One of the things I'm really digging about SpinTunes is that it isn't settled by a web page vote, but by judges, and the judges are writing reviews. I am excited to read them and hoping to gain some insight from them. That's oodles more meaningful to an aspiring songwriter.
I'm a contestant, not a judge, but I thought that in the spirit of the thing I'd write my own mini-reviews of the 28 official entries. You can find them in the SpinTunes #2 Round 1 album. Note that if you download the songs, Travis would prefer that you download the whole album rather than the individual songs. The reason for this is apparently that Bandcamp counts each individual song download against the free 500-download limit, but treats the download of the full album the same way. (If Travis runs out of free downloads, he will have to start paying to provide more).
If I were actually a judge, I'd be asked to pick 8 to eliminate, so I'll do that, too.
It may be interested to see whether my picks match or don't match the picks of the official judges. Note that I have not read any of their comments yet.
So -- headphones on -- here we go!
1. Danny Blackwell: "A Song About Woodsetts"
The production is a little crude; there's a lot of computer fan noise or other hum, and the guitar is too loud in the mix with respect to the vocals, and clips here and there. The lyrics are very pretty though, the singing is nicely done, and the picking and slides are well-played. Lyrically, it feels slightly incomplete. It sounds like this was done live, demo-style, rather than tracked and mixed. However, it also feels very personal, and I like that. I give it a B.
2. Ben Walker: "Oxford"
The mix is EQ'ed a bit too bass-heavy. The lyrics are excellent, for the most part, although not all the metaphors really pop ("a roll of bubble wrap" doesn't quite work for me.) The singing is top-notch and the vocal track fits quite well into the mix. I really like the tango-inspired middle section. I have a BIG problem with this track, though, on an intellectual-property basis. I feel like the inclusion of the famous chorus from the TV show Cheers, is too big a musical quote. Quoting one line or one melody phrase would be funny, just like The Huey Lewis song "I Want a New Drug" quotes "Purple Haze" in the guitar solo, and Rush's 2112 Overture quotes the 1812 Overture. But this takes four of the most recognizable bars from another song and uses them verbatim. I think that's probably not justifiable, fair use or not; if this were a commercially produced song, I can guarantee a Verve Pipe-style lawsuit would be in the offing and Mr. Walker would owe all his royalties for this song to Viacom or whoever owns that bit of intellectual property. So: A-, but disqualified -- and thus ELIMINATED. (That's 1 of the 8).
3. Austin Criswell: "Mt. Holly"
Beautiful ambient singing: this reminds me of a long-gone band called Galaxie 500. The production is a little boomy and distorted, but not unbearably so. The lyrics are pretty. It's short and sweet. A-
4. Inverse T. Clown: "The Pinpoint Accurate Telling of the Origin of Salem, OH"
There's nothing in the rules that says the song about your hometown has to be truthful. So from Inverse, we get a funny fantasy with a fat bass-heavy electro beat. It's competently done but it feels slightly flat and pasted together, without a lot of emotional interest. B-, but it doesn't get eliminated.
5. David Ritter: "Fired"
The whole mix is over-compressed. The lyrics are funny, but it sounds to me like this was a song that was about something else, but which was hastily repurposed to be about a town by mentioning where it happened. Competently performed and produced for the most part, but I'd disqualify it, were I judging, for failing almost entirely to be actually about a town. So -- ELIMINATED. (That's 2 of 8).
6. Governing Dynamics: "Stars Over Avalon"
I'd like to start off by saying that I would love, love, love to have the chance to play live with Travis of Governing Dynamics. As a guitarist, naturally, I just love his churning guitar lines. This one reminds me a little of Sonic Youth. It's mournful and atmospheric. That said, it's also a little sluggish, and feels too long. I like the phrases "what we might lack in artificial light -- at least we can look up and see the stars at night." But the lyrics need a little more life and a little more editing, it feels a little unfocused, and it tells me very little about the town. Another B.
7. Duality: "To the End of the World"
Joe's singing on this one is downright operatic, and it complements Denise's flowing river of arpeggios beautifully. When Joe hits the chorus and his voice is doubled, it gives me chills. "Although I've loved this town, it's time that I learn to fly -- leaving behind all I've known." On paper, the words sound like too much speech and not enough melody to work -- but it does work, very nicely. There are a couple of slightly off notes in the accompaniment, and some places where the aligned vocals don't entirely align, so I have to ding it just a bit. It also could have used a change in the arrangement, say for a chorus break, to change things up slightly over the course of the song. But it gets an A-.
8. Edric Haleen: "Lansing, Michigan"
I expected Edric to go over the top, and I wasn't disappointed --- his barbershop quartet with himself is amazing. The lyrics are gently humorous in a way that, as a sarcatic pessimist myself, I can admire but just simply can't pull off myself. He's very likely simply more emotionally well-adjusted than I am. He may even have had a happy childhood -- the jerk. Edric deserves perfect marks for this one. A+.
9. wait WHAT: "LBC"
The production is excellent here, but it drags, it feels like a very stock instrumental accompaniment, and I don't really have any appreciation for most of the jokes. (A gay bar that has upside-down barstools? Fellatio jokes? Really? Are we in 6th grade here?) C. And what the hell is LBC anyway? (The song should tell me; I shouldn't have to Google it). That's kind of indicative of the way in which this song feels like an inside joke. ELIMINATED. (That's 3 of 8).
10. Brian Gray: "South Bend Aid"
This is both beautifully sung, and hilariously funny -- probably the best one so far. My only gripe, and it's a small one, is that the backing tracks all feel a little bit like a "band in a box." But I can't complain too loudly since I use Apple Loops and Logic-supplied drum samples for my own percussion sometimes. I do love the modulations, so I wouldn't cut the breakdown part or the end, but I would shave a little bit of the middle bars and make it a hair shorter. A-.
11. Charlie McMarron: "Stillwater, MN Air"
The instrumentation in this one is downright weird -- Philip Glass-like looping, rolling piano arpeggios and clarinets doing very odd things. Is that a recorder or a slide whistle? I think this is referencing something but I can't quite figure out. As soon as I feel like I start to get a handle on what the song is doing, it's over. Interesting, I guess, very pretty at times, but it just doesn't quite work for me. B-.
12. Emperor Gum: "Cheltenham"
Clarinets again, and what is that bass instrument? Even more Philip Glass-like. the vocal is very poppy (as in a badly placed, overloaded microphone) and distorted, and that makes it a bit painful in the headphones and a bit hard to understand. The lyrics are elliptical to the point of being almost incomprehensible. A recitation of things in a sculpture garden in Cheltenham? The clarinets sound nice. C. ELIMINATED. (That's 4 of 8).
13. Common Lisp: "Leaving Ann Arbor"
The instruments are pretty and nicely recorded. The vocals are a weak as far as pitch. The verses and chorus feel like they needed to be a few bpm faster. It's a love/hate relationship, apparently -- it really takes an unexpected turn into a funk/rap section with a heavy bass line the lyrics turn into a dark and angry rap, and then finishes on a spoken word conversation and a gentle fade out with a Zappa-esque kazoo bit to lighten the tone again as a car drives away. (I'm not going to give myself a grade -- I'll let the judges do that -- but I'm also not going to eliminate myself, because of course I want the chance to try the next challenge!)
14. Mitchell Adam Johnson: "London"
A band-in-the-box production again? Nope, at least not the guitar and bass. This sounds like something done in a full-service studio with real money behind it. The words are beautifully sung, but the lyrics weren't quite compelling for me. B.
15. Rebecca Brikley: "Here"
Beautifully done. Beautifully sung. Moving lyrics and a fantastic performance -- very warm and personal and human-sounding. Fantastic piano. Isn't there a rule about keeping this contest open only to amateurs? Because this sounds like someone with several albums under her belt. A+
16. Charlie Wolf: "I Love LA"
Very nice bass sound, a guitar that sounds ever so slightly out of tune. The vocal is decent, but just a little weak. Poignant lyric, but having spent a summer in Los Angeles, it raises the question: can anyone actually love L. A. without sounding phony? A little short, a little unmoving, and doesn't stick in my head very well. B.
17. Ominous Ride: "San Francisco"
I love the slightly raw-sounding guitar -- is that a chorus effect on a piezo-equipped electric masquerading as an acoustic? The lyrics are just slightly overwhelmed and a little hard to understand. The percussion needs to be something that is EQ'ed a little differently. As the song goes what sounds like a second guitar gets a little out of sync here and there with the main guitar and drifts out of sync with the percussion, and the main riff gets a little stale. B-. It just doesn't consistently sound good. ELIMINATED. (That's 5 of 8).
18. Swatshots: "Level"
The instruments start out with a lot of reverb and buzzy low synth, like something you might hear in the soundtrack for The Crow. But this is muddy, I can't understand the vocals, and the vocal performance is heavily distorted and mostly just sounds bad. It's like a bad version of The The or His Name is Alive. I guess they are channeling Joy Division, but even that was better recorded. I appreciate the anger in the lyrics but not the production, and it just gets worse as it goes on, like a high school kid with his first 4-track. This is one of the only ones I don't even want to listen to until the end. C-. ELIMINATED. (That's 6 of 8).
19. Russ Rogers: "Song for St. Michael"
Russ Rogers is part of the duet Godz Poodlz. The lyrics are a decent effort but the production is unfortunate; it sounds like it was recorded on a mono cassette recorder. So, it's a demo, and a badly recorded one at that. Not quite sure how to evaluate it fairly; am I supposed to judge the song as it is, or as I imagine it would be if it were given a proper production? (This question becomes critical later, when I get to JoAnn's track). It's too bad; I get the impression that Russ just didn't get enough quiet time to put into it (and wasn't able to do a multi-track recording at all). The lyric seems decent enough. B-.
20. Chris Cogott: "Fairfield"
A big fat power pop anthem. Nice! The chorused guitar is excellent. Slightly bland, though. A-.
21. Ross Durand: "From There"
I like the ringing, boomy guitar and bass contrasting with the delicate picking. I like the lyrics and the production and vocal performance is quite good. A.
22. Ryan "Ruff" Smith: "Golden Valley Sunday"
Jazzy electric and acoustic guitars! It's a bit of a relief after all the power chords. This is beautifully done. Impeccably recorded vocals and instruments. The ironic contrast between the lyrics and the performance is just marvelous. Another ringer? A+.
23. JoAnn Abbot: "Not in Copiague"
Like Russ' track, it's a little frustrating to review this one. JoAnn is an excellent singer who here sings this one as a single voice entirely a capella. It's a pretty melody. She's a good singer. But it doesn't even qualify as a demo. It's not even to the point where a musician collaborator could honestly play her an accompaniment part and still call it her work, because she hasn't even sketched the barest hint of accompaniment.
It seems to me that the challenge of a songwriting contest is to come up with a complete song. To my way of thinking, this means, at a minimum, instrumentation playing explicit or implicit chords to accompany the vocal melody, and stating or at least implying a rhythm. Without that, it's like comparing a black and white pencil drawing to an oil painting, and I don't feel that it is fair either to JoAnn or to the rest of us to compare them on the same playing field. For a song to feel complete, it generally needs accompaniment to act as backdrop, set the mood, either match or contrast with the tone of the vocal and lyrics, and hold it all up.
Now, some folks might think I'm being too narrow in my thinking of what constitutes a song; after all, there's nothing in the rules to disqualify JoAnn's song. Some songs deliberately eschew all accompaniment -- Billy Bragg's song "Chile, Your Waters Run Red," as he sings it live, is a beautiful example -- but you could argue that he's working with the reverb in the hall, and even with the sound of the audience, in fleshing out the song, and it's an artistic choice. And it works because of the power of the lyrics and the plaintive singing style. His song isn't lacking anything.
To me, trying to judge this song is like test-driving a car that has a running engine but no wheels or seats -- would Car and Driver rate it on what they imagine the cornering and comfort of the ride would feel like? No, that wouldn't be fair to the other car companies that engineered and build the whole package.
So, either this song is barely a D, for what it lacks, or gets a grade of "Incomplete," which would make me eliminate it anyway -- which is not really fair to what JoAnn actually has done here, which is to sketch out a really quite decent lyric and vocal performance -- or it shouldn't be considered a qualified entry. Rather than insult JoAnn, or make a mockery of all the effort that the other competitors have put into their instrumentation and production, it makes more sense to me to say that it isn't fair to pit these songs against each other on the same field of battle. I'd disqualify it. Would I want a rules change that says that entries may not be plain a capella recordings? I'm not sure about that -- I'd hate to rule a future "Chile, Your Waters Run Red."
I'd be very interested in your opinion. Does this make any sense? Am I being too hard on JoAnn?
If I were just to judge it as I imagine a completed arrangement to be, I'd have to say that the melody is a little repetitive and it has a few too many lines (if fully worked out as an arrangement with a chorus and instrumental break of some kind, it would be at least five minutes long). But I don't want to give it a letter grade. I like JoAnn, and I like what she's doing, but out of fairness to the competitors, I feel that this has to be one of the songs that gets ELIMINATED. (That's 7 of 8).
24. The Boffo Yux Dudes: "It's My Hometown, Syracuse, Baby!"
This is a funnily bland band-in-a-box (perhaps a mighty Casio or Yamaha?) backing track, with a lyric and vocal that is decently recorded. It's lacking in dynamics a bit. B.
25. Gweebol: "Darktown"
This sounds like Frente (does anyone remember Frente?) Or maybe Tori Amos on acid. It gets a lot of points for originality. The vocal is nicely recorded. It seems to only use the actual name of the town in passing, though, which seems a little odd. I'm not quite gonna disqualify it, but I'm tempted. B.
26. Zarni DeWet: "Where I'm Gonna Go"
A breathy female vocal and piano, recorded a little poorly but with a performance that makes up for it. With not much change in the meter or instrumentation (no bridge per se) it risks starting to feel a little repetitive, and that's what happens at about 1:40. Does it mention the actual town name? It seems to mention several, but it isn't clear which one it is about. A-. ELIMINATED for not clearly meeting the challenge (that's 8 of 8).
27. Heather Miller: "Fairfield"
I like the tinny guitar, played slightly ineptly with string scrapes, with the full kick drum -- it's a little odd, but it shows that there was some thought about EQ'ing things so that the instruments and vocals don't stomp on each other. The vocal performance is nicely done, with a country feel. I wish I could sing as well as she does. The lyrics have occasional funny bits. It's a little hard to distinguish the verses from the choruses. The nostalgia feels slightly forced. Is there nothing at all bad to say about the town? A.
28. Steve Durand: "In Paradise with You"
One of the more bizarre songs in the pack, this is a Hawaiian slack-key guitar ballad. The singing is just ever so slightly bad, but mostly in a good way. It takes the album out on a slightly silly note. Tape hiss. Is this recorded on a real cassette four-track? I get the feeling that the artist is doing a lot with very little. Not my favorite style, but very nicely done. A.
And now for the shadows:
Duality: "I Just Can't Find a Virgin"
I wish Joe and Denise had chosen to make this their actual entry! It's hilarious. It might need another reference or two to actual things in Dundee to really bring it home. Is this Joe attempting an American accent? It would be insulting, but Denise is in Austin, so they get a pass. The harmony is just delightful.
Via Satellite: "From Home"
Mournful, muddy, and hard to listen to. The lyrics are buried. There's a lot going on in this track, but I would have definitely eliminated this one had it been in the competition.
Bram Tant: "Living in the Countryside"
I wish this one had made it in under the deadline, because it shows a lot of promise, and I'd like to hear more. It's a little crude and unpolished, but the lyrics are appropriately descriptive and sardonic, and it definitely feels original and personal -- both things I value a lot, you may have noticed. I'm not quite sure how he's getting that odd droning guitar sound -- an alternate tuning?