Frankly, the comparison has us scratching our heads.
Sure, Witmer plays acoustic guitar and sings prenaturally mellow songs in a restrained, slightly nasal voice. And he occupies about the same space in Philadelphia as Smith once did in Portland. But the comparisons ought to end there. Witmer largely out-mellows Smith, rarely rising to the decibels the latter reaches in songs like "Junk Bond Trader." And whereas listening to Smith makes you want to shave off your beard and slit your wrists in the bathtub, Witmer's latest opus -- Are You a Dreamer? -- leaves you feeling, well, happy.
And that's a crucial distinction. Speaking from a rest stop in Redding, Calif., Witmer acknowledges the need for critics to compare him to other performers. (We'd say Teddy Thompson or friend and collaborator Sufjan Stevens; he'd rather point to Jackson Browne or Neil Young.) He admits to being a "big fan" of Elliot Smith but adds that there's a big difference in tone between himself and Smith. "Obviously it's a tragedy, the way Elliot Smith's life ended. I always cringe at that," Witmer says. "[But] I don't give into that despair ... There's a sense of optimism inside my music. I never want to take it to a really desperate place -- I want to redeem it somewhat."
The songs on Are You a Dreamer? all seem to have that tinge of redemption. Even on more melancholy tunes like "East From West" and "California Brown and Blue," there's a sense of hope, a hint of release -- even if it's just a melodic suggestion. Elsewhere, he's even more overtly up. "White is not surrender / despite what you've been told," he sings. "It's clouds of hope / that fall on you now."
The entire record -- thematically linked by meditations on sleep and dreams -- smacks of possibility, of malleable realities. "I realized halfway through that dreaming and creativity go hand in hand," Witmer says. "I remember spending 12 hours straight in the studio one day and leaving at three in the morning and, as I was leaving, thinking, 'I can't believe I was in there for 12 hours.' You can step into this place that's like dreaming. It has its own timeframe. It has its own landscape that you can operate in ... That's what this record is really about."
To capture that dreamy sensibility, Witmer enlisted the production and engineering of the Innocence Mission's Don Peris, who was his musical mentor in Lancaster, Pa., where Witmer grew up. The two recorded most of the songs in only a few takes, to maintain the magic of the moment, and drew deeply from the Innocence Mission stylebook (with vocals from the inimitable Karen Peris).
Of course, it's not just the production that makes this record feel so hopeful. Witmer ascribes much of it to his own faith, which he declines to talk about in detail. And he says his time on the road (he's toured ceaselessly in the United States and Europe for the last six years and even managed Stevens' tours for a short time) has taught him about the "innate goodness of people" and the struggle to preserve that goodness amid the clamor of everyday existence.
"I don't think life has to add up. There's too many things that you can't know about the world. For every bit of knowledge you're given, another question comes in. There's a lot of despair in that," he says.
In "A Question Mark," Elliot Smith sang, "You couldn't keep the great unknown from making you mad." Denison Witmer says, "I don't want to have to have those answers to be happy."
Denison Witmer plays the Shop with Rosie Thomas, Airport Cathedral and J. Tillman on Friday, April 28 at 8 pm. $8 at the door. Call: 534-1647