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CD Reviews:  Witness UK: Under a Sun

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It always amazes me when I hear a British band that sounds more American than most anything we've spawned on this side of the pond. The latest and greatest case in point is Northern England's brooding five-man ensemble, Witness UK. One listen and you'll be thinking maybe the Louisiana bayou, or South Carolina's low country, or at least the sweaty college clubs of Athens, GA. Not so, as these guys were born and bred in the same small English country town that produced Richard Ashcroft and The Verve. Their country-spattered roots rock, however, harkens you back to Harvest-era Neil Young instead of Oasis, Radiohead or Elton John. 

Formed in 1997, Witness UK is essentially unknown in the United States. A modest search across the Internet will produce barely more information than the band members' names and instruments played, a brief mention of their first record (1999's Before The Calm), and now the fact that they've been dropped by Island Records. One might think that such adversity would send a band like Witness into utter oblivion, except for the fact that they're already there! Although they have toured England with the likes of Whiskeytown, Hurricane #1 and Son Volt, hardly a peep has been heard from them on American soil. What a shame.

Under A Sun shines, as it borrows from such an accomplished list of American influences that it truly can't miss. REM is the first and most recognizable similarity, followed by Matthew Sweet and several other late 1980s college bands like The Connells and dBs. "Here's One For You" introduces the record with simple, clashing percussion and harmonica, ear-friendly choruses and the ever-present slide guitar. Matthew Sweet abounds on the British single "You Are All My Own Invention," a vibrant and catchy guitar pop gem that won't be easily neglected. Nearly every song examples a different influence, and yet they all manage to come together in a very polished and concise composition, best listened to as a single 45-minute moment. The music may pull from cultish early REM or even today's Counting Crows, and the crystal clean production of Al Clay (who worked with Blur and The Pixies) brings it all together, but singer/songwriter Gerard Starkie lends the fragile vocals which separate Under A Sun from so many other mediocre sound-alikes. 

Such jangling, upbeat, harmonious college rock has always been able to find its place in this or past musical landscapes. Witness UK has flaunted the goods that should make them a great fit, but unfortunately it takes a lot more than nifty songs to succeed. Certainly being dropped by their label doesn't help the cause, but here's hoping these Brits can live to shine another day Under A Sun.

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