Review: Veteran Singer/Songwriter Jon Dee Graham Returns From the Dead to Release a New Album

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Jon Dee Graham
Only Dead for a Little While
(Strolling Bones/New West)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars

It won’t take long after pushing play on singer/songwriter Jon Dee Graham’s first full-length studio album in over a decade to realize that he’s had a difficult go of it. His grizzled voice sings Wrong wrong wrong, that’s where it all went wrong with a gruff, cracked attack that sounds like Tom Waits after a long night of boozing. The music to “That’s Where It All Went Wrong” bursts out like a scuffle between the Stones, The Replacements, and Tom Petty, each trying to sound like Chuck Berry dragged through the swamp.  The thumping rocker explodes from the speakers then closes, perhaps with Graham thinking the tape isn’t running, as he exhorts Yes yes yes, let’s do this another time while I’m feeling this way now.  

He has reason to celebrate. As this disc’s title implies (in Graham’s usual, wry fashion), he did die, at least for a short while, after a 2019 show. He was saved from hanging with the Grim Reaper, which might have hastened the appearance of this earthy, uncompromising ten-song collection.

Not surprisingly, the concept of being deceased runs through the proceedings, specifically for a gritty take on Blind Gary Davis’ Delta blues classic “Death Ain’t Got No Mercy,” which sounds as if Graham is trying to snatch his life back from whatever force is grabbing it away. There’s a similar feel on “Lazarus,” with lyrics of Move over Lazarus/I’ll help you carry your bed/You know we got so much in common and Lazarus just nodded his head. It references Hemingway and Warren Zevon, the latter recorded his final album as he knew he was dying.

The mood lightens slightly on “Going Back to Sweden” with chiming guitars and a ragged Michael Hardwick guitar solo that twists and tumbles over a rugged backbeat with Graham extolling the joys of Stockholm in that rough but right roar.

“There’s a Ghost on the Train” (more death references) is a slower but no less gutsy rocker that hangs onto a ringing riff Springsteen would be proud of.

Regardless of where you jump in, Graham’s whiskey-scarred snarl singing with the urgency of someone who isn’t sure how long he might have left in this world, atop grinding guitars and pulsating drums demands attention. Even the country-laced love song “Brought Me Here to You,” with its trembling pedal steel and melancholy accordion, feels like something he needs to say. He sings Every single mistake I made/ It brought me here to you with the passion of a person who may not get another chance to express those feelings.  

But, to paraphrase Monty Python and the Holy Grail, he’s “not dead” yet. Hoping there will be more Jon Dee albums where this came from.  

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