Wednesday, February 29, 2012

No Ordinary Day

This is a shadow for SpinTunes #4 Round 2. The challenge:
I Heart U: Write a musical Valentine's Day card to someone OTHER than your significant other. (2 minute minimum) (your submission is due February 12th 11:59PM)

Demo track. I'll replace it with something better, as soon I get around to it.
Plan A fell though. Maybe I'll work up to a Plan B.

Meeting a challenge often depends on how you interpret it. This one has a time-based loophole, so for this challenge, we decided to write a song to someone who's not your significant other YET.

We chose to tell the story of a somewhat emotionally dysfunctional person who is pursuing her (or his) infatuation. We deliberately left the lyrics gender-neutral. It works equally well sung by a man or woman. We were also deliberately unforthcoming with information about the recipient of the "card"... it's just, "you".  He can't generally approach the target of his affection, but Valentine's day presents an opportunity. And he imagines that if only he can send this card, then his affections will be returned, and his life will become wonderful. There's a little shrug after these imaginings, with a barely hopeful, "it could happen."

I wanted to produce some music for this that is more recent, modern, and younger-sounding than our usual stuff. So I deliberately for Taylor Swift's sound. This is particularly applied to the last line of each verse. Listening to it afterward I think I maybe got a little Taio Cruz in there, too. The piano style is intentionally intended to emulate a first or second year student... basically just chords with a minimum of embellishment, with a very heavy hand on the bass as the root is played.

Despite the modern style, we borrowed the second-person delivery from The Beatles. It's my theory that part of the appeal of The Beatles' songs in the early '60s was due to their copious use of second-person pronouns... "She Loves YOU", "I Wanna Hold YOUR Hand", etc. In an age where most songs were written to somebody by name, this allowed their fans to imagine that each Beatles song was written to each of them.

The verses are by William, and originally were wrapped around a completely different chorus, but I thought we could meet the challenge a little better. So I replaced the first of the two pre-choruses, and also the chorus. The second pre-chorus and everything else is his. Sometimes William surprises me with a unique turn of phrase. Take this:

Smiling like you're knowing
Many secrets unrevealed

This is a rather poetic way of getting around the cliche'd use of "Mona Lisa smile". I like it.

Performance-wise, I wanted a sort of detached quality to it (especially with lines like "You're there again"). I've noticed a peculiar sort of... ennui, I suppose... among the current crop of teenagers. There's a disconnect between their actions and displayed emotions. The most exciting things fall upon deadened nerves. As good an example as any is in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World". Scott orders a package from Amazon just to get a chance to talk to the delivery girl. He goes directly from the computer to sitting cross-legged on the floor, facing the door. His roommate asks, "Are you waiting for the package you just ordered?" Scott glances over his shoulder and replies, "Maybe." This detachment is what I mean by "somewhat emotionally dysfunctional", and that it's apparently shared by both characters is reflected in the line, "your quiet cool reaction to it all". I wanted to leave that open enough so that the song can be enjoyed by anyone, but there's a reason that the singer doesn't act on any particular day of the year. The point here is that great emotional depth is not required for singing this song properly. Hitting the notes and the tempo are. It should be deliberately paced, with the exception of the long rests. 

The "Conversation Hearts" reference is solely there for my wife, who loves the things (especially the white ones). She sent me out on February 15th to buy bags of the stuff at half price, and they made their way into the song.

No Ordinary Day
by Dr Lindyke

I've thought of you a million times
I think you've never left my mind
And now here on Saint Valentine's
You're there again

I picture you as there with me
On the sands of a shore of a distant sea
Far from this boring destiny
We're living in

Any other day
I second guess and fumble 
What I want to say
And find it hard to start
But now's a time
Of roses red and holidays
On Conversation Hearts

So I pretend it's not some ordinary day
Where you won't look my way
And I --
Once again find myself tongue-tied
And I must believe
Though I find it very hard
If I send you this card
You'll read it
And fondly think of me...
Then maybe...
We can meet each other
Maybe we'll go out together
Maybe we'll find common ground together...

(shrugs) It could happen

I picture you as there with me
On the sands of a shore of a distant sea
Far from this boring destiny
We're living in

And through the lonely doldrums
You're a gentle breeze blowing
Smiling like you're knowing
Many secrets unrevealed
And I don't understand
How you got me going
And your quiet cool
Reaction to it all

So I pretend it's not some ordinary day
Where you won't look my way
And I --
Once again find myself tongue-tied
And I must believe
Though I find it very hard
If I send you this card
You'll read it
And fondly think of me...
Then maybe...
We can love each other
Maybe we'll move in together
Maybe we'll find happiness forever...

(shrugs) It could happen

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Spin Me A Valentine

This round of SpinTunes was really satisfying for me. I always think it's a missed opportunity when a contest spans a holiday and doesn't take advantage of it for a prompt, so I've wanted to see a Valentine's Day challenge for a while now. SpinTown wasn't convinced, assuming that we'd see an endless parade of sappy love songs. However a little tweak to the challenge to encourage other subjects allowed him to change his mind. Here's the challenge as finally presented:
I Heart U: Write a musical Valentine's Day card to someone OTHER than your significant other. (2 minute minimum) (your submission is due February 12th 11:59PM)
I must admit the wording was mine, and that phrase "Valentine's Day card" came back to bite us. Here's the Bandcamp album for your listening pleasure, including that way-too-cute rebus album cover by Matt Schubbe:

Congratulations to Brian Gray for winning this round with his song, Man Crush! Brian manages to straddle a lot of fences here... he invokes borderline homophobia, celebrity stalking, pop-culture and pop-psychology references, platonic love, and even the tortured sound of proper grammar. This is really brilliant.

I've got some additional "must listen" tracks" I'd like to acknowledge here. I don't want to duplicate my reviews (read those on the SpinTunes blog), but here's a quick blurb about each to tell you why it's notable for me:
David LeDuc - 3rd Grade Valentine -  Three of the judges ranked this very highly (myself included, and the others voted to eliminate LeDuc entirely. Nevertheless, I strongly feel that of all the entries, this one most squarely met the challenge. Add to that some really solid production, and it's a winner. The fact that the music seems laid back as opposed to the lyrics exactly reflects the contents of the lyrics themselves, which state that the real message was barely readable on the valentine. I think it was a brilliant choice that may have been too subtle for some listeners.
Rebecca Angel - Insignificant You - Rebecca's ironic take on the challenge may have been lost on one or two of my fellow judges. Just for the record, "Insignificant You" is anything but.  Rebecca's delivery should not be missed.
Edric Haleen - To My Significant Self - Edric stripped this song down the absolute bare essentials... one voice. Coupled with a unique interpretation of the challenge and a brilliant concept wrapped in an intriguing rhyme scheme, this is engaging and melancholy. 
Common Lisp - A Brother's Valentine -  When I comment that Paul can't sing, I'm not doing it to be mean... it's to contrast it with what he does exceptionally well, which is this. Spoken-word. Not quite rap, not quite talking. It's space between the spaces occupied by rappers and Shatner. Intelligent and thought-provoking without being belligerent.
Ross Durand - Space Opera Valentine -  This mix of country-western style and Star Wars imagery can't be missed. What makes it most notable for me is that Ross manages to inject a bit of pathos into what would otherwise simply be a geeky audio "Where's Waldo?"
Jess Scherer - Carbonated Love -  I just love the clean, wholesome bubble-gum pop sound of this song. What can I say?
Caleb Hines - To The Administrator of Extraplanetary Research - As you might note above, the challenge doesn't explicitly state "write a song" as every challenge prior to this one had done, and this is what came back to bite the judges. Caleb produced a very well-thought-out missive from a Vulcan survey ship, reporting on Earth's readiness for first contact. Unfortunately it wasn't a "song", but Caleb deserves MASSIVE kudos for finding and exploiting that loophole. This is a really clever essay delivered atop ambient tones.

Not today, sorry. I think for the most part that these songs are either self-explanatory or well-enough described by the composers themselves.

There's an Earwig (Spintunes Shadow)

This is the second of two Spintunes #4 Round 1 shadows, the first of which can be found >>here<<. If you'll recall, the challenge was
Night Terrors - Write a song about a childhood nightmare. Include significant use of rubato. (2 minute minimum) (your submission is due January 29th 11:59PM)

Example: "Love Of My Life" by Queen
Definition: Wikipedia 
The first of our shadows was a nightmare of William's. I thought it would be nice to include one of mine, but there was a problem... my mother was a fan of all things pertaining to gothic horror. We read books about vampires, watched Dark Shadows, Night Gallery, the Twilight Zone, the Outer Limits, the Addams Family, the Munsters... we went to see all the Hammer and Universal monster flicks... I listened in the dark to E.G. Marshall and the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. In short, I grew up pretty much inoculated against nightmares. I don't recall any from my childhood. The closest I can come actually has me cast as the "monster". So I was stuck.

Or was I? Since I had no nightmares, I decided to write about that. And, since the challenge nevertheless had to be about a nightmare, I borrowed one from Rod Serling. There was an episode of Night Gallery entitled "The Caterpillar", in which a man had an "earwig" crawl into his head and bore through his brain. Upon exiting the other side, it was examined by a doctor who declared that it was female and had laid eggs. I was about 11 years old when I saw this episode, and I still regard it as one of the creepiest I've seen.

This song recalls that episode, with a chorus that assures you that it is because of things like this that my childhood dreams were unusually sound:

Some notes about the composition: 
  1. This is written to be performed with just a drum and upright acoustic bass, but I wanted to be able to play it for people solo, so I wrote the piano arrangement you hear. 
  2. The arrangement for the right hand is supposed to emulate echoes, and a dreamy quality. If I do this as an mp3 I'll probably use effects to get the right sound. The period between the echoes lengthens slightly rather than being exactly periodic as a real echo would be.
  3. It's deliberately "torch-songy" in that I always think creepiness is enhanced by a little masochism. Speaking of masochism, Rod Serling was an incorrigible smoker, hence the "nail for his coffin" line.
  4. The "tiny glass window" is likewise a way of enhancing creepiness. I thought it was nice to invoke the idea of the television (the old console television I used to watch) as a sort of Pandora's Box, in which all these demons and monsters were trapped. This leaves open the possibility that they could escape. (You might not consider that consciously, but I'm banking that your unconscious mind can connect the dots). The glass picture tube then becomes a window in allusion to the other forms of scrying windows, mirrors, and pools common in occult mythology.
  5. I wanted to highlight a form of rubato I didn't hear in any of the SpinTunes entries, but which is actually exceedingly common among the works of torch singers and nightclub performers. Frank Sinatra was a master of it. That is, varying the tempo of the vocal alone, while the accompaniment plays on-tempo. Here I stretch that out to ridiculous proportions in the last verse, which not only slows down to an entire measure behind the accompaniment, but is never actually completed! It's also used in that fashion to a lesser extent in the first verse. I include a fermata in that verse as well for good... measure (shoot me). And the tempo changes slightly going into the chorus, to fall back as the instrumental verse takes over. If I did all this correctly, it should be plain that the rubato should be included to enhance the performance, not merely meet the challenge.
  6. Oh, and how is exactly is this a song about a childhood nightmare? Answer: Play it for your kids and find out. 
For our round 3 shadow, I promise we're going a bit more upbeat and modern.

There's an Earwig
lyrics by Dave Leigh

There's an earwig in my head
Chewing slowly on my brain
And they tell me when the eggs hatch
I will slowly go insane
But I don't mind -- yeah, I like it.
And I'm thoroughly entertained
As I'm dreaming of the earwig in my brain

And I've got no nightmares, no bad dreams,
'Cause Rod Serling scared them all out of me
They're hanging up in the Night Gallery
As he sucks on a nail for his coffin

No nightmares! No bad dreams!
The monsters are all in the tee-vee
There's no way that they can get to me
Through the tiny glass window

There's an earwig in my head
Chewing slowly on my...

Stained Glass (SpinTunes Shadow)

This song is a response to the Spintunes #4 Round 1 challenge. If you'll recall, the challenge was
Night Terrors - Write a song about a childhood nightmare. Include significant use of rubato. (2 minute minimum) (your submission is due January 29th 11:59PM)

Example: "Love Of My Life" by Queen
Definition: Wikipedia 
Now, I can't shadow during the round, but after the competition all is rosy. So here is the contestants' opportunity to respond back in the credits and critique their little hearts out. Please do so in the comments below. And if that's not enough, we have a second shadow for you to crucify.

"Stained Glass" is about a dream that William Hoover had when he was a very young child. Underneath the house, in the basement, skeletal figures were gambling and boozing it up. On being chased he found himself trapped... (the "heavenly door" here is a coffin lid). As with many of our songs, we're not going for any kind of narrative here... which would be silly regarding a dream anyway. We're going for a mood, which here is a sort of "high-energy creepy".

I've deliberately left this rendition devoid of an instrumental bridge or much frill of any kind, really... I have another version planned. (muah-hahaha). I did want to get this in on my blog between my first and second round commentary, though... so no waiting.

Stained Glass
lyrics by William Hoover

Skeletons in the cellar decide to deal another round
As the spotted bleached white bones rattle on the ground
Decks of cards of soap, dice all made of bone
Dot the filthy earth just underneath our home

the skylight shroud in blackness just between the mezzanines
Trapped between past and passing moments
Of the real time and the dream

Is this sleep?
Was there sleep?
Closed eyes aren't always as they seem
Reach up and touch a heavenly door
And enter the inner screams

You wake up your sweat is cold
Your heart is in your throat
There's a chill upon your soul
As the images vanish into papal smoke

The haunting chants from the pipes within
Send shiver signs God never gave
Walking barefoot upon broken stained glass
As the shrouded druids cross themselves and tread upon my grave 

You wake up your sweat is cold
Your heart is in your throat
There's a chill upon your soul
As the images vanish into papal smoke


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Deconstructing “Just a Dream” and “Teeth”

OK, so this is getting to be a habit... taking my favorite pick from a Spintunes round I'm judging and picking it apart to tell you why I like it so much. Today I've got TWO picks to deconstruct.

Just A Dream – Brian Gray

First up, my top pick, and favorite song of the round: “Just a Dream” by Brian Gray. There were a LOT of good songs at the top of this round, and frankly the top five kept shuffling around for me. But Brian's percolated to the top because it's so, so very deep. Every time I hear it there's something new and frankly profound.

At first casual listen you might think “Hey! This isn't even a nightmare! How'd he avoid a disqualification?” Well, pay attention to the lyrics:

Last night saw the Ghost of Grown-Up Future come to me.
And he said, "Hold tight. Kinda bumpy as we cross the century."
And there I am in my cubicle, typing a report
I hit print, but the printer's out of toner, so I file an IS ticket,

It's Brian's younger self, dreaming about his future as a boring office worker in a boring office doing the boring sort of things that boring people do every day in 2012. So the kid wakes up...

And thank God it's just a dream.
I'm still gonna be an astronaut.
I'm still gonna be a rock star,
A race car driver, candy bar taste tester, and the Batman.
I'm still gonna make a difference.
I'm still gonna be important.
All right, shut up, relax, it's just a dream.

...and we can smile and laugh at the na├»ve and whimsical career choices and conclude that Brian is writing a fluffy little comedy piece, perhaps flaunting the challenge as he did with the “sad song about birth”.

But wait a minute. What if this isn't just funny? To qualify as a nightmare, Brian's younger self has to regard this future as horrific, and he certainly does. After all, he has such high aspirations...

But wait a minute. These probably were Brian's aspirations. I know they were pretty close to mine. And to have so many of them and to miss them all...

But wait a minute. He did miss them all (at least for the purpose of this narrative). This isn't a dream of the future. It's the future Brian looking back at his younger self and recalling from behind jaded eyes the memory of how the future once looked, and the mark a young man wants to leave on the world... and remembering that the young man was once him. And we half listen and tap our toes and smile at how clever it all is, but how un-nightmarish, while the entire time the message is sailing over our heads. But if we're listening carefully, and hear the words...

I'm still gonna be remembered.
I'm still gonna change the world.
I'm still gonna be the man that everybody says I could be...

...we might get the point, and apply the lesson to ourselves, and maybe our eyes will just tear up a little and realize that not all nightmares are scary monsters and screams. As for me, I really don't care if Brian intended for us to get all of that out of this simple little song. He still put it there, with all its depth, and I wish I thought of it.

This. Is. A . Great. Song.

P.S. I just read the song bio... looks like Brian recognizes how it could be taken. That's good... I like it when I get these things right.

Teeth – Marlon Barnes

Yeah, I know... you've heard the recording and you think I've lost my marbles. I don't think so. I've read the lyrics, and heard the songs a half a gazillion times, and I'm not exactly ready to change my mind. I genuinely like this song.

The performance is pretty bad, but I've said before that I judge the songs. In this case, it's a simple enough nightmare... the guy is dreaming that his teeth are falling out of his gums. Apparently it's a common theme. So common, in fact, that if you type “Dream that" into Google, the auto-complete will finish it off with “ teeth are falling out.” claims that “Dreams of falling teeth are the most common dreams that Dream Moods receives.”

Score one for Marlon for picking something relatable, and on any age level at that... particularly when baby teeth DO actually start to fall out, the fear is that they won't come back, and that fear can become persistent, lasting from childhood to adulthood. And the fear can cause compulsive brushing, as in the song. So the choice of nightmare here is rock solid.

Despite Marlon's limited performance, I detect the core of a catchy, driving, rythmic electric Blues number here, particularly well into the song when he's feeling a little more confidence. The verses here really don't matter much. They introduce the subject and connect the choruses, but this is really a song about the phobia. It's not storytelling. This fantastic hook is where you want to go:

I'm spitting teeth,
my white and pearlies
flow like fountains
I'm spitting teeth
my mouth now has a vacancy
If I'm asleep
I hope I wake up and get out real soon
so I can go brush continuously
Now I hear this bridge...
left and right - up and down
left and right - up and down
left and right - up and down
left and right - up and down
left and right - up and down
circular motion
circular motions
(gargling) (spit!)

...and it completely cracks me up. Every single time. Of course, this is Marlon's method of getting prominent use of rubato into the song, and damn it, it works. Clumsy, compulsive brushing, making sure to do everything the dentist tells you, and then that gargling! Awesome! I have never in my life heard even an attempted gargled musical solo! But there's a place for literally everything under the Sun, and in a Blues number even this can work. By the time it's done I'm laughing my ass off and I'm ready for the pounding chorus to start again, which it does right on time. Personally, I wouldn't mind a repeat of it on the outro.

If you're one of the ones who wrote this song off without much of a listen... I wish you could hear what I hear when I hear this song. Electric guitars, drums, keyboard... and dice. It's a prime example of the fact that you don't need to be a great performer to write a cool song.

On Song Bios

Concerning Spintunes, in my last post I mentioned I love "song bios". What are they and how do I use them when evaluating a song?

Well, a song biography is just a blurb about what the song means, why you chose certain lyrical or musical structures over another, etc.. It's like the "making of" video in a DVD boxed set. There's no set format for one, nor any set info that must be included. I love to see the creative process, and so do the other competitors... we're all songwriters, and it's fun to compare methods.

When judging, the song bio is what I look at last.
  • First is the listening party. I don't take any notes then, I just listen for the overall feel. 
  • After the LP I download the album and listen to them in order. As I listen the first time through I jot down some rough observations, and take a first pass at ranking... where do I think the song stands in relation to the ones that I've already heard?
  • Then I listen again, reading the lyrics, and re-order them as I go.
  • Then it's a whole lot of listening. In the car, at my desk, on speakers, on earbuds. I get sick of some of them and can't get enough of others. I re-order accordingly. All that time I try to figure out what the composer was going for... how the challenge was met. I normally don't listen to any other music at all during judging week.
  • Then I read the song bios, if they exist. I get to find out if I missed something that the composer was trying to communicate... basically, did your execution live up to your intentions? Often I've come pretty close to guessing the composer's intent (that's a good thing, because it means the song was successful as a communication medium), but sometimes I learn something new. Sometimes it's TMI. Sometimes I get more out of the song than was intended. If I need to I'll adjust the rankings... usually upwards. I don't recall ever having adjusted a song's rank downward after having read a bio.