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Keb' Mo'

The Door (Sony 550/Epic)

Somewhere in the landscape of modern blues, between the country fields of Corey Harris and the smoky nightclubs of Robert Cray, lie Keb' Mo' and his commercially polished soul blues. On this, his fourth release since emerging as a solo artist, the man born Kevin Moore continues staking out a comfort zone for grit-free music. And while he never cuts loose with either joyous or intense abandon -- driving to the crossroads squarely in the middle of the lane -- neither can he be simply dismissed as a slick lightweight.

The slinky and catchy groove of the title track and the acoustic romp "Loola Loo" show a willing versatility; there's even some booty movin' on blues/rap numbers like "Stand Up (and Be Strong)" and the horn-fueled (and horny) "Gimme What You Got." No one questions his guitar chops, his great sense of rhythm or his reassuring voice, but few will be able to stomach Mo' and his co-writers' more egregious lyrical clichés and rhymes, which would make even junior high poetry students wretch ("It's about that time / Baby please don't go / I really wish you'd stay / 'Cause I really love you so"). Nor is he a convincing interpreter of standards, reducing Elmore James's normally searing "It Hurts Me Too" to a jaunty funk exercise that falls utterly flat.

What strikes the listener, though, is how Mo' excels in the more character-driven numbers: Note the lonely janitor in "Don't You Know" and the proud homeless man looking for "Change" in more than one sense of the word. These numbers speak with authority. Hell, Mo' even manages to turn the story of an estranged daughter and ex-hooker in "Mommy, Can I Come Home?" -- co-written with Melissa Manchester -- into an extremely emotional and touching slice of life, avoiding every obvious chance to embarrass himself.

The Doorwill undoubtedly open more for Keb' Mo', the release resting comfortably between Bonnie Raitt and Sting, the kind of adult-contemporary blues to blast with the Beemer windows all the way down. His music is more about smooth sailing than rocking the boat, but he sure does it with a style all his own.

 
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