I’m a fickle type of music listener. I have recently been drawn to loud aggressive, driven music. I crave the raw power of Pete Townsend and Bob Mould. The exuberance of Blink 182 and the Jim Jones Revue. I have even earwigged my daughter checking out Jimi Hendrix. It must be mood related. We identify with that sound which either releases tension or smacks you between the eyes. I am however always returning to the acoustically driven sound. My recently plugged in heavy sound takes a back seat when good tunes with less ‘grrrr’ come onto my radar.
Ironically the return to acoustic happened when I listened to a compilation of Robert Johnson (he who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads etc) and Woody Guthrie. The raw blues genius of Johnson and the wonderful songs of Guthrie. They show two sides of the acoustic guitar. Johnson puts the instrument at the forefront of his recording. Guthrie uses it more as an engine to drive the song as did his disciple and legend that is Bob Dylan. Dylan’s simple but spectacular acoustic guitar acts as the framework for some of his finest tunes.
Those musicians got me drifting back towards the unplugged songs of which I must have thousands. Some bands or performers are largely acoustic. Some release albums with virtually all acoustic tracks. Bombay Bicycle Club launched into popular consciousness in 2008. Their first album in 2009 was electric, edgy and slight punk overtones. They followed this with an entirely acoustic album in 2010 – Flaws. This is an absolute gem of an album. The first track ‘Rinse Me Down’ is simple but beautiful. So many of the tracks are gentle but haunting in their perfection. One of the stand out tracks is ‘Fairytale Lullaby’ a John Martyn song from his first album London Conversation. They handle it wonderfully and with real aplomb. Its not soppy or sentimental just a really good album. If you should go out and get a really good acoustic album, get Flaws.
Another more recent band who produced their 2009 debut album Beachcombers Windowsill, is the Oxford band Stornoway. This album yet again is simple but really well crafted. The opening track ‘Zorbing’ and the second track ‘I Saw You Blink’ are joyous upbeat songs that show the energy that is possible with acoustic led songs. I have listened to this album dozens of times and it makes me feel happy. This is a rare commodity (trust me). You should also purchase this and play it along with Flaws at regular intervals.
The big name in acoustic sounds in the last few years have been Mumford and Sons. Their debut album ‘Sigh No More’ caused a sensation. They have been the darlings of festivals, radio and tv stations since its release in 2009. Their live performances are frenetic and bursting with power. Look at the tracks on the album and it is a fantastic blend of foot stomping and passionate songs with gentle wistful tunes. There can be few more fabulous debut acoustic albums. Crowd favourites ‘Little Lion Man’, ‘The Cave’ and ‘Roll Away Your Stone’ are mixed with more gentle and thoughtful tracks such as ‘Thistle and Weeds’ and ‘Awake My Soul’. They show their variety and a class that will out. Their follow up album Babel looks as if it will follow in the considerable footsteps of Sigh No More. I will not tell you to buy this as you probably already have it. A plea for the Mumfords though. Please do not end up treating them to ‘Coldplay animosity’. They are successful because their music is good and nothing else should matter.
Another hugely successful acoustically driven group hail from the west coast of The USA. Fleet Foxes released their self titled first album in 2008. The sound harks back to the late 60’s with echoes of Crosby Stills and Nash/ The Doors and The Mamas and Papas. It is a wonderfully playful album with great harmonies. Tracks such as ‘White Winter Hymnal’, ‘Ragged Wood’ and ‘Quiet Houses’ are really good listening. Their second album Helplessness Blues is equally as good with such tracks as ‘Lorelei’, ‘Battery Kinzie’ and ‘Grown Ocean’ . They do feature electric instruments heavily but their base is acoustic.
I have written this far and not mentioned such stalwarts of my acoustic music collection as Nick Drake, Roy Harper, Simon and Garfunkel, Kate Rusby and more recently Frank Turner. These performers are true acoustic artists. The solo/duet singers can often create an impact armed merely with an acoustic guitar and good tune. It is sometimes harder for a group to have the same impact. Artists such Jethro Tull have always featured acoustic tracks on their albums. The album Too Old To Rock and Roll featured my favourite of all Tull tracks
‘Salamander’. It is my one mission in life to be able to play the acoustic lead as well as on this track. It is just quintessential Tull.
The great 1971 album Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones features their classic ‘Wild Horses’, an acoustic song more recently ruined by a certain Boyle. Led Zeppelin used acoustic tracks on many of their albums with Led Zeppelin III as their most acoustic/folk centred release. The tracks ‘Gallows Pole’ ,’Tangerine’, ‘Bron-Y-Aur Stomp’ and ‘That’s The Way’ are as prominent as ‘Immigrant Song’ and ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’. It showed a departure for Zeppelin from largely electric blues tracks. It was a bold move to feature an entire side of acoustic tracks. Good acoustic guitar often relies on good technical musicians that can carry it off. They are much less forgiving than an electric guitar. Fingering and chord construction is harder work. Such virtuoso’s as John Martyn, Nick Drake, Jimmy Page or Martin Barre of Tull can play make it look easy.
The unplugged can be energetic, frenetic and tender. It is not a poor substitute for the harder edge of electric instrumentation. It can carry a tune with depth and intensity. So go out and dig out your acoustic tracks and give them a preferential airing. You may find yourself mellowing right there on the spot or stomping along to a more immediate engaging sound.