Looking back at my review of Denison Witmer’s The River Bends and Flows Into the Sea, I was perhaps a tad unnecessarily harsh, surprised as I was by the sweetness and simple charms the album had to offer, not to mention the complete lack of edginess. But since then, Witmer’s songs, particularly “22”, have refused to give up the modest acreage of my brain where they first set up camp. So I have approached the re-release of Witmer’s first full-length, 2002’s Safe Away, with appreciative curiosity rather than trepidation, knowing not to expect strings of jaded f-bombs or blasts of unnerving guitar feedback, but rather a well-above-average set of classically constructed songs reminiscent of the ‘70’s heyday of hammer-ons and sensitivity. And that’s pretty much what Safe Away turns out to be, like the quiet musings of your kindest friend.
Witmer drew comparisons early on to the late Elliott Smith, but apart from a very slight vocal resemblance, there aren’t many similarities, particularly with regards to aesthetics. Produced by the Innocence Mission’s Don Peris, Safe Away has just as much sincerity and vulnerability, but is infinitely more well-adjusted. Witmer, at least on this four-year old recording, is also a much more traditional strummer. Compare his “Los Angeles” with Smith’s “Angeles” for example. “I remember thinking that someday you’d leave / And praying in your bedroom before I fell asleep”, he sings nakedly and with no small amount of remiss, but one gets the sense that whatever sad times Witmer’s been through, he pulls himself together by the time he sits down to write. Smith, on the other hand, naturally or by design, always sounded as if he was coming unhinged in the moment. That distinction may have initially caused my resistance to Witmer’s songs, which is unfortunate. Safe Away is like a warm, fuzzy blanket, and everyone needs one of those now and again.
“What Will Stay?” is a highlight of the record, with its jangly, half-fingerpicked guitar pattern of alternating bass notes, and Peris’s ever-so-slight production touches. “What will stay / When everything is going, what remains?” Witmer sings with gentle confidentiality, then “Am I safe?, am I safe? / When everything is going, I’m afraid”. But there’s only the most threadbare hint of despair, and we know the answers are, respectively, “Something” and “Yes”. Of course, it’s never been cool in the non-Top 40 world to turn the other cheek, to use the word “pray” literally, or to declare “I won’t leave” when other songwriters would already be three hours down a lonesome highway—but in the good guy style of James Taylor and buddy Sufjan Stevens, Witmer’s warmth is a refreshing change of pace.
Included in the re-release is a second disc, tying together two recent EPs and a couple of bonus tracks. Are You a Sleeper? is a companion to 2005’s Are You a Dreamer?, featuring a couple of alternate versions of tunes from that album and some heretofore unreleased songs as well. The exquisitely delicate “Castle and Cathedral” showcases the talents of Rosie Thomas, another artist working the sweet and quiet beat. In a way, it’s easier to hear Thomas perform the material, since we’re more used to hearing sentimental female voices than male ones. But the acoustic version of “Little Flowers” is just as gorgeous, its keyboard-enhanced chorus among Witmer’s best melodies. The second EP is comprised of three live tracks from a Philadelphia performance, backed by the band Saxon Shore. The ambience provided by the band works admirably on the otherwise repetitive hooks of “The ‘80s” and “Grandma Mary”. The live recordings unfortunately sound a little thin and distant, so perhaps that’s the reason the tunes come off as slightly lackluster, despite the bigger arrangements. Still, the full-band update on “Los Angeles” suggests, even filtered through the room sound, the more adventurous and textured directions Witmer has taken since Safe Away‘s initial release, and hopefully will continue to take.