By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


August 22, 2006

Jon Dee Graham
Freedom Records
Grade: B

The terms raw and gritty are applied to too many singer-songwriters. They ought to be assigned to only a relative handful, and Jon Dee Graham would be among them.

The Texas native and longtime resident of Austin first stood out from the pack with Alejandro Escovedo in the True Believers in the '80s but didn't cut his first solo album until a decade ago.

Combining a Tom Waits rasp with a world-weary -- make that often world-exhausted -- view, Graham's latest CD, "Full," captures the singer-guitarist and his band at their unadorned best, cranking out chord-heavy roots rock and an occasional lighter ballad. Backed by Son Volt bassist Andrew DuPlantis, drummer John Chipman and guitarist Michael Hardwick, Graham recorded "Full" over three days, adding to the music's rough edges.

The CD's title is one of irony, taken as it is from the song "Holes" -- as in full of -- and is key to unlocking songs that skip between emptiness and loss, and some fleeting, sweet whiffs of happiness.

"Swept Away" is a beautiful if disturbing song that begins: "Well if you find my car/ At a low water crossing/ With the doors wide open/ And the keys still inside/ Just say so long, don't say goodbye/ I was swept away." It's followed by the droning rock of "Something Wonderful" "is going to happen" -- foreboding, yet possible.

As sad as many of these songs are, they are saved by Graham's brutal honesty and become, in a way, anthemic and uplifting. During one of his regular Wednesday night shows at the Continental Club in Austin last month, he had a mixed-age crowd singing and swaying to "Swept Away" until it seemed there would be an imminent outbreak of flicked Bics.

"Full" can be a challenge, but it's one well worth accepting.