Required Listening: Unexpected Acoustic Albums

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Consider the acoustic change-of-pace. Sometimes, it comes from a desire to shift gears: a musician who’s worked primarily in an electric vein wanting to explore a different dynamic and all of the emotions that said dynamic can summon. At others, it can resemble an intentional artistic restraint: musicians or songwriters cutting themselves off from a previously essential part of their repertoire. Sometimes, entire genres can attract notice for turning off the amplifiers. Punk is a particular example, as seen on the 1991 compilation SST Acoustic, which collects work from the likes of Screaming Trees, Minutemen, and fIREHOSE.

This list of unexpected acoustic records covers albums made in the studio and recorded live; it encompasses punk and ambient work, cover songs and audio manipulations. These eight albums have little in common save their instrumentation and their relationship to the artist’s larger of body of work. Some fall into the camp of solo performers accompanied only by an unamplified guitar; others seek out a stranger space.

J Mascis — Several Shades of Why

This isn’t technically the first acoustic album from J Mascis (that would be 1996’s live album Martin and Me), and if you listen closely enough you can indeed hear the occasional electric guitar. But this is nonetheless an impressive shift in tone for the Dinosaur Jr. singer-guitarist, both hearkening back to the bold, sweeping sentimentality (in the best way possible) of his band’s 1993 Where You Been and showcasing an empathic restraint.

Matmos — The West

In 1999, the avant-garde duo Matmos worked to manipulate music made by a host of musicians, including David Pajo, Steve Goodfriend, and Mark Lightcap. What emerged was a sort of mutant take on what’s generally called “cinematic music” these days. Stately rhythms can be heard, and there’s twang to spare. At any moment the familiar might shatter into unpredictable fragments, upending the listener’s expectations of what was to come.

My Morning Jacket — Acoustic Citsuoca

There are, arguably, two types of live acoustic record. This five-song effort from My Morning Jacket falls into the first camp, in which existing songs are reworked, stripped of amplification. In the case of My Morning Jacket, whose music has atmosphere to spare, this EP pushes them into a more overtly heartbreaking place. On these five songs, Jim James’s voice channels unadorned yearning and unabashed awe, lending them a greater depth and expanding the boundaries of what this group could accomplish.

Nirvana — Unplugged in New York

Probably an obvious choice, but also an understandable one. This is the other way a band not normally known for its acoustic side can go when making a live acoustic album: illuminating influences, in this case everyone from the Meat Puppets to Leadbelly. Seventeen years after it was first released, the scream and coda that close “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” are no less haunting.

Hutch and Kathy — Hutch and Kathy

In 2007, this collection of singles from the Portland duo Hutch and Kathy returned to print. By that point, Hutch Harris and Kathy Foster were better known for being two-thirds of the agitated and anthemic Portland trio The Thermals. The 14 songs heard here place their songwriting in a more melodic context. It’s something Harris has returned to recently with his solo project Forbidden Friends.

Arthur Russell — Another Thought

Admittedly, it’s probably a stretch to refer to anything from the expansive body of work produced by Arthur Russell as atypical. But this 15-song collection of pop songs, most of them featuring only cello and vocals, is both a compelling album in its own right and an utterly unique one, sounding like a broadcast from some other (yet oddly familiar) world.

Rumbleseat — Rumbleseat Is Dead

Chris Wollard and Chuck Ragan were making full-throated punk rock as half of Hot Water Music at the time that the late-’90s/early-’00s singles collected on 2005’s Rumbleseat Is Dead were recorded. These songs, which find them joined by Samantha Jones, maintain Hot Water Music’s world-weary vocals and unrelenting urgency while shifting the genre towards something more country-influenced. (There’s a reverent cover of “Jackson” included here.) And while far from the first to look to fuse these two genres, these songs did anticipate a welcome resurgence of that style.

Keith Fullerton Whitman — 21:30 For Acoustic Guitar

Keith Fullerton Whitman’s music can be birthed from the manipulation of nearly anything — from feedback to field recordings. On this 1999 recording, he turns the output of an acoustic guitar into something blissed-out and almost alien, a series of signals from a swirling landscape.