[2 August 2003]
How do you define a “grower” when it comes to music? Most would probably answer that difficult and edgy albums are the ones that take time to grow on you. Perhaps the instruments are badly played, or the singer’s voice is too idiosyncratic to be immediately accessible. The production quality might be tinny, or harsh. Or the subject matter could be offensive. Denison Witmer’s latest, ...And It Flows into the Sea, suffers from none of these “problems”, yet I suspect the album is a grower whose rewards aren’t immediately apparent. It’s a topsy-turvy world, is it not? My relatively brief time spent with this album has been marked by distinct phases, from loathing, to open-minded curiosity, to general contentment and quiet admiration. So Witmer fans take note, the first phase will be a little rough.
Phase 1: Dear Diary, I’ve just finished listening to ...And It Flows into the Sea, by this guy from Philadelphia named Denison Witmer. Actually, it’s by Denison Witmer and the River Bends. That’s the name of the band he recruited. So the title reads Denison Witmer and The River Bends and It Flows into the Sea. His earlier albums were generally more stripped down, but this one got the full treatment. He sounds like a great guy, and it’s pissing me off. “Looking for You”, the first song, sounds like what would happen if his friend Sufjan joined the Goo Goo Dolls. “Lawyers and White Paper” reminds me of when Elliott Smith went electric (Judas!), only smoother. The whole album is like this. Every note is on key, the band plays clean, every song is pretty. Where’s the scruff? What’s worse, the lyrics all make sense. On “Days Repeating”, he sings “ this is how the Winter turns to Springtime / The flowers push their way out of the earth / This is how the Springtime turns to Summer / The sun is up and shines for all its worth”. The melodies are so catchy I don’t know how I’m going to fall asleep. Curse him.
Phase 2: Dear Diary, I finally fell asleep, so I guess you could say I’ve slept on it. Putting the album on again, I’ve found a few songs that are pretty good. The same aspects that annoy me on some songs work to the advantage of others. “22”, written by guitarist/bassist Steve Yutzey-Burkey, comes to mind. It may be straightforward but it’s unpretentiously solid. The crestfallen melody every time Denison sings “I don’t know what to do” is affecting, rather than affected. “Graduate from college / I’m 22 I don’t know what to do”. Damn, I’ve been there. The arrangement of “I Love You April” is sparse and minimal. I would love to hear it played live if the crowd wasn’t so noisy it’d be drowned out. Then the song explodes as the band kicks in, and although I’m still reminded of Elliott Smith, I don’t mind so much. Maybe it’s because both songwriters draw (or sadly, drew) heavily from ‘70s songcraft and studio sound. They’re also possessed of a similar tenor voice, and sometimes stray dangerously from breathy to whiny. But in confessional, emotional music, that might just be called “painfully sincere.” I take back the Goo Goo Dolls dis as well; that was just mean.
Phase 3: Dear Diary, I’m resigned to the fact that this album is a grower. Imagine an album growing on you because it’s so easy to listen to, instead of difficult! This will make a great concept for my review! I’ll even include these diary entries, because And It Flows into the Sea sounds so much like a diary in some respects. The un-abstractions of “Maybe I should walk the length / Of Chestnut Street / ...I window shop for jobs / To get back on my feet” is a necessary shot of realism, whose impact is blunt but enduring. “You Could Be Anything” seems to address this: “Short stories exist so longer ones can live / Do you understand what I mean?” Uh-huh. I think I’ve just been put in my place. It’s the best song on the album and a great closer. The band stretches out like shadows at sunset, and the repetition of “You could be anything at all”, which should by all rights sound completely trite, is instead convincing. Now I’m pissed off again, like a dog-hating sitcom dad that ends up snuggling the new pooch by the end of the half-hour. I wouldn’t say I’m exactly snuggling with And It Flows into the Sea, but it’s worth giving a chance to warm you with its craft and conviction.