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Denison Witmer
Of Joy & Sorrow
Burnt Toast Vinyl

Musically and lyrically, Denison Witmerís Of Joy & Sorrow is one of the most moving records Iíve heard this year. The simple acoustic guitar, the perfect vocal harmonies, the concise confessional lyrics all combine to truly captivating effect. Witmerís music may not be anything you havenít heard before, but that takes nothing away from the absolute beauty of his execution.

To place this record in context, weíll have to be careful not to call Witmer "folk" when we really just mean "acoustic". And if we prematurely dump him in the alt-country category, weíll miss the fact that he has much more in common with the 70s California sound of musicians like Jackson Browne and the Eagles, who successfully blended country, rock, and folk styles. In fact, if thereís one clear antecedent to Witmerís personal-yet-universal lyrics, carefully strummed acoustic guitar, and rough, ringing baritone, itís Mr. Browne (a listen to 1974ís Late For The Sky alongside this record makes a perfect double feature). Looking for contemporaries who share Witmerís aesthetic, I find only some of Mark Kozelekís output (both solo and with Red House Painters) and a few of the best tracks recorded by Crowded House.

The title of the album, an allusion to Kahlil Gibranís The Prophet, sets a fairly high bar for the music and lyrics to come. The albumís opener, "Forgiven", is a beautifully sincere song of apology. Consisting mostly of Witmerís distinctive voice and unadorned guitar work, the track warmly welcomes the listener to the record. The upbeat "Simple Life", a few tracks later, is a paean to friends, home, family, and all things simple. The lazy lope of the tune is borrowed directly from Neil Youngís "Cowgirl in the Sand", and includes some striking slide guitar work by engineer Blake Westcott (Pedro the Lion, Jen Wood, and more). "Rock Run" (in which Witmer pulls the very cool trick of quoting his own lyrics from an earlier track, "Rise And Fall") is a narrative snapshot of a road trip that is charming in its wide-eyed innocence. Witmerís guitar is augmented by some lovely electric guitar work by longtime friend and Innocence Mission guitarist, Don Peris (who also produced Witmerís first record, Safe Away). "The 80s" is a rather sentimental tune about growing older (incidentally, Witmer may be the first person ever to characterize that particular decade as "more honest"). Though it errs slightly on the sappy side, youíre likely to find yourself humming its catchy melody hours after listening. The closing track, "Light My Way", recorded with a single microphone to create a hauntingly intimate campfire atmosphere, is a succinct song of liberation and hope. Again, the lyrics of this tune allude to an earlier track ("Rock Run" this time). Throughout the record, Witmerís candid and uncomplicated lyrics address the grand subjects of joy and sorrow with insight and humility in a way likely to please Gibranís prophet.

There is a cohesiveness to this album that makes it read like a book. Similar themes and topics are revisited throughout the record, ideas and phrases (both lyrical and musical) are repeated, and the tempo and instrumentation rise and fall like the classic elements of drama you learned in school. "Yesterday, Tomorrow", the second-to-last track, serves as the climax and "Light My Way" as the denouement. This is not to say that Of Joy & Sorrow is one of those irritatingly affected concept albums, but rather that Witmer seems to have a finely honed sense of narrative and of the notion of an album as more than simply a collection of unrelated singles.

It is rare to find a single song as good as any on this record, and even rarer to find a complete album that hangs together so well, with each song adding to the effect of the others and to the beautiful combined effect of the whole. If Denison Witmer continues to produce music of this depth and quality, heís sure to develop a large and loyal following among fans of honest, soulful acoustic tunes. Grab this record and you can tell all your friends you heard of him first.

-Eryc Eyl

Track Listing:

  1. Forgiven
  2. Stations
  3. Rise And Fall
  4. Simple Life
  5. Rock Run
  6. Reaching
  7. You And Me
  8. The Ď80s
  9. Yesterday, Tomorrow
  10. Light My Way

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