Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Review of SpinTunes 1, Round 2

UPDATE: I managed to post a big ol' review without ever linking to to the competition itself! Here it is: http://spintunes.blogspot.com.
The Round 2 roundup and VOTING is done on this page.

Unlike my review of Round 1, in this one I'm touching on every competitor.

The challenge here was wide open... Write a song where the choruses are a different time signature than the verses. (2 minute minimum). Other than that, anything goes, except that all entries must have lyrics. The competitors had 12 days to complete the challenge. I'm firmly convinced that it doesn't matter how much time you give people... some will crunch at the end. I'd be firmly in favor of a shorter period, such as the one-week Song Fu period. Even with the liberal schedule, three competitors didn't make the deadline and will be eliminated.

Of the remainder, every song meets the challenge, so there are no technical disqualifications. I therefore judged the songs on how well they transitioned the time signatures, how well the time signatures supported the story and/or mood of the song, and basically how much I subjectively like it. Since the challenge was all about the time signatures, I weighted just a little in favor of songs that used signatures somewhat more exotic than the usual 3/4 and 4/4. I did not judge based on performance unless it was just really close, as this is a songwriting competition. These are not bands, they're composers.

Overall, this was a really strong round. I was a bit surprised that the additional time and wide-open challenge apparently made things more difficult for the challengers this round rather than less. But the entries were strong.Here are my comments in the order the songs appear on http://spintown.bandcamp.com

The Offhand Band - Another Universe.

This is simply awesome. The transitions are great, and the use of 2/4 time to represent a ticking clock is inspired (tick-tock-tick-tock), and continues through in later verses to underscore the binary choices of this universe. The change of time signature to represent the other universe is superbly done. I love everything about the song; especially the way the chorus opens up at 2:50. From a performance standpoint, the vocals aren't stellar, but as a pianist, I'm really blown away by this arrangement. There are no flaws in the riffs, and it leaves you with a genuine smile. This is just an exceptionally good song. Kudos.

Jenny Katz - Miss You

Another great song. I really like Jenny's voice. The theme is simple enough... "I miss you". The time signatures neither help nor hinder it, and lend a sort of carnival flavor, bolstered by the choice of calliope for instrumentation. OK, so maybe it's not a calliope, but that's the effect. Did I mention that it's pretty? Well it is.

JoAnn Abbot - Life

I'm really proud of JoAnn for having produced this song. She's not a musician, nevertheless managed to squarely meet the challenge, on time.  The song spans an entire life. So the arrangement could use some work, and there's a bit of difficulty in the rhythm. but damn it, she's never played these instruments before. JoAnn may not survive this round, but if not she can retire from the competition with her head held high.

Edric Haleen - Love
(There's a mini-biography of this song here)

The intro screams "Mike Lombardo piano-rock" from the perennial show-tune factory. It's surprising, and great, and to be sure, Edric brings his own theatrical style to the rock genre. Using 5/4 where you might expect 6/4 makes the verses seem to rush headlong, which is only to be expected when one is falling in love. It's a great effect, and Edric's time transitions are not only flawless, they're seamless. This earned my vote.

Sara Parsons - A Little Time

Sara's Parsons' voice is a mink blanket, and I love her guitar arrangement. I'm a little confused by the lyrics. "Spend a little time with... me, but don't waste your time... on me". It's definitely a "mood" song, but I'm not sure what mood it puts me in. But it's smooth and pleasant, and I could listen to it repeatedly.

Caleb Hines - Insomniac Lullaby
Caleb's use of 5/4 time effectively communicates the distress of insomnia, as does the ever-so-slightly harsh violin (that's not a bad thing). The promise of sleep in 3/4 time is soothing and likewise effective. The music and instrumentation all work to support the lyrics. A solid entry.

Governing Dynamics - Eleyna Dreams

This has a really nice, dreamy quality, as well as it should with that title. Eleyna is paranoid. GD says the time signature of the verses is 3/4, and I suppose it is, but with that drum line I think I'd rather call it 6/4. It's that drum line that cements the dreamy quality of the song, and keeps us just a little off our toes. When it moves back to 4/4 it feels as if it opens up quite a bit. I quite like the imagery of the lyrics.

Emperor Gum - Smoulder (Yaoya Oshichi)

I kind of wish Emperor Gum had a koto (or even a uke) instead of a guitar, but I get the idea. This is a telling of a 17th century Japanese tale in which a girl falls in love with a boy and then attempts to commit arson. The time signatures and rhythms do work to the advantage of the story, but perhaps too well. And that's the failing of this song for me... the first line is "I'm bored" and by the end of the first verse I was. I can't say that this is bad, because that's certainly what the song was communicating. The transitions to fire were likewise effective. However, as much as I'd like to like it for artistic reasons, this song's just not my cup of tea.

Gorbzilla (featuring the Godzookies) - Than Infinity

OK, no fair. Gorbzilla filled this song with kiddie cuteness. The 5/4 verses don't sound rushed here because of the staggered voices. I have to admit I had to play this through a few times to ensure that the time signatures actually changed, and sure enough the one-line chorus is in 3/4 time. You just have to love this one. Do it for the kids.

Ross Durand - Waltz With The Devil

Bob Dylan meets Jed Clampett. A good, old-fashioned political protest song lamenting the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Extra points to Durand for a topical topic.. And, true to the title, the chorus puts us in 3/4 time to waltz with the devil. The only beef I have with it is that the transitions are just a little jarring. I might have liked to see it turned around so 3/4 was the prevalent rhythm, but that would have been a ground-up re-write. Nevertheless, it works well enough as it is, and I like the song.

Steve Durand - Rara Avis

"Rare Bird". This is one of those songs that are musically well-performed, but I'd really like to hear it with someone else singing. The lyrics get lost in the chorus, which is a bit of a shame. It's got a nice jazzclub sound to it. The choice of signature neither aids nor impedes the lyrics, which aren't bad, but neither do they stand out from the competition. Steve seems to have been on the same page as Jenny Katz when it comes to the "dabba-dabba" vocalization. That must have been fun to record.

Charlie McCarron - Sleep On It

I'm sorry, Charlie. This is that song. I tried, I did, but I can't bring myself to like this. I know the lyrics are supposed to be ironic and clever, but they just sound like rambling to me, even on the third listening when I know where it's going.

Kevin Savino-Riker - Here At The Door

This song has enough ambiguity that it has the most intriguing lyrics of the lot. If I were forced to guess what it's about, I'd say it's about illegal immigration. This is either disguised by the style, or I'm wrong. But that's not the point. The point is, it's intriguing as a puzzle box, and it easily has the most complex, crafted tune of the bunch. The polyrhythmic track gives it that sense of weirdness you'd find in a 1971 LSD fantasy. Those were my wonder years, so I'm really diggin' this tune. I'm also digging Kevin's vocal stylings.

Heather Miller - Bullseye
The transitions are just a little too abrupt here. The time signatures don't help or hinder the song as a whole. But it's not bad. Performance-wise, it's top-heavy... needs bass. I think I'd like to hear it with acoustic guitar in place of the electrics. Embrace the country. It's also a little short. The song's aching to tell a story, girl-meets-boy, but it's never allowed to really do that. Well, it does, but it seems under-developed. 4:30 would be about the right length for this song, which would get you at least another verse and a bridge in there.

Gödz Pöödlz - Identities Assumed

I couldn't vote for GP last round, but I'll be damned if I can't vote for them this round, especially after they offered this entry. Some cold-war Poodlz action complete with Ray-bans, trenchcoats. I don't know if it's the recently-busted spy ring that inspired this song or not, but it's timely nonetheless. The transitions are smooth, smooth, smooth with nary a stutter or mis-step in the synth bass. It has that ineffable "Poodlnezz" about it that takes a subject that might be pompous in someone else's hands and renders it lighthearted and cool. Yup. Cool just about sums it up.

Denise Hudson - Flex Time

On her most "normal" of days Denise will fit 12 beats into a 4-beat measure, so this one's probably got some heads scratching. Conga? You'll either get it or not, and that leaves me wondering if the judges will let her through to the next round. The time signatures are exactly as she has noted in the lyrics, though the conga doesn't really help you to pick them out. I imagine this one being played with an upright bass and some changes to the conga part to better support the signature. The thing is, I'm not exactly sure what this song is about. With a title like "Flex Time" you might expect it to be about working conditions, but looking at the lyrics I'm pretty thoroughly puzzled. But it's a sort of stream-of-consciousness piece that would be right at home in a beatnik poetry bar, and I really want to hear the re-mix.

"Buckethat" Bobby Matheson - Space Pirates

Bobby's managed to take a sea chanty, complete with accordion, and translate it into space travel. And -- move over Paul and Storm -- it's funny! The transitions from 3/4 to 2/4 are appropriate and spotlight the humor, and the lyrics are really, really clever. The story is consistent, and gives a few opportunities to toss in a few "Arr"s. Bobby's was the last entry submitted, and he was rushing to get it in at that, so I'm not 100% surprised at what happens at 2:51. It still gets my vote.

DID NOT SUBMIT (eliminated)
Jon Eric
Ryan Welton
Bram Tant
(Update: these non-submissions are reviewed here)

SHADOWS:
Boffo Yux Dudes - How Low Will You Go

I think it's a crying shame that a technical glitch kept it from getting played at the Listening Party. A bitter nerd gets revenge on his ex-girlfriend on the day of her wedding.

Dr. Lindyke - Minutes and Hours

Nice try. I won't be reviewing our own entry.

17 comments:

Dave Leigh said...

A quick note... I will NOT be reviewing the judges this round. That was a one-time thing. Instead, I'll be reviewing the songs that weren't written in time and therefore weren't submitted or heard by me.

Spin said...

Great review Dave. A lot of thought seemed to go into it, which I think everyone should be thankful for.

Heather said...

Hi Dave! Thank you so much for the great feedback!!! You are really on top of this stuff, you got your shadow in right away and now you have reviews already? wowzer.

I agree the transitions are abrupt, I've NEVER written a song with changing time sigs and I had no clue how to go about it, if you've got any specific suggestions on how to smooth that out a bit I'd love to hear them.

I actually do have a veeeeerrrrrrry rudimentary bass line in there, some simple plunking away at the root notes, but I turned it way down in the mix because I didn't think it was all that good. :-) So yeah, I agree, it needs more bass! I just want it to be good!

So funny about the country/acoustic thing, because I definitely wanted to emphasize a country angle for this one, and actually started out acoustic but it wasn't working for me for some reason. When I found a country filter effect for the guitar, it was sounding even worse to me to have the acoustic pushed through that effect, so I went and got my dad's electric (which I haven't touched in years!) from upstairs. I think I was envisioning/hearing more of the rocker/scorcher country thing (which is not how it turned out, but yeah...) and you are envisioning/hearing more of a laid back, sweet country thing?

Finally, thanks also for the feedback about length. I think I sat through a few too many open mic situations where I saw people squirming in their seats during other performer's long songs. Add to that a few writing classes where it was drilled into my head to "condense! condense! strip out unnecessary words!" and from then on I've been afraid to write too much! What part or aspect of the story are you wishing you could hear more about?

Dave Leigh said...

Heather, I had to laugh when I read your blog and saw that you'd gone from acoustic to electric. The real judges five completely different opinions. And it's your song, so what you think counts more than anything.

But yeah, I don't think this is Southern Rock... I think it's better to just go for a sweet acoustic Country sound, and it will work really well with your voice.

The key word from that writing class was "unnecessary". Keep the necessary ones. If you were writing a situational piece -- a snapshot of a honky tonk -- then the length would be fine. But it appears to me that you've got a story going on, so you have to balance the narrative and descriptive elements of the song.

As for what that narrative should be, who am I to say? But you've set up that she's playing pool, then they meet and lock eyes, and the song's over. Cupid closes the curtain. But did they play? Did they even talk? Was pool *really* the game they were playing, or was it a metaphor for something else? Is she just too independent to lose, or is she looking for love? I don't know. The point is, there's a story in there.

As far as the time signatures go, the transitions into the chorus aren't bad. It's getting out of the chorus and back into the verse where it's awkward. It feels like your first time stepping onto an escalator. An extra measure or two after the chorus for just a little cool-down, perhaps with a quiet drum fill, might help.

What I like about these competitions is that you still have the song. You can continue to work on them after the competitions, fixing the problems you couldn't solve at the time due to time constraints or not having the right instruments at the time etc. I think the "winning" in these competitions is like the points on "Who's Line Is It Anyway?". The valuable thing is the feedback. I don't think Bullseye is bad at all, but I do think you can make it better.

Dave Leigh said...

Oh, and you don't have to make it better NOW. You might come back to it months from now look at it and say, "Oh! THAT'S what I should have done!" And then do it. I don't care if a song's 10 or 20 years old, it's never complete.

Riker said...

Hey Dave,

Once again, thanks for your input on *all* of our songs; I'm especially grateful for your positive critique of my song.

I wanted to ask a favor, though; could you update the link to my bio so it points to the original entry at my blog? I have the Katy Perry video embedded there, and it's conspicuously absent from the facebook port-over. Thanks!

The Offhand Band said...

Great thoughts on all the songs, and thanks so much for all the kind words about mine.

I really enjoyed your shadow as well -- it had me thinking of a bunch of moody 1960s things, from Burt Bacharach to James Bond and more. Really neat feel. Lots of nice lyrics and inner/multiple rhymes as well.

Mark a.k.a. OHB

The Offhand Band said...

Incidentally, since you mention favoring exotic signatures:

I basically *rejected* the idea of exotic signatures signatures right upon hearing the challenge. It was certainly a clear possibility to go that direction. But when I think of the best uses of odd signatures, songs that come quickest to my mind are Sting's "Straight to My Heart" and "Seven Days," "Everything's Alright" from "Jesus Christ Superstar," and some others all of which use the odd signature throughout. To me, there's no inherent connection at all between odd signatures and use of multiple signatures within a single song, and so not necessarily any particularly good reason to go there in response to this challenge.

Also, some odd signatures can make, surprisingly, for easier transitions, e.g., 5 and 3 given 5 phrased as 3+2, 7 and 4 with 7 phrased as 4+3. For me, part of the challenge of this challenge was crafting transitions when it isn't as obvious how, and strangely the more common signatures can make it much less obvious.

Of course, if an odd signature had come up as meaningful for a particular song, I wouldn't have hesitated to go there! :)

I should have mentioned all *this* in my song's bio, too!

Mark a.k.a. OHB

Graham Porter [Emperor Gum] said...

Hey Dave, thanks for the comments! One of the problems I've identified in my previous songs is that they tend to be overly dense texturally, so I consciously tried to keep it simple this time. Perhaps I went too far in the other direction if you found it boring, though. Nevermind.

In regards the length of each round, I disagree. I don't know how it is for other people, but I really struggle to write songs quickly. I feel like this should be a test of songwriting not speed. I agree that if you give people a month some will still miss it or leave it to the last minute, but I for one worked on this song every day of time limit.

Heather said...

Hi Dave! Thanks for responding to my questions! I definitely know that everyone is going to have their own reaction to the song, and that it's ultimately up to me. I really like getting feedback about what works for each person and what doesn't, because it also helps me define what I do and don't like about it as well. If I made a conscious choice to do something one way, and I really like it and one person doesn't, then I generally keep it. If it's an area that I was feeling kinda meh about anyway, knowing it was weak but lost on what to do, the feedback really helps give me a direction to go.

Re: first time stepping on an escalator - that is EXACTLY what it was like for me, HA!!

I also appreciate the whole "it doesn't have to be done now" thing, so true!

Thank you again, as you said, the best part about this contest is getting the feedback, so I really, really appreciate your useful insights. That's the kind of stuff that will help me be a better songwriter, which is why I'm doing this!

The Offhand Band said...

Graham, I really relate to what you're saying but have a different take on what to do about it.

What takes me the most time and effort is recording and production. Which isn't supposed to count in a songwriting contest. As you say, you want to give the writing its due, and you want that to be what's judged in a songwriting contest, and I couldn't agree more.

Unfortunately (at least for those of us who want a songwriting contest to be about the writing), the stuff beyond the writing obviously does count in the results. And the longer the time given until deadline, the more likely that people who are good at recording and production will be able to put that much more into them. Like it or not (and I sure don't), that ends up giving a greater and greater advantage to those who are good at those things beyond the writing, at the expense of those who aren't.

So, much as I'd also like the time to do all the writing totally to my satisfaction, in a situation like this, I'd rather have a much shorter deadline, removing the opportunity to add too much beyond the writing, leveling the playing field more to leave things as much as possible about the writing itself. Wishful thinking, huh? :)

Mark a.k.a. OHB

Graham Porter [Emperor Gum] said...

I see your point, Mark; however, I don't consider my forte as a singer/guitarist. Its only when I can bring in my full arrangements (clarinets, bowed bass, etc) that I can create that 'Emperor Gum' sound. It usually takes me an entire week to write the song, let alone arrange, record and mix it.

Dave Leigh said...

Graham, I'm not sure I'd say the problem with this piece was density, or lack of it. I think I'd use the word "accessibility". It's pretty obscure. I listened to it a couple of times, not knowing what it was really about before I finally did some research to learn the story on which this song is based. Then there was another listen or two to try to understand it on those terms. I can't say I was entirely successful there, either. For others who are reading this, "Yaoya Oshichi" is an odd story of (it seems to me) foolish actions told by a foolish girl. She falls in love with a man during a fire, and in an attempt to meet him again, commits arson. It's the sort of thing a 16-year old girl might do if she's blinded by love. There is probably something noble and poignant about it, but my Western sensibilities fall short of comprehending it, even though I did more research than most casual listeners can be expected to do. I myself wasn't willing to go beyond reading the story and watch some of the plays about it. Last round I did tell Jules that I thought it was reasonable to assume that the audience has some familiarity with the subject (especially in musical theatre, where the narrative has just been presented to you), but I really think I went above and beyond the call of duty here.

Graham, you're asking the listener to do a lot. They have to know the story. They have to understand it. They have to get past the confusion of a man singing from the point of view of the girl. They have to get through the lethargy induced by the opening verse about boredom with the slow tempo. It's a song that I can understand given time and effort... but the time and effort I had to expend really detracted from my enjoyment of the story. That's why I said I'd like to like it on artistic grounds, but it's not my cup of tea.

I can, however, see where somebody would like it better than I if they already were familiar with the story, and if they were willing to put themselves in the frame of mind of a bored girl in a jail cell awaiting execution. I honestly meant it when I said I couldn't call it "bad"... the reason is that you effectively DID communicate the emotion to the listener. You obviously set some goals for the piece and achieved them. I'd give you an 'A' for artistic effort, and I ABSOLUTELY appreciate every minute spent creating it. Unfortunately, I still wasn't really fond of the song.

Dave Leigh said...

Graham, I'm not sure I'd say the problem with this piece was density, or lack of it. I think I'd use the word "accessibility". It's pretty obscure. I listened to it a couple of times, not knowing what it was really about before I finally did some research to learn the story on which this song is based. Then there was another listen or two to try to understand it on those terms. I can't say I was entirely successful there, either. For others who are reading this, "Yaoya Oshichi" is an odd story of (it seems to me) foolish actions told by a foolish girl. She falls in love with a man during a fire, and in an attempt to meet him again, commits arson. It's the sort of thing a 16-year old girl might do if she's blinded by love. There is probably something noble and poignant about it, but my Western sensibilities fall short of comprehending it, even though I did more research than most casual listeners can be expected to do. I myself wasn't willing to go beyond reading the story and watch some of the plays about it. Last round I did tell Jules that I thought it was reasonable to assume that the audience has some familiarity with the subject (especially in musical theatre, where the narrative has just been presented to you), but I really think I went above and beyond the call of duty here.

Graham, you're asking the listener to do a lot. They have to know the story. They have to understand it. They have to get past the confusion of a man singing from the point of view of the girl. They have to get through the lethargy induced by the opening verse about boredom with the slow tempo. It's a song that I can understand given time and effort... but the time and effort I had to expend really detracted from my enjoyment of the story. That's why I said I'd like to like it on artistic grounds, but it's not my cup of tea.

(continued)

Dave Leigh said...

(continued)

I can, however, see where somebody would like it better than I if they already were familiar with the story, and if they were willing to put themselves in the frame of mind of a bored girl in a jail cell awaiting execution. I honestly meant it when I said I couldn't call it "bad"... the reason is that you effectively DID communicate the emotion to the listener. You obviously set some goals for the piece and achieved them. I'd give you an 'A' for artistic effort, and I ABSOLUTELY appreciate every minute spent creating it. Unfortunately, I still wasn't really fond of the song.

Graham Porter [Emperor Gum] said...

Thanks for clarifying, Dave. Hm, "accessability". I know the story is obscure, I suspose I did make the lyrics more impenitratable than I normally do. That was a conscious choise too, not sure why I did that. Part of the problem is that I never really care what songs are actually about, I generally enjoy lyrics without trying to understand them. However, I am writing songs for the express purpose of other people hearing them, so I shall bear it in mind in future. Thank you.

Your song was great by the way. Haunting.

The Offhand Band said...

Graham, I hear ya. It sounds, then, like you're really okay with a songwriting contest not being just a songwriting contest at all but, rather, a contest about writing plus things beyond the writing itself. That's what you want more time for, not the writing as you initially said, but bringing something written to life through arrangement and production. In that case, I can definitely understand you wanting more time.

Dave, following up about exotic signatures, for the record, I've got no problem at all with so many others here using them and hope I didn't come across otherwise. I really enjoyed them, lots of great examples. I'd love to see more such creative uses of time signatures -- even when a challenge isn't asking for more than one signature! That was really what I was getting at :)

Mark a.k.a. OHB

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