August 1, 2011

Fuel/Friends Chapel Session #5: Denison Witmer

Philadelphia songwriter Denison Witmer crafts songs of uncommon incisiveness, sung directly and piercingly in his simple tenor. I’ve known his music for a few years, having probably first noticed him through his musical collaborations with his friends Sufjan Stevens and Rosie Thomas.

I fell hard for his cover of “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” years before that fella from Wisconsin did it, and his song “The Gift of Grace” scores every Christmastime for me. I’ve adopted “California Brown and Blue” as a (slightly depressing) theme song. There’s something in the way that he sings that just lays it all out for me, bare and unadorned.

But there is also much more to Denison’s music than I was familiar with. On a sticky hot Sunday last weekend, he sat comfortably in a big empty church, slight and snappily-clad in a pink micro-checkered shirt. He unfolded four of his songs for us, and each one blew us away. His voice is unassuming, and I find it all the more powerful for that – similar to how one of those nimble lasers can cut you so much more quickly and effectively than the big heavy scalpels. If I had to pick one single word to describe his music, I would call it simply “piercing,” right to the core.


Take More Than You Need
This. Song. Is. Amazing. Denison hopes to release it on a future EP, and I had never heard it before. As I sat next to Conor the sound guy while Denison did a few takes of this, we kept looking over at each other, wordlessly saying “Wow.” To me, this is a stunning song about authentic (and scary) intimacy. Intimacy is a word that gets thrown around a lot, with varying meanings and depths implied. But the way Denison understands it reminds me of Kelli Schaefer’s song “Gone In Love” as she sings: “When the burden is love, it is the only weight that ever was worth carrying.”

It’s an invitation to gorge on a reliable love. We get so damn used to taking just the minimum from each other, afraid to be ravenous at times, afraid to be desperate, even though we all are.

Stay, stay with me here for a while
when the water in me dries, when the water in me dries
Wait, wait with me all afternoon
when the spirit in me moves, when the spirit in me moves

If you’re lying awake
with a lifetime to go
and the thoughts that you take with you
take more than you know

…If you’re lying awake
with my hands on your waist
wondering what you can take from me
…take more than you need.

California Brown and Blue (revisited)
I came across this perfect song when I was crafting the very personal San Francisco mix last year, full of all the songs all about and for and reminiscent of my hometown area. It does a really good job at getting into this hot-edged tangle of feelings I have in my belly and my heart for California, and for the people that live there and still hold parts of me. The arrangement Denison played at the chapel session is elegant and reinvented as something even more stunning. Another coastline gives in to waves and fades away…

Your Friend
According to Denison, the themes of his newest record are patience, mindfulness, and reverence. This song carries through some of the themes of the work of growing in intimacy that I hear in “Take More Than You Need.” Denison wrote:

“I wanted to take a very simple phrase like ‘I’ll be your friend’ and dive into what it truly means. I wrote this song for my wife… so it is primarily about getting married — the long term implications of that type commitment. It feels overwhelming because there is a certain death of self or lack of ego required to make things work. I don’t see the death of self as being a bad thing at all. I see it as a positive. We have much more to gain from losing our ego than we do in holding tightly to our selfish motivations.

Jennie and I got married in our early 30s. We had both been in a decent number of serious relationships before we met each other. We all carry the baggage of our past into our future relationships. We carry the baggage we create in real-time in our relationships as well. In the last verse of the song leading up through the ending, I sing: “…scattered our young hearts in the stones / in the weeks away / how your garden changed / but day by day you’d hardly know / now the fruits of our love fall out of the trees…” Even though we feel like we aren’t improving at times, being patient and mindful can result in true change within… The garden grows even when we don’t notice it.”

Three Little Birds (Bob Marley)
Denison is known for loving covers, arguably as much as I do. It’s one of the reasons we get along so well. He’s reinvented so many fantastic songs in his own vernacular, as part of his Covers Project (now permanently hosted over at Cover Lay Down); he probes the underpinnings and the rough edges in songs, bringing them to us in ways we’ve never heard them. Instead of a steel drum dancealong tune, this one becomes a simple little wisp of reassurance.


Denison’s new album The Ones Who Wait is out now, as well as a great collection of live material from house shows in the past year, Live In Your Living Room, Vol. 1. The live album is fun because it also captures Denison’s banter; for all the pristinely humble beauty of his songs, he can absolutely tell a great story or ten. We went out for beers after the chapel session and he had us in stitches with his story about the worst Denver show he ever played: it involved a dude with a skullet (bald mullet) and a lady that looked like Stevie Nicks, lifting up her flowy skirt during his set. It was incredible.

If you’re new to Denison, I would strongly recommend his 2005 album Are You A Dreamer? for a starting point (Sufjan appears on almost every track; this was around the time they were touring together), and watch for his new EP sometime later this year. Denison is a gem.

May 15, 2011

brighten my northern sky

Northern Sky (Nick Drake) – Denison Witmer

been a long time that I’ve waited
been a long that I’ve known
been a long time that I’ve wondered through the people I have known

would you love me for my money? could you love me for my head?
would you love me through the winter?
would you love me till I’m dead?

oh, if you would and you could, come blow your horn on high


October 2, 2009

let me borrow his old winter coat


All of the talk about the spacey free-jazz wonk on Sufjan Stevensnew songs reminded me of some favorite collaborations he’s worked on in the past, like the humble harmonies of his duets with Rosie Thomas.

Say Hello (rough mix) – Rosie Thomas & Sufjan Stevens

There’s a childlike vulnerability and very grown-up beauty in Rosie’s voice, and listening to it tonight reminds me of many many nights last winter when I’d sit in semi-darkness with only her voice playing softly, achingly on the wood-grain stereo.

rosiethomasShe’s been making music for several years now, sometimes with Sub Pop Records, and has worked with a handful of those sensitive musician fellas I love like Damien Jurado, Sufjan, and Denison Witmer.

This song was on the Say Hello EP, with the finished version on These Friends Of Mine (2007).

October 13, 2008

Monday Music Roundup

This last week I started twittering. Suddenly all the small moments in my life are memorialized in 140 characters or less. So now in addition to being able to keep up with what some of my favorite real-life friends are doing RIGHT THIS MINUTE, I’ve also laughed daily at the twitter feed of writer Joshua Green Allen aka fireland. I don’t know him for reals but I first read about him over on Heather’s Dooce blog, and he turns out to live up in Denver. Now, my Denver is never as fun as his Denver, but now I can chuckle at his twitter feeds like: “First time I’ve ever been fired for sexual harassment during a job interview, but your sick gams ARE my biggest managerial weakness.”

Allen also penned a great article about the perfect length for a song, and posits that it “had to be closer to three minutes than two, but definitely shorter than three minutes. Three minutes is where bloat starts to set in. Where the band thinks: Hey, let’s do the chorus seven times. Hey, let’s give the saxophone guy a real moment to shine on this one. Hey, let’s add another bridge.”

He goes on to give some love to The La’s “There She Goes” as the ultimately perfect song of that perfect length. In sum, a man after my own heart. Listen to the 2:42 muxtape too if you’re in an abbreviated mood.

Music for this week:

Pop Song

This Portland band played on Saturday at Denver’s Hi-Dive but I was literally still trying to thaw under my comforter from a freezing afternoon attempting to understand Australian Rules Football in a friend’s tournament over at the Air Force Academy. Starfucker rocked the joint, and I dozed cozily. But I’ll bet the cool kids there enjoyed their sound — sexy but not sleazy, light but with an undercurrent of electronic grime. I think this song should have played in Empire Records; it’s got that mid-90s innocence and pop heft. Starfucker’s self-titled debut is out now on Badman, and their cover of Madonna’s “Burnin’ Up” is also streaming on RCRDLBL. Worth noting, they are neither the NIN song nor the Belgian band of the same name, but apparently this recreational hobby seems to be hitting its stride.

Balloons (Foals cover) - Holy Fuck
Balloons (original) – Foals
Hey, while we’re already using words that make my mom blush, let’s throw this little nugget in here as well. This week Foals and Holy Fuck released a collaboration/mutual admiration society 12″ where they each covered one of the other’s songs. These dudes both played Monolith, so I like to picture them sitting down at the oxygen bar and coming up with this idea amidst the red rocks. It could happen. To get the vice-versa cover (Super Inuit), click here. The split 12″ is out now on white vinyl via Young Turks, or on their tour(s).

Satanic Messiah
Mountain Goats

As I write this Sunday night (35° outside!), I’ve been listening to Mountain Goats on shuffle while I pack and go through stuff I’d rather not look through in prep for moving this next weekend. The poetic ache of Darnielle’s lyrics, his indignation and passion keep these songs on repeat. The newly-released Satanic Messiah EP is not Darnielle’s foray into black metal but rather a lovely 4-song acoustic collection with religious metaphor themes (not uncommon in his songs). Of these songs, Darnielle writes, “I am fond of them; they remind me of old vanished things.” This particular tune is ostensibly about going to see a show or performance, and how “we were all made young when he stepped onto the stage, like an animal escaping from his cage,” and then sings about how they all were “too dazed to leave when it was over.” Mountain Goats play Denver on Friday night with Kaki King, and I’m going to hope for something similar.

I Can’t Make You Love Me (Bonnie Raitt cover)
Denison Witmer
No, really. Listen to this cover, even if you haven’t given Bonnie Raitt much thought since you (like my sister) sang this song in Pops Choir in high school. Philadelphia folk artist Denison Witmer loves covers as much as I do, and he’s taken to releasing a whole slew of them for free in his achingly stripped-down style. Through his MySpace and a partnership with the ace Cover Lay Down blog, Denison has been giving away free songs on a regular basis, including ones originally by Band of Horses, Oasis, Van Morrison and Red House Painters. This particular one is my favorite of the batch. It starts with a settling in a room; you can hear the grey empty space starkly bouncing back his plaintive, resigned voice. It is an absolutely devastating song, and especially the way he does it — all void and defeated. Witmer’s new album Carry The Weight is out November 11th, and side project alert: check out his River Bends band with Steve Yutzey-Burkey of The Swimmers.

Urban Lull (At Once Charmed)
The Umbrella Sequence
I’ve said it before, but our local community college radio station is one of the best I’ve ever listened to. They have turned my ears on to so many things that I previously missed, like The Umbrella Sequence from Minneapolis. This song came over my car speakers the other day and I was instantly addicted and turned it way up. With sunshiney chiming pop melodies that fight valiantly (and occasionally win) through a scratchy wall of fuzz and electronica, they garner comparisons to Flaming Lips and Super Furry Animals. This is the lead-off track from last year’s Events (on Princess Records), and like a good aspiring rock star, Ryan Rupprecht sings over and over “We’re all getting bored” — but no, I am definitely not. Great song.

OH, A CLOSING PLEA: Help me think of fabulous Halloween costume ideas, potentially surrounding a long red dress with marvelous sequin trim I found in my basement? I also have a red feather boa, if that helps (or perhaps doesn’t). Or suggest something completely different. I’ll probably be at the Girl Talk show first that night, so I could go dressed as a hipster in neon sunglasses.

Or just this, I suppose. That would be amazing. [via]

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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