with banjo and harmonica work to quickly sum up what he's aiming for on this album: a slight re-thinking of his own music that breathes a definition into the album's genre-bending title. Mo's bassline drives this song from beginning to end. Lyrically, it's a fun place to begin: “Even the bedbugs up and run! I got a bad, bad feeling that the worst is yet to come.” Already, I know this isn't the same sort of Keb' Mo' I grew familiar with on his 1994 debut album.8.0
2. Somebody Hurt You
This one has more of a waltzy, wooden-floor feel to it, the bass half-notes swaying low to high and back again. Mo' sings, “All you got to do is just let it go,” before proceeding into an under-stated, BB King-esque solo. The backup vocals are a nice touch in this song, adding a subtle layer to an otherwise relatively bare track. Mo' sprinkles in a few runs and accents on his guitar throughout this piece, adding those little flourishes characteristic of the blues. Other than that, there's not a lot going on in this one.5.5
3. Do It Right
This is a return to the folky sound of the opening track. The banjo returns, and the drum and bass combo point to a more complex, Dave Matthews Band sort of groove. Mo' sings, “I used to think love was a dangerous thing that would lure you in and trap you with a pretty thing.” There are lots of little intricate layers to this piece, from the banjo picking, to the harmonica, the acoustic guitar, and the dobro. You might also hear some echoes of Robert Randolph in this track, though Mo' does a better job of keeping himself in check in order to let his subtle touches shine through.7.0
4. I'm Gonna Be Your Man
This track opens with a short introduction that features only Mo' and his slide guitar, which quickly shuffles us into the track's slightly upbeat cadence. Mo' sings, “We're gonna take our time, baby, and go with the flow. You'll roll the biscuits, I'll make the dough.” Lyrics such as these reflect the front-porch feel of the track; I could easily imagine this track being even better if given the total acoustic treatment. There's a nice little nod to Muddy Waters in the second minute, as Mo' sings, “I'm a man. Yeah, I'm a full-grown man.” I fear the bassline isn't as varied as it ought to be to really carry us throughout the track, as its quarter notes that always match up with the bass drum become a little tedious. A saxophone comes in late, which is unexpected, but its cameo is so short that it becomes a little distracting.5.5
5. Move
This track's purpose is in its title: it wants to make you move. Though its lyrics are about a landlord who wants to force his tenant to move away, this funkier bass line and drum cadence are dead set on nodding us to motion. Mo's backup singers echo his “You gotta move” in the chorus, pulling a Motown sound into the track. There's some subtle organ work happening in the background, along with a slightly tinned sample of Mo's voice that urges, “You can't stay here.” The tenant ends up in a bar and is asked to leave at last call. Poor guy.7.0
6. For Better or Worse
I've been waiting for a track like this. Keb' Mo' is often at his best when he slows down and weaves his picking and slide guitar work with carefully-wrought vocals. A song about marriage vows, the lyrics improve as the song progresses: from “It's something that the preacher says on your wedding day” to “I'm willing, if you're willing, to dig deep and stay up all night.” Luckily, even when the other instruments join in, Mo's vocals remain in the foreground, and the track maintains the characteristics it built for itself in the first minute. It seems a little more pain could have been thrown in—via the lyrics or a more extended and emotional solo—but this track is a nice break from what precedes it.6.5
7. That's Alright
Immediately a dirtier, grittier Chicago Blues take on a classic song, Mo's singing begins, “You told me, woman, once upon a time, if I'd be yours, you'd sho' be mine.” As it turns out, this woman has been running around: “Now again I wonder who's gonna be lovin' you tonight.” This track makes no apologies: this is the blues in the most traditional sense. Though it's not interested in adding anything new to the equation, this track, like so many of the others, has some nice subtleties, including the occasional plucked string on Mo's electric and a distorted harmonica. The solo has a John Lee Hooker feel to it, which is never anything but a compliment. Pure, unadulterated, unapologetic heartbreak blues.8.5
8. Old Me Better
New Orleans, anyone? It's such a jarring experience to suddenly find a kazoo and tuba plugging along at the very beginning of a track after listening to what the album has already offered. Initially, I was skeptical of this new and unexpected sound. There's everything you might want out of a track that pulls its sounds from The Big Easy: a jumpy cadence, clapping, a wandering trumpet, honky tonk piano, and synchronized horns. By the second verse and chorus, I'm buying it: “I like the old me better. I was a lot more fun. I like the old me better—didn't take crap from anyone. Well I would sleep all day, party all night, do whatever I wanted whenever I liked. You made me a brand new man, but I like the old me better.” Another song about the perils of love, the brightness of the instrumental work juxtaposes nicely to the subject matter.7.0
9. More for Your Money
At its heart a lament about currency inflation, this track returns to the stripped-down philosophy of “For Better or Worse.” Mo' sings, “I got a Chinese phone and a Japanese car, but the gasoline takes me twice as far.” He continues later, “The government didn't wanna pay the debt, and the whole damn country got repossessed.” While the guitar work, including another front-porch sort of solo, is enjoyable and the other instruments do an adequate job of supporting Mo's playing and singing, I'm not sure I buy the song's subject matter. It's an oddly-placed political track on an album that has no other nods in such a direction. It's certainly a new take on an old blues idea, but this track about financial woes misses its mark.4.0
10. So Long Goodbye
This track bids us farewell: “I've been there for you. I don't know what else to do. I guess it's so long. Goodbye.” A piano track is more heavily featured here, and Mo's picking is a little more ethereal and jazzy than in other spots. It fits almost too perfectly as a final piece, and I have to wonder if it exists just for the purpose of getting the album to a nice and round number of tracks. In fact, I wonder what the last two songs are doing on the album at all. Having “Old Me Better” as the final track would have worked just fine, and would have provided listeners with a totally unexpected but enjoyable closing.4.5
Written by P.J. Williams
P. J. Williams writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Salamander, DIAGRAM, Nashville Review, Cincinnati Review, Salt Hill, Ninth Letter, and others.

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