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Witness | Under A Sun (Island)
Unless you're of North American origin, the word 'sophomore' may be a bit poncey when used in a musical sense, but it's just that tad more refined than 'second album'. There were two sophomore releases I was particularly anticipating this year. The first, by Map of Wyoming, at least to me, turned out to be a turgid and uninspired affair. The second was by Witness. Regular readers will have heard the stark and affecting demo of So Far Gone on the CD with CwaS #5, and gone on to investigate their dark and lovely debut, Before The Calm. As grand as that album is, there were worrying signs that Witness had one eye firmly on filling stadiums. On this sophomore release then, it seems that they could well realise that intention. The metamorphosis is all but complete, and Witness have now become the British equivalent of Counting Crows, with shades of R.E.M, Remy Zero, or even, as displayed on Till The Morning, Hothouse Flowers. But is this a good or a bad thing? Well, there are some fine songs here, but it's because they appeal to my rock sensibilities in that they are more rousing, so by definition, stadium-friendly. Under A Sun opens with three ordinary rockers of obvious intent from the off, and it is in fact not until track # 6 (of 12) that anything truly special is offered. This comes in the form of Closing Up, musically evocative of REM's Find The River, and providing the marvellous lyric "Did you hear 'bout the man that wrote the story of his life on the back of his hand? / He gotta start his life over again / He looked round for someone to blame when it all got washed off in the rain / He gotta start his life over again" - a flowery yet incisive observation on life-wasters who feel we all owe them a living. But if my ears are not deceiving me here, Gerald Starkie's quivery, emotive voice is subject to a tiny bit of vocoder treatment. Normally, such studio trickery is enough to set me off running with scissors, but, mercifully, it is subtle and effective. Either Any Time Alone or the grinding Warning could have been a huge hit single by the time you read this, being as anthemic and urgent as they are. The broody So Here Be Well Again is as close to the 'old' Witness as we get, and I'd love to hear Mark Lanegan take it on one day. The delightful two-and-a-half minute love song, Mines packs in more thrills than most of the rest of the album thus far, then closer My Boat lurches from a plod into full-on lighters-in-the-air fest with it's enormous chorus and crunching climax. Under A Sun doesn't possess the space or atmosphere of its predecessor, there is less delicacy - and so, elements that I have enjoyed in Witness' music absent, this is a disappointing album to these ears. Overall, the answer to the question posed earlier is ' bad thing', but it may prove to be a good thing for their bank balance.

Tom Sheriff
June-July 2001

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