At its best, the music of Texas has an openness and quiet intelligence unlike any other state's. These Texan qualities seem unrelated to style or subregion -- it's evident in Doug Sahm's border rock, Joe Ely's flatland rockabilly, and Townes Van Zandt's wandering folk. That same supple wisdom suffuses Jon Dee Graham's Hooray for the Moon, the Austin folk-rocker's third and best album.
Whatever the strange phenomenon is that gives Texan troubadours the gift for smart, eccentric lyricism, Graham is under its sway, just as Lyle Lovett, Terry Allen, and the above-mentioned luminaries are. But Graham's songwriting style is more delicate than quirky, offering first-person narratives that avoid conventional introspection in favor of impressionist detail. For example, "Restraining Order Song" describes the outside of an ex-girlfriend's house instead of the woman within, offering longing rather than leering like all good stalking tunes (think of the Temptations' "Just My Imagination"). "The Huisache Tree" implies the heightened sensations of a homecoming just by noticing the elements of a landscape and promising "a celebration."
As for the album's musical looseness, it could be the psychological effect of all that Lone Star space, but, more likely, it comes from the Texan tradition of unassuming virtuosity. Starting with the pop-perfect opening riff of "One Moment," the 11 songs on Hooray for the Moon launch like high-flying Roman candles that move with the wind and often land somewhere unexpected. "Waiting for a Sign" starts with bluesy picking and arches into a booming, desperate chorus worthy of the Replacements, while the swaying acoustic number "Tamale House #1" features sparkling leads that travel so light you want to drive off and live the tune's road-trip reverie. Studio drum wizard Jim Keltner isn't often accused of being uptight, but here his calibrated pots 'n' pans are more relaxed than usual. And it's no surprise that Graham himself isn't a ball hog: He was a sideman for over a decade with eminent Texas punks the Skunks, folk-rockers the True Believers, and fellow roots mavericks Michelle Shocked, John Doe, and Kelly Willis. Both Graham's and Michael Hardwick's guitars shine without devouring the spotlight, weaving around each other in crisp, lilting riffery.
Like his peers and predecessors, Graham carries the Texas breeze in his voice as well. His calm, gravelly warmth is quintessentially suited for Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole," as well as a punked-up reading of the ranchera classic "Volver, Volver." Between the aptly chosen covers and subtle originals, Hooray for the Moon is as lithely, smartly, and distinctly Texan as our commander in chief wishes he were.
Check out this week's featured ad for Entertainment