[One of the nice perks of writing here is that people send me terrific albums I otherwise probably wouldn't have heard. This is one of them.]
NELSON BRAGG: Day Into Night
(SideB Music 100501)
It's not very often that I listen to a rock album and think about Gustav Mahler, but that's what happened when I first heard Nelson Bragg's new debut CD.
Actually, this often seraphically lovely song cycle owes a lot more to the Beach Boys (its auteur is a member of Brian Wilson's current touring band), their various acolytes (people like Curt Boettcher, Gary Usher and Van Dyke Parks) and California pop and chamber rock in general rather than a post-Wagnerian symphonist, but there is an odd connection I'll get to later.
The basic musical template of the record is airy-sounding massed acoustic guitars overlaid with jangly twelve-string, choirboy harmonies, and the occasional strings, horns, recorders, discreet keyboards, and pedal steel; if you're thinking early America or George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, you wouldn't be off the mark. (The album's only cover is a lovely version of "Dark Sweet Lady," from Harrison's eponymous 1979 solo album, which on the basis of Bragg's take I'd say must be better than I remember). There are also little nods (perhaps unconscious, perhaps not) to Paul McCartney, the Zombies, the Millenium, and Todd Rundgren, but the album has its own personality in spades.
It's sort of a concept record, in fact, divided into two parts, "Day" and "Night" (in the LP era, those would have been side one and side two, of course). The "Day" section is mostly plaintive love songs and generally upbeat rather than melancholy, while "Night", fittingly, is a little, uh, darker, with serious undercurrents of mortality. "Night" is also where I thought of Gustav Mahler. On the achingly melodic opening "Death of Caroline" (a deliberately ironic take on the Pet Sounds girl of the same name), the closing instrumental coda suddenly flips the song's chords into something minor key and dissonant, underscoring the failed relationship limned in the lyrics; the effect is not unlike the movement in Mahler's first symphony where the composer turns variations on a minor key "Frere Jacques" into a sardonic funeral march.
Anyway, there's just so much here to admire -- "A Father's Foolish Will," for example, whose sunny melody belies lyrics that are either about a grieving absent dad or the ghost of same (I can't quite decide), or the utterly gorgeous Wilsonian vocal arrangements on "Tell Someone" -- that it's impossible to pick the album's best-in-show. Let's just say that the overall level of melodic invention here is impressively high, that the performances (fellow Wilson band vet and Wondermint stalwart Probyn Gregory puts in an appearance on the elegaic "Lived This Life to Long") and production are world class, and that, bottom line, this is one of the most thoroughly beguiling records I've heard this year.
You can order the album at www.SideBMusic.com
And for more about Nelson, check out www.nelsonbragg.com