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.
- Rise And Fall
- Simple Life
- Rock Run
- You And Me
- The Ď80s
- Yesterday, Tomorrow
- Light My Way
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