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Matt Nathanson Week: 'Pyromattia' (Def Leppard Tribute EP)

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Despite being Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees it can be argued that Def Leppard is underrated. Being associated with the glam pop-metal era worked against them and their bid for credibility, but time has been kind to Def Leppard. Their lean catalog lives on, inspires and still sounds as fresh today as it did more than three decades back. They spent the summer of 2018 playing stadiums with Journey, their catalog made its debut on digital platforms and they received a striking tribute from singer-songwriter Matt Nathanson when he released a six-song EP entitled Pyromattia. Nathanson has always had eclectic tastes in music, as demonstrated by his excellent Spotify playlistI like music more than I like people, but his love for the hard rock bands of the eighties has never diminished. He wore a That Metal Show on The Tonight Show earlier this decade, he's rhapsodic on social media about these acts and even teases snippets of songs from this era in concert, but this was the first time he recorded songs from the era.

Nathanson's tribute EP is more than a cash grab, it's made with great care and reverence for Def Leppard. Despite playing in pop-rock-folk waters, Nathanson is able to find the heart of these songs in his refreshing arrangements. His musical sensibility allows him to get to the foundation of these songs and the results are illuminating. He injects them with shadowy noir making them counterpoints to the Mutt Lange productions. Kicking off the EP is the band's biggest hit, "Pour Some Sugar on Me" which is steered by his acoustic guitar and a distorted vocal. "Bringin' on the Heartbreak" was Leppard's first genuine hit on MTV due to Steve Clark and Pete Willis' dual guitars shadowing the blues while vocalist Joe Elliott delicately testifies as guitars crunch against the mounting chorus. Nathanson's version is exposed and a haunting requiem. "Stagefright", best known as the rousing 1987-92 tour opener, ratchets up drama by pairing downcast acoustic guitars with violins while "Promises" finds Nathanson in his own wheelhouse with a towering declaration of love that works magnificently in his forthright acoustic arrangement. Def Leppard's 1999 album, Euphoria, can be looked as a sibling to Hysteria, but it's not a carbon copy. At its best the songs from Euphoria are energizing and new chapters in the Def Leppard legacy which is why it is so refreshing to hear Nathanson tackle material that wasn't part of their imperial phase (1981-88). "Comin' Under Fire" is the greatest revelation on Pyromattia with features intricate restraint to this unnerving arrangement, that is evocative with added sensual dimensions previously not explored on Def Leppard's Pyromania. The dexterous talents of Def Leppardmay have overshadowed the dramatic windstorm brilliance that Nathanson brings to light.

On "Hysteria", Def Leppard's first top-ten hit in America, Nathanson exhumes ghosts of the past while making the song his own. Acoustic guitars are paired with a piano melody as his vocal nuances send shivers down your spine as he makes the song poignant and personal. His version of "Hysteria" lingers in the subconscious as the piano chords conjure up visions of Def Leppard's rise, fall and survival. Def Leppard's version bottled time with their laconic guitar chords, a meditative rhythm and Elliott's solemn and soulful vocals. Listen to his lower register at the chorus ends and he sings "Hysteria, when you're near" which Nathanson channels perfectly. It's the voice of heartbreaking innocence which is made all the more devastating knowing that original Def Leppard guitarist, Steve Clark, passed away a few short years later in 1991. Despite this, Clark lives on through the music every time a song comes on the radio, when Vivian Campbell plays his parts in concert or when Pyromattia gets played. The elusiveness of the lyric of "Hysteria" elevates the song to something beyond wistfulness. Its timeless nature isn't defined by the past, but grips and guides us in the present and yet we can close our eyes when we hear the version on Pyromattia and we see Clark with his low hanging Les Paul guitar, long blonde mane, scarfs and the sound of that guitar, that is more than a memory from the past but a guidepost to the future. Pyromattia is an affectionate and invigorating tribute with each song tackled with great care. Nathanson's ability to turn these arena-rock anthems on their head is nothing short of miraculous.

Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter

Matt Nathanson Week: 'Pyromattia' (Def Leppard Tribute EP)
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