[9 August 2012]
Austinite Jon Dee Graham has a personality bigger than the state of Texas. He can make fun of himself and the music industry one minute and then mock the pretentiousness of contemporary culture the next (re: at a recent show, Graham cackled, “I got my yearly songwriting royalties in the mail yesterday. I spent on a week’s worth of groceries at the food museum down the street, Whole Paycheck.”). Austin is the home of the original Whole Foods Market. Graham can make one smile just be grinning. And if he starts to scowl, one knows to be wary of his wrath. Graham puts his heart and soul out there for the entire world to see and hear whether he’s performing live or making a record.
As its title implies, Garage Sale is a hodge-podge of an album that incorporates a variety of different styles. From the Enoch Light style easy listening of the acoustic Hawaiian-style steel guitar and vibes instrumental “#19” to the electric guitar punk reverberations of the anthemic “Where Were Yr Friends”, Graham consistently pens tunes that tug at one’s emotions. He’s a great songwriter and generous musician. This is true whether he’s encouraging another musician to riff on a melody or spreading the word about other artists to the uninitiated. (I interviewed him a few times many years ago for a different publication where he was more interested in promoting other artists like Stephen Bruton and Patty Griffin, than in talking about himself and his work.) Graham’s singing and playing never intrude over another’s performance. He just builds upon them.
Speaking of singing, critics often compare Graham to others like Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, and not just for their songwriting talents. Graham has a gruff voice, low and scratchy. Those unfamiliar with his vocals may initially be put off by the sound. However, this very characteristic allows Graham to be tender without being unmanly on such songs as “Yes Yes” and “The Orphan’s Song”. When he sings about being your brother for the night, one understands it’s a sincere offer of masculine protectiveness, not a come-on line. And when he does preach boldly, as on “I Am Unafraid”, one believes he has stolen the coins from his enemies’ eyes, taken the thorn out of the lion’s paw, and taken that fang from the snake’s mouth. One would not want to stand against this tough singing hombre.
The topics of Graham’s songs come from all over; his personal demons, quirky news articles from the newspaper, bits of overheard conversations, etc. can all make it into his material. For the uninitiated, the lack of consistent musical style and substance and Graham’s coarse vocals may give the wrong impression. It suggests he does not care. Nothing could be further from truth. Each song is polished to reveal its internal qualities. Graham does not try to sound pretty. He just suggests the rarefied qualities of everyday life at its best, like the memory of being ten years old or the glint of a mote of dust in a sunlit room. There is no overriding theme or musical motif to Garage Sale. But just like in the garage sale of one’s dreams, there are lots of treasures to be found here. This record will make you feel like the lucky one who discovered the gem among the pile of just stuff. It’s a real bargain!