The ascension of Austin stalwart and former True Believer Jon Dee Graham to the status of respected solo artist is a gratifying development. Sure, he's a skillful songwriter with a knack for encapsulating the big and the small moments within his lyrics. He's also a subtly fierce and cunning guitar player. But with the looks of a middle-aged character actor and vocals that fall somewhere between a whisper and a rasp, he hardly seems a likely candidate to carry an act through a gig, much less a career.
After two affecting albums in Austin assisted by his right- (and left-) hand man, guitarist Mike Hardwick, Graham hooked up with big-time producer Don Smith. In lieu of the low-tech charm and intimacy of his previous efforts, the sound here is huge, especially with masterful drummer Jim Keltner on the kit behind Graham's usual band of Hardwick and bassist Mark Andes. The big sound serves well the sharp guitar work by Graham and Hardwick, as well as the dramatic touches in Graham's songs.
But while Smith elicits some of Graham's most expressive vocals on record and uses his rasp and rattle to good effect, the crisper production also highlights his limitations. This is particularly clear on "Way Down in the Hole," which was written by Tom Waits, to whom Graham is often compared. But those who make the Waits comparison miss the fact that Waits's whiskey-scalded singing has more theatricality, flexibility and dead-on aim than Graham can manage. And the fact that two of the best moments on the album are old True Believers songs, "One Moment" and "Home," makes one wonder if Graham's song well is now a dry hole. This suspicion is only reinforced by the closing song, "Tamale House No. 1," which, for all its evocative charm, still comes up slight.
Jon Dee Graham
Continental Club, 3700 Main Street
Saturday, January 19; 713-529-9899
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But you have to admire the huevos of a guy who will croak his way through "Volver" accompanied by master Tejano singer Little Joe Hernandez. Even Graham's lesser moments are suffused with a big and fervent sense of heart.