Denison Witmer – Life Before Aesthetics (Review)

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Ever since his debut on a cassette in 1995, Denison Witmer has quietly honed a reputation as a top-drawer singer-songwriter. Nine albums into his career and the Pennsylvania native, lauded by Rolling Stone as ‘their favourite underrated’ artist could be about to hit pay dirt. His latest collection, The Ones Who Wait, was released last year on Mono Vs. Stereo but Sufjan Steven’s base, Asthmatic Kitty are set to take the album to a wider stage. A standout track from that set, Life Before Aesthetics provides ample evidence of a song-smith in rude health. Not for nothing has Witmer been seen as an heir apparent to the late, great Elliot Smith. Life Before Aesthetics with its deceptively simple guitar chords and hushed intimacy is no pale facsimile of Smith’s work but it does draw favourable comparisons with it. The track swells to its climax, embossed with a ghostly Al Kooper-esque organ and elegiac horns. Such gossamer furnishings recall Jon Brion’s similar work for the deceased wunderkind.

However, a cursory glance at the roll-call of artists that Witmer plucked songs from for 2003’s Recovered is perhaps more illuminating. Carole King, Neil Young and Jackson Browne all suggest Witmer’s locus of inspiration lies further west than Pennsylvania, chiefly in the soul-searching introspection of 70’s Laurel Canyon. He shares with Browne .in particular, an impeccable grasp of phrasing, at turns nimble and graceful.  Life Before Aesthetics wistfully extols the regenerative power of nature (‘the oceans as they sing, the mountains in the spring’) and questions the rampant materialism endemic in our society (‘…more important things than shiny diamond rings’). It’s not didactic (‘I would never say what’s right’) but it is deeply felt. Any fears of preciousness are allayed by Devin Greenwood’s crystalline production which scatters the song’s constituent parts like gold dust in space. And the ruminative melody will be indelibly etched on your memory from the first listen.

Matthew Lindsay

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