Denison Witmer rightly received praise last year for Philadelphia Songs, a low-key effort that merged confessional lyrics and small-scale slices of geography. Witmer certainly wasn’t the first to tell a tale amidst such detail and a concrete sense of place, but he deserves credit for the balance he achieved between person and place, and for pulling off the nifty trick of letting the details inform the disc’s larger picture of romantic dissolution. At the same time, while Philadelphia Songs felt like it was written about one person, the sights and sounds of the city potentially make it universal for anyone who’s shared similar experiences.
With Recovered, Witmer aims to shine some light on the source of that lyrical acumen. He already has to bat off comparisons to Elliott Smith like they were flies at a picnic, but that’s as much for his vocal timbre and inherent pop sensibilities as anything else. Here, Witmer gives nods to some unlikely heroes from the annals of ‘70s soft rock: Carole King, Big Star, Jackson Browne, Gram Parsons, and others.
Thankfully, he goes for obscure pages of his heroes’ catalogs; the world probably doesn’t need another cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”, and obscure choices give Witmer’s versions a better chance of standing on their own. Without the burden of a listener’s internal classic rock station to play compare/contrast at every turn, these songs fit neatly and quietly into the subtle acoustic pop niche that Witmer’s already carved for himself. Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird” probably fares the best of anything on Recovered; Christine McVie’s original vocal melody adapts well to Witmer’s smooth croon, and the addition of cello accents over the song’s gentle acoustic melody makes for a truly nice moment. Likewise, Witmer’s acoustic rendition of Big Star’s “Nightime” retains the familiar pop hook, and he shows a knack for Jackson Browne’s vocal cadences on “Farther On”. Each track retains fragments of the originals, but the originals aren’t so well known that they tower over Witmer’s creation.
At this point, it probably sounds like Witmer isn’t doing much with these songs, and he’s upfront in his liner notes that he didn’t set out to reinvent the wheel. Reportedly, he was more interested in tipping his cap to some songwriting giants (some of whom he claims not to have discovered until after he began releasing his own records) and creating a distinct narrative flow. So you get Graham Nash’s “Simple Man” leading to the brief-but-bright-doubt of Neil Young’s “Love in Mind” to the poetic complexities of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” to the album-closing reflections of Browne’s “These Days”. As the songs get more complex and shadowed, Witmer’s approach seldom wavers and, at little more than a half-hour, Recovered comes across very much like a personal performance by Witmer for himself.
Naturally, not all of Recovered works. His dirge-like arrangement of King’s “So Far Away” adequately conveys a sense of road-weary longing, but Witmer’s shadings of electronics fail to keep the song from dragging. Alternately, he quickens the pace of “Suzanne” to an awkward degree that feels fine during the song’s full-band moments, but not during the acoustic intro (in fairness, Cohen may be the only person on the planet capable of pulling off this song’s hypnotic Old World languor).
In the end, Recovered stands as an interesting but logical follow-up to Philadelphia Songs. Thus far, Philadelphia Songs is Witmer’s watershed moment, and a disc like Recovered lets him record without trying to top himself ... just yet. It stands up pretty well on its own, and on a couple of cuts like “Love in Mind”, “Songbird”, and “Farther On”, he even crafts worthy peers for the original recordings.