Country singer Harlan Howard famously said that a great song is just “three chords and the truth,” and that pretty much applies to every genre. When you get down to it, most of your favorite music, even the most amazing, life-changing, anthemic stuff, is just words and sounds created by human beings. Plain and simple.
While no one can deny the magic of a distortion pedal’s roar or the way a super loud kick drum feels in your chest, there’s something to be said for songs that still hold up once you’ve removed all of the effects, overdubs and studio wizardry. That was the whole point of shows like MTV Unplugged and VH1 Storytellers, proving that artists like Nirvana, Alice in Chains or Paramore are just as powerful without amplifiers. In fact, sometimes they’re more powerful in those quiet moments.
It’s all in the tiny, little details. You’re able to pay closer attention to the lyrics and hear every sigh, breath and break in the singer’s voice. You notice the little squeak of frets and the way picks scrape against guitar strings. At that point, there’s absolutely nothing between you and the song.
When alternative artists unplug, you’d better listen.
Even when it’s a song you know and love, an acoustic version will hit you in unexpected ways. A great example is The Gaslight Anthem’s stripped-down take on “Great Expectations,” one of the band’s biggest hits. While you’re familiar with the galloping, electrifying recording that kicks off The ‘59 Sound, you can really feel the narrator’s pain and regret in the acoustic version included on The B-Sides. There’s simply nowhere to hide from Brian Fallon’s lyrics when they’re front and center like this. It’s a beautiful punch straight to the gut.
The same goes for Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These,” which is transformed from a soaring call-to-action into a heartfelt plea for compassion. The acoustic recording resonated with fans and became something of a hit in its own right, with the band continuing to play the slowed-down arrangement as an intro when they perform it live.
This is where folk-adjacent artists like Ani DiFranco and Frank Turner are totally in their element, even when they’re playing to a massive audience. There’s just nothing like the sense of intimacy you get when, say, Tegan and Sara slip something like “Call It Off” or “Nineteen” into the setlist. All of the other distractions and noise just seem to vanish. You can hear a pin drop.
Hear these songs and others by Death Cab for Cutie, The Interrupters, Thursday and more on our “Riot Fest Unplugged” playlist!