Monday, December 10, 2018

SpinTunes 15 Round 3 - Concerning Choices

I haven't been commenting so much on SpinTunes 15 here, as I've had my hands full on the SpinTunes blog itself. That's where you'll find my reviews, including this one for Round 3.

Now, I was pretty late getting those comments together, as only my rankings are used (and then only to break ties) unless we don't get reviews from one of the regular judges. Saturday I got pretty antsy about whether we would get all of those judges' reviews, so I spurred myself into writing mine. You may be able to tell from the increasing terseness of the reviews the amount of time I had left to write them. As they are what they are, I'm going to leave them without edit and comment a little more here.

First a reminder of the challenge, and a link to the songs:
Rubber Band: To reach the final round, we're asking our competitors to stretch themselves. Write a pastiche (a song in the style) of a band or artist whose style is appreciably different from your own(When ranking the songs, the judges will be paying particular attention to how great a departure competitors made from the kinds of songs we've already heard from them, as well as how faithfully they emulate the chosen artist's style.) 
And to be perfectly clear, we are requiring a pastiche that is an original song in the style of the artist, not a parody or derivative work. Think Weird Al writing "Dare To Be Stupid" in the style of Devo . . . not Weird Al writing "Party in the C.I.A." based on the song "Party in the U.S.A." by Miley Cyrus.
The album is now ranked in finishing order:

For reference, here's how the judges reacted:

Faster Jackalope123521619
Zoe Gray656246730
Third Cat797633230
Vom Vorton561855833
Governing Dynamics474399537
Good Guy Sôjàbé289984341
Brian Gray9108168942
PigFarmer Jr.8310410101047

One of my comments at the top of my reviews is "And some of you just made some weird choices." It's the subject choices that I want to expand on a little bit here. Partly because it may superficially seem that some of my specific critiques are contradictory. For instance, it looks like I'm critical of Zoe Gray for not sounding like Hank Williams, and I'm praising Governing Dynamics for not sounding like Bob Dylan. But that's not it. And by "weird", I don't mean "bad". I mean unexpected and risky. They could pay off. I don't think most of them did here, but they could have. That's the nature of risk.

As pretty much all of the judges noted, we've got three criteria:
  1. the style of the song shouldn't be similar to your own. In fact, it should be as unlike you as possible.
  2. the style of the song should sound like your chosen artist. In fact, it should faithfully emulate the chosen artist's
  3. the song should not be a parody, but a pastiche. In fact, in the challenge, I underlined and linked to the definition of "parody".
Also, the song should be enjoyable in its own right. This is just common sense. If you've followed this contest for any length of time at all, you'll have noted that judge after judge has mentioned replay value. This is despite any other difference in taste that the judges may have.

So with that in mind, I'm going to talk about this in the context of gameplay. After all, SpinTunes is a game. And the choice of artist to emulate is the first bit of gameplay. And it would seem common sense to make that choice on a few criteria:
  1. they have a distinctly recognizable style
  2. that style is different from yours
  3. you are actually capable of emulating that style
That is, pick somebody who doesn't sound like you, but who you can sound like.  Now, that "sound like" is worth a mention, and for me, the key is to home in on what makes the artist distinctive.

Some artists have a distinctive musical style; others are style chameleons. Personally, I'd avoid a chameleon, because you'd be hard-pressed to find something "typical" to pastiche. That would leave you having to choose a particular composition to pastiche, which isn't quite the same as what we asked for. Reliance on a particular song by Third Cat, for instance, was a pretty weird choice. I know some other judges thought it was totally Yaz (Yazoo), but I saw it as totally "Only You". Good Guy Sôjàbé's choice of Moby was kind of a weird choice as well, because they chose a style chameleon. In this case I thought they pulled it off, but other judges disagreed. In both cases the judges' reactions were all over the map. I think in both cases, picking another artist would have gotten the contestant more consistent results.

With regard to style... well... if you're living in the weeds, you learn to tell one weed from another. If you don't, they pretty much all look like grass. That's what made Temnere's choice a weird one. It wasn't terribly different from their own sound. What differences in style there may be are far too subtle to rank highly as a departure from their own. Edric and I were hardest on them about that, but three other judges would have kept them out of the top 4 finalists for pretty much the same reason.

For some artists, their distinctiveness is purely expressed in their vocals. Hank Williams, for instance, is instantly recognizable by his voice; but his musical style is shared by any of a number of Country artists. When you're staying at the core of Country, that's just generally the case. The session musicians, the sounds, the songwriting conventions, are often shared and standardized. Notability in the genre doesn't really depend on those. Instead, it depends on the storytelling abilities, the emotiveness, and the personalities of the vocal artists. That's what makes Zoe Gray's choice of Hank Williams a weird one, because with the same musical track she could have chosen a different artist's vocal style and pulled it off. She got into the Top 4, sure... but only Edric and Ryan actually ranked her there. The rest of the judges ranked her in the middle, and the weird choices made by other artists floated her up once the rankings were totalled. Which isn't terrible gameplay mind you... I've mentioned before that when other contestants are taking risks, you can benefit from the "Love It or Hate It" (LIorHI) effect through consistent scores. I think Faster Jackalope made a weird choice by writing a pastiche of the Ronettes and not leading with female vocals, although they had a singer right there. And I think that's weird even though I ranked them highly due to their spot-on replication of Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound".

I called Brian Gray's entry "the poster child of weird choices", and went on about it at length regarding the disconnectedness of the piece. I didn't mention Philip Glass' Koyaanisqatsi, but Joe and Jerkatorium filled in that bit nicely. The weird choices here included the choice of minimalist artist in a contest where lyrics figure heavily; the choice to put all of the context in the contrived song bio instead of the composition to be judged; the fact that this is basically a parody of Koyaanisqatsi when parodies were expressly warned about; the fact that the joke is basically completely contained in the title, yet drags on for six pretty much unnecessary minutes; and limited replay value, except as background music. Menage A Tune similarly made a weird choice by going leaning toward a novelty parody, but that was limited to lyrics.

Some choices weren't weird at all, though the execution needed work. Jocko Homomorphism would have pulled off a pretty good Jimmy Buffett pastiche had he put in a bit more work in replicating Buffett's sound. Some marimbas and percussion would have done the trick, and would have been well within his capabilities. PigFarmer Jr. made a pretty good choice in picking rap, even though he fell through on execution. Had he successfully replicated the style of Vanilla Ice, I think maybe even Edric would have given him a pass on pronunciation. OK... maybe not Edric.

Vom Vorton made excellent choices, stylistically. Though I'm a little puzzled at celebrating such a mediocre car, I just shrugged and noted a couple of near-misses in execution, and ranked it #5, which is exactly where it fell in the final rankings. Travis, Ryan, and Chumpy agreed; and it fell squarely into LIorHI territory for Joe and Micah.

Likewise, I think Governing Dynamics made excellent choices overall. The raw acoustic sound of Bob Dylan is so stylistically and musically distinctive that you don't have to replicate his vocals to get the point across... and his vocals are so iconic that to attempt it would border on parody. I think GD struck exactly the right balance there, and he wound up ranked in the top 4 by me, Joe, and Edric; in the middle by Travis and Micah; and I can't explain Ryan's and Chumpy's rankings.

And then there's Mandibles, who made every good choice in the book:  in previous rounds we heard nothing but acoustics from them. They gave us a ukulele in Round 1 and a piano/guitar duet in Round 2; against which ABBA's heavily produced and processed dance club sound was a clear stylistic departure. They chose an artist whose sound they could replicate, and proceeded to do so; they pastiched not only the music, but the lyrical style; they did it without falling into parody. As a result, they got consistently high rankings from every judge except Edric, who ranked it in 7th place with no specific comment whatsoever. I have no idea why. Given his general comments, I'm not sure he knows either.

And that's all I have to say about that.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Blue and Yellow Killer

When I previously posted the song "I'm Not Going To Turn Into Jonathan Mann", I had completely forgotten (or overlooked) that I've actually worked with Jonathan before! Now, in case you're wondering how something like that could happen, it's because I didn't work directly with him. I had never so much as talked, chatted, or emailed with him. However, we did collaborate on a song.

Travis Langworthy (aka "SpinTown") wrote the lyrics to a Minecraft music video called "Blue and Yellow Killer". I rapped the lyrics, and completely separately, Jonathan Mann created the music and set the words to it. So here it is, "Blue and Yellow Killer":

The World Beyond (Paris Daydreaming)

First, let me give a thank-you to Ted Kiper for providing the vocals and piano for this song.

This is one of those songs that you would never guess what it's about unless someone simply told you. Then you'd slap your forehead and say, "Oh, of course!"

Sadly, I'm not going to simply tell you what it's about. William wrote the lyrics about something that's very close to his heart, but if it reminds you of something that's close to yours, all the better. Officially, it's about whatever you believe it to be about.

The World Beyond (Paris Daydreaming)

Reaching out in wonder to the world beyond 
With arms too short to satisfy a curiosity so strong 
Day by day the beckoning a silent beacon calls 
From inklings of infinity to dreams beyond these walls 

I wandered beyond the stone today 
Tomorrow the avenue 
And someday I may fly away 
To that place they call the moon 

Many are the windows under lock so little means 
But in an infants hands may lie the keys of destiny 
Marvel at the wonder of the endless world beyond 
And explore the possibilities of mysteries not yet known 

I wandered beyond the stone today 
Tomorrow the avenue 
And someday I may fly away 
To that place they call the moon 

Instinctive the desire 
Insatiable the quest 
Though the mind will journey freely 
It's imprisoned by the flesh 

I wandered beyond the stone today 
Tomorrow the avenue 
And someday I may fly away 
To that place they call the moon 

Someday I may just fly away 
To that place they call the moon

I'm Not Going To Turn Into Jonathan Mann

Jonathan Mann writes a song a day, and has done so since 2009. He currently holds the Guiness world record for doing so. And if you start RIGHT NOW, it will take you a decade after he stops just to catch up. So here's a little tribute.

You can follow Jonathan Mann on Twitter (@songadaymann) or on his website.

I'm Not Going To Turn Into Jonathan Mann

I've written songs by the hundreds 
But it took me a good thirty years 
There's a fella who's done 
what I've done 
Every trip 'round the Sun 
And it drives me to tears! 

Hey Jonathan Mann! 
The Song-a-day man! 
How do you do it? 
Is there some kind of plan? 
My life is so busy 
I've often asked "is he 
a clone or the name of a clan?" 
I wanna be just like Jonathan Mann 

So I put my nose to the grindstone 
To craft me some ditties to sing 
And I guess you could say 
That the stuff that I play 
Has some sway 
But it ain't got that swing 

Hey Jonathan Mann! 
The Song-a-day man! 
How do you do it? 
Is there some kind of plan? 
I've got places to see, 
And I love D&D 
So I budget my time as I can 
It's harder than <> to be Jonathan Mann 

[bridge... Jonathan Mann voiceover] 

I ain't got a song-a-day in me 
I'm sure as hell no Superman 
Though I try as I might 
My output's a fright 
That's alright 
I'll just do what I can 

Hey Jonathan Mann! 
The Song-a-day man! 
How do you do it? 
Is there some kind of plan? 
I've got volumes to read 
And a long Twitter feed 
And I've gotta get through all this spam 
So I'm not gonna turn into Jonathan Mann

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Weird Instruments 6: The Dord and the Carnyx

Today we have two ancient Celtic horns. First up is the Dord.

The Dord is is a curved tubular horn with a very large mouthpiece, native to Ireland. It hails from the Bronze Age, and examples have been uncovered dating from as early as 1000 BCE. Experts believe it may have been played like a Digeridoo, and you can hear this in the video below:

The second example (the Carnyx) is an awesome fusion of Iron Age engineering and art. It consists of a long straight tube culminating in a dragon's head. Depending on the style it could be played horizontally or upright, and the sound could either come straight out of the mouth like a trumpet or could resonate in the head. Some advanced examples had wings or ears that resonated like bells, adding to the sound.

I ran into references of it in Suetonius' histories of the Roman Empire. When the Celts sacked Rome, prior to entering the city, they played these outside of the city walls first to soften up the resistance. I don't know about you, but if I heard an angry barbarian mob playing these freaky things I'd piss my pants.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Far Away

For SpinTunes #14, Round 3, the challenge was to write a contemporary song based on a classical music selection. Since this is a shadow, we re-worked a set of older lyrics of William's. Technically it would be disqualified, I think... or arguably not, as the end result is a new work written for the contest. He'd been dissatisfied with the original tune I'd given them, as it was a bit somber. He'd been bugging me about "fixing" it anyway, and it just so happened that they precisely fit the tune I was aching to do for this challenge... The Beautiful Blue Danube by Johann Strauss.

I originally envisioned this with a vaguely Caribe rhythm, but sometimes the song gets the last say. This one really wanted to be Mack the Knife. I finally threw up my hands and decided to go with a swing beat, choosing the style of Count Basie with Bobby Darrin style vocals. The end result was a bit goofy, but suddenly turned charming when I added harmony backing vocals from Heather Zink, who has this delightful Doris Day quality to her voice. In my view, she saved it from being buried in cheese.

The rhythm, guitars and horns are just auto-generated by an algorithm. I didn't spend much time on that. The only thing I was careful about was the piano and vocals. I wanted to make sure that at least in the opening verses I got the little piano hits that confirm for us that this is based on the Blue Danube waltz. I dropped them in the later verses in favor of some more jazzy riffs, because style. I didn't write any of this down, preferring to play directly from Strauss' notation, converting it to 4/4 time on the fly and using the chord progression as my framework. Very little of that sheet music winds up in the finished product. Early verses have the tune based on Strauss, again abandoned later to just work around the chords because the point had already been made. I figure I'll just let the listener make the connections from that point forward. The chorus is original, with only the first two notes being taken from the second movement of Strauss' piece.

Lyrically, the song decided to do its own thing, too. Originally the lovers don't wind up together, but are pining. But with the change in atmosphere, that changed, too. So we get a sweet little ending.

lyrics by William Hoover

Everyday lately
I see you smiling
But every day's gray
When you are gone
Love's in the way
When I try to find you
It's so easy to say
When alone
And you seem far away.

A kiss was so pleasing
Early this morning
It changes the season
From cloudy to sun
Whatever the reason
I've never stopped soaring
And I'll never be leaving
As one
To lose you far away.

Far away
You've taken me
So far away
And if I had the chance today
I'd still choose reality
Far away
You've taken me
So far away
And I'll always be
With you
So far away.

All of my time
Is spent trying to tell you
All that these rhymes
Just can't convey
The place isn't mine
You say to surround you
Still I can't find the line
That will say
Don't be too far away.

You try to believe
There's something about this
That will not deceive
Our open hearts
I've tried to relieve
All of your doubts with
A soft touch and ease
But there are scars
On our hearts from far away.

Empty Room

The challenge for Spintunes #14, Round 2 was to write a prequel to a Billboard Top 100 song. We chose to prequel I'm Still Standing by Elton John.

As you read the lyrics (below) you can see that we're writing about a break-up. In our song, the singer is distressed... distraught... as the the break up is ongoing ("...we divvy up the props...", etc.). In I'm Still Standing he's recovered and is issuing a musical F.U. Life goes on, and he's still standing. Jerkatorium, in their review of the round, made an insightful comment on the first verse about the stars in the eyes standing in for the over-the-top glasses often worn by Elton during this period. Unfortunately, I can't confirm it, because Hoover's in charge of the lyrics, and he's not saying.

Sometimes you write a song and it has more than one meaning... the public meaning and the private one. Such is the case here, where some personal events informed my writing of the music.

lyrics by William Hoover

The moon like a tear-drop
Is falling from the sky
And the stars become detached
Then settle in my eyes.

And the words they've no idea
That they're still supposed to rhyme
So now I'm finally thinking
That this may be the time...

To get out...
Of this empty room...
Already too long abandoned
This empty room
Spinning me at random
Now a flavorless expression
In a world we cannot question
Just a song without a tune
This dark and empty room.

So we divvy up the props
Which made this stage a home
And the laughter from the wings
Still echoes but it's gone...

From this empty room...
This empty room...
Already too long abandoned
This empty room
Spinning me at random
Now a flavorless expression
In a world we cannot question
Just a song without a tune
This dark and empty room.

This dark and empty room.