About three years ago, I was going through a phase where I really enjoyed acoustic covers and remixes of songs. I still do, but my feelings about them have shifted slightly, which I will discuss below. Also, I have since gotten into several primarily acoustic artists (I would have called them “indie” at the time, if that helps anyone characterize their sound) that I will share today. First, acoustic music in general:
Be it the piano, strings, or in this case, the guitar, acoustic instruments provide an automatic sense of raw humanity to a song. It makes the song “personal,” especially when it was originally a heavily-produced hit pop song. I will hesitantly posit that everyone knows this, because one of the first things you’ll find on youtube when searching for any popular song is either the artist or some person performing an acoustic cover of it. If you can sing and play guitar, it just works, and people enjoy listening to it.
However, just as I have criticized a lot of contemporary classical music, I have a problem with a lot of acoustic covers. They take advantage of the emotional closeness afforded them by the acoustic instrument. I’m looking for passion and honesty. What I find instead, even from acoustic powerhouses such as Boyce Avenue, is a sense that the singer isn’t even really hearing what he’s singing. Worse, the songs are becoming as production-heavy as the original. It is ironic that when I wrote my first article, I praised acoustic songs for forcing artists to play their instruments cleanly, whereas now I find the clinical precision of Boyce Avenue to be unpleasant.
It is an oft-repeated cliche that imperfections are what make things beautiful, and I feel that I was a bit to eager to shed that mantra about music. I have really come to enjoy acoustic performances with some natural flaws (within reason). I’ll use this acoustic performance of Traveling Theory by Brian Carley from the (excellent) emo band Penfold as an example. It is rife with inconsistencies from a musical standpoint: he’s pitchy, his volume is not always stable, he makes slight mistakes on the guitar… he doesn’t even appear to be mic’d up, so there are no digital corrective effects in place here. And yet, I enjoy the song more than I enjoyed Boyce Avenue. I get the impression that the song actually means something to him (and I would hope so, because I’m assuming he wrote it). He meets the the acoustic guitar halfway. It provides the rawness, he provides the personality. I feel now that this is the way acoustic covers are meant to be.
Now I’ll move on to some recommendations of artists that release primarily acoustic music (in slightly different genres).
Warren Franklin. I’ve heard Warren Franklin described as anything from acoustic punk to “campfire emo.” I tend to agree with the latter — his music sounds very different compared to “regular” acoustic/indie stuff because it seems to draw influences from emo music. Bro Downs Know No Bounds is by far his best track, and it exemplifies what I’m talking about with “campfire emo.” He’s using a lot of suspended chords with those twinkly higher notes, and he’s even got a bit of the loud-quiet dichotomy going on. This is the opening track on his album Your Heart Belongs To The Midwest, and it sets a high bar that I felt the rest of the album struggled to reach. However, there are a bunch of good songs on the album to choose from. St. Peters is one, and it has a bit more melancholy vibe than Bro Downs. He even has a song (You Rule Lindsay) where he channels his inner contemporary classical composer. All in all, he is a worthwhile listen for any fans of emo music.
S. S is the side-project of Jenn Ghetto from <a href="http://www.last.fm/music/Carissa's+Wierd"Carissa's Wierd, a great shoegaze band in its own right. The genre used to describe her music is “sadcore,” which I will just permit without question. Her songs have a melancholic tone to them, but they all have a sense of pace to them as well — she doesn’t play as slowly as some acoustic artists tend to. What really stood out to me was what a tremendous composer she is. Her songs explore all kinds of possibilities with the acoustic guitar. For instance, I was astounded by Not A Problem, which uses what sounds like only 3 or 4 layered acoustic tracks at most, and manages to be an incredibly enjoyable listen. For an outwardly simple song, it is quite complex. That track is off her album I’m Not As Good At It As You, which is loaded with great songs. I could pick any one to share here as a teaser, but I’ll go with This Way Always. I’ve listened to another one of her albums, Sadstyle, and it also quite good. Everyone Else is my favorite track off that album. Again, I am a fan of her use of layering and harmony. It makes all of her songs have an addictive “listenable” quality to them.
R.L. Kelly. R.L. Kelly is the (post-ironic mockery of R. Kelly?) side project of Rachel Levy from the shoegaze band Kiss Kiss Fantastic. I have not had the opportunity to listen to her band, but her acoustic music is wonderful. She’s got two releases, a split with Alex G, and Life’s A Bummer. They come in at under 30 minutes combined and are both free on Bandcamp, so I’d recommend just listening to them. I really enjoy the title track off Life’s A Bummer, but all of her songs have the same pleasantly melodic feel that I like about S. Her songs also have that enchanting and devilish quality of being mellow and relaxing. It’s hard to stop listening once you start.
That’s that. For anyone who was too much of a wuss to enjoy the screamo post, perhaps this is more up your alley.