Formed in the salubrious surroundings of Wigan in the late 90s, Witness channelled the spirit of bands that they admired from across the Atlantic over the course of two albums before disappearing off the face of the musical landscape in 2004.
A great shame as both their debut ‘Before The Calm’ and its subsequent follow up ‘Under A Sun’ were brilliant records. The former received widespread acclaim upon its release and garnered extra attention due to the band being good friends with The Verve’s Nick McCabe. For all the acclaim and admiration from the UK ’s indie rock press, it was their follow up in 2001 that the band really found their true voice and delivered an album in thrall to the likes of R.E.M and widescreen Americana . Lead singer Gerard Starkie’s voice successfully married both Michael Stipe’s earnestness and the emotional delivery of Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz. The bands authentic sound made for a wonderful aural experience but also became one of the noughties first great lost records.
What had first sparked my interest in the band was album opener ‘Here’s One For You’ which had featured during the end credits of American Pie 2. Its chiming opening guitar lines that gave way to an addictive vocal hook and harmony vocals, before driving, powerful drums introduced a slide guitar feast that coupled honky tonk swagger with an uplifting, anthemic chorus. The song is so deep rooted in American aesthetics it came as a massive surprise when purchasing the album that they were in fact a UK band from the North West .
While ‘Here’s One For You’ still remains probably the strongest song on the record, its not to say that you feel the rest of the album falls short either. Each song buries its way into your sub-conscious and with each listen become more and more of a delight. What I have always said about this album is that it was probably the biggest “Grower” in my record collection at the time. The album unfurled more and more layers of brilliance the more I listened to it. Not that the band made it difficult to like, nor did they throw the kitchen sink at the production making it hard to penetrate. What was apparent from the word go was the bands excellent song craft, and I found myself becoming more fascinated with the songs the more I listened to them and took me a number of months to truly value what a fabulous collection of songs these are.
‘You Are All My Invention’ catches you off guard after such a thrilling opening with its hushed guitars, intertwining with piano and gentle drums. Starkie showcases his Automatic For The People-era Stipe vocals, revealing a great range as the songs verse glides effortlessly before the bands more upbeat delivery of the chorus. Its simple Americana leanings help set the tone for the album, but with each song comes a distinctive hook that keeps the listeners interest throughout.
The albums wonderful title track and the sublime ‘Closing Up’ stay true to the bands love of great American songwriting that would appeal to fans of Wilco and The Gin Blossoms, along with the country-tinged ‘Till The Morning’ with its laid back harmonica and pedal steel guitar.
The band shows their pop sensibilities with the absolutely stunning ‘My Time Alone’. Three minutes of glorious, uplifting, power-pop with big production, and wall of noise guitars that soar skywards. Taking influence from the likes of Big Star and turning out a tune that the likes of power-pop maestro Brendan Benson would be proud of. It gives the album an injection of energy at the mid-album point where so many albums start to sag.
‘A Warning Sign’ contains stabbing acoustic lines and dark and moody keyboards that power along an offbeat tempo that are in stark contrast to ‘My Time Alone’ and its overwhelmingly joyous feel. The swing in mood and feel with each passing song continues with ‘Mines’ providing a short blast of pretty acoustic indie that builds to a great finale, while the more moody atmosphere surrounding ‘So Here Be Well Again’ has elements of folk-balladry that you can imagine being sung 100 years ago if stripped back from its epic, indie-rock arrangement.
The album now 10 years old has aged very well indeed. A huge amount of bands emerged around the time Witness chose to call it a day in 2004 who were not only championing this type of music, but made a stand for its more widespread acceptance that has continued to this day with the likes of The Avett Brothers, Band Of Horses and Delta Spirit all continuing what was so apparent on this album; great musicians, writing great music, played with heartfelt honesty and a passionate intensity. This album is worthy of discovery.