Tuesday, March 3, 2015

SpinTunes 10 Round 4 Reviews

Dr. Lindyke didn't make it into the final round, so we're coming "back to the island" to vote. As usual, I'm writing the intro before hearing the music and writing the reviews.

This round's challenge was tough... and fantastic.
The Final Step - Normally dance is inspired by music. For the final challenge of SpinTunes 10, you will need to write a song inspired by dance...and not just any dance...this one. We should be able to play your song over this video...and have people think it's what he was dancing to. (2:32 minimum length...the length of the dance routine) (your submission is due Sunday, March 1st 11:59PM) 
Side Notes: The original audio was removed for a reason.  The dancers name wasn't mentioned for a reason.  Please do not attempt to look up more information on the video.  We'll use the honor system here.  I will be posting the original video & crediting the artists involved after your deadline. 
And as usual...lyrics are still REQUIRED.
What makes this a fantastic challenge is that it goes beyond artistry and expression. It's a test of the songwriter as a craftsman. It is an exacting specification of timing so as to make it look as if this dance were choreographed to the song and not the other way around.

When I first saw the video, I thought it was fairly obvious that this was being danced to a loose swing number, in the tradition of Frank Sinatra. It's a slower number though, and the the movements in general (and I'm not talking story-wise), suggested something with about the same "feel" as "Blues in the Night" (performed here by Peggy Lee and the Benny Goodman orchestra). I think that going outside that box can be justified only with a tremendous amount of surprise and delight. In other words, jumping genres (for me) would be a home-run or a fail.

Interesting technical trick: If you pull this video into an editor and stretch the timeline, you can map out the beat exactly. Adhering to that timeline in your DAW gives you precisely what you need to produce. But if you do that with this number it's immediately obvious that there's a lot of rubato in the performance, which supports the idea that a Sinatra-like number is behind it.

Also, choreography doesn't necessarily just act out the words. By the same token you shouldn't be narrating the motions, because I don't think you'd be doing the choreographer a favor. However... you've got to bank on a few things if you want this video to look choreographed to your song. Expansive motions in the dance should be in response to expansive lyrics or music. Choppy or sharp motions will. be. in. response. to. punctuated. music. And literally everything is significant. Tiny gestures should highlight tiny nuances in the music that you might otherwise miss. It's easy to take a tiny adjustment of the hat's brim at face value and just compose right over it; but it's impressive to highlight it in the score and make it look as though it was the dancer's choice to consciously respond to the music.

So I'm not looking for the beat... I'm looking for motions that naturally synched with the music, as if the two were being performed in the same room at the same time. After all, that's our primary requirement: "We should be able to play your song over this video...and have people think it's what he was dancing to." That applies not just to the rhythm, I think; but to the dress, the props (hat), the motions, etc.. And as a nice plus, it would be good to make this guy look like the best dancer in the room.

The story is up for grabs, but I walk into this with distinct personal preferences. I don't much like it when dance numbers are about dancing. While it's nice that a performer likes what he does, wouldn't it be nice if he were expressing something that everyone else can relate to? Love, or success, or failure, or freedom, etc.? "Dance music" can be so much more than "shake your booty", and I respond well to a good story.

Production-wise, I don't care. Honestly, the dude's dancing on a blank stage. We can allow a conceit that this is a rehearsal, and a single piano played by Mandy Patinkin off-stage would do the trick just fine. I can imagine a more polished production to include both orchestration AND a glitzed-up outfit for the dancer. The important part for our purpose is that they match.

The Reviews
Enough of that.  Here are my reviews in the same order the songs were presented at the listening party. I'm linking to the videos rather than the Bandcamp album because the nature of the challenge requires it. If you're not ranking this by watching the video, I feel you're doing the contest a disservice. People must think that the song is what he's dancing to, so we're not, not, NOT looking for merely "the best song"... at least I'm not.

Pete Murphy - "Dance All Night"
This is nice dance music. If you just listen to the songs without watching the videos it fares very well, very arguably the best. However, it's very exacting and precise, which is exactly what the video isn't. Though there are some nice moments of synchronicity ("slide", "glide", "wrap my arms around you") it overall gives the impression of a song that was laid on top of the dance rather than a dance choreographed to the song. It's the sort of thing you'd want to hear while clubbing, but I can't really buy the connection to this dance.

Zoe Gray - "Smooth"
This opens up with a groove that reminds me of Michael Jackson, which is a really Good Thing(tm) given the hat as a prop. The story is good one... a self-adoring hedonist. This works really well with lines like "I'm so smooth like peanut butter..." synched with the self-hugging. There are passing references to dance ("when I chassé all the females stare") that aren't synched with the moves of the same name, and again given this style that's good because it doesn't feel like narration. There's one piece though, that I would have liked a bit more synch, and that's where he falls after the a la seconde turns at around the 2:20 mark. Ignoring that fall makes it look like the dancer's mistake, whereas I think it would be better if he were made to look flawless.

By the way, the NSFW lyrics have some shock value, yeah; but I'm not so sure they help Zoe out. My wife's reaction was "oh, hell no". I personally judge the song, and I think it would be ignored entirely if someone else were performing, so it has no impact on my rankings. As it is, there are really only two questionable words (and they're sort of casually tossed in the first verse), which should make you doubt their necessity. The rest of the song carries along perfectly fine without them.

Ross Durand - "Brand New"
This is a great example of how the music can completely change your interpretation of a visual experience. Ross totally runs with the rubato performance, making it look as though the dancer's illustrating the singer's unsteadiness. Moves that are suave when set to other music look deliberately unbalanced here. That's not a bad thing either. The moment of self-adoration and the broadly expressive "...until I found YOOOUU!!!" are spot-on. At about 1:13 or so there's the sheepish body language of the dancer accompanied by "...I don't know what you'll say..." which really sucks me into the story. Our dancer goes from being Mr. Smooth to Buster Keaton (with maybe a bit of The Little Tramp mixed in), and frankly, I'm totally on board with both approaches. I think it's interesting that the fall at 2:26 really works here because of the subject matter and the rising vocal (almost an oops!).

Edric Haleen - "Dance!"
"Mr. Smooth" is back from the very first beat of Edric's show-tune number. And let's call it what it is, shall we? Up top I mentioned a lot of things that you don't necessarily do in choreography, such as narration, and also things I don't like, like dance songs about dancing. Edric is a honeybadger. Edric don't care. Edric narrates the shit out of this dance; but the thing is, it's done well. And though he is writing a dance about dance, it's more broadly a dance about free expression. Little nuances abound... the "ting!" of the hat brim, the clearing of the throat, etc. Nothing is left to chance, and the timing is dead-on throughout the number. Edric doesn't ignore the a la seconde turns and fall, either, choosing to prompt it with that rapidly-descending arpeggio. This isn't the kind of song you'd typically hear on its own, but it works as part of a show, and the "rehearsal-like" feel of the video allows us to go along with it.

(This doesn't affect rankings, but I would love to hear this with better sound fonts. Most of these instruments are OK, but the brass... whhuufff.)


For reference, here's the original dance as choreographed by Ryan Kasprzak and danced by Evan Kasprzak

Dr. Lindyke's rankings have been submitted, and are being kept in a hermetically sealed mayonnaise jar on Funk & Wagnall's back porch.


Postcript: One other thing, and I was really remiss not to mention it before, because I started editing this with intention of doing so. Spin mentions that it's up to us former competitors to eliminate three people. I couldn't agree less. These are the last four composers standing out of a field of thirty-three. There's no elimination involved here. They're all superlative. Rather, our job is to elevate one of them.

That is all.