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.


Heather said...

Thanks again Dave for your insights! And thanks to your wife for being the emotional canary in this round. :-) Never an easy job!

I did a song bio too:

I agree, this challenge was pretty limiting and I definitely foresaw formulas popping up to meet it. I think the parenthesis after our names in your list at the end was to indicate which formula we went with, and my intention was to go with 4 actually...

I hear you on the unfinished story aspect, but in this case I'm going to argue for keeping it this way, or at least something similar to it, because my intention was to drop into the point of view of the mother just pre-labor. I knew by setting the story in a kingdom it would remove some immediacy. I was hoping to tap her experience, nerves, overwhelming love for her child and the pain of someone knowing she has to give the baby up for it's own good, as universal touch points, even if the story setting is removed.

I see her on the night of her labor, and she's trying to convey her love to her baby because she knows she has to give him up the moment he is born, and she knows it's safer the less she knows - for example, the information about where to find him can't be tortured out of her later. So yeah, it's unfinished because SHE doesn't know what will happen. All she can do is just trust the midwife, and she's not even entirely sure she can do that really.

She's praying that by repeating how much she loves the baby, how much he is wanted, he'll get the message somehow, and that it will carry through his life, if he gets to have one.

It's not specifically intended to be the Moses story by the way, although that works for this I think. If you're thinking that it IS that story, or one like it, and then you don't get to hear the rest of it, I imagine that would also contribute to feeling cut off from the story.

But in the case of this particular song, it actually is pretty much exactly what I was going for, in terms of putting you in the mother's shoes, though maybe you didn't come to it in the same way I thought one might. She doesn't get to know the end! heh. I think I would still want to do that even if I had been trying to recast a specific story.

With that in mind, if there are still things you feel are missing, or think there is a better way to accomplish what I'm trying to do, I'm all ears!

As for the minor chords, it WAS an attempt at creating/supporting that sad/tearjerk effect. I don't really know what the heck I'm doing and my chord vocabulary is extremely limited, so I'm totally open to hearing about better ways to do that. I wanted to use the music itself to help with evoking the emotions since again, I knew I was taking a risk by setting the story so far removed from the present.

Again, many thanks for the valuable feedback. It's so great to find out what works and what doesn't for each listener, and it helps me clarify what I really want to convey with the song. yay!

Dave Leigh said...

Heather, I meant (4) for yours. I'll correct it.

A lot of times people equate a minor key with sadness, but it doesn't always work. For instance, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" played slowly in a major key can be heart-rending in the proper context, but the same song played in a minor key may be just creepy. Yours was not creepy; but you probably didn't need the minor chords. a straight lullaby sung with sadness does the trick.

I did think of Moses, but since you didn't make it specific, I didn't say it, since the story was a common theme in Old Testament times (and before). It applies to Moses, to Sargon of Akkad, and reminds us of Herod's edict as well.

Bram said...

Nice review, though I believe you meant to say Brian Gray's entry would be automatically disqualified for lack of *sadness* instead of lack of happiness. ;)

Dave Leigh said...

Bram, you caught me in yet another mistake... or did you? I think I will edit this and pretend I don't know what you're talking about.

The Offhand Band said...

Points all well taken. I was hoping that the production drive underneath mine would convey the despair building in the parents underneath it all, but I suppose even that's something not necessarily likely to evoke sadness in an audience. Ah, well :)

I'm certainly with you on the restrictiveness of the challenge. On one hand, restrictiveness makes for a challenging challenge. On the other, it does tend toward formula. And then what happens: lots of exploring ideas in the hope of bucking too-obvious formula -- Christ, clones, kings, even mine with the idea of a birth crisis being overcome but sadness continuing for other reasons. And then what are we doing, looking for originality points in our own heads, or honestly serving the goal of a tearjerker? A tough situation, indeed.

Mark a.k.a. OHB

Steve Durand said...

Thanks for taking the time and effort to do reviews.

I guess I have a challenge comprehension problem because rather than just go straight for full-on misery I actually tried to do the "happy to sad in 4 seconds". That is why the song starts off with an upbeat tempo and tone. The brass section was intended as an elegy.

Thanks again for the comments.


Graham Porter (Emperor Gum) said...

Thanks again for the comments, Dave. I spent the last couple weeks messing around with some new equipment and wrote and recorded the music several days before I did the vocals. That's why the pitch is wrong for my voice. The tune and lyrics were written and recorded at ten in the evening (my time) on the night of listening party. I had to record them quietly so that's why I was too close to the microphone. Sorry you didn't like the vocals or the orchestration and the music as a whole didn't work for you. Oh well :)

In regards the challenge, I assume Travis was trying to make the challenges more difficult each round. Bearing in mind that of the thirteen of us every single one of us did child birth, perhaps the challenge was too limiting. I figured most people would have to strip their instrumentation down to vocals and guitar or piano (as you did beautifully), but that's always gonna hurt those of us who aren't strong singers. Be it percussion or horns, I think this round made it hard for some of us to express our individual styles. I mean, most of mine was done on a keyboard and I only had about 20 seconds of clarinet. I don't even play the keyboard.

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