A mark of a great artist is the ability to transform something already crafted into something more. Studio versions of songs represent a culmination of one realization of the music — they need not be definitive statements about the way they always need to be played. When an artist strips down an initial arrangement of a song, it can be elevated to a level even higher than the polished work done in the recording studio. A decision of this type may be motivated out of the specific desire to change the music up — recall the MTV Unplugged craze of the mid-nineties — or out of necessity. In the case of the latter, the steep costs of touring often prove prohibitive for some musicians, leaving them to hit the road by their lonesome (Sondre Lerche would be a good example of this; up until the release of his self-titled LP in 2011, his shows were almost always solo). Regardless of the motive, the transformative ability remains the same; even if a sparse lineup isn’t intended to change anything about the song, changing arrangements almost always provides new insight into a song, either good or bad.
The ten tracks below are a few examples of when this change works remarkably well. Spanning several genres and styles, these songs in their “completed” studio renditions do represent a particular intentionality on the part of their respective artists, but even in these often rough recordings, an unshakeable magic remains present. When I asked some fellow music writers about this subject, I got answers including Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Basement Jaxx, and Screaming Trees — evidence enough of the ability for the acoustic version to span all different walks of art. Leave your choices in the comment section below!
Warren Zevon, “Piano Fighter” (from Learning to Flinch, 1993)
Mutineer, the second of Warren Zevon’s two studio LPs in the 1990s, is the only outright misfire of his otherwise tumultuous-yet-successful career. It displays the man’s sardonic lyricism quite well — that talent of his is hard to mask, regardless of the music that backs him — but the cluttered, lo-fi synths that occupy a majority of the record drown out what could have been otherwise quality melodies. In the case of “Piano Fighter,” one of Mutineer’s better moments, the issue is that Zevon didn’t stick to what the name of the song suggests: play it on piano! This is exactly why the version of the song captured on Learning to Flinch, Zevon’s rough-around-the-edges 1993 live album (You can even hear a soda can opening before this song starts), is so definitive. As he runs his fingers up and down the keyboard in the style of an ace blues musician, he shows both his prodigious talent with the piano and captures the spirit of the lyrics. “Someone called Piano Fighter/I’m a holy roller,” he sings. “I’m a real low rider.”
Porcupine Tree, “Nine Cats” (from Insignificance, 1997)
Porcupine Tree’s earliest material is quite laughable. From the chipmunked vocals of “Linton Samuel Dawson” (L.S.D…. get it?) to samples from B-movies about penis transplantation, band mastermind Steven Wilson was both lovingly and free-spiritedly offering up his own take on psychedelia. Because the earliest years of the band were essentially Wilson working by himself, there’s an inescapable element of self-indulgence to records like 1991’s On the Sunday of Life… and earlier, now highly desired demos like Love, Death, and Mussolini. Silliness, however, is not an absolutely defining factor of this music; in many ways, Wilson truly did fit into the psychedelic underground that Porcupine Tree sprang from. Case in point is Sunday of Life highlight “Nine Cats,” which, in its album version, is backed by a curiously placed beat, with a bouncy bass drum amping up the otherwise tranquil music. For Insignificance, a B-side cassette released in 1997 (now included as a bonus disc to the reissue of Signify), Wilson performed a solo acoustic version of the track, revealing its purest form: a wistful, charming psychedelic ballad, where toads, kangaroos, and golden dragons occupy a delirious world of barbed-wire trees and butterfly-lined breezes.
Coldplay, “The Hardest Part” (from LeftRightLeftRightLeft, 2009)
Coldplay are at the stage in their popularity where, to high-minded critics, the title persona non grata is the most apt descriptor. There are undoubtedly more than a few people who count them as a guilty pleasure, only willing to listen to them alone with all the windows and doors shut. Truth be told, Coldplay might have fared better in a world where the desire to be “ambitious” for its own good — which began with Viva la Vida’s Brian Eno producer credit — was abandoned in favor of the honest-straightforward piano balladry of records like their finest hour, A Rush of Blood to the Head. In a live setting, “The Hardest Part,” a standout moment from the lamentable X&Y, proves just how apt Chris Martin is at the piano confessional. The soft-rock of the studio version is foregone, leaving Martin out on the stage by himself with just the piano to sell the song’s bittersweet musings. To put it mildly, the audience eats it up; he even gets a woman to sing herself hoarse toward the end of the song. Moreso than any other live LP, LeftRightLeftRightLeft really brings in the crowd cheering and chanting; being that it was released as a free download, the band clearly meant it as a sort of tribute to their fans. As an added bonus, when Martin hits the last note of “The Hardest Part,” he segues seamlessly into the brief instrumental interlude “Postcards from Far Away,” giving once again the impression that the Eno-led version of Coldplay, while perhaps more risk-taking, doesn’t hold a candle to the sappy piano balladeers of A Rush of Blood to the Head.
Anathema, “They Die” (from Falling Deeper, 2011)
Falling Deeper technically qualifies as an acoustic album in that the instrumentation is almost entirely organic, but it’s far from “stripped-down.” After making a huge splash in the metal world of the early ‘90s as one of the so-called “Peaceville Three,” Anathema progressed into something similar on the emotive spectrum but shockingly different in sound. With records like 2010’s We’re Here Because We’re Here and 2012’s massive breakthrough Weather Systems, this British group wholeheartedly embraced the sonic mores of emotive stadium rock. Falling Deeper fits within this genre’s confines, but like 2008’s Hindsight before it, instead of offering new material, re-interprets the band’s older work using new instrumentation — in this instance, orchestral. In a wise move, Anathema skip going just for the hits, taking the time to resurrect some older, more obscure B-sides. One such song is “They Die,” a track off the Cresftallen EP, which, at 2:11, is the shortest thing on this LP. But what a beauty it is: The original studio cut of the song is one of the band’s earliest, unpolished stabs at doom, but here it’s given a breathtakingly gorgeous life, due in large part to a meticulously arranged string section.
Earth, “Coda Maestoso in F (Flat) Minor” (from Hibernaculum, 2007)
Like Anathema, Earth has a musical journey that’s been stunning to watch unfold. The Dylan Carlson-fronted project pioneered the drone-doom genre in the early ‘90s with slabs of distortion worship like Earth 2. Then, in a tragic turn of events, Carlson’s life spiraled downward after he purchased the shotgun used by Kurt Cobain used in his suicide — a goal which, of course, Carlson had never hoped for the weapon. The remainder of the ‘90s saw a couple of haphazard releases like 1996’s Pentastar — In the Style of Demons, and Carlson eventually just dropped off the map altogether. Years later, in the mid ‘00s, Earth arrived back with a vengeance — though the music was much less heavy this time around. Records like 2005’s Hex; Or, Printing in the Infernal Method and the 2008 masterpiece The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull took to the Americana-styled desert Western stylings of compositional greats like Ennio Morricone, with the repetitious, hypnotic quality of Earth’s original sound still present. On the 2007 CD/DVD release Hibernaculum, the band even took this new style to old recordings, offering up new versions of overlooked older tracks. “Coda Maestoso in F (Flat) Minor,” an unimpressive track off Pentastar, is given a dirge-y new life on Hibernaculum, anchored by Adrienne Davies’ nuanced, jazzy drum patterns. Though not strictly acoustic — Carlson’s guitars are electric — this rendition nonetheless has the effect of any of the great “stripped-down” versions.
John Mayer, “Neon” (from Where the Light Is, 2008)
John Mayer gets a bad rap. A good deal of it is his fault; one can’t unabashedly maintain a kiss-and-tell-all attitude — punctuated with bizarre, racially-charged sexual comments — and expect to make a lot of friends. Some of the disdain, however, comes from faulty perceptions of the man’s excellent career; a good swath of people just can’t get past “Your Body is a Wonderland” or “Why Georgia,” despite the inspired take on the blues that informs Continuum and the live album Where the Light Is. The latter, the best thing Mayer has done, is a document not of a would-be pop sensation but of an expert guitar player and bandleader. Of the Los Angeles show’s many highlights, one in particular rises above the rest of the lengthy, two-disc setlist: the solo acoustic version of “Neon,” a memorable cut off of his debut, Room for Squares. Here, Mayer’s dexterous fingers marathon-run up and down his fretboard, turning a lament about a woman lost to the allures of night life into a showcase for his skill as a guitar player. That the song requires a drop-C tuning even adds a nice heaviness to the track, proving that this guy has more than a few tricks up his sleeves.
My Dying Bride, “The Distance, Busy with Shadows” (from Evinta, 2011)
My Dying Bride were once part of the same doom-metal trirumvate as Anathema, the Peaceville Three. Also like Anathema, in 2011, they took to re-interpreting their back catalogue, the document of which can be found on the three-disc opus Evinta, a haunting collection of orchestral and operatic takes on old themes and motifs. Unlike a regular re-interpretive LP, the songs here usually do not directly draw from one song in a discography; these are entirely new compositions using bits and pieces of previously recorded material, the one exception being “You are Not the One Who Loves Me.” Incorporating elements of opera, spoken word, and Romantic piano figures, Evinta is a darkly entrancing listen from start to finish. It’s difficult to isolate a stand-out track on an album as expansive. But for the sake of this list, take the ambient “The Distance, Busy with Shadows,” punctuated by harpsichord, woodwinds, and nocturne-like piano lines. The power of bands like My Dying Bride and Anathema is that they demonstrate doom’s ability to transform into something grandiose, orchestral, and truly beautiful.
Swans, “A Piece of the Sky (Demo)” (from We Rose from Your Bed with the Sun in Our Head, 2012)
“A Piece of the Sky,” the 19-minute cut off of Swans’ mammoth 2012 outing The Seer, is an ever-changing beast. It begins with actual fire sounds. Then it segues into a windy section. Then a loud, mesmerizing percussion section kicks in, followed by a good five minutes of jangly post-rock. What then concludes the track comes so out of left-field one has to wonder if it was lazily tacked on; but since this is Swans, left-field turns, are ironically enough, to be expected, and the final minutes of “A Piece of the Sky” mark some of frontman Michael Gira’s finest work as a songwriter. Similar to My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky’s highlight “Reeling the Liars In,” this home stretch of “A Piece of the Sky,” captured in a wonderful, intimate version on the live album We Rose from Your Bed with the Sun in Our Head, draws heavily from Gira’s folk songwriting in the Angels of Light project. The full-bodied instrumentation of the LP version amps up the music considerably, yet Gira could have easily released this in this way — just him and a guitar — and it would have been just as excellent. The music has a joyful, almost waltz-like lilt to it, a strange thing considering the muck-and-grime imagery of The Seer (take the consonance of “The Seer Returns”: “he’s a greasy, heaving beast in a field of sticky black mud”). Gira describes the song as “a prayer to our Creator,” which elicits a curious reaction given the scattered images he evokes: “unforgiving jaw,” “petroleum plumes,” and “mountains stripped bare” all make an appearance. (Best of them all? “In the blood of the Swans/As the sun fucks the dawn.”) Since it’s Gira’s powerful voice delivering all these lines, one has to wonder why prayer can’t sound like this more often.
Mary Chapin Carpenter, “I Take My Chances (Live in Madison, WI)” (from Party Doll and Other Favorites, 1999)
Mary Chapin Carpenter is an A-list songwriter whose best material is often dragged down by the soft-rock, adult contemporary take on country that defines a lot of her ‘90s hits. Such is especially the issue for “I Take My Chances,” a track with killer lyrics and a great vocal by Carpenter. Unfortunately, the studio edition of this cut is marred by a flat, radio-friendly approach that doesn’t do service to its most quality components. Its live take on Party Doll and Other Favorites, Carpenter’s all-aces greatest hits collection released in 1999, remedies this problem. Just by playing “I Take My Chances” solely on acoustic guitar and piano, Carpenter elevates its status, transforming it into the intimate confessional it truly is. (It helps that her keyboard player gives a stupendous performance, with a bluesy inflection not heard enough in her music.) As a result, Carpenter’s winningest lyrics — “Forgiveness doesn’t come with a debt,” “I found a preacher/He spoke of the light/But there was brimstone in his throat” — feel all the more authentic.
Stream the song via Spotify here.
Pain of Salvation, “Chain Sling” (from 12:5, 2004)
Remedy Lane standout “Chain Sling” is the ultimate showcase for Daniel Gildenlöw’s commanding voice. The Pain of Salvation frontman has a reputation in the progressive rock community for his vocals, which are impressive not only for their range but for their tonal versatility. He can switch between sweet falsetto and operatic bellows with effortless ease, a fact that remains constant regardless of live or studio setting. The lyrical matter of “Chain Sling,” then, is a perfect fit for his pipes, as it documents the push-and-pull of a disintegrating relationship plagued with unrequited love. The verses are pleading and high on the register: “Please let me be yours/Please never leave,” while the pre-chorus takes on a harsher, almost growled menace: “If you love me you must let go!” The studio recording is top-notch, but on the acoustic live LP 12:5, the band does a good job of enhancing the Eastern European-inspired folk melodies out of the music, at the same time maintaining its pain-laced ferocity.