Review: Nelson Bragg, Gratitude Blues

by David Wills

I have a very unscientific approach to determining if an album I’ve just listened to for the very first time will warrant many more listens in the future. It goes something like this: if I can look at the tracklisting on the back of the CD or LP when I’m finished and put a melody to a title – never once having to think “Wait a minute. Which one was that again?” – then the artist in question has hit the bullseye (with me anyway). 

I came into Nelson Bragg’s Gratitude Blues very green. Sure, I knew who he was through his long stint as percussionist for the Brian Wilson Band, but I had no idea, for example, that this was his third album. Forgive me, Bragg fanatics! If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t realize Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote “I Want Love” either (excuse me while I crawl back under my rock). That cover song is one of the many highlights on an album that’s practically packed with pop goodness. The nods to Bragg’s former boss Brian are certainly there (and Probyn Gregory even puts in a guest appearance), but I can hear the influence of The Byrds, The Beatles, The Kinks, etc., alongside echoes of mid to late ’70s power pop. 

The opening track “Lose Yourself” feels like a bit of misdirection, reminding me more of something by Echo & The Bunnymen, before breaking into the upbeat and sentimental “Glorious Days.” The track “Whitechapel Girl,” is my favorite of the bunch. It sports a bouncy melody but with a hint of dread seeping through it. Multi-instrumentalist Roger Joseph Manning – of Jellyfish fame – also puts in an appearance playing harpsichord, calliope, and carousel, a combination so perfect you’d be forgiven for thinking that the song itself had just willed him to the studio. Two more notable guest appearances worth mentioning are Smithereens members Jim Babjak and Severo Jornacion on a tribute song to the style of their fallen bandmate Pat DiNizio called “The Last Girl I Ever Loved.” Peter Holsapple, of The dB’s fame contributes to “The Cool Kids,” a song about rock and roll dreams coming true for a misfit kid who never quite fit in. It’s a sentiment that in lesser hands could come across as mawkish and cloying, but in Bragg’s the lyrics are genuinely humble and grateful (hence the album title?).

According to the press release that accompanied this release, “Gratitude Blues” wraps up Nelson Bragg’s solo album career. On one hand, that’s a pity because I’d be curious to hear what happens next, but sometimes being late to the party (as I mentioned above, I missed his first two CDs) pays dividends. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got two other albums to track down. A great first impression can have that effect on you. 

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