Keb Mo, by Keb Mo
Reviewed by Simon Rodway
Unlike Craig, I was never a metalhead. In my teens and twenties, however, I listened to a lot of rock music, broadly defined. Faith no More, Nirvana, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Motorhead, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Living Colour, Deep Purple, Rage against the Machine, Metallica and so on were the soundtrack to many of my youthful misadventures. Craig’s 1000 Album Project has made me realise that, with the exception of feeding a Led Zeppelin habit which, to the deep distress of my partner, I have never managed to kick, I very rarely listen to rock music any more. So I was looking forward to something nice and heavy to review, something completely different to the sort of thing I usually listen to these days. And the Randomiser gave me 13 tracks of mellow, acoustic blues: *exactly* the sort of thing I listen to these days.
This is a sparse album, foregrounding Keb’ Mo’s warm, soulful voice, and understated guitar style, with occasional stabs of harmonica. A handful of tracks feature a rootsy backing band, who liven things up a bit, but the whole album has a super relaxed feel to it, with nobody getting too excited. It is, at the risk of damning with faint praise, the sort of thing one might put on on a Sunday morning, while leafing through the papers, with a fresh pot of coffee at one elbow. Of course, I have a two-year-old son, so my Sundays don’t really go like that, but still, you get the picture…
Standouts include laid-back opener ‘Every Morning’, the staccato guitar picking and wailing harmonica of ‘Love Blues’, and the catchy up-tempo ‘Angelina’. The weakest track to my mind is ‘Tell Everybody I Know’, which strays into middle of the road Robert Cray territory and has a distractingly incongruous synth – I can’t help imagining Eric Clapton stroking his beard to this. ‘Victims of Comfort’ strays furthest from the blues template, but this is not really a good thing in this case. The little snatch of ‘Nobody’s Fault but Mine’ by Blind Willie Johnson at the end just makes me think I’d rather be listening to the latter song. Lyrically, the cliché is never far away.
When it comes to blues, I’m a bit like an awful middle class poverty tourist (‘For me, the best bit of the holiday was when we visited the slum – everything there was *so*authentic…’). I like to hear Leadbelly growling incomprehensibly about sin and redemption from a street corner, or Koko Taylor bellowing lasciviously from behind a knackered piano in a ramshackle shebeen. The cracklier the recording, the more out of tune the guitars, the better.
This sort of stuff is a world away from Keb’ Mo’, a fact that is brought home by the two perfectly serviceable Robert Johnson covers on show, ‘Come on in my Kitchen’ and ‘Kindhearted Woman Blues’. What I missed in Keb’ Mo’s versions was the haunted intensity of the originals, the menace and vulnerability. Robert Johnson has long become a blues cliché. But put to one side that awful film with the Karate Kid, forget every meat-and-potatoes pub band you’ve ever heard murdering ‘Crossroads’, listen to his dead-eyed delivery of ‘And I said “hello Satan, it’s time for us to go”’ on ‘Me and the Devil Blues’, and tell me the hairs didn’t stand up on your neck.
Keb’ Mo’ gets 6/10 from me. It was a pleasant listen, and I may come back to it. But this Sunday, as I chase my son around the living room trying to stop him drawing on the walls, I’ll very likely be listening instead to Robert Johnson battling his demons through the static.