Jon Dee's tchotchkes: Little by little, Graham crafted his new release ‘Garage Sale'
Also reviewed: The Sweeth Nuthin, The Rocketboys, Love Collector
Jon Dee Graham - "Garage Sale"
When Jon Dee Graham began recording his latest album, it was with an approach he had never tried.
The Austin songwriter has recorded in almost every conceivable circumstance, from the very bottom, with no money and no support, to major-label funded ventures with very few limits on time and money. The latter approach is no longer a reality except for a handful of stars, however. "You get to where it's like a car accident," Graham says of the current state of affairs. "You go in, get it done as fast as you can and you get out."
It was with this in mind that two of Graham's friends, John Harvey and Mary Podio at Top Hat Recording, gave him a gift last year: two days a month at their studio to do what he wanted.
The result is "Garage Sale," which, though it does indeed feel like a record constructed from a series of periodic studio sessions, doesn't quite sound like anything Graham has done in the past. It has yielded a new way of seeing and doing things for the singer-songwriter who has been making music for over 30 years. His career includes stints as a member of Austin punk band the Skunks, Alejandro Escovedo's True Believers, X frontman John Doe's solo band, and, since the mid-1990s, as a solo act. He's become a fixture in the Austin scene with his Wednesday residency at the Continental Club.
Graham, who describes his normal songwriting process as very deliberate and incremental, didn't really even feel like writing on the day they recorded "Bobby Dunbar," a sparse ballad that includes the sound of birds in the background. After playing the piano with no particular direction for a while, he went outside for a smoke break and found an old copy of the Farmer's Almanac.
In it he read the story of Bobby Dunbar, a 4-year-old child who disappeared in Louisiana in 1912. Dunbar's mother later claimed a Mississippi child was in fact her son, and a court awarded her custody. In 2004, DNA evidence from Bobby Dunbar's son proved that she was not in fact the mother.
Though he usually writes extremely personal songs, Graham was inspired by Dunbar's story. He dragged the studio's piano out on to a patio, where he recorded the song, accompanied by birds.
"I can't put my finger on it, but it somehow informs the story," Graham says of recording outdoors. "In a lot of ways that's probably my favorite track on the record, because it's just such an ambient, creepy sound and a weird, weird narrative."
Another out-of-character turn on "Garage Sale" is "Radio Uxtmal (Venceremos)." It's sung in Spanish, played with funk guitar, forced underwater with dub production techniques. He previewed the song for people who asked, "What's the deal?"
Graham grew up along the Texas-Mexico border, listening to Mexican radio and speaking Spanish as much as English during his childhood. "It's not really that big of a step if you think about my history," he says. "This is just taking it to its logical extreme. It just makes me smile."
Graham's personal history also informs "Unafraid." The slow-building opening track begins with a church-style organ and ascends with a drum loop, an acoustic guitar, backup vocals and the songwriter's scratchy voice. Like the music, the lyrics are simple yet powerful, and the message is clear. Graham, who was nearly killed in a 2008 car accident, endures.
"That was the point in the process when I realized we can do this," Graham says of the song. "Not in terms of making a record but in terms of building these songs from the ground up."
About four months in, Graham began to feel that a record was taking shape, though he wouldn't admit it. He was much more used to carefully crafting a group of songs that would fit together, the way he made almost all of his previous records. "They're all little orphans, they all came on their own."
Love Collector - "Human Bodies" EP
If you've seen Austin garage punks Love Collector — formerly a quartet, now a trio of guitarist Shawn Carpetbagger, bassist Rob Yazzie and drummer Robin Retox — their latest EP, "Human Bodies" (released on Austin's CQ Records) is more or less in line with you'd expect. There's whiplash punk rock peppered with catchy guitar hooks (though less pop than previous releases); nothing over a minute and a half and partial nudity (though normally full). "Human Bodies" starts in the mud and breaks for a few seconds with a freewheeling guitar lick. The band can't spit out "You Drain My Batteries" fast enough, and while they take a bit of a breath on "Non-stop Love" the song still howls, as does the sharper "Circuit Breakers." Yeah, it's a 7-inch vinyl release, but at four songs, the thing is over too soon. Bring on a full-length.
The Rocketboys - "Build Anyway"
The Rocketboys, formerly Homer Hiccolm and the Rocketboys, formed in 2005 while the members were attending Abilene Christian University. They won a fan-voted spot at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2007, shortened their name, moved to Austin and released a good amount of material, including full-length in 2009 and an EP in 2010. Now the band returns with "Build Anyway," an intense breakup album on which the band sticks to its guns on all levels.
More so than on previous recordings, what the Rocketboys offer up here is big, almost arena-y rock, rife with tense, building guitars, big synthesizers, a fair share of ooohs and aaaahs, and slow, foreboding drums. There are plenty of echoes of the U2s and Coldplays of the world, and, like those bands, the album is unapologetically emotional, dramatic and confessional.
"Bloodless" starts off the album with church organ and explodes. The song takes place in the present, and, as you might gather from the title, lead vocalist Brandon Kinder is feeling a bit empty, describing himself as a "broken man" and "a lost cause," among other things. Then it's on to "Marching to the Palace," which flashes back with the dark imagery of a burnt-out home. From there the album takes the listener through various stages of the end of a relationship — depression, relief and acceptance — maintaining a relentless intensity throughout.
The Sweet Nuthin - "The Sweet Nuthin" EP
The Sweet Nuthin, a band that includes members of former super underagers the Daze, is still on the young side of things, though they are capable of playing like they have many more years under their belts. Their debut EP hits a lot of the right notes, pulling from decades of influences — though leaning heavily on bands like the Rolling Stones — on five tracks that delve into a full range of rock 'n' roll, starting with lead vocalist Evan Charles as a wily, can't-be-held down wanderer on "Play For Keeps;" throwing out a Clash-like "should I go or should I stay" on "What's Done is Done"; and asking for forgiveness on the midtempo "Turn Me Out Again." A strong debut.
Contact Peter Mongillo at 445-3696