Keb' Mo'

Peace...Back by Popular Demand

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Peace...Back by Popular Demand finds Keb' Mo' covering nine classic protest and peace songs from the 1960s and early '70s, and what is immediately apparent is how well these songs translate forward into the current political milieu. This is an album where the songs themselves are the stars, and Keb' Mo' wisely takes a low-key and measured vocal approach to each of them, letting the messages take hold over light soul-jazz backings, with just enough funk in the horn charts to give the arrangements some push. It's hard to argue with the song selection, but as an interpreter, Mo' seldom makes any of these tracks his own, and behind each stands the ghostly but clear memory of the original version. Perhaps that would be unavoidable under any circumstances, because songs like John Lennon's "Imagine" and Marvin Gaye's "What's Happening Brother" are so perfectly realized in the original recordings, but if the idea here is to give the messages of these songs a new cachet in a new era, then only a couple of them are given a redefinition by Mo' that would allow it. One that does work in a new guise is the opening track, a spunky, light soul rendition of Stephen Stills' "For What It's Worth." The song seems to have gained wisdom and import as the years have passed, and in the hands of Keb' Mo' it becomes both universal and danceable. Less successful is Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding," which is also given a heavy makeover, emerging in a swampy string band version that makes the song feel somehow less urgent. The cover here of Gaye's "What's Happening Brother" works because Mo' stays close to the original template, and given that Gaye pretty much invented the jazzy soul approach on his classic What's Going On album (an album that hardly needs redefinition to be vital in a contemporary setting), this is a wise choice. Delivering a perfectly nuanced vocal on Donny Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free," Mo' brings out the hard-earned wisdom and hope inherent in the song's lyrics, as well as preserving its natural elegance. The simple vocal-and-piano approach to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" strips the song of its defiant swagger, replacing it with a kind of cautious -- but hopeful -- resignation that is surprisingly effective in shining a different kind of light on the lyrics. There is one Keb' Mo' original on the album, "Talk," which takes as its premise a one-on-one talk with the President of the United States, a notion that will seem like science fiction for most listeners. Obviously Mo' isn't trying to top the Hit Parade with anything here, and his effort to bring these important songs into a new light is laudable. Peace...Back by Popular Demand is not a major album, but it does have some major things to say, or re-say, in this case, and it serves as a reminder that every era could use (and deserves) some peace.

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