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.

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SHADOWS
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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.