John Doe’s punk days might be long behind him, but there’s only so much mellowing out that he’s capable of. He might not be mired in drugs and desperation like he was when he sang for L.A. punks X, but he makes adult life and grown-up relations sound like worthy struggles on Keeper. Even when he’s embracing open-chord strumming, sighing steel guitar and pledges of dedication that bring to mind Jackson Browne on opener “Don’t Forget How Much I Love You,” he still sings it with the gusto he once used to sneer at LA scenesters.
Doe has always had a bit of a Hank Williams air around him, and he’s assembled a group of California country rock pros, including members of Los Lobos and Giant Sand, to support him this time. Which is a bit of a problem, actually. Many of the arrangements on Keeper are from the mid-tempo, “support the song by staying out of the way of the song” school, which means that a lot of it sounds nice, but little of it has much punch on its own. (Though kudos to whoever got rough with the bar-room piano on “Handsome Devil.”) Which means it’s up to Doe to provide any sort of oomph, which he does handily on the baby-come-on shuffle of “Jump Into My Arms” or the make-up-your-damn mind mashnote “Walking Out The Door.” Keeper gets repetitive at times, but Doe’s passion never sounds rote.