There is a level of honesty to Denison Witmer‘s American Foursquare that makes this album immediately endearing. The little noises, the creaks in the opening that remind us of an older home, and the striking of the pads against the piano strings in the title track draw you in to these intimate and vulnerable songs.
These songs are produced exceptionally well by a team that included Thomas Bartlett, Andy Park, Denison Witmer, and Abby Gundersen. Strings that drift in and out, an analog synth sound that slips in unassuming. Percussion coming in to add emphasis at times. Electric guitar appearing with soft muted notes or stirring tones that elevate the music.
Of the nine full-length albums (ten if you count The River Bends) and four EPs Denison has released, these are my favorite vocals of his. In the opening song, he doubles them, bringing one more upfront and the double is set in a deeper reverb. At times the reverb on the double is more pronounced, making the song dreamy, while other times his main vocal stands alone while the double fades back. As instrumentation leaves Denison with a gentle piano and guitar. In other songs, he slips instinctively from vocals that are so close and detailed to multiple layers of his voice with a touch of a friend’s harmonies.
Denison is joined by his dear friends that his listeners are likely familiar with. Rosie Thomas adds harmonies, an incredible songwriter we miss. Karen and Don Peris of The Innocence Mission, a band that has moved me to tears many times, bring their familiar presence. Don’s electric guitar is as emotive as it always is. Karen’s unmistakably vulnerable voice is heard in Birds of Virginia. These are artists he worked with on past albums, adding to the sense of being home. Siblings Abby and Noah Gundersen support with piano, vocals, and strings.
The piano and acoustic are the core of the instrumentation. Condenser mics pick up every detail of the piano, and the color of the acoustic layers have a welcoming warmth. Strings eloquently come in and out, carefully composed.
When Denison Witmer released his first album Safe Away, he was 21, processing deep emotions through simple songs he produced with Don Peris. He dealt openly as an emerging adult, songs I could relate with at the time. Now, Denison is writing from the perspective of being a father, a husband, and a carpenter.
The album description on Bandcamp brings insight into Denison’s inspiration and approach for this album: “’American Foursquare’ is a meditation on empathy, on love, and on the meaning of home. Designed in reaction to the ornament of late-nineteenth century architecture, the foursquare emphasizes simplicity and function, with an open four-by-four room layout and a balanced, boxy shape. It’s one of the most common styles of American architecture.”
He wrote all of the songs in his century-old foursquare Lancaster, Pennsylvania home, allowing the character of the foursquare to enter into his subconscious. His lyrics on this album are brilliantly penned. He writes about the heartbreak of losing their three-month-old child in Catalina Love.
I don’t have another choice
I’m living in the void
When I think about you lately
My head fills up with noise
How am I going to let you know that I need your love?Denison Witmer – “Catalina Love” (Bandcamp)
How am I going to let you go Catalina Love?
He sings to his wife in Birds of Virginia, “You’re so kind to me, sometimes it hurts.” He expresses his love to his child in Robin, “Like a language I have spoken from my birth. Like a song where I already know the words.” In San Francisco, he reflects:
I see the child in myself as I get olderDenison Witmer – “San FRANCISCO” (Bandcamp)
Still feeling every age that I have ever been
And I have joy when the light breaks through the shoulders
Of the Pacific giants swaying in the wind
I have a lifetime swaying in my mind again
There is a lot more to be said about this album. I would enjoy working through the songs, track by track, and pinpoint the many elements I love about these songs. But this album is a complete unit, a work of art, and should be treated as such.
Denison Witmer is a sincere and sensitive storyteller, a genuine songwriter, and American Foursquare is a calm and soothing masterpiece. Everything about this album feels natural and unforced. It is his best work to date, and is absolutely beautiful and stirring.
Thank you, Denison, for gifting us with these gripping songs. And thank you Asthmatic Kitty for bringing these songs to us.
If you’re wanting an introduction to Denison’s discography, enjoy this playlist I made of select Denison Witmer songs from all of his albums and EPs (songs are listed from earliest work to his latest album).
Denison Witmer links: