Beneath These Fireworks

Matt Nathanson

Universal Records, 2003

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Sometimes a single song captures an album's essence -- and sometimes that's even a good thing.

A clean-cut pop-rock singer-songwriter in the John Mayer / Evan & Jaron mold, Matt Nathanson is nothing if not mainstream. That said -- here I go again, folks -- there's nothing inherently wrong with a pop song if it's well-crafted and finds a way to stand out from the crowd. (And let's face it, on a major-label debut that was preceded by four independently released discs, you have to expect a little mainstreaming.)

On Beneath These Fireworks, Nathanson's songs distinguish themselves via a quiet, penetrating intelligence rather than any sort of flash. While his crisp acoustic guitar work anchors the sound here, his supporting players add enough electric punch in the mostly full-band arrangements to sustain interest all the way through.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

About that special song, though…

After the pleasant acoustic intro "Angel," the band kicks in with song number two, "Suspended," and you get the big picture of everything that's appealing about Matt Nathanson. To wit: an intelligent lyric, clean production, steady acoustic rhythm guitar (12-string, from the sound of it) under a nimble electric lead, an excellent chorus hook and a clever vocal approach. (Nathanson speeds through some lines here and draws others out for emphasis, slipping in a falsetto syllable where it's most meaningful.)

There's more worth mentioning, though. "Pretty The World" and "Curve Of The Earth" are a pair of strong mid-tempo rockers with a philosophical edge that's typical of Nathanson's cerebral approach. (A creative, introspective Jewish guy with a tendency to overthink… hmm, the appeal is getting clearer by the second.) "Bent" is another winner, setting regret and recrimination to soft, jangly chords that redeem it with beauty. And "Lucky Boy" has its moments weaving insights like "you're the excuse that I use when I want to stop trying."

My favorite track here, though, has to be "Little Victories," a stripped-down, eloquent little life lesson that reads like a poem and sounds like magic ("I'll be awful sometimes / Weakened to my knees / But I'll learn to get by / On little victories"). Very nice stuff.

If there's something lacking here, it's an edge. This is mainstream stuff, smooth and sure, a bundle of inward-looking songs about love and relationships that are both inoffensive and largely unsurprising. The intelligence and artistry Nathanson pours into his lyrics and vocals are what make this album rise above a certain blandness that creeps into his sound before it's over.

When all is said and done, this is a solid disc full of well-crafted songs delivered with care and conviction. Just don't expect any real, er, fireworks…

Rating: B

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