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 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.