Putting together an acoustic version of a song is like a lot of things. What I mean is, it's hard to do well, but when it is done well, it seems effortless and as natural as breathing; conversely, it is easy to do badly, and when that happens... well, it's not pretty. So let's take a look at some acoustic arrangements, shall we? And just to be clear, I am talking about artists re-arranging their own work here; covers are a different beast altogether. Also for clarity's sake, let me say up front that these are all artists and songs that I truly enjoy.
Of course, 'done well' and 'done badly' are extremely subjective, so I will elaborate my views on the subject as we go on. The first thing you have to look at is whether the song in and of itself lends itself to an acoustic arrangement. One can, of course, play anything on an acoustic guitar that can be played on an electric. But that doesn't mean one should. Let's take a look at this train wreck as an example:
INXS :: Need You Tonight
This illustrates what is, in my opinion, the single biggest hurdle of making a good acoustic arrangement; the fact that despite being extremely closely related, acoustic instruments are different from their electric counterparts. You cannot play a song the same way and get the same results, nor should you try. They made no effort to take the different sounds they were getting and use them to make the song more interesting. With, I think, awful results.
The Cure :: Friday I'm In Love
This is better, but still no great shakes. The song lends itself fine, but they didn't really do anything fun or new or interesting with it, and it is so tightly engineered that the feeling of spontaneity and intimacy that I think makes acoustic music so enticing has been stifled to the point of non-existence. It's not bad... it's just not any different from the album release version, so why bother?
The Eagles :: Hotel California
This is, I think a good arrangement. The song works, the instruments are used to good effect, feels vibrant and immediate, certainly. But there is no intimacy whatsoever. I mean, part of it isn't their fault- there are 97 guys on stage, which makes it hard, but even taking that into account, it feels very... closed. There is no insight into the song, or how The Eagles feel about the song to be had here. It's a great rendition, but it has no soul.
Sting :: Every Breath You Take
This works on all the technical fronts, and here we have some intimacy (of a sort). There is clearly a lot of connection and feeling going on between the musicians, but the audience feels excluded to me. Like kids with their faces pressed up against a window, watching the neighbors' television. Engaged, but not involved. Some of you may say that I am just being nit-picky, and I can see that, but I stand by my opinion. It's a great performance, but a little cold.
Tommy Tutone :: 867-5309 / Jenny
Here's another example of what I mean about Sting's performance; Tommy Tutone is fantastic in this clip, but totally untouchable. He has perfect 'rock star remove' here, aloof from the audience, holding back from letting any real emotion or meaning slip out into the music. And it's only barely apparent, because the rest of it works so well. That is, except for the guy in the back who's off key...
Colin Hay :: Overkill
This is the cream of the crop. If you are still with me, Gentle Readers, then you are in for a treat. Not only is this a beautifully stripped down and wonderfully executed arrangement, Colin Hay breaks all the barriers. I feel like he's in my living room, and like I can really see what he was thinking and feeling when it was written twenty-five years ago. It's immediate, intimate, and imperfect in a way that only accentuates what a great song it is.
Now that is a feat worth listening to.
1 month ago