Denison Witmer: Safe Away

Evan Sawdey

While listening to a Denison Witmer album start-to-finish might be a bit taxing simply because he’s so low-key, his presence remains undeniable.

Denison Witmer

Safe Away

Subtitle: + Are You a Sleeper? EP + Live Tracks
Label: The Militia Group
US Release Date: 2006-10-16
UK Release Date: 2006-11-06

Denison Witmer is the kind of guy who can write songs as frequently as most of us breathe. The Pennsylvania native has released six albums over the course of a mere five years (three of which were in 2002 alone), all of which were well-liked. Witmer is a very plain-spoken artist, often limiting his songs to somewhere between one and three instruments (though usually one: his guitar), with a laid-back moody folk style -- often married to smart yet simple lyrics. Sure, we’ve heard this a million times before, but there’s something endearing about the rascal. By any standard measure, he should come off as horridly pretentious ... a whiny, shaggy-haired emo-boy with books full of poetry to spew to the unknowing masses. Yet, in album after album, he pulls through because of his sincerity, which leaks from every chord and every song. Sure, he can be a little bit eccentric (he once composed a song on a hotel-lobby piano that he liked so much, he had the lobby shut down so he could record the song raw right in the middle of the hotel), but that’s part of what makes him so endearing. While listening to a Denison Witmer album start-to-finish might be a bit taxing simply because he’s so low-key, his presence remains undeniable.

In 2005, Witmer released his first album for perpetually-interesting indie label The Militia Group. Many of the cool-indie kids liked it, even comparing it to his oft-neglected 2002 masterpiece, Safe Away. So it’s no surprise that Witmer rides on the coattails of his recent success to release a double-album re-issue of some of his classic stuff: Safe Away in its entirety, the EP version of Are You a Dreamer?, assorted live-tracks, and a collaboration with folkie-du-jour Rosie Thomas. At 24 tracks, the length is a bit staggering, but well worth the trip. Yet Witmer doesn’t open with some easy-going pop number, he begins with "Steven", a heartfelt and, at times, gut-wrenching lament for a lost friend. "It’s the best friends that make you / sometimes they break you", he simply states, detailing a friendship that turns from fantastic to hurtful, all over simple acoustic chords, one small synth underscoring Witmer’s bare soul. He immediately follows that with "Breathe in This Life", a stunner of a pop-ditty. The guitar is always doing more work than one thinks it should, but the payoff is delightful.

However, an artist like Witmer can produce songs by the hundreds, but still make an album that flows awkwardly. By itself, "Over My Head" is a fantastic, optimistic number where Witmer trades in picking for chords, and pulls out something beautiful. Immediately following "Steven" and "Breathe in This Life" though, it can get a little repetitive. Hearing the song come up randomly on a shuffle, however, is a burst of joy. In some circles, however, he might garner light-weight comparisons to contemporary Sufjan Stevens (so much so, the second disc contains an acoustic version of the song "Little Flowers," which, earlier in the year, wound up on the Sufjan-curated Mew Too compilation). Yet, if any Sufjan comparison is warranted, it would be to his Seven Swans period -- simple, understated acoustic ruminations, except Witmer exchanges Sufjan’s Christian foundation for personal heartbreak (which seems to come from an eternal fountain somewhere within him). Even in titles like, "How to Be Alone", you get the sense of longing (and the night-drive with the sunroof-down feel of such a number only further adds to any catharsis one might get out of it).

Throughout, Witmer’s voice is workman-like: he can sing, but he never blows up his voice to a point where he outshines the production itself. It is simply a device to move the lyrics directly to your ear, which works perfectly for his style. Never is it more apparent on songs like "Around Everything" and the almost-upbeat "Miles." So when Rosie Thomas stops by on the understated, "Castle & Cathedral", her voice feels almost booming -- swallowing all the acoustic plucking around it. It’s a fine song, but it pales in comparison to the quality-streak of 18 tracks that preceded it. The live tracks, which include Safe Away’s "Los Angeles" and the title track from Witmer's so-so EP The '80s, are suitable but ultimately forgettable. It’s an end to a double-disc effort that not only could be fit down to a single disc (as my promo copy is), but would be stronger if the last six songs (two of which are introductions to songs on the live portion) were lopped off. Yet such criticisms are small: Denison Witmer is a true talent. If this collection doesn’t get him better-known, don’t sweat it: he’ll have something even more brilliant around the corner in no time.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.