I’ve been a fan of Denison Witmer’s music for years, ever since I received a copy of Safe Away from Burnt Toast Vinyl years ago. And since then, my appreciation for the man’s music has just grown. However, I’ll readily admit that there’s nothing groundbreaking or strikingly original about Witmer’s songs. As many of his detractors might be quick to point out, he doesn’t have the strongest or most distinctive voice out there, nor are his lyrics and arrangements the cleverest.
But what drew me to his music, and what continues to hold my interest, is the stability and solidity in his music. True, describing a record as “stable” might not be the most “rawk” thing to say, and it probably won’t send the kids out in droves to pick up Are You A Dreamer? (Sorry Militia Group). But in Witmer’s case, there’s a confidence, a security that comes across in his music that is terribly comforting. You can, for lack of a better term, trust in it, something that you can’t often say of music in these capricious, fad-driven days. And this is doubly true of Are You A Dreamer?, Witmer’s finest and most satisfying full-length to date.
A lot of the disc’s comfort and familiarity must have something to do with the group of collaborators that Witmer has gathered to help him flesh out these songs. Many of them are artists that Witmer has had long associations with, such as Sufjan Stevens (whose “recorder ensemble” lends “Everything But Sleep” a whimsical, Wes Anderson-esque air) and Ester Drang’s James Mcalister (whose trembling percussion on “Ringing Of The Bell Tower” sounds like distant thunder promising cool rain on a hot summer day).
And then there are The Innocence Mission’s Don and Karen Peris. Don Peris produced Witmer’s Safe Away and it’s an absolute joy to hear him work with Witmer again, all these years later. I’m now of the opinion that only he should be allowed to produce Witmer’s work, or at least the lion’s share of it. Witmer’s guitar has never sounded so lush or full, and his voice has a warmth that it hasn’t had before. And Peris’ shimmering, sterling guitar tones flicker and reflect off of Witmer’s acoustic guitar in lovely patterns. Meanwhile, Karen’s playful coo serves as a perfect counterpoint to Witmer’s drier voice, helping to both lighten the mood and play up the album’s dreaminess.
Ah yes, have I mentioned this album is dreamy? I realize that might be somewhat redundant given the title, but it is. And I’m not referring to “dreamy” in the usual Opus sense. No, there’s nary a wall or layer of shoegazery sound to be found here.
Rather, there’s a dappled, country tone that is the perfect accompaniment to long drives on fine August days, or to lounging around the house late at night with some friends and a couple of drinks. It’s a dreaminess that feels fully hallowed and lived in, like a worn blanket or a book that you go to again and again, not because it packs stunning insights but rather truths and moments of which you love to reminded again and again. You can hear it in Witmer’s hushed, relaxed voice, the sleepy way in which he strings together the poignant details of his lyrics, or in the lazy guitars that drift and tumble throughout “Finding Your Feet Again” (to name but one song).
The sentiments expressed on the album — “When your brown eyes close/Do blue skies open up?/When your breathing slows/Your mind run fast and free?/Will you sleep and dream with me”? (“Are You A Dreamer”) — would probably be cloying and downright sappy if delivered by anyone else. Same goes for the themes that Witmer claims the album to be about. “Are You A Dreamer? is giving in to life’s mysteries, picking yourself back up, and continuing to go for it even in the face of a string of failures,” Witmer says on The Militia Group’s website.
But Witmer has been penning this sort of ultra-touchy, “heart on my sleeve”, intimately confessional acoustic folk-pop for years, performing in all manner of bars, dives, coffeehouses, and festivals. As such, they ring with a certain authenticity that I just can’t ascribe to too many other singer/songwriter types out there.
And so when he sings a summery, West Coast love song to a girl named “Golden Gate”, waxes eloquent about St. Francis, sings an ode to his grandmother that involves Mason jars and Bible verses, or reminisces yet again about reminiscing on the road while far from friends and lovers, well… chances are I’ll just close my eyes and do some dreaming of my own.