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:
THE ARRANGEMENT ISN'T THE SONG
THE SINGER ISN'T THE SONG
THE CHORDS AREN'T THE SONG
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

Free

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.

Free
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.