This is the second year in a row that I haven’t gone to Cornerstone, after having gone for 7 years straight. And as I type this review, the festival is currently getting underway, and as I guessed, I’m kicking myself for not having made the trek. Oh well, there’s always next year. So what brought about these regrets? As I was listening to Light a Match and Burn It Slowly, Fitzgerald’s third full-length, I became incredibly nostalgic for those dusty campgrounds in Bushnell, for wandering around the food court at dusk, for settling down in rickety chair at the Cornerstone Magazine tent come midnight, and yes, even for good ol’ Johnny on the Spot.
Why? I have no idea of the band’s spiritual leanings (though certain lyrics do cause one to wonder), but it’s probably because Fitzgerald’s music is the sort of honest, heart-tugging stuff that seems absolutely perfect for enjoying under some big, battered tent after a long day of sweat, humidity, and loud music. Indeed, as I was listening to it, I closed my eyes and half-imagined seeing the duo of Nathaniel and Mandy right there on the Cornerstone Magazine stage, alongside Denison Witmer, Ester Drang, and Unwed Sailor. (Now there’s a lineup not to be missed.) There’s an honesty and intensity to this music that I find incredibly affecting, and as Cornerstone has been home to some of the most honest and intense music-related experiences I’ve ever had, the two just seem to go together in my subconscious.
Now, don’t worry. Even if you don’t share my Cornerstone remembrances, you don’t need them to enjoy Fitzgerald’s music. Regardless of what meta-baggage you bring to the album, Bushnell-related or otherwise, there’s no denying that Light a Match and Burn It Slowly is full of finely-crafted, emotive folk-tinged pop. Perfectly blending the earnest vocal harmonies of Nathaniel and Mandy with Nathaniel’s musical arrangements (guitar, bass, banjo, keys, drum loops, and cello), this is perfect music for any reflective, late-night listening session, regardless of whether it takes place in a tent on an Illinois campground or the privacy of your living room.
The album kicks off with “Dirt,” its most uptempo track and one of the finest slices of indie-pop I’ve heard all year. The naked emotion of the music, driven by the punchy drums and ringing guitars and the duo’s vocals, when combined with the surreal yet honest lyrics (“Here is where we speak freely/Here is where we chew the dirt”), make for a simply tremendous song. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s eminently catchy and hummable. “And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt” continues in the vein, reminiscent of the sort of pop that His Name is Alive toyed with on Mouth By Mouth, though the lyrics pack a bit more bite (“I still respect you, but I wish we’d never met/Now there’s a bloodstain on my t-shirt where your name used to be”) and self-deprecation (“Artists aren’t good people/They’ll only break your heart/Only good for one thing/Only good for art”).
However, “Ghosts Can’t Hurt You” takes on a slower, mellower approach, led by Mandy’s lovely and fragile voice, and the album takes on a whole new emotional dimension. Nathaniel sings as well, but his main contribution is the cello that underscores everything, adding extra poignancy to the chorus.
Most of the disc’s music consist of fairly stripped down, acoustic-based arrangements, à la Ida (“Ghosts Can’t Hurt You”), Low (“The Lake”), and even Rosie Thomas (“Million Miles,” which contains some of the disc’s finest lyrics). However, the duo also dabbles in electronics on a couple of tracks, and rather than detract from the disc’s mood, serve as a nice breath of fresh air and liven things up. “Plucking Feathers off of Angel’s Wings” has a slight reggae/dub-inflected feel to it, tempered by the duo’s gauzy vocals and spiritually-pointed lyrics. And on “Paracetamol,” noisy, hypnotic loops swirl beneath reverbed, Portishead-y guitars, perfectly complementing the feverish experience in the song’s lyrics.
I’ve never been a fan of reading too much into a band’s lyrics — I don’t want to put words in someone’s mouth, nor do I want to mislead anyone. While Fitzgerald tastefully pepper their songs with religious allusions and metaphors, the last two songs do get rather eyebrow-raising. Presumably inspired by the year of volunteer work the duo did in India before recording this album, they both serve as tales of human depravity and weakness, as well as transcendent yearnings.
“Consonants and Vowels” starts off with “I wipe the shit from your back and your feet” and concludes with “You are holy, completely/You are, and I’m not/You are, and I’m not.” And “Recent Events” not only reads as a possible tribute to Mother Teresa (“You’ve seen much more than I’ve ever seen/From the mean streets of Calcutta to washing Jesus’ feet”) but also as an attempt to come to terms with human frailty and fallenness.
It’s that sort of courage and honesty, combined with the duo’s accomplished arrangements and the occasional experimental flourish, that makes Light a Match and Burn It Slowly an album that truly stands out. Highly recommended.