Grace Notes: Denison Witmer, Selebrities, Okkervil River, etc.

Grace Notes is a weekly exploration by Jason Morehead and Drew Dixon of signs of common grace in the music world. We hope to alert you to wonderful music, some of which will be spiritual in nature but all of which will be unique and worthy of your attention. Each week we will share brief reviews of albums worthy of your attention and maybe a video or two.

Jason’s picks of the week:

Denison Witmer

It’s often tempting to seek out music that is big, bold, brash, and fearlessly new — or at least music that has that sense about it. Denison Witmer’s laid-back, introspective folk-pop flies in the face of that notion, which is why I enjoy his latest, The Ones Who Wait, as much as I do. Evoking shades of classic singer/songwriters such as James Taylor and Paul Simon, there’s something deeply familiar about Witmer’s music, like a favorite blanket or chair. The lush production (especially on layered, atmospheric songs like “Cursing”), introspective lyrics (Witmer’s coming to terms with his father’s death is an underlying theme to the album), and Witmer’s plaintive voice only add to that feeling, which I find quite refreshing in an age that all too often leaves me feeling rushed, harried, and out of breath. Witmer’s music encourages me to slow down and reflect on the important things in life: faith, family, friends, community, and a love that transcends life and death.

Selebrities

If you’ve been following along with “Grace Notes” then you’ve probably figured out by now that I have a certain fondness/weakness for the sounds of ‘80s pop, specifically anything that evokes artists such as The Cure, The Smiths, New Order, and A-Ha. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that I’m going to mention Selebrities. Listening to their Ladies Man Effect EP — which can be yours for the price of one e-mail address — feels like you’ve unearthed some battered old cassette in your favorite used music store. Much like The Mary Onettes and My Favorite (RIP), Selebrities so fully inhabits the sounds of three decades past that they move beyond cliché and homage, come around full circle, and end up sounding fresh and original.

Jensen Sportag

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Junior Boys. If you found yourself swooning even a little bit over their brand of electro-crooning, then may I humbly suggest the Nashville-based duo of Jensen Sportag. As with Junior Boys, you’d probably find Jensen Sportag’s music filed under “Dance” or “Electronica”, due to the heavy use of synthesizers and programmed beats, but they’ve got more in common with R&B than anything you’d hear in your local discothèque. For all of their electronic bleeps and bloops, not to mention the heavily synthesized vocals, there’s something very human in the way that songs like “Pure Wet” and “Mapquest” flow and groove.

Drew’s Pick of the Week:

Okkervil River

I only have one recommendation for you this week because I have really only been listening to one album. I Am Very Far by Okkervil River is pretty much everything I had hoped it would be. That might make me an oddly devoted fan because I suppose most fans hope their favorite bands will produce more of the same. I, on the other hand, find great joy in bands venturing into new directions so long as they don’t lose their identity entirely. Okkervil River has done that beautifully with I Am Very Far. The most notable difference between Okkervil River’s new album and their previous two is that I Am Very Far is much less sing-able.

Okkervil River’s previous album The Stand Ins is the Ecclesiates of critically acclaimed indie rock as it deftly exposes the landscape’s inherent vanities. The album, at times very literally, exposes the inherent lies in pop songs (“Pop Lies”). Its an album that tells personal stories of heartbreak, deception, and failed idealism. Will Sheff and company don’t attempt to make sense of these vanities. If there is purpose to be found on the album its merely in exposing these vanities through rollicking folk rock ballads with sing-along lyrics.

I Am Very Far seems to have dropped that formula and instead opted for lyrics that mostly take more time and thought to digest and more broadly directed themes. If The Stand-Ins was labeling vanities, then I Am Very Far is reflecting on them. The formula that Okkervil adopted in Black Sheep Boy is still present–Will Sheff and company have produced some excellent folk rock. It might be a little less accessible but only in comparison to The Stand-ins and its worth the effort.

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