Sterling Witt – Satyagraha
Sterling Witt’s already strong reputation as one of the most engaging guitar playing songwriters working today will likely only be further burnished by his latest full length release Satyagraha. This thirteen song opus, recorded and mixed by famed producer Steve Albini, bristles with an intelligent, questioning spirit that never simply accepts reality as it is given to him, but it also rampages and struts with undeniable rock and roll grit. Witt takes the album title from a word Indian spiritual and political leader Mahatma Gandhi used to describe the transformative power of objective truth in a world that rarely places any sort of premium on honesty. As before, however, this overarching thematic conceit never bogs the album down in wordiness – much like his guitar playing and arranging, Witt never uses two words when simply one will do and the result is an intense and highly focused affair that also spills over the rim with melody upon melody.
“Perception Deception” is a wickedly smart title that Witt makes full use of with equally intelligent lyrical content. The real achievement here is how massive his power trio sounds. Naturally, Albini has more than a little experience with recording these sort of configurations and getting the best possible results, but the material and chemistry between musicians has to be there first for him to work his magic. Few songs on Satyagraha make that clearer when “Who Do You Listen To?”, a churning and musically challenging number that intersperses a number of tempo changes. Despite the punk roots powering many of the songs and their attitude, Witt and his band mates are obviously top flight musicians capable of employing their talents in imaginative, yet still accessible, ways. “Spiritual Revolution” is largely an instrumental, but it is quite powerful. The song is rolling steadily from its first notes onward and, like every other performance on this album, has an unstoppable engine. The urgency that spans this entire album is nothing less than astonishing. Witt and his musical cohorts sound like men who are, literally, playing for their lives.
“Just So You Know” is full of brief guitar rave-ups, low hung menace, and enough muscle to overpower any listener. He shows great taste and restraint, however, alternating various passages to provide moments of light and shade. The practically tribal drumming might seem a bit primitive to some, but it’s true to the spirit of the track and its spartan aesthetic also helps keep listeners focused on the song’s most important elements. “Where in the World” has a variety of alternating tempos as well, but despite the short running time, it never feels like a hodgepodge of elements tossed together and deemed a song. Witt’s voice sounds a little like Kurt Cobain here, but the band’s music never resembles the deceased icon’s former band in any manner.
“I Love You More Everyday” is the album’s sole moment of high powered pure pop bliss. The melody here is sharper than any other cut on Satyagraha and Witt’s playful vocal knows when to bear down at the right places, but how to also make ample use of the song’s comedic potential. Satyagraha ends with a muted acoustic track, “Labor”, but anyone who thinks this low-fi approach sounds out of place with the amplified fire and fury of the earlier tracks will be happily surprised. It is an excellent bookend to a brawling guitar-fueled masterpiece and has a personal edge while still touching on universal issues. It concludes Sterling Witt’s best album yet in a highly indelible way.
9 out of 10 stars
William Elgin III