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Under A Sun - Witness

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2 Reviews

Genre: Rock - Pop Rock / Artist: Witness / Audio CD released 2001-07-23 at Island

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    Your dooyooMiles Miles

    2 Reviews
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    • More +
      04.08.2001 22:11
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      Sometimes you get a feeling for when something is going to be good. That twitch you get when you read the glowing reviews. The words you watch out for like 'surging choruses', 'glorious rush of big tunes', 'effervescent guitars'. Just like candy to a child and twice as addictive. With the omens looking decidedly good I sprinted to my local record store to pick up 'Under A Sun', expecting rather naively to have discovered this years 'Lost Souls'. By the time I had reached the fourth track I wasn't exactly enamoured. The whole thing sounded big and brash, a cavalcade of sound with little heart and a distant lathering of MOR leanings. I guess sometimes you just can't tell. Thankfully repeated listens did uncover a good number of jewels but there are a number tracks that just don’t tickle the right heartstring. Witness don't sound completely new, in fact the sound they produce will have you scratching your head wondering where you heard it before. WITNESS the classy MOR manoeuvres. The title track ‘Under A Sun’ could easily have come from an anonymous stetson wearing crooner. In fact it's not that bad at all, it’s just that it sounds so borrowed and perfectly crafted for an ear out for easily thrills. The guitar work is accomplished but boasts a weary strain that is hard to fully embrace. At first ‘Warning Song’ sounds like it could be quite fine. The guitars are skewed wonderfully off-kilter and the bombast is kept to a minimum. Sadly the chorus is as bland as decaffeinated coffee and twice as pointless. Not entirely disposable then, but the right alterations could have made this into something much better. Worse is to follow unfortunately as Witness find themselves drifting off on autopilot for the dreadful ‘Mines’. Shallow and devoid of a soul it rescues itself somewhat at the death by some nice vocal
      interplay but by then even the tone deaf would have wished the batteries to their aids had run out. WITNESS the Counting Crows. At times Witness look too deep into what makes Americana tick so what you get is formulaic pastiches of something that is really not reliable enough to warrant adulation. ‘Dividing Line’ sounds like it fell out of a pick-up truck right on to a dusty desert highway. Initially it focuses on setting the beefy, but lightweight all the same, guitar strokes and before you can say ‘have a nice day’ it bumbles out of control lacking a distinct focus and more worryingly a sure melody. ‘Till The Morning’ conjures tight trousers and hair that trickles into a mane over fake tanned skin. Ultimately the album’s lowest point, it stinks from start to finish with the distant harmonica wail stealing its last chance at survival. Ok, it won’t offend anybody but it sounds like a band making something they know will sell. Coming at the end of rollercoaster ride of an album ‘Pushchair’ is decidedly oblique enough to sound interesting. The country influences are obvious but the storming vocal display is hard to knock. I can see a thousand lighters being produced now that will be strung out to the rocking of this tune. WITNESS the Rapid Eye Movement 'My Time Alone' is as close to a REM blueprint that you are going to get without having Michael Stipe on co-writing duties. Lucky then, that Witness choose to raid REM’s back catalogue circa the period when their music meant something. The rallying call that is the impressive chorus is bolstered by chords that are for once kept in tow but still resonate with a enormous clarity. ‘My Boat’ will also have you thinking of those men from Athens. This time the result is not as successful because the chorus, which is so central to the Witness cause, falls short. The s
      urrounding clatter is not short on colour though as sweeping chords and distant heavy beats raise the ante. WITNESS the Cosmic Rough Riders Cosmic Rough Riders, signed on the promising Poptones label, pedal shiny bright tunes with a ring of yesteryear about them. Harvesting tunes by this method is fraught with danger. And so it came to pass that Witness turn their hand to reeling in the years. Shoddy, paced like an unsuccessful middle distance runner and lacking a thread that could sow its disparate parts together effectively, it passes from memory in an instant. WITNESS the Majesty 'Here's One For You', the album's opening track gets things off on an excellent footing. The raucous guitar work might seem a little heavy handed but Gerard Starkie's juicy vocals are nothing less than resplendent. The new single is 'You Are All My Own Invention' is even better. Breaking from a rhythm not unheard of in the Shack camp, the song pours it’s heart open revealing a chorus that would melt the peaks of Everest. The dramatic tension that is evoked by the song could easily shunt emotions from even the most cold hearted of people. ‘Closing Up’ is deft, it’s steady momentum slowly revealing a refreshing breeze of lush vocals. The diamond piano key sequence adds the necessary class and by the end you’ll making calls to get in contact with those loved ones you haven’t spoke to in a while. The jangling guitars seal the deal on a pretty perfect song. The more lithe and fragile the vocals seem to get on this album, the higher the quality quotient tends to rise. ‘Avalanche’ is perfectly tipped to have you swooning under balconies as perfectly formed falling snowflakes add to your sense of destiny. It’s quite short too, adding to its nicely petit posture. I have struggled gamely to come to terms with this album. It contains a
      scatter of influences that on their own would have me scurrying for cover. Against all this doubt, it is hard not keep coming to the conclusion that there is something rather magical at work. For me though, 'Under A Sun' is only one half a true classic. Like appreciating classical pieces without ever going out of the way to hear them the other half of 'Under A Sun' will be admired from a safe distance. Witness have created an album that will doubtless brighten many peoples lives up. From where I’m sitting, however, the search to find this year’s musical soul mate continues. For more information on Witness check out www.witness.uk.com The site is good to look at but navigation around it is quite frustrating.

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      • More +
        26.07.2001 02:58
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        Oh the weight of expectation is a tricky thing and it bore down particularly hard on the young shoulders of Witness on the release on their 1999 debut ‘Before the Calm’. They hail from Wigan just like The Verve and were on nodding terms with several members of that seminal group so naturally an avalanche of comparisons descended on the group because of this. At the time the band seemed a little bewildered by the hype, Nick McCabe was merely an old friend of singer Gerald Starkie and the bands quiet, icy cold restrained style was world away from the overblown rock of The Verve. The album’s release heralded a welter of positive reviews and general critical approval but ultimately few sales, Witness were not exactly making terribly commercial music and if we’re brutally honest ‘Before the Calm’ was not a great album. Dark, bleak and thoroughly miserable it resembled very early REM (c. Murmur) crossed with Joy Division. The album had its moments but the relentlessly contemplative pace made it a rather tedious listen in its entirety. Somewhat like a less epic sounding Starsailor (both bands happily name check Time Buckely), the key word around their debut was potential, a great deal shown but yet to be fully realised. Live they kicked up quite a storm, showing a talent for noise not tangible on record and then they vanished, apparently caught up in label difficulties. Two years later their second album finally emerges from stasis and something very strange has happened to Witness in the meantime. Out of the window has gone the softly, softly approach. The influences of the early 80s Manchester scene have equally been discarded, the ghost of Joy Division and The Smiths well and truly exorcised. Instead the band seemed to have spent the last two years listening exclusively to the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, early 90s REM and modern country rock such as the Wallflowers and Counting Crows. This album offers
        the missing musical link between Green and Out of Time, offering the harsh edge of the former with the sweet melodies of the latter. There was always a hint of Americana to the bands expansive sound but this is verging on a complete musical U-turn. Witness seem to have tired of mellowness and subtlety, this record bristles with energy; crashing, clattering choruses and ringing, noisy but melodic guitars. There is the odd hint of the yearning empty angst of their debut scattered around, and of course Starkie’s rich vocals provide continuity but otherwise this really could be a different band. The rainy miserablism of Wigan has been shed, the band actually moved Bristol for the duration of the recording although for much of this record it may has well have been California. That is not to say that there are no slower songs here, but when the band moves to ballad mode their work has a different melancholy and a contrasting texture. It’s obvious from the opening chords of ‘Here one for you’ there’s been a musical shift in the Witness camp. A Byrdsian twelve string jangles in tandem with an acoustic whilst Starkie’s voice already posses a confidence it had failed to achieve throughout the entirety of their debut. A pleasant set of harmonies enter behind Starkie’s lead on the refrain along with a hint of a yearning keyboard but it's all so far so Cosmic Rough Riders. However, at this point that the band suddenly let rip as the clattering rhythm section makes an appearance with a terrific explosion of slide guitar and the song takes on a new and dramatic life. This track is a noisy, driven rocker that offers the perfect riposte to accusations that the band previously could test the patience of the listener. Starkie throws himself into the vocal performance, backed by a subtle arrangement of harmony vocals whilst the guitars encircle him, hammering home every couplet. The refrain when it comes around a second
        time reveals a killer, slightly sugar coated hook which quickly sinks its teeth in. Topped off with a terrific rocking middle eight, which repeats the tracks title with increasing urgency as the harmonies and guitars spiral impressively before the song finally fades out in a spectacular display of guitar pyrotechnics. At just over three minutes long the track is perfectly judged and is quite simply an outstanding opening. Amazingly track two and flyer single ‘You are all my own invention’ is even better. After the breathless rush of ‘Here’s one for you’, the song at first appears to harken back to Witness’ earlier material; beginning with a subdued piano, hushed drums and a slight hint of slide guitar. Starkie’s vocals appear more plaintive then before and the overall mood is more chilled. The gradual hints of tension begin to rumble in the background however, an electric begins to stir, and the delivery gradually becomes more urgent. The song really begins to wind up as it enters the bridge and the drum pattern picks up, the guitar rises in prominence in the mix and ghostly harmonies sweep in behind Starkie. The tension builds to a dead stop, before a slash of guitar and the song soars into an epic roof blowing chorus, sweeping the listener along with the sheer delight. Starkie’s vocals cascade down in a rush of melodic guitar, keyboards washes and ethereal harmonies (yes they are rather fond of harmonies). The band repeat this wonderful contrast between verse and chorus, winding the song right down before beginning the build up again. Second time round however, the song refuses to stop flying however, as the middle eight takes the music up another notch before swooping into one last refrain. Lyrically, Starkie remains ambiguous, it’s a song of sweeping but perhaps not meaningful statements. The lyric has a dreamy feel to it, the sort of stream of consciousness stuff that Michael Stipe has p
        erfected, “You can’t hurt the night sky / That won’t hurt me”. As the song comes to a close with a dramatic burst of instrumental playfulness it is hard to fight the temptation to hit the repeat button. Indeed this desire is compounded when you discover the song that follows is a pale imitation of what has come before. ‘Dividing Line’ comes crashing in with biting mid-paced guitar riff, with an almost march like quality to it. The melody of the verse is resolutely unmemorable, although the flute at the back of the mix is intriguing. Sadly when the tempo suddenly speeds up for the chorus things take a turn for the worse, its another stab at the flowing big hooked chorus but it lacks the requisite stickiness. The song is the most closely Byrds aping, it very much posseses that sixties flavour to the melody mixed with the feel of Mammas and Pappas. The middle eight is actually quite good containing a far better melodic twist then the refrain and the final rush of twelve string guitar which closes the song is quite exhilarating. The song does grow on the listener, its charms becoming more prevalent on each play, but it’s the most self consciously retro track on the album and fails to distinguish itself from other Byrds imitators such as Teenage Fanclub who have done this kind of thing far better. Thankfully with the albums title track we’re back with the real quality stuff. This is the album's first real ballad, albeit one with another sweeping chorus. Beginning with a pretty piano and acoustic driven riff, the verse’s melody flits around interestingly, twisting and never seeming to stay still, whilst Starkie’s vocal matches the constantly changing texture, flicking between the extremes of his range. Out of this unusual verse suddenly explodes a lush chorus, that heads straight to the stratosphere backed by a slightly jagged guitar line and rendered to perfection by Starkie’
        ;s wounded but unrepentant voice. There’s an odd little guitar and piano solo with distinct county inflections after the second chorus before the songs spins back round again, winding up for one last refrain. Finally as Starkie’s voice fades, sounding almost crushed the backing takes over with a simply delicious instrumental coda. Mark my words if this gets the air play it deserves it will eat anything by Travis for breakfast. Certainly one of the finest tracks on the album. Close kin in spirit to ‘Under a Sun’ is the gorgeous ‘Closing Up’ but this song conducts itself at an even more relaxed pace. Beginning with a lovely wash of strings, piano a chiming acoustic guitar, the melody gently unfolds, as Starkie’s yearning vocals ebb and flow in perfect harmony with the wonderful instrumentation. The chorus however, is simply magnificent, an interplay between rising falsetto and a wry undercurrent of a lower vocal. It is quite simply to die for (although naturally I don’t condone such behaviour). All this rises up to a ringing middle eight that is simply exquisite before the sweetly textured chorus begins again. Sadly the lyric is a little hamfisted, with such profound platitudes as “I seem to attract the weirdest folk” and “We were born at a strange time to be born” although bizarrely the music renders these utterances strangely moving. If this song isn’t Witness’ ‘Everybody Hurts’ I will eat my hat (okay no I won’t but I will be very upset anyway). The closest we find to Witness’ earliest sound are the pair of wind swept ballads towards the albums close. ‘So here be well again’ is almost gothic in it’s stately majesty. Orchestrated with an organ , dark piano and a plucked guitar Starkie’s vocals are dark and full of pretension, like some great emperor looking down from above at his kingdom. The song gradual
        ly moves up the gears until the band lets rip on the central section and the guitars are let off the restraining leads, creating a maelstrom of noise through which that Starkie struggles with but manages to control. Sure it’s decadent and epic but beautifully so. Muse take note, this is how you do this kind of thing. ‘My Boat’ meanwhile is closer still to Witness original vision, with its fractured drum pattern and icy pianos it does remind of their best past moments. However, the 1999 Witness would never had the courage to pull off something this spectacular. The vocal grows more insistent with every second that passes and the backing becomes a little more elaborate. When the chorus thunders into action, the guitars create a storm, crashing across the mix like lightning forks. The track wraps itself up into a charging rush of immense proportions during the instrumental middle eight before finally the storm calms for the final dénouement with Starkie accompanied again only by piano and drums. Besides these more epic numbers there are more conventional pieces of guitar pop. ‘Till the Morning’ is close to the work of the Counting Crows, with its Americana twinges, flowing chorus and a hint of Bob Dylan style harmonica. Meanwhile ‘Warning Song’ bristles with energy with its electro-acoustic guitars and chugging chorus. The wiry sound offers a nice contrast from the more overblown numbers whilst the band almost seem on the verge of losing control of the music completely but keep pulling the song back from the brink of descending into mere noise. The chorus has a neat little hook and is sweetened by those harmony vocals. ‘My Time Alone’ on the other hand chimes in a perfect power pop fashion, much in the same style that Matthew Sweet and Teenage Fanclub have perfected. Motoring along propelled by ringing twelve strings and nicely judged vocals, its a delicious pop confection. Off
        ering light relief from the more weighty numbers but not spoiling your appetite. It would make a terrific single if there was any justice in this world. The spiralling closing line “I can fake a smile” stays in your mind as the song launches into one last chorus. There’s hardly any filler on offer here either, just tracks that are not quite as wonderful as the rest ‘Mines’ is a fairly straight acoustic alt.country pastiche, pretty enough but hardly likely to set the world on fire. ‘Avalanche’ sways along with a rare beauty and features a neat little descending melody in the chorus. The swirling harmonies in the middle eight are terrific too although the track is a little dwarfed sandwiched between ‘So here be well again’ and ‘My boat’. Not to take anything away from the song, but the track is not quite the equal of either of these massive numbers. Now those who know me may have realised this album is something rather special as it is the first occasion I’ve awarded five stars on a review. So listen carefully, if you have even a tiny admiration for the likes of REM, Travis, Teenage Fanclub or yearning Americana like Counting Crows or Wilco you must go but this album. Now! Seriously this is my pick for album of the year so far, and I have my doubts whether anything will emerge to beat it. It really is that good. Five stars, end of story.

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      • Product Details

        Disc #1 Tracklisting
        1 Here's One For You
        2 You Are All My Own Invention
        3 Dividing Line
        4 Under A Sun
        5 Till The Morning
        6 Closing Up
        7 My Time Alone
        8 Warning Song
        9 Mines
        10 So Here Be Well Again
        11 Avalanche
        12 My Boat
        13 Pushchai