Review: Jon Dee Graham – Garage Sale (Freedom, 2012)
While Jon Dee Graham’s earlier albums haven’t exactly been super-shiny mainstream productions, his latest release takes organic to a deeper level. Recorded over several months of gifted studio time, the album pulled itself together without an up-front plan, and the lack of a clock ticking away budget dollars manifests itself in more loosely finished productions. This isn’t a collection of leftovers; it’s a set of songs and performances that weren’t pre-conceived for release. It’s more finished than a sketchbook, but not as polished as a framed work of art, and the less finished corners reveal some of the artist’s work method.
The confidence to release such an album has grown from Graham’s life experiences, including a near-fatal car crash in 2008. The opening “Unafraid” provides a manifesto, and the album shows Graham’s not so much a fatalist as one who’s no longer derailed by doubt or fear. Working against his own recording history, Graham came to the studio with only fragmentary ideas, developing them with his studio hosts, John Harvey and Mary Podio. Rather than worrying the songwriting ahead of time, he developed the concepts, lyrics, melodies, production and instrumentation in unison. Graham overdubbed most of the instruments himself, but the album hits many of its strongest points when he sings against a lone guitar or piano.
The performances are heartfelt in their immediacy, confessing to a loved one, comforting a fellow orphan, and lamenting the ephemeral nature of time and memory. Among the album’s most affecting performances is the voice-and-piano “Bobby Dunbar,” with resonant chords that hang gloomily over an elegiac melody. The drippy slide guitar and vibraphone of “#19” provides a tranquil moment of exotica before the challenging crawl through “Collapse,” punk-rock “Where Were Yr Friends,” and experimental soul closer “Radio Uxtmal.” A lot of variety, some wise words and a lack of varnish that leaves the album’s grain open to the air.