30th December 1915 – this is thought to be the date when a Public Address system was first used. It is humbling to know that a leap of only one hundred years takes us to a world of acoustic music by default. In this bygone world loudness is only available to large ensembles; a man alone can no longer fill a stadium with his songs or his kazoo.
Back in 2010, in southern England, there is a movement spreading named Pure Acoustica. This is not a record label or a genre as such; it is instead a collective of artists shepherded by the term’s founder, and fellow acoustic musician, Nick Tann. Nick is devoted to encouraging and promoting independent musicians – in particular acoustic musicians – and has a well-subscribed podcast that musicians/bands from around the globe are welcome to submit music for. Pure Acoustica is the alignment of Nick’s championing of independent artists with an ethos: the performance of music without microphones or amplifiers. While the pursuit of purity is nothing new, the intimacy that can be found in filling a room with an unaided voice is something worth pursuing. An audience must quieten to hear it; a performer must project their voice to an open space, not murmur softly into a hyped microphone like a latenight DJ.
But this article is not about a live performance, it is about singer-songwriter Tom Caulfield’s mini-album Bare Bones, recorded under the umbrella of Pure Acoustica. So how does Pure Acoustica translate to recording? An explanation can be found from Tom’s Bandcamp page.
[Bare Bones was] recorded the Pure Acoustica way; just a pair of nice microphones, all one take, no overdubs or drop-ins. No fancy effects, not even reverb. Just as if Tom was playing in your front room.
There is a problem when working to a strict ethos – it can sometimes sound better on paper than it does in practice. Audiences love to ‘see’ live performances, to match the artist’s physical effort with every nuance of the sound. But the abstract world of recorded sound is a cold blind place and it is for that reason that the quest for warmth and character on record has been so far-reaching.
Listening to Good You Got Away, with its hints of Bon Iver and its vivid storytelling, I am not wholly convinced by Tom’s vocal. I am sensitive to him holding back on some lines, while others flow much freer and without being able to watch him perform, the only story I can follow is what the vocal gives; the subtext of a man giving a single take is soon lost and forgotten. I’m inclined to wonder what it could have sounded like without the pressure of nailing it ‘all-in-one’ and with the facility to add a little reverb on his voice. This may have made an already sweet song even more magical.
Doomed To Be Beautiful is evocative of Tom Waits but lacking the incredible warmth of his recordings or grit of his voice. I do not think Mr Caulfield should aim to copy Mr Waits, but instead find a character to hang this delicate song upon. Personally, I would have loved to have heard some cello singing against Tom’s parched take. Catholic Girls confirms that Tom has a feel and talent for lyrics. ‘Everyone knows what Catholic Girls are like’ is a wonderful turn of phrase for a chorus and is a highlight of the album. Miss Valentines Last Stand continues with the rush of rhyming Jesus with Margaritas – very impressive – and the album closes with a gently funky guitar instrumental. I can’t help but wish it had some harmonica, or whistling or anything accompanying it, lovely though it is.
While Bare Bones is a fine document of Tom’s songs, this album trades magic for its ethos and this effectively stops it from flourishing. Pure Acoustica’s mandate makes excellent sense for live performances and I can thoroughly recommend going to see Tom and other Pure Acoustica artists live, in their natural habitat. For future recordings, I would suggest they either go to the great lengths of hiring chapels and candles to attempt the ultimate in one-take-wonders, or allow themselves a little more creative flexibility.
Buy a ‘Bare Bones’ CD (or download for free) here.
Learn more about Pure Acoustica here.
Find out more about Nick Tann’s podcast here.