Keb Mo – The Reflection (2011)

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Keb Mo isn’t that kid playing the old blues on the old steel guitar anymore. Instead he often comes off on his new album The Reflection like a pillowy-smooth 1970s-era singer-songwriter — though guys like that, of course, never sounded this honey-smoked and warm.

Leaving aside Keb Mo’s earliest work, this shouldn’t come a deep surprise. He has been following a lengthening career trail away from blues traditionalism all the way over into this soft-hearted, rootsy amalgam for some time. Keb Mo’s first album on Yolabelle International (Ryko/Warner Music Group) is simply the fullest flowering of what appears to be a long-held love-affair with old-school AM radio.

Listening long enough to these perfectly safe, mid-tempo musings, however, can lead to moments of fitful disquiet — arriving, as they do, decades after the reign of James Taylor, et al. Keb Mo’s almost lazy take on the Eagles’ “One of These Nights,” for instance, completely lacks that song’s memorably desperate twilight yearning. He lays back too much, to the point of almost disappearing, on a pair of tracks featuring guest stars, “Crush on You” (India Arie) and “My Baby’s Tellin’ Lies” (Vince Gill).

Yet when The Reflection works, it completely works: “Inside Outside” gears up into a spritely groove with the addition of a slap bass. “All The Way” is goosed along by a back-pew gospel influence. Then there’s the darker, completely realized theme of a track like “We Don’t Need It,” this album’s note-perfect highlight.

Beginning with a guy who can’t get out of the car to talk to his family about getting laid off, Keb Mo walks us through the small disappointments that represent the totality of such news — shoes that don’t get bought, dresses that stay in store windows.

His daughter comforts him, saying they have little need for such things. His son says he’ll contribute the 16 dollars he’s saved. His wife offers that they could sell some of their unused heirlooms. Tough times, rather than pulling them at the seams, end up sewing them closer together. Finally, he returns to work, emerging with a stronger sense of what made the family work in the first place — things that don’t cost money.

In this context, Keb Mo’s new vibe (the slowly simmering drawl, carefully chorded guitar licks and contemplative pacing) makes perfect sense. He mimics, with this heartbreaking precision, the sound of a guy coming to a belated realization — understanding, finally, something that he should have known all along.

It’s worth the price of admission.

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