Denison Witmer: Carry the Weight

Music Reviews Denison Witmer
Denison Witmer: Carry the Weight

The unbearable lightness of being

Eight albums in, Denison Witmer’s best record is 2003’s Recovered. It featured reverent covers of acknowledged classics from Jackson Browne, Leonard Cohen and Alex Chilton: tough competition, to be sure. But Carry the Weight, the latest installment in his ongoing mopefest, too often accentuates the differences between those morose masters and this young man. Witmer sings about “the weight,” but most of his songs seem feather light.

To his credit, Witmer has mastered the brooding, introspective, early-’70s singer/songwriter template, and from a musical and production standpoint, his earnest songs compare favorably to those of Browne and his confessional descendants. “From Here On Out” is an acoustic-guitar- and piano-dominated ballad that could’ve been ripped from Browne’s songbook circa For Everyman, while “Song of Songs” employs the hushed singing and lovely counterpoint vocals that often characterize Sufjan Stevens’ folkier compositions.

The lyrics, though, are another story. Carry the Weight’s title track—a pretty waltz that’s reprised at album’s end with some lovely harmony vocals from Rosie Thomas—carries all the emotional resonance of a Coca-Cola commercial. “Carry the weight of your brother / Carry the weight of your sister,” Witmer sings in this vacuous neo-hippie anthem. “If You Are The Writer,” a sprightly tune with the best melodic hook on the album, is undermined by the kind of preciousness last seen on puppy-and-kitty posters: “If you are the water I am the waves / If you are the writer I am the page.” Other times, Witmer simply tries too hard, as on the earnestly poetic “One More Day,” which features the head-scratching anatomical metaphor “patches on the elbows of my eyes.” It’s hard to know whether to call a tailor or an ophthalmologist.

Near the end of the album, Witmer gets it right: the fragile music and the pensive, finely realized lyrical details of “Chesapeake Watershed” combining for a perfect snapshot of rootlessness and ennui. But, in spite of the clear debt his music owes to Browne, Witmer has yet to approach the literate and emotionally charged grandeur of Browne’s best work. He’s not running on empty, but the tank isn’t full.

Listen to Denison Witmer’s “Life Before Aesthetics” from Carry the Weight on his MySpace page.

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