Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christmas Song - Unforgotten

Usually when you hear a Christmas song, you can expect it to have a certain Christmas "sound": there will be perhaps some bells, and some indefinable "Christmasness" about it. Generally speaking, Christmas songs are happy or reverent things. I wanted to break the musical mold a little bit; but also had in mind some recognition that for some people Christmas can lead to depression. This year I had a mind to write a melancholy song dedicated to the people who are no longer with us... sort of our 'Auld Lang Syne'. While making it a distinctly Christmas song, I wanted it to be as accessible as possible.

When I called William about the idea, I learned that he had already started lyrics along those lines, lacking only a few touches. As a result the song came together very quickly. It's occasions like this when I begin to think the telephone is obsolete, at least where we're concerned. Now how cool is that? Before you answer, keep in mind that we haven't even lived in the same town since 1982.

'Unforgotten' isn't intended to be depressing. Listen to it and think fondly back on the people you've known and loved, and enjoy the memories.

lyrics by William Hoover, 30 November, 2010
Merry Christmas Mom, Bill Hoover, Harold Mayo, Terrel Cribbe, Keith Miller...

Merriment and Mistletoe
Some of us got called home
And I'm right there with you
-- I'll never forget you

The chime of tiny silver bells
The sights, the sounds, the smells
Cinnamon scent and candle glow
-- I'll never forget you

Unforgotten friends shall live forever
In our memories
Holidays, every day and always
In our memories

Angels adorn the trees
Covered with lights and seasonal delights
Homemade cakes and handmade gifts
-- I'll never forget you

Family gathered 'round the tree
To celebrate the season in Love's glow
Where did all the seasons go?
-- I'll never forget you

Unforgotten friends shall live forever
In our memories
Holidays, every day and always
In our memories

[instrumental. Musical quotes from "Jingle Bells", "Carol of the Bells", "We Three Kings"]

And it's sometimes hard to take what has happened
It must be the gift of caring that preserves the memories

Unforgotten friends shall live forever
Unforgotten friends -- 
Unforgotten friends shall live forever
In our memories
(I remember you)

[instrumental outro. Musical quotes from "Carol of the Bells", "We Three Kings"]

SpinTunes Winner - Mitchell Adam Johnson

I've been a little remiss in not posting the winner of SpinTunes #2, that being Mitchell Adam Johnson, for his song, "In Another Castle" (starring Princess Peach of Super Mario Brothers). Fleshing out Mitchell's sparse SpinTunes bio, we find that he shares a spot in the retro-pop band "Spencer McGillicutty" with fellow contestants Ryan Ruff Smith and Brittany Miller ("Gweebol"). What a talented group! Click through the band name to visit their official website (it will play music when you go there, so be prepared)

Here are all of the songs (and shadow entries) for round 4. (the album art is by Yours Truly.)
If you'd like to see how my rankings differ from the final tally, read or watch my review. (I won't make any secret that my personal favorite here is Zarni DeWet's highly emotive piece, "The Bleeding Effect".)

Congratulations to Mitchell and each and every one of the competitors! Here's looking forward to SpinTunes #3!.

Monday, November 29, 2010

SpinTunes Round 4 Reviews - Complete!

There's a little bit of difficulty getting this formatted correctly on the SpinTunes site, so I've posted it here.

When we got to the Final Four of the LP, the one thing that immediately struck me was that this round would be great. The quality of the entries were uniformly excellent. This being a POV challenge, I'm judging how well the songwriter got into the head of the character he or she was portraying. I really wasn't looking for bleeps and bloops, though the 8-bit sound was appreciated, where appropriate. But it's important to remember that this challenge is character-based... NOT game-based. The successful entries get us into the head of the character, not the feel of the game.

Something different I've done today is I've noted the running time of each song. I did this after I noticed how incredibly short (time-wise) the playlist is. Fully 10 of the 15 songs clock in at under 3 minutes. NINE of those clock in at 2:30 or less. In keeping with my expectation that this challenge would knock a lot of folks out of their comfort zones, I got a general feeling of "get me the hell out of here" from some of the entries. I also think it's a general trend that the longer entries tend to be the much better ones. These come from the writers who successfully avoided the "game vs. character" trap. Those who took the time to develop the character tended to take their songs out of novelty territory and imbue them with genuine replay value.

The previously eliminated competitors are voting on this round, so my rankings don't count for much. Nevertheless, I'm presenting the four competitive entries in their ranked order, top to bottom. The shadows are unranked and appear in album order.

Zarni DeWet - the Bleeding Effect (4:07)
Game: Assassin's Creed
Character: Desmond Miles

You know what I said above, about taking a song out of novelty territory...?  This is the quintessential example. I have to admit, I was completely unprepared for the superb quality of this entry. If you didn't know one thing at all of this game, or that the song had any connection to it, you'd still get an emotional charge from the hook, "I became a ghost / so you won't bleed...". What a selfless expression! The music is elegant and beautiful; I could listen to this all day long. Way back in the first round I noted Zarni's economy of words, and it's at work here again. Imagine for a moment all the different ways that you could express that you kill for a cause; that the ends justify your means; that you're working for a higher purpose; that contrary to appearances your focus is not on destruction, but life. Then consider the words, "If I gotta shed some blood to save some -- then I'll save some." Try to do that better, 'cause I can't.

Your votes will determine if Zarni's won the contest, but this song says she's won me over completely.

Rebecca Brickley - Where Am I? (3:33)
Game: Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
Character: Carmen Sandiego

I had an internal struggle over whether Chris or Rebecca got the #2 spot. In the end Rebecca got it because she's got a better handle, I think, on her character. I like the vocal performance. I like the fact that she's not just singing it, she's acting the part. I like the fact that she can do that because she wrote a part that could be acted, and set it to music that allows and furthers that performance. Through this we get a sense of Carmen's playfulness and her sense of superiority. Great job!

Chris Cogott - In Bright Falls (2:30)
Game: Alan Wake
Character: Alan Wake

I like Chris' music, his sound, the arrangement, and his unique choice of character. The song has a bit of a happy-creepy quality to it that both works for and against it. For it, because it's catchy, and just really, really nice to listen to. Against it, for the same reason. We have here a character whose wife has ben dragged into a lake; whose life is a veritable horror show: yet I keep expecting the Munstermobile to drive up and Eddie and Grandpa to jump out. Though the song is undeniably in Alan's POV, I don't get the feeling that Alan is feeling anything. But again, it's a great poppy sound and it meets the challenge, and I love both the organ and the guitar work and the "Paperback Writer" homage. All things considered, it was the musical production that took my 3rd spot.

Mitchell Adam Johnson - In Another Castle (2:06)
Game: Super Mario Brothers
Character: Princess Peach

I hate that every round has to have someone come in last. I'm surprised in the extreme that we didn't have a slew of Mario-themed songs; and that the one we have here is so damned good. The POV is good, and I like the little twist that Peach could probably escape anytime she really felt like it. The game sound effects are a little tedious for a prolonged listen: I suspect that Mitchell knows that, too, as the song is just over the minimum length. In the end, it was the novelty nature of the song that kept it from ranking higher with me.


Charlie McCarron - The Pac-Man Duet (1:09)
Game: Pac-Man / Ms. Pacman
Character: Pac-Man & Ms. Pacman

If you're thinking that you'd wish the overly-busy dot-eating noises would go away during the song, keep in mind that it's not just background noise. Each leg between gulps is exactly 4-beats, or a measure. That makes this sample part of the instrumentation. Still, I wish it were pulled into the background a bit. This is very cute. The voices, with their vibrato and ever-so slight Chipmunkification, sound pretty much as I'd expect Pac-man and his Ms. to sound. There's not a whole lot on either of our protagonists' mind: eat, avoid death, love your significant other. Simple game, simple sentiment. Alas, it's too short to have met the challenge.

Mark Humble - I'm Q*Bert, Babe (2:30)
Game: Q*Bert
Character: Q*Bert

Mark Humble's Q*Bert is apparently the alien answer to Leisure Suit Larry. You might find riffs like this in a 1970s-era soft-porn flick... or so I've heard. *ahem*. Tries for "geek-chic", but winds up overshooting and going a little too meta. If you've ever wondered why Q*Bert is so keen on clearing those levels, you're not going to find out from this song... unless it has something to do with getting into your pants. Entertaining stuff, though. Mark, I'm still trying to decide if you deserve cake or death for near-rhyming Nietzsche and pizza. Oh, hell, take a coveted no-prize.

Brian Gray - Hard to Get (4:06)
Game: Donkey Kong
Character: Donkey Kong

Brian wrote an excellent little bio of this song. The concept: what if Donkey Kong were classically educated, and in love with Mario to boot? And what if he only used the captured Pauline as bait to attract his beloved Mario? Brian does an excellent job of getting into the big ape's head, and keeps the song focused on that POV. Picking out the longhair references is entertaining for those who are well-read. Musically, this is excellent... eminently listenable, and Brian's vocals are great, meshing well with the acoustic guitar. I've rated Brian highly previous rounds and feel more than justified by this great entry. He's one of my favorite performers. I feel Brian would have done extremely well in this round.

Boffo Yux Dudes - Floating Away (2:30)
Game: Asteroids
Character: The Asteroid ship pilot

Not quite matching Duality's four-song tour-de-force in Round 3, BYD have submitted not one, but three shadows. This one is the weakest of the lot. The "character" is the implied pilot of the asteroid-shooting spaceship. They describe it as their homage to Major Tom... and that actually makes a bit of sense. Take it from someone who put more than his share of quarters into one of these arcade machines, the primary winning tactic in Asteroids is to ignore the big rocks. Shoot the little ones, and keep the overall number of asteroids on the screen low. At the end of a screen you can then take a rest by leaving one asteroid fragment which you can leisurely dodge. At this point you're just floating away, as the "pilot" is, knowing that at some point you're going to have to destroy that last rock and embark on a fresh cycle, never to gain a permanent victory. Musically this drags a little bit, but I think that's intentional. Performance-wise, there are a few places where it could benefit from a visit by the Autotune-fairy.

JoAnn Abbot - Go For The Eyes (2:44)
Game: Baldur's Gate
Character: Boo

The POV here is indeed a hamster. While there are definite bonus points to be had for thinking outside the box, there's a limit to the depth of character provided by what is arguably a completely normal rodent. But what if he's not exactly normal...? Most of the idiosyncrasies -- and potential -- may appear to be in Boo's owner, Minsc; but here Jo takes him at face value and explores Boo as if Minsc's wetware didn't need a reboot. Jo does a very decent job portraying their relationship from Boo's perspective, though I expected Boo to be... er... wiser. The tune is simple -- the sort of thing you'd write for your grandkids -- and Caleb Hines' accompaniment is very well done. Jo gives us a good sampling of catch-phrases, so fans of Baldur's Gate should really like this song. I strongly, strongly, strongly recommend the "hamster mix" of this song.

Boffo Yux Dudes - One level Down (1:58)
Game: Space Invaders
Character: a Space Invader

Sam -- I mean, Tom -- and his invisible friend Al have brought us yet another shadow, this one better than the first. And yes, it's about one of those Space Invaders, advancing in rank and file with their zig-zag motion. There are a number of things I like about this song. I like the gradual accellerando, as in the game. I like the alien perspective of "...follow my brothers all the way to the ground." Apparently, Space Invaders are a bit monomaniacal, so this song wouldn't compete with the more character-driven ones, but I really don't think it tries to. It's worth listening to on its own merits. Sadly, they cut it exactly two seconds too short, and it doesn't meet the letter of the challenge.

David Ritter - Pitfall! (2:01)
Game: Pitfall!
Character: Pitfall Harry

I think this song has a great character and a great concept and a bit of a missed opportunity. David has given us a good sampling of the "whats" of Pitfall!, but gives us none of the "whys", and that's a huge difference. This song could be twice as long as it is, and be more entertaining, if we have a little hook into Pitfall Harry's psyche. I think that for a jungle vine-swinging character, acoustic is a good choice, but we do need to hear more of Harry's thoughts as opposed to his actions.

Boffo Yux Dudes - The Elf Shot The Food (2:02)
Game: Gauntlet
Character: The Party

If you've only played Gauntlet as a console game, then you missed out. Gauntlet truly shone as a four-player stand-up arcade game. Gauntlet was one of the early games where your character actually had to eat. Those who've played it with partners know the frustration of having a weakened, hungry character approach bounty, only to see it accidentally destroyed by a stray arrow. So this song is sure to get a smile from old-school arcade gamers. However, that's pretty much the whole joke, so we don't mind that the song's over in 2 minutes... that's actually about the right length for it.

Caleb Hines - The Writing on the Wall (2:16)
Game: Portal
Character: Chell

What! you say... didn't Jonathan Coulton already write the definitive Portal song?  Well, maaaybe... his did actually show up in the game, but it's written from the perspective of GlaDOS, the AI. Caleb Hines gives us the story from the viewpoint of Chell, GlaDOS's victim. He crams an awful lot into two and a half minutes. The song is firmly focused on Chell's thoughts. Ultimately it's a build-up to the punchline best associated with Portal. Musically... well, I'm not convinced that Chell would sing something so tuneful and carefree after her ordeal. GlaDOS would, but she's not real.

Governing Dynamics - One Four One (Roach) (4:07)
Game: Modern Warfare 2
Character: Gary "Roach" Sanderson

Travis has an interesting storytelling style... he reveals his character's thoughts through his impressions... those things that are noticed by the character. Don't expect to understand Roach's thoughts... expect to share his feelings. In this case  the lyrics turn out to be a recounting of the game itself aside from some wordplay around the names Shepherd and Ghost. The mood here is carried by the music, and by the choice of adjectives.

Inverse T Clown - I'm Tops (3:24)
Game: Megaman 3
Character: Topman

OK, when you listen to this I want you to consider something: ITC doesn't play a note of his music. He scores every bit of it by pushing notes around on a music staff. Now keep in mind that he generally gets this stuff done early (when not plagued by equipment malfunctions). Given that synthetic music is ITC's briar patch, I fully expected him to run away with this challenge. He very nearly does so... he has far and away the best videogame soundtrack-styled entry on the playlist; made all the more impressive in that this isn't done with samples (save for one effect at the very end). Please, somebody, give this guy a job writing actual videogame music! Lyrically, ITC gives us a unique and clever take on a tertiary game character from Megaman 3... Topman. Here Topman poo-poos the suggestion that he's named for his top-like weapons, insisting that it's because he's the best of Dr. Wiley's Robot Masters. Uh... yeah.  I really wish this challenge had come earlier in the competition.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

It's Christmas Season --- TWANGLES!

Thanksgiving dinner put away, it's time to turn our thoughts toward Christmas. And what better way to do that that that with Jason Morris' INSTANT Christmas classic, Twangles, the Christmas Squid!

From now until New Year's Day I'm leaving the Twangles JamLegend game up in my sidebar (to the right). A little bit of Guitar Hero style fun in your browser.

Have fun, and Merry Christmas!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Deconstructing "Columbia"

One of the things we have to do as SpinTunes judges is rank the songs. We also have to provide a critique of each one. In addition, I've been doing something that ISN'T required, which is "deconstructing" my top pick and telling you in excrutiating detail why I like it. This is really more of an extended review than a deconstruction, but... meh.

I'm actually glad I started doing this. In neither case has my top pick been for the winner of the round. My tastes obviously differ somewhat from the other judges. Last round, for instance, my top pick was eliminated entirely. This round is a little more difficult than that for me, because my top pick for this deconstruction isn't the song I ranked at the top, though it is a very, very close call.

I ranked Zarni DeWet's "Eric" as my #1 entry. It's a highly emotional piece about the mother of Columbine shooter Eric Harris, and fully deserves its spot. It's one of the few real artistic pieces in the round. I define 'art' very simply. Art makes you emote. Specifically, it makes you feel what the artist intends you to feel, as it is a form of communication. I give a lot of weight to art in a piece. Some art is more difficult than others. Not to minimize anyone's loss, but it's relatively easy for an artist to make someone mourn a dead child. There are subtler emotions; the more subtle the emotion, the finer the art. That's why so much effort is spent analyzing that smile of the Mona Lisa's. While it's not my top ranking, my top pick for the round is "Columbia" by Duality (Joe 'Covenant' Lamb and Denise Hudson). This song is a shadow -- it's not an official entry, as Duality were eliminated last round.
When I first saw the title, "Columbia", and that it would involve astronauts, I was prepared for the easy tearjerker... that being the destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003. Duality had something far more subtle in mind.

Nearly everyone knows that Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the Moon. Many know that he was accompanied by 'Buzz' Aldrin. But while those two were making history on the surface of the Moon, astronaut Michael Collins was making history possible as he piloted the command module Columbia in orbit around the Moon during Apollo 11. How would it have felt to watch as your companions became celebrated heroes and you were quietly acknowledged and largely forgotten by the public? It can't be just loneliness, or disappointment.

Collins himself has said that he didn't feel loneliness or disappointment. He himself said he felt "awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation". After all, regardless of what he didn't do, he did fly around the Moon. And I'm sure that feelings of disappointment are not something that Collins himself would admit to even given the opportunity. But keep in mind that this isn't a documentary, it's art. What he felt isn't the point... it's what we feel on his behalf. Duality recognizes the injustice in the way the public memory is perpetuated and reminds us of that, not only by making us feel what we would feel in that situation, mixed with the guilt of that injustice. It's what I feel when I listen to this song.

Breaking it down isn't that complicated, because the lyrics are pretty straightforward, but they're broken up so it's a little difficult to scan. Usually I break these verses up for analysis, but this time I'm going to pull out some white space below for the sake of discussing the text. The original formatting is here. If you're interested in the historicity of the event, go on to the Wikipedia article. In this fictionalization, the slots are chosen by lot.
I couldn't leave with you.
It wasn't what I would choose,
But the choice was taken out of our hands, and they were tied
And they told us who would go, and how long they'd stay below
They all stood congratulating both my friends
They sympathised and I knew then it was true
I just had this job to do
It made it more bearable to know that hist'ry would recall today,
But down beneath it all I just couldn't shake it off and keep that thought from running through my mind
The song begins with a simple guitar, a bit of echo on Joe's voice, and an electric piano, all of which impart a feeling solitude and vague 'spaciness'. In performance, each line ends with the first word of the following verse, tying the whole thing together until the last thought, which stands apart.
Will they remember me at all?
The next verse continues in the same vein, with Collins recalling a promise to his wife Patricia. Again, historical accuracy is unimportant here. Everyone who has loved has made this sort of promise, in thought and intent, if not in words.
I always said to you that I would give you the moon if I only had the chance but that promise couldn't last
It broke when they broke my heart and said I would play a part
But I sat there devastated while my friends were idolised
And the pain within your eyes is worse than that I feel inside
It makes it unbearable to know that hist'ry would recall today,
But down beneath it all I just couldn't shake it off and keep that thought from running through my mind
One way we communicate emotion is by tapping into universal truths. Letting down a loved one is worse than disappointing yourself. It can even turn a "well done" into a failure. Likewise, we feel a loved one's pain more than we feel our own. Here Duality simultaneously invoke both of those feelings by describing the pain in Patricia's eyes as seen by Collins, and Collins' dejection, as seen by Patricia. Now, as Collins once again questions his legacy, we segue into the bridge, which I love...
Will they remember me at-
-All I can say now is I'll try to silently wait while hist'ry writes their names
And all I can do now is to say I flew
But why does it feel that after the fear of planetfall
They won't remember me at all?
One of the purposes of a bridge is to give us a break between the verses and offer some variety... to keep the song from becoming monotonous and boring. If that's all a bridge does, it's pretty successful. This is way past being merely successful. This is smooth, it's melodic, and it takes us to another emotional level. This is what I mean by "contour". Underlying the music are recognizable sound bites of the Apollo 11 radio transmissions, which communicate to us the momentous nature of the undertaking at hand. This gives us an auditory and melodic reminder that Collins is alone, tethered to humanity only by his radio as he glides over history in the making. The bridge ends not with the question, but afterwards with the recorded soundbite, "Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed."
So here I am alone, oh so many miles from home
I see were the Eagle's gone, where valour and fame are won
But thanks to the choice they made, now fortune favours the brave
As I sit in my tin can they take that one small step for man and the race for space is won by America's new favourite sons
It makes it unbearable to know that hist'ry will recall today,
But down beneath it all I just couldn't shake it off and keep that thought from running through my mind
Will they remember me at all?
They will if they listen to this song. Four times the question is asked, and that is our hook. The final question fades, sans accompaniment, to silence. In this last verse we almost subliminally hear Armstrong announcing "one giant leap for mankind". It's almost salt in the wound.

Again, this is art on behalf of another; an empathetic piece of work. In it is not merely sorrow, or disappointment for one's self, or loneliness; but all of these together, plus the feeling of letting down someone else; of feeling someone else's pain; and our own guilt at forgetting those who made the larger achievement possible. It's a subtle cocktail, not easy to concoct. I like the song a lot; on top of everything else it has a "geek factor" that I connect to, and it will find a happy home alongside David Bowie's "Space Oddity", Elton John's "Rocket Man", Jeff MacDougall's "High", and my own "Mission" mp3s.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Spintunes 2, Round 3: My Judging Criteria

The challenge:
Secondary Historical Figures - For this challenge we want you to write a song about an unknown character from history, and what connection they had to a major historical event (fictionalization is fine). Paul Revere's stableboy, General Custer's wife, Hitler's art teacher, King Richard's blacksmith, etc... (2 minute minimum) 
The thing is, this is a very loose challenge. So long as you've got the major event and you're writing about a minor character, you're in. You'll have to really work to miss the challenge.

Assuming nobody totally misses the bus, I plan to rank the Round 3 entries in the order I personally like them. Nothing more fancy than that. Things that affect my enjoyment... do I have to work at determining who this is? Do I have to guess at the event? I'm not looking necessarily for obviousness... frankly I don't care if it's obvious or not; just throw me some kind of bone in the song.  What I'm looking for is that indefinable "sticks in my head" factor. If other criteria intrude, I'll mention them in the reviews.

As usual, I'm not terribly concerned with production. I wind up smoothing out production issues in my head anyway. If I mention something about production in a review it will be informational, and probably not something that relates to my rating.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Deconstructing "One More Cloud"

Now here's a fine thing. The song I chose as my #1 pick for Round 2 was eliminated in the same round. This was "One More Cloud" by Brian Gray:

In SpinTunes 1, I gave people the advice not to put too much weight on one judge's opinion, but to pay attention to consensus. Here's the consensus for "One More Cloud":
Dr. Lindyke - 17
Kevin Savino-Riker - 8
Glen Phillips - 7
Jeff MacDougall - 2
Zack Scott - 3
Len Peralta - 2
Now there's a spread, and I'm clearly in the minority. Is it possible that I'm just completely wrong, or did I see something that all those other people missed?  I'm prepared to make a case that I did indeed get it right.

That's not to say that everyone else is terribly wrong. But their criteria are not mine. They're looking at the mix, the instrumentation, the singing, the production, etc., whereas I don't give a damn about any of that. I'm looking at the composition and the lyrics. I think my perspective is different enough that I can make a clear case for my decision. There's quite a bit less for me to write regarding "One More Cloud" than there was regarding "Stars over Avalon," as Brian Gray has already written a detailed biography of his song.

Now, here's an interesting thing... Brian asked the judges in advance if he was allowed to use 3am as source material (it appeared on non-US charts, and the answer was yes), and whether he was allowed take the song in a different direction than the original artists would have. In this request he explained the following:
1) The song is about Rob Thomas' mother's erratic behavior during and after a fight with cancer. I have personally gone through something very similar, and identify with the song on a personal level. However, the song I wish to write now would never be written by the original artist because his mother survived her fight. Is it acceptable for a "sequel" to be about subject matter that the original artist would not have had reason to write about?
So it wasn't necessary for me to reference Brian's song bio until after I had analyzed the song. When I did read the bio, what surprised me was how many of the things that I detected in "One More Cloud" were consciously placed there.

Let's start with a glance at the original Matchbox Twenty song.  It was written about Rob Thomas' mother having been diagnosed with cancer when Rob was in his early teens. Expecting her life to end, she decided to party her life away. The title, "3 am", refers to the time of day that the bars would close and she would come home, unfulfilled, and lonely. The tone of the song is angry, frustrated... reflecting Thomas' feelings of abandonment. To me it sounds a little self-indulgent, but we have to remember it's written from the point of view of a neglected teen.

Now, there's nothing in the rules that says you have to continue the song in the same direction that the original band would have had they written a sequel. That would have been a stupid rule anyway. So while Rob Thomas' mother survived her bout with cancer, Brian Gray's did not. Brian's song is about a moment in time. Specifically, his mother has died and he's releasing her ashes from a bridge. They're swept away by the wind and beaten down by the falling rain. There is a fundamental difference, then, in the tone taken by these two songs. The original is that of a petulant teen; the sequel is of the man, now grown into understanding, who is laying his mother to rest with genuine love and remorse. This difference in emotional tone is reflected in Brian's music, and I'd argue that it's not a single beat per minute too fast or slow.

The tune begins as a low contemplative bit, pitched almost in speaking tones:
I don't seem to sleep a lot now when it's raining
I don't need to watch my step, I know this road
The winter snaps at my skin. I guess that I should care, or something
But I don't seem to notice lately when it's cold
This rises to cry of anguish which segues to a truly beautiful melodic crescendo at the act of letting go, which is both an emotional release as well as a physical release of his mother's ashes:
Breath embraces the mist, becomes it, hides away in the shadows
There's nothing left but letting go
At this point we really don't know yet what's going on, but we now transition into the chorus, with it's sweeping melody which, to me, rivals any of the best songs ever written:
And then there's one more cloud
Like a final breath into the wind, she dances away
And the tolling echoes loudly
And the raindrops eat away, bite by bite 'til nothing remains
And as the chiming fades it's 3 A.M. I must be lonely
We don't have enough information yet to understand these words, but damn, that tune is sweet. The melody sets an emotional baseline for understanding in the reprise. The next verse is pure tugging at heartstrings:
She'd have wanted to be somewhere else that's warmer
She always liked herself a sunny, tropic shore
Who knows? Maybe that's where she'll be carried, maybe not
But this is really not about her anymore
Every word that was said or wasn't, every torturous regret
All I can do is let them go
Through this verse we realize what's going on. This is a death, and the verse communicates all of the reminiscence that accompany such. The final two lines are an acknowledgment of attitudes held in the original song, and exposition that this is a release, not just of physical remains, but of all those unresolved issues that require closure. Once more we hear the chorus, and now we can interpret it.
And then there's one more cloud
Like a final breath into the wind, she dances away
And the tolling echoes loudly
And the raindrops eat away, bite by bite 'til nothing remains
And as the chiming fades it's 3 A.M. I must be lonely
I was struck by several things here. The first was the realization that the "cloud" is actually that of his mother's ashes, and has nothing to do with the rain. Secondly, that these ashes, even as they dissipate into the air and water, are referred to as "she". He's not just disposing of her remains; he holds in his hands, among those ashes, all that he has retained of her, and regards them with respect and reverence. The description of his mother as she "dances away" on the wind is simply beautiful and communicates to me that she is being freed. Amid the sorrow we're reminded that this is also a joyous event.

Two things remind us of the original song here. The more obvious is the re-use of "it's 3 A.M. I must be lonely," though her it's used to completely different effect. In the original I read it as an expression of her fear of dying, and I'll talk about what it means here in a bit. But to me the more effective reference is that the raindrops falling reminds us of Rob Thomas' lyric, "Baby, But I can't help but be scared of it all sometimes / And the rain's gonna wash away what I believe in." When I made that connection it chilled me to the bone, and I was delighted upon reading Brian's song bio that it was deliberate. To me, this makes this sequel completely unique among all the entries we received... it actually makes the original song better than it was before.  I will never again hear "3 AM"  without interpreting the mother's words as a prophetic foreshadowing of that predatory rain.

We're treated now to an ethereal guitar solo followed by the bridge,
A life in ashes and a raincoat, an immutable final loss
The simple act of letting go
This is descriptive of the song itself, in which we're also presented with this reminder from the original song: "And she hands me a raincoat / She's always worried about things like that." It's simply as it appears: a reminder of what is lost and acceptance of its permanence. This is not a song that has a narrative. Rather, it's a single, precise moment in time as the clock chimes have just finished tolling 3am. It is the moment of closure.

We close with a reprise of the chorus.
And then there's one more cloud
Like a final breath into the wind, she dances away
And the tolling echoes loudly
And the raindrops eat away, bite by bite 'til nothing remains
And as the chiming fades it's 3 A.M. I must be lonely
Once again I'm reminded of that predatory rain. The ashes aren't simply washed away, they're eaten. Not just one thing is happening here, but as is true in real life, there are multiple levels of meaning. Loss is both natural and sorrowful; beautiful and cruel. We as humans do not experience true loneliness until we've experienced a loss like this. The statement, "I must be lonely", is a wondering realization of an emotion that we only thought we'd known in the past. It's also a declaration of what must be.

Read Brian Gray's song bio to learn more background, and for an explanation of the technical aspects of his musical choice and influences. What's written above is simply what I got from the song, and that's not necessarily what was intended. Every time I listened, I got more out of it. There are things that I didn't get (and had no way of knowing), such as the setting on a bridge over the river, or the distinction between the "tolling" and "chiming" of the bells of St. Mary's. Overall, though, I was seriously impressed by the amount of information compressed into this song, and its sheer emotional impact. Neither I nor my wife can hear it without tearing up.

Obviously, the song didn't have the same effect on the other judges. Perhaps this is because I'm older and have suffered the same personal loss as Brian. Perhaps it's because I'm looking for things that they are not. Because I started this blog post stating that I'm prepared to argue that I saw something here the other judges didn't, I'm going to do a big no-no and publish all of the other reviews of this song side-by-side:
Len Peralta:
Something seems off about this song. Maybe it’s because the guitar sounds slightly flat behind the verses. I’m not feeling this one. Also, knowing that it’s derived from Matchbox 20 makes me dislike it even more. (I’m not a big Matchbox 20 fan, unfortunately.)
Zack Scott:
Simply put, I didn't really enjoy this song at all. I also thought the production was not very good. I don't mean any offense by this, because I thought Brian's song last week was fairly good.
Jeff MacDougall:
Challenge: B – Technically meets the challenge but didn’t know what the original tune was by just listening to the song.
Lyrics: B - Fine. Bordering on cliché though.
Structure: A – Rock structure.
Melody: B – Not bad but didn’t stick for me.
This one just sort of laid there for me. Didn’t know what the original song was without reading the liner notes. Style and melody left me cold.
Glen Phillips:
This mix is really awful. Vocals are way too up front. I hate the drum sound. What’s up with the big 80’s vibe for a 90’s staple? The challenge is met well. Why the dinosaur feet pace for this? The karaoke mix is painful. I like the guitar bend hook.
Kevin Savino-Riker:
A serious song from a funnyman? A surprising departure from last time, you’ve got a plaintive and heartbroken followup to a song that never would’ve suggested this kind of conclusion to me.... but now that you’ve pointed it out, I see all the pieces are there. Your lyrics made a strong thematic attachment to the original but you used your music to coax it into this new emotional space of burying a lost loved one. I had to listen a few times to really notice it, but this is a very good answer to the challenge.
 With the exception of Kevin (who, as our arguably most rounded judge, ranked it fairly highly, as did Glen), I don't see much consideration of the song itself. Sometimes the crowd just misses it. That's a shame, because we've just eliminated what I consider to be one of the brightest talents in this field of competitors.

Nevertheless, I'm not saying that these folks are wrong. There must be some reason for their agreement, and they are looking for other things. This is how judging works. In this competition we are looking for the "Iron Chef of Songwriters". That's why we have a number of judges from different backgrounds, each looking at different criteria. Just as it's not enough to have only great production values (because such things don't count for much with judges like me), it's not enough to have only a great song, as that clearly matters little to some of the other judges who are looking at things other than lyrical or melodic content, such as performance, instrumentation, and the technical mix . You've got to bring everything to the table at the same time to advance to the later rounds.

Despite his being eliminated this round, I congratulate Brian Gray, who wrote for this challenge an amazing and truly touching piece of art.

(P.S. Glen's criticism notwithstanding, I love the drums)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Spintunes 2, Round 2: My judging criteria

Once again it's time to judge SpinTunes. The current round's challenge: Write a sequel to a famous song.

Once again I've set up criteria in advance. As you were writing the songs, I was determining what would be my criteria for this challenge. For those who might wonder how I can determine how to judge songs that aren't even written yet, all I can say is that I'd rather walk in to a round with a set of standards I can hold myself to rather than make up justifications for my decisions after the fact.

From the last round, you already know that I'm heavily oriented toward the composing aspect of the competition: I figure the production aspect will largely take care of itself. Meeting the challenge is paramount for me, and production matters less. You also know that the final arbiter is my personal taste. So let's skip all that and discuss what makes a good sequel.

For starters, in this round I'm not only listening to your sequel; I'm listening to the original it's drawn from. This may be a challenge in itself, as I need to understand the original to understand how you've chosen to progress it. So with 17 sequels, I'll be listening to 34 songs + shadows instead of the 28+ of the first round. (And I thought this was supposed to get easier!)
  1. The published, objective criteria must be met. This one should be pretty easy. If it's on any Billboard singles charts at or above the 20th position it's OK. When we're in doubt, don't be surprised if we ask you where and when it charted.
  2. I'm looking for original music, not revised lyrics to an established tune. This doesn't exclude musical or lyrical quotes or instruments that evoke the feel of the original.
  3. I'm looking for a sequel. Not a prequel, or the same event from a different p.o.v., or a re-imagining or parody of the original song. That means it happens at a later time than the original, at least from the p.o.v. of the singer. Somebody in chat joked about time travel. If they can pull it off, I'd be OK with it.
  4. I'm not necessarily looking for the same style. If the original is a sweet and innocent ballad about young love, I see no problem with an angry, disillusioned rock-opera rant as a follow-up, so long as they successfully sell it as a sequel. Whatever emotion is contained in the sequel should be a natural progression of that in the original, or should be explained by the sequel itself.
  5. If the competitor does use the same (or similar) style, then I'll rate the song (in part) based on how successfully that's done.
  6. Whatever the style, I'm hoping that the relationship between the original song and this sequel is well established. If I can listen to the sequel and readily identify the original, I'm likely to like it better than if there's no apparent connection. I don't care how it's done... in lyrics, structure, instrumentation, chord progressions, etc... the thing I'm looking for here is that the second song is a natural extension of the first. This doesn't mean that the competitors take on the song needs to be the same as the original. For instance, if you can find a comedic hook in a serious song, go for it.
  7. And again, there's that je ne sais quoi. If I like it, I like it. If I don't, I don't, but I'll try to explain why.
And now for the listening party!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Deconstructing "Stars Over Avalon"

I've deconstructed my top pick. I may do this for every SpinTunes round, and maybe not... it's a lot of work. I sort of mentally do this for every song, but for the top pick at least, I think it's worth the time.

"Stars Over Avalon" took the top spot in my review alone, which is unsurprising to me. As I mentioned in my previous post, we come at these entries from different directions. And as I mention in my review, this was a perfect storm. As I was driving home to make it to the listening party, it was evening. The stars were coming out as I passed through the town of Adamsburg, SC. It takes exactly 17 seconds to drive through Adamsburg; I know because I had counted it that very night. (Adamsburg is my stock example of the smallest town I know... I joke that the town is so small, the sign says "Welcome to Adamsburg" on both sides. That's untrue, but this is: in days gone by, the "post office" was simply one of the houses. There was a single box on the front porch, with a note that said, "Take your mail. Leave everybody else's"). So I was already in the mood to hear something like that. So I'm going to take a moment to deconstruct the lyrics and explain how it struck me. I'm not trying to convince you of anything; I'm just showing you exactly why it took my top spot. I'm pretty sure Travis has or will write a bio of this song. I haven't read it, so this is what I'm reading into and taking out of the song. I may be adding levels of meaning that Travis never considered or intended. I don't care in the slightest, because that's the way art works; you don't have the artist sitting there to explain to you what he was doing. Your interpretation comes from inside you.

Travis' lyrics were nearly perfect. He didn't just say, "my town's small", he illustrated it. "Driving down the road I just had to laugh. Population 50, there couldn't be half that many souls lying within these so-called city limits."  Here we not only see the diminutive population, we learn that even this paltry number is an exaggeration! The choice of the word "souls" tells us that these aren't just bodies or minds, but people with a spiritual connection, and sets the hook. The "so-called city limits" tells us that we're talking about a town that may not even be deserving of the title by any objective observer. 

"It doesn't take a minute to drive from one side to the other, but you can't judge a place by the ground that it covers." I'm deliberately removing any formatting. These lyrics read as sentences. Travis gives us a statement that emphasizes Avalon's smallness; one that may seem hyperbole, but is no doubt entirely factual, and then prepares us that there is more to this town than we see with our eyes. 

"If the news is a battle we are soldiers far from the fight." This tells us succinctly that no news ever happens here. But beyond that, I think of a battle, and what it symbolizes. Not so much modern, mechanized warfare, but old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat. It's cacophony. It's constant confusion. It's dangerous: If you're not on your toes every second, ready to adapt to constant change, you will not survive. This lyric is descriptive shorthand of the world at large... everywhere but here. Avalon is none of that.

"At least we can look up and see stars at night." This is what the word "souls" set you up for. The lyric implies a connection to the heavens, and by extension, to Heaven. This contrasts with the imagery from the previous line, and "at least..." tells us that those other people in other places in the news don't even see the stars much less feel the connection. 

"Drifting past the place I wrote songs with my band, I remember things I learned I still don't understand: streetlights shining off the gravel of quiet streets where no cars travel; empty buildings, the cemetery, forgotten founders and secrets buried." This verse gives us some biographical information. This is important, because the facts of the place are just facts. Travis goes beyond the what and the where to give us the how and the why. How is he connected this place, and why does that connection persist? We learn here that this is a place of his past; hence the past tense. We learn that his musical passion was born here. And then we're treated to exquisite imagery set within the context that this locale contains some profound lesson that lies just beyond reason. All of the imagery here harkens back to the first verse where we learned that "Population 50" was an exaggeration. There are more people buried here than survive, and this continues to be driven home in the bridge. "Secrets buried" conjures allusions to lost wisdom, and the verse gives us a general sense of decline, explaining why this is a place of the past. 

"This town has lived longer than I ever will, with all of its people come and gone. Somehow no matter where I've been, or what I've seen, I still miss the stars over Avalon." Here's the bridge, and the line that is the emotional hook, "...I still miss the stars over Avalon." with it's multiple layers of meaning. We know here that the singer is no longer there, permanently. 

"And it's quiet but for sounds that we make ourselves, you see. It's not so bad as long as you can stand your own company. For what we might lack in artificial light, at least we can look up and see stars at night" This, to me, is the weakest verse, as the profundities have already been stated. Still, it adds value structurally -- we need a verse after the bridge -- and brings something new to the table: the perspective of someone who has left for the wider world and returned for a visit. In a moment like that, you realize how much you have changed in the interim. The almost apologetic phrasing illustrates this well. Though this interpretation is bolstered by the 30-second instrumental which immediately precedes it, the verse is weak because this has to be inferred; without the inference it would appear to be an unwarranted change of verb tense. I argue that it's not unwarranted at all.

Taken as a whole, the lyrics really put me in the town of Avalon. The music set the twilight mood perfectly. On repeated listenings this is still my top pick of the round. Of course, it doesn't follow that this is the sort of thing I want to listen to every round, but for this challenge and this town it works.

SpinTunes 2, Round 1 wind-up

I can't believe I didn't post a single thing about the current SpinTunes competition! Now I have to apologize and play catch-up!

SpinTunes 2 is well under way. Round 1 is finished, and a terrific crop of competitors submitted some really excellent work.
That's right, I'm JUDGING this one! That makes my failure to post even MORE egregious! But forgive me, and do yourself a favor and download this album, it's full of some great entries!

I've already written on my reviews, and I've also commented on my judging technique at length elsewhere, but having read some of the other reviewers' comments (reviews from both judges and non-judges), I find I can expand on it a little bit with regard to both my technique and specific songs. I'll try to bring something new to the conversation.

First, some reviewers heavily weigh the production values of the song. I don't weigh it as highly, and there's a reason beyond just giving "the little guy" a break (and there are enough people who heavily weigh production that I feel fully justified in my approach). Do a little experiment... perform a few bars of "Yankee Doodle". Finished? OK. How many of you ran off to find a fife and drum? NONE, that's how many. You hummed it, or played it with the instrument at hand. Now, how many of you even bothered with chords, as opposed to picking out the melody, or just singing or humming it? DAMNED FEW, IF ANY.  Now, with your "Yankee Doodle" experience in hand, say this until you believe it:
After all, a song doesn't cease being the same song if another artist performs it. If you really and truly think that it does, then the RIAA might like to have a word or two with you, and set you back on the straight and narrow. Both Prince and Art of Noise perform "Kiss": the song is by Prince, and remains so even though all of the above changes. All of those are things that enhance a song, but they're not integral to it being a song, deserving of being judged on its own merits. So if you were to hand me a song like JoAnn Abbot's "Not In Copiague" (which is entirely a capella) and I think that it would sound better IF... then I would take it as a given that I should judge it in the better light. In general that's a rule of thumb for me... "how would this sound in the best possible light?"

That doesn't mean that production doesn't matter entirely. People who can produce tend to write better songs, and if there's a close call between songs, I'll mark it up. Hell, if somebody delivers a song where the production is really integral to the song itself (and it happens), then I do judge the effectiveness of the production and factor it in. But I also try to minimize the disparity, and sometimes an extremely poorly produced song still manages to gain legs.

For example, while on a long drive yesterday, I found myself humming "Not in Copiague", which tells me that it's really not a bad little song. The arrangement in my head had rhythm, lots of strings, and "surf" and "seagulls" (brushed snare and violin). Perhaps JoAnn didn't imagine it that way, and if she did it wouldn't really matter. When I want to play "Yankee Doodle" I don't go channel the original author for his input, either. To this specific point, one reviewer says of "Not In Copiague" that, "It's not even to the point where a musician collaborator could honestly play her an accompaniment part and still call it her work," a sentiment I disagree with 100%. You want to accompany it? Fine: the song is hers, the arrangement is yours, and that's been commonplace in music credits since the dawn of collaborations. Still it wouldn't get her through to the later rounds, because SpinTunes is looking for a "total package"... and the song alone won't carry you to the final round.

When looking at the rankings after every round, there's a false sense of distance, and I expect it to get worse as we pare the entries down to the best of the best in later rounds. Had we scored this as they do in Olympic gymnastics, many would be separated by fractional points. Some would tie. And the relative ranking doesn't exactly reflect my opinion of the song on its own. For instance, I think that Duality gave us an excellent song in "To The End Of The World", but I thought other songs met the challenge more decisively. Contestants were tasked to provide the best song they could that met a specific challenge. That challenge is NOT just a formality to get you into a free-for-all judging like other contests. A song can be superb and still not win this round. If you try to skirt the challenge like that, I'll mark you down if no one else does.

If I had to give a piece of advice to anyone, I'd say this:
  • There are FIVE judges.
  • For one of them, the challenge is merely a technicality that gets you past disqualification. Once you're in, then the challenge doesn't matter a bit. You will be judged on the specific performance you deliver on the mp3. 
  • For me, you need to hit the challenge as squarely as you can... I'm all about you delivering on the spirit of that challenge. Make me believe that you wrote the best song you could that meets the challenge before you as best as you possibly can.
  • Other judges weigh a mixture of challenge + production to varying degrees. And if Spintown is judging, (and that could happen on any round) make sure you've paid attention to your lyrics.

It seems to me, then, that this arrangement provides something for everyone, those that are looking to improve their production skills as well as those who who need to improve their songwriting skills.

But if your goal is to WIN this contest, you need to cover every base. Deliver a well-produced,  well-structured, smart song that's clearly understandable and unambiguously meets the challenge; and which does so better than anyone else's entry. Then you'll truly be worthy of that top spot.  Otherwise you'll get knocked down by one or another of us.

It seems to me that's nothing less than how it ought to work.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


This is an older lyric from a batch I didn't receive until March 2nd, 2002. It may have already had music attached to it when I got it. That would have put it in the 1989 timeframe, when William was providing lyrics to a garage band. My guesswork on this is based on the fact that the manuscript I got already had chords on it. However, I discarded those because what I hear when I read it is something different (I think... not having heard the other).

It's a simple declaration of independence, suitably sung by either a man or a woman.

My initial impression was of a pretty straight Country song with an uneventful C-A-F-G progression. Now here's the thing... I wrote music to it in 2002. According to my notes, at the time I had a cold and was waiting for it to subside so I could record. BUT... I never did, and forgot the tune! So this is a re-write: while I varied the chords a bit and slapped a capo on the 1st fret, I didn't stray far. I do know that this is slower, and much better.

wmh 1989(?) (revised 10.09.2010)

I won't come back
You won't find me in your lovin' arms
'Cause I've seen the trap
And I've got no use for all your charms
All by myself
I'm gonna live my life alone
And be free --

I'll always be free
Free as I wanna be
Free as the wind in the blue skies above
I've no place to be
And that's just how I like it
Freedom's the state of things that I've grown to love

I was so blind
Then along the way I woke to find
That it was your lovin' hands
All the while that covered my eyes
But I'll walk alone
Not afraid and not to return
To the way, to the way things used to be --

I'll always be free
Free as I wanna be
Free as the wind in the blue skies above
I've no place to be
And that's just how I like it
Freedom's the state of things that I've grown to love

I won't come back.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Memories of Tomorrow

<a href="http://drlindyke.bandcamp.com/track/memories-of-tomorrow">Memories of Tomorrow by Dr. Lindyke</a>

This was written in response to several stimuli...

First, I'd promised that I wouldn't do any more competition songwriting until I'd worked on some of our original ideas. William provided some creepy lyrics, which I proceeded to modify to make even creepier.

Second, I wanted to try my hand at a modal composition. In the end, I wasn't strict about that and I let the song go where it wanted to. You may hear it as just being a little...off. You should know, too, that the verses scan in a particular un-creepy way when read, but it's a very different feel when sung. I chose this particular rhythm deliberately to throw the song out of the lyric's natural cadence and make it sound distressed.

Third, my son Michael asked me yesterday why we haven't written anything recently that's like the 'serious' music we wrote in the early 80s (like Dr. Lindyke). So this was to appease him as well, and to provide a song that can be accompanied with French horn and trumpet. This one has a solid, melancholy bass line that should be accompanied by finger snaps. It also has two bridges. Odd all the way around, but there it is.

I could tell you what this song is about, but I won't. I think you might be able to figure it out, and any speculation you have is probably better than the truth, so we'll go with that.

Memories of Tomorrow
wmh 7.19.10 (revised 9.25.10)

Remember the walks we would take
Down by the lake
The flowers we planted in spring
The lemonade that we made
To cool off the summer
Sitting there on the porch swing

Remember the walks we would take
Down by the lake
Picnics and skipping stones
The laughter we made
You went into the water
And I walked home all alone

Your first day of school
You Halloween ghoul
The photos we took are there in your scrapbook
The nightmares and dreams
Shade the world as it seems
And all the fun of the days that would follow
Memories of Tomorrow

Remember the walks we would take
Down by the lake
Picnics and skipping stones
The laughter we made
You went into the water
And I walked home all alone

It’s not easy to walk all alone
With your heart void of sorrow

A story of woe
Creativity flows
As I search for the proper emotion to borrow
In my nightmares and dreams
I rehearse deadly themes
As I brace for the questions to certainly follow
Memories of Tomorrow

[instrumental solo]

All I have now are dried flowers we grew
And all of those Memories of Tomorrow

On the six o'clock screen
Like a Hollywood scene
Like a weapon I brandish my sorrow
As our nightmares and dreams
Bathe the world in our screams
Casting a pall over all of the days that would follow
Memories of Tomorrow

Memories of Tomorrow

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Spintunes: And the Winner Is....

Kevin Savino-Riker

That's right. In the grand tradition of journalistic election coverage, I'm calling this one before the polls close.

Just as a reminder, here was the challenge for the final round of SpinTunes 1, expressed in full:
Musical Road Trip - Write a song using at least three different ethnic styles. The music from each of the three parts of the song should give the listeners a mental image of a place or group of people from a certain area. (at least 30 seconds each style) (3 minute minimum)
As difficult as would have liked this to have been (and Ross turned in a very good song), it wasn't. Not at all. Kevin's entry, "Lovers, Fighters, Survivors", was 3 minutes and 59 seconds long. It contained three styles -- Eastern European, Italian, and Irish -- each of which was at least 30 seconds long. It was held together with some very nice soft-rock "glue". It met the challenge.

Ross Durand's entry, "That Sweet Smile", contained 20 seconds of Bluegrass, 20 seconds of Zydeco, and 30 seconds of Mariachi, all held together with Ross' excellent folk style. The overall length of the song was 2 minutes, 57 seconds. It failed the challenge on three counts: overall length, and the length of 2 of the three segments.

Without even discussing the relative strengths of the songs themselves, I have to hand Ross the disqualification. If it was just the overall length, he might have squeaked by with the three-second deficit. But it was a clear failure to meet the challenge (even though I like the song a lot). So, Kevin Savino-Riker wins the first SpinTunes challenge in my book, regardless of how the actual voting turns out. It matters not, folks... I'm still a fan of both of these guys.

And as Baretta used to say, "Dat's da name o' dat tune."

Later I'll post reviews.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Review of SpinTunes1, Round 3

Here's my review of the first SpinTunes competition, round 3. The challenge was as follows:
Happy To Sad In 4 Seconds - Write a sad song about birth, a moment that is normally a happy moment, and make it a real tear jerker. You can't use the words "Happy" or "Birthday". (2 minute minimum)
In this review, as before, the entries are listed in the order of their appearance on Bandcamp. Since I'm not a judge I'm not posting my rankings, if any exist.
A few words about the challenge. You'll notice that it doesn't say "childbirth". Though it's pretty clear that any interpretation other than childbirth won't be particularly sad. You'll also notice that this isn't a challenge to write a sad song... it's a "tear jerker", which is a different thing altogether. A "sad song" can be written when you're sad, or about something that makes you sad, but "tear jerker" evokes sadness in other people. This may seem a subtle difference, but it's profound.

I thought it was pretty restrictive, and as a composer I didn't get much out of it. Here's why: when you're given a challenge to elicit a particular emotion, you are free to go where you will to do it. When you're given a particular situation, you are free to exploit it to whatever emotional ends you will. But to elicit "this" emotion from "this" situation really limits your options. The result would tend to be formulaic, because formulas do work. But there's nothing especially creative about writing formulaic material. To me as an artist, it feels less like an act of creation and more like a job. To me as a listener, I'm distracted by the marionette strings. Here are a few of the formulae I expected to see (and did):
  1. Child dies at birth
  2. Mother dies at birth (or, the father dies and the child is born fatherless).
  3. Both mother and child die at birth
  4. The child is given up for adoption. 
  5. The child has a birth defect.
 William and I kicked around a few "out of the box" ideas, such as time-traveling to the birth of Hitler or Christ. Those didn't work. Needless to say, I'm not overly fond of the challenge. That said, I judged the entries by
  1. Was it about birth?
  2. Instant disqualification for using the restricted words.
  3. How sad did it make me? Actually, I have an objective test for this one. I pulled my wife in here and had her listen with me. She's the mine canary I use for detecting emotional effectiveness. If you made her cry, you pass.
You'll be happy to hear that there were no disqualifications for reasons 1. or 2. The sadness scale, though.... hmm...

The Offhand Band - Will It
 There is a biography of this song here (click on the story tab).
I like it when people provide song bios so I don't have to explain what it's about. But Mark, I want to reach across the Internet, grab your shoulders, and shake you for this. HARD. The SONG itself is fine. But you went with "production" in the very challenge where it's decidedly detrimental! Here's the thing... if you were just to hear this song on the radio, as is, and weren't listening very carefully to the lyrics, you'd just think it were a bright and bouncy dance number. If you did listen very carefully to the lyrics, you'd shrug and say, "Boy, that's odd. Sad lyrics, bouncy tune," and go back to dancing. It's too busy, too rhythmic, and vocally, you're too on-rhythm. It sounds like you're more concerned with staying in sync with the click-track than trying to communicate an emotion. And that's a shame, because when I erase all of that from my mind, and read your lyrics, imagining a different, looser orchestration, it's really sad and could be a winner. It pains me that you hid it behind a bunch of 16th and 32nd notes.

P.S. It reminds me a bit of Barry Manilow's style. That's not a bad thing, I'm the guy who admits to liking Barry Manilow.

Caleb Hines - Will you Miss Me?
In an interesting choice of perspective, Caleb has written a song from the point-of-view of an unborn child, who is aborted. Shockingly and bravely, he depicts the actual abortion. I like the orchestration, and Caleb's subject makes good use of his unique vocal style. He pushes the right buttons. Good work. The downside is that it may be a little too shocking and brave. This mixed a bit of horror in with the sadness and kept the tears to a trickle.

Sara Parsons - Had To Be You

This is another that I think is just a bit too rhythmic and too... pleasant. If I didn't know in advance it was about a dead baby, just casually listening, I might conclude that it was just a really pleasant love song; the sort of thing you'd sing on a picnic. As I said, it's pleasant. I like it. But it's not sad.

Edric Haleen - The Star
If Edric wrote a bio of this song it would be here. Hint, hint.
When it comes to pulling emotional strings, Edric Haleen is Gepetto. In this song he has strings for religion, and love, and sacrifice, and the hopelessness of inevitable death, and hope for the future, and still manages to have it be about a birth. Completely acapella, he gives us Gregorian chanting behind a Jesuit story of the far-flung future. In so doing he maintains the tradition of the signature big reveal, and even throws in some space-geek fodder. It definitely meets the challenge. The story itself is basically Arthur C. Clarke's story, The Star, faithfully abridged and set to music. Best of all, Edric can in fact pull this off with his amazingly flawless vocals.

The downside: according to Lisa it's too intellectual, and the "big reveal" works against it on first listen. The gut-wrencher is the very last word, and the song is over by the time you realize what it's about. Prior to that the audience is simply confused as to what's going on. So the music doesn't have the right emotion to amplify. This is, in part, an artifact of the competition. We know it's supposed to be about birth. Someone listening to this without preconceptions won't have that problem, though they're still stuck with "why all the fuss" on a first listen. On subsequent listens, though, this is really, really effective.

Steve Durand - Her Mother's Eyes

Sorry, Steve. this is another one where the rhythm just kill the sadness for me. The drums just don't need to be there, and the horn bridge, while very well done, sounds like it belongs wrapped up in a different song. The subject is sad -- hell, it's the exact same subject I used myself --- but it's just too bouncy and too quick. It just doesn't make me sad. It also reminds me of something, though I can't for the life of me remember what.

Kevin Savino-Riker - My Daughter
 Kevin's written a bio of this song. Read it here.
An Irish ballad? From KSR? Yes, and 'tis sad, indeed. Lisa bawled like a baby. I teared up watching her cry. Like Steve and myself, Kevin has the mother die in childbirth. Unlike us, he had the father make that decision, and live, not only with single parenthood, but with the guilt. Gut-wrenching, and top marks. hint, hint.

Governing Dynamics - Revolving Door
Melancholy. That's the feeling I get from this. Not really tearing up sad. It flirts with sad, but it's got a little too much emo apathy in it to really take us all the way there. Then the bridge speeds up and jerks us away from that. I hope the competitors that used drums listen to this one carefully, because this is how to use them in a sad song without making it happy and bouncy.

Ross Durand - You'll Be Gone

Ross made my wife cry. Her lower lip was trembling on the second verse, then the line, "I gave you away" hit her like a logging truck and she broke down completely. It didn't hurt that you delivered it in that Bob Dylan style (she loves Dylan). And really, that's all this song needed to deliver. No production, no orchestration, just emotion. Good job.

Charlie McCarron - A Song For Sam Bell

A very odd song, this. Lisa didn't get it. I thought it was a bit surreal, and melancholy, but not tearfully sad. The problem may be that it's just a little difficult to relate to clones, especially when you haven't seen the movie. Too intellectual to be emotionally effective.


JoAnn Abbot - Lullabye
The rhythm is inconsistent and that's distracting. The recording is about what you'd expect from a 1936 Blues recording done in a barn, and that's distracting, too. Funny thing is that the song itself kind of works. I definitely have the picture of a medieval woman lamenting her lost child to this minstrel tune. I think it could probably use some minor tweaks to the lyric to help put it in that timeframe, but yeah, I like it. It didn't make us cry, but it could given the right performance.

Emperor Gum - 1983

Graham, you need to back off from the microphone, and this is a little below your range. Transposing it up one step would help greatly, and I have to imagine it with different orchestration. That said...

This song doesn't work for me, but it could with very little work. Normally I would say that being born into a world of woe wouldn't be personal enough to make a tear-jerker, but Emperor Gum has fixed that by relaying this as a man's address to his father. He doesn't really say, but I imagine it as him talking to his father's grave. In doing so, he gives us the very effective reminder that not all tears are sad. Sometimes they're happy, but sometimes they're a bit more complicated. Here, the fulcrum for the emotional lever really doesn't rest on the child, but on the budding respect and understanding that the singer has for his own father on the occasion of his own child's birth. It's a unique perspective among the entries. It still didn't make me cry, but that has more to do with the presentation. I think it needs a little bit more work on the last two verses, and a less tentative performance, and it could be very good.

Heather Miller - Promise To My Son
Heather, I'm not sure you needed the minor chords in the verses. This is another one of yours that feels like an unfinished story. We get to the point where the midwife knows how to keep the child safe, but we don't learn how, and it's not really even implied. It needs the additional verse. Going from verse--chorus--verse--chorus... to verse--chorus--verse--verse--chorus... allow additional room for the verse without significantly lengthening the song. I didn't really get the tears from it either, but that's a risk you take when using a story that's sufficiently removed from the listeners' frame of reference, as when using kings (or starships or clones).

Brian Gray - Not Even Close
OK, This one would get an instant DQ for lack of sadness, but as a shadow, I'm really glad Brian submitted it. It's hilarious, and is much needed to break the tension of listening to a bunch of depressing, sad songs. If sadness were not a requirement it would easily earn the top spot for humor, quality of lyrics, and production value. A friend listened and said, "Well, it could be sad for the guy in the song...." Nice try. A tear-jerker is about the audience, not the protagonist. :)

Dr. Lindyke - A Special Day
I don't review our own songs. I do invite you to do that, though, and rake me over the coals for doing all the stuff that I said was disappointing in the other songs. Do it in the comments here, please.


Now, if you're keeping track of Lisa's tears, you'll find that Kevin, Edric, Ross, and Caleb managed to deliver. (I did too, but she may be humoring me.)

Who stuck to the formulae?
  1. The Offhand Band (5)
  2. Sara Parsons (1)
  3. Steve Durand (2)
  4. Kevin Savino-Riker (2)
  5. Governing Dynamics (2)
  6. Ross Durand (4)
  7. JoAnn Abbot (1)
  8. Heather Miller (4) (though with a decidedly Old Testament perspective)
  9. Me (2)
Who didn't?
  1. Caleb. Although the child dies at birth, Caleb rescues it from the formula by taking the p.o.v. of the unborn child, and casts you as the parent.
  2. Edric. He had an entire civilization die to herald your salvation.
  3. Charlie McCarron. The "birth" here is the decanting of clones.
  4. Emperor Gum. Nobody dies, but the potential is there. It's a harsh world.
  5. Brian Gray. Nobody dies, and I wouldn't call inheriting his father's alien complexion a birth defect.