On the surface, the solo debut by Jon Dee Graham is certain to conjure comparisons with early Springsteen and later Tom Waits — if one can imagine either of those urban artists transported to the border culture of the Tex-Mex cantina. Beneath the surface, however, is where the richness of Graham’s music lies, within songs that are as cathartically powerful as they are uncompromisingly personal, transcending tidy craftsmanship for the unruliness of life lived large. Graham has a big heart, and he refuses to confine it to a tiny songwriting box.
A little background: The former punk-rocking guitarist for Austin’s Skunks first came to national attention when he rode shotgun for the brothers Escovedo in the True Believers. “One Moment To Another”, his signature song for that band, was subsequently recorded by both Kris McKay and Patty Smyth, while his guitar has graced the bands of John Doe, Kelly Willis and Calvin (big in France) Russell. Over the years, Graham has continued to wrestle with his own songwriting demons, trying to express the universal concerns of love, loss and renewal in a manner that rings truer and hits harder than typical troubadour fare.
On Escape From Monster Island, Graham sounds like a raging bull in the china shop of singer-songwriter delicacy. From the deep-soul testament of “When a Woman Cries” to the country-tinged serenade of “Mockingbird Smile” to the hard-rocking triumph of “Soonday”, Graham and band rampage all over the musical map, bringing a common core of conviction to a variety of musical styles. With a rhythm section on loan from Charlie Sexton’s Sextet — bassist George Reiff and drummer Rafael Gayol, plus some superb keyboard shadings from Michael Ramos — as well as guitar by co-producer Mike Hardwick and the bittersweet blend of Kathy McCarty’s harmonies supporting Graham’s gruff leads, the album benefits from the spirit of community through which Austin rises to musical occasions such as this.
One senses that Graham would rather write an awkward line than a dishonest one, that he’s more concerned with prickly emotions than polished artistry. His narratives often imply more than they elaborate, leaving the listener to fill in the blanks. In coming to terms with the musical mystery of “Wave Goodbye” — a eulogy that provides the musical linchpin of an album so full of life — the listener might want to cross-reference Alejandro Escovedo’s “Tell Me Why” and Lisa Mednick’s “When You Say Strong”. Though Graham’s material may leave things out, his performance never holds anything back.