Wednesday, November 17, 2010

SpinTunes 2, Round 3 Reviews

OK, I'm a bit behind reviewing these. They've already been judged, and all but four of the entires eliminated. But I'm still going to review them.

The full album can be found here.

Here are the results.

I commented in the chat that I had mentioned in the previous rounds that I didn't envy the judges. For this round -- I really, really, really didn't envy the judges. These tracks are uniformly anywhere from pretty good to fantastic, and they had to pass four and eliminate eight of the twelve.

1. Governing Dynamics - Los Alamos

I have a confession to make. When I first saw pictures of Travis Norris, aka Governing Dynamics, I thought he was probably about twelve years old, and maybe in Junior High School. I did not really feel like I could connect with his music. I didn't like the way he recorded his guitars or the style of it. We didn't have the same influences. Somehow I didn't quite get it.

How things change. Travis was born in 1983, so he's not yet 30. In related news, I'm old. My opinion of what he's doing has completely changed. This is a seriously great song. It's more-or-less in a late-90's grunge-tinged style. I had somehow developed the impression that Travis couldn't really play well, and that's why his guitar parts sounded a little sloppy and dragging. This song proves that I was completely mistaken. He's playing them exactly the way they are supposed to sound. They are layered, but not in a wall that is intended to hide sloppy playing. It's a clean, sweet wall of tone.

The guitars on this song remind me, just a bit, of one of my favorite bands -- Gang of Four -- in that they are uncompromised and there is no concession to sweetness and pop. They don't sound like the Beatles. They're dark and deadpan. The vocals are gorgeous. The lyrics are great. He did indeed, as he put it, pull out all the stops.

2. Inverse T. Clown - I Have a Leap

This is pretty similar to what I've come to think of as a "standard" Inverse arrangement. The lyrics are about a Quantum Leap episode, imagined or otherwise, and a real historical event. It's clever and competent enough but it doesn't grab me. There's something again a little dry about the canned-sounding instrumentation.

3. Charlie McCarron - Queen of Heart

After his odd round 1 entry I was mostly baffled by Mr. McCarron's style of music. His round 2 entry I found much more promising and downright fascinating. This is a cool song. I wish I could play as many instruments as he seems to. The lyrics are understated and pretty.

4. Ryan Ruff Smith - The Driver (Dallas, 1963)

An oddly upbeat, melodic retelling of Kennedy's assassination over a finger-picked guitar and shaker, with a police scanner-style radio in the background. It's an odd choice. It works pretty well with the chorus lyric "as long as I keep driving, none of this is real." Gets me into the shocked mindset of the day. I'm still note entirely sure how I feel about this song.

5. Edric Haleen - I Was There

Edric's piano part here is a little darker, atmospheric, and dissonant. His vocal performance seems a bit odd, but when he doubles himself, it really takes off nicely. Could have run too long, but ends precisely when it should.

6. Ross Durand - Ivan Vaughan

Just a hint of an accent at work here that very effectively captures the idea of a friend of the Beatles. The guitar is pretty, the chorus is catchy, and it's nicely sung, but the lyrics seem just a bit short of ideas.

7. Chris Cogott - Final Flight

A wall of echoing guitar harmonics remind me of '80s psychedelic revival -- a beautiful production, and I appreciate that there is still a little dynamic range and the compression isn't flat-lined. Great guitar solo work.

8. Mitchell Adam Johnson - Pictures of Love

Another Beatles story -- this time about the breakup. Also just a bit psychedelic-revival. Beautiful guitars and a harpsichord sound in the background. Nicely produced. Songs like this remind me just how much I still have to learn about producing fully realized songs.

9. Steve Durand - Cuban Missile Mambo

This is truly the oddity of the competing entries. It would be hard to imagine a goofier song. Seriously -- Castro's barber? A mambo about one of the most frightening confrontations of the 20th century and the defining crisis of Kennedy's administration? Truly, Steve has balls of solid brass. Not entirely successful in tone, and the vocal performance is a little underwhelming, but quite funny.

10/11. Rebecca Brickley - Oh Mercy

For some reason Rebecca was not able to get the judges her final polished track in time, and so we have two versions. The "remix" version is polished and gorgeous, while the "judge's mix" is more demo-style, with some screwy compression and phasing going on, but they are the same song, and the demo is still pretty damned good, so I actually think the difference in production quality probably wasn't a large factor in the judging. These lyrics are just gorgeous. She's really imagined something cool here. The whole cadence of the song has a very cool martial, marching feel to it, although it's not quite coming from the percussion or the piano in isolation, but somehow more from the breathless style of the vocal performance. I'm so pleased to hear a song about an American war that isn't schmaltzy or cliched: the protagonist admits he "just wanted to make his poppa proud / he didn't much care what the war was about." And 'twas ever thus.

12. Zarni DeWet - Eric

This is a risky song. This got me into a debate with another listener, and I had to clarify what I meant by that -- the "risk" is simply that the listener won't really be able to go there, to empathize with the narrator and feel the emotional weight of the story, but will instead just scowl at the premise, and so not give it a fair shake. Are we ready for a song about Columbine told from the point of view of the mother of the shooter? Apparently, we are. This one made my spine tingle and it still does several listens later. It's just this side of pathos here and there, but it doesn't shy away the gut punch, and that works for me.

13. Gweebol - She Said, As She Handed Him The Telephone

The premise here is the historical oddity that Alexander Graham Bell's wife was apparently deaf. I love Gweebol's voice, but this song seems to meander a bit.

14. Duality - Columbia (Shadow)

The production sounds very similar to a number of other Joe "Covenant" Lamb songs and failed to entrance me. It's perhaps not his very finest vocal performance but it's way up there. More importantly, there's a new level of lyrical sophistication here. I didn't quite put the story together on the first listen. It's well worth a second (and third).

15. David Ritter - Portal of Doom (Shadow)

A bit of an oddity, the music is funky and jazzy, while the lyrics are dark and funny. Clever and nerdy -- "there's a frickin' black hole in the room." A bit fluffy, though, and ultimately a little forgettable.

16. Duality - Historical Verity (Shadow)

I don't claim to understand the whole context here. It's a funny song and I love the interplay between Joe and Denise's voices. There's something more serious going on, though, about the nature of war as seen from the level of the common man.

17. JoAnn Abbott - Candle in the Dark (Shadow)

I'm not sure JoAnn gets the difference between sentiment and sentimentality, but I could sum up my opinion on the matter by simply saying that there's actually no such thing as conservative art. Real art always subverts the dominant paradigm, tells the untold story. If it doesn't, it's not art, it's kitsch, like a painting of a fluffy kitten at a flea market or a flag airbrushed onto the side of an RV. It's expected. On the plus side, it's nice to hear Caleb's impressive keyboard work here.

18. Duality - St. Andrew's (Shadow)

A dark and minimalist song that shows us a side of Denise's vocal talents we don't hear nearly enough of. As I heard this in the online listening party, I went into a genuinely dark and frightened place! Denise, please let your demons out to play more often! Also: fantastic concept and lyrics.

19. Common Lisp (featuring Duality) - Sherman's Lament (Shadow)

Has it been long enough that I have enough distance to review my own song? Production first: there's some crackling on the transients that sounds awful. I'm not quite sure where it comes from. It seems to either be the transition from 24-bit to 16-bit, or the MP3 compression. I wish I knew how to get rid of that. Dither, no dither, limiter, etc.

I may be over-compressed here. I never seem to get the mastering quite right.

I guess I'm most proud of my lyrics. I think Joe and Denise did a good job with it, but somehow the smooth instrumentation and voices all together seem to lack energy. Too slow? The style of instrumentation just doesn't fit the concept?

As Doctor Lindyke pointed out, the song doesn't quite meet the challenge because it doesn't point out a connection to an event in history. I also heard the message that folks didn't really like the samples. I could attempt a remix, I guess, but it will probably have to wait until I've gained yet more distance and can be a little more objective. I might try a a "folksier" recording that is just guitar and my vocal.

I'm disappointed not to have more reviews; I've gotten almost no useful feedback on this song. My wife didn't really think much of it. I finally sang the whole thing to her a capella and she laughed at the intended places so I guess the lyrics ultimately did work for her, even if the whole mix did not.

20. Duality - Triangle (Shadow)

The most abstract, dark and dissonant thing I've ever heard from Denise. I don't quite know what to say about this track. It's nicely sung, but seems a little shy of lyrical content.


So, it's Wednesday night and at this point it doesn't look like I'll be doing a shadow entry for round 4. These contests are hard on my family, and my mood and energy level have been sinking a bit into a usual late fall downturn as the days get shorter. Also, the round 4 challenge has almost entirely failed to inspire me with any ideas. I had one, but it required a piece of music software that resides on my iPod, which seems to be lost. So barring sudden inspiration, I'll be sitting this round out.

I've really enjoyed SpinTunes. It's been great practice and great experience.

That said, now that the final round will be arriving shortly, I feel like the playing field is barely clinging to life, as far as any sense that amateurs are involved. Rebecca Brickley's is the only survivor that sounds like an artist who might be still learning how to do this, rather than one who already has it entirely mastered and down to a routine. I guess it just reinforces my feeling that I don't really belong in this competition any more, which is a disappointing feeling -- and one I didn't experience in the my (brief) experience in the somewhat more freewheeling Song Fu. It reinforces the sense that I should have started doing this earlier and gotten more practice in.


Jules said...

If I may say, I think it would be a shame if you didn't do another one of these. I do not think your placement has anything to do with any deficits you may or may not have but have to do with a very strong group this time around. Look at where Edric placed. Nobody saw that one coming. Even Niveous (who's opinion I take with many grains of salt, however he surprised me with this one) figured Edric would be in the finals.

I think it would be shame to lose you from the playing field. I think it would be a bigger shame that you'll end up losing the XP you think you lack by removing yourself prematurely.

Just my two cents.

Paul R. Potts said...

Thanks, Jules. I appreciate the support. I've left it too long though, and have pretty much only one evening left (and a distinct lack of inspiration this time). Grace will be out of town Friday and Saturday evenings and I'll be spending the whole weekend as Mister Mom. I'm not planning on giving up songwriting, and even songwriting contests, although I feel like my approach needs to be revitalized somehow.

Spin said...

"Another Beatles story -- this time about the breakup."

It's not about the breakup. You can find notes on the BandCamp page that tells you what it's about. Easy mistake to make though if you didn't read the notes.

If you're too busy to shadow or uninspired I totally get that. I don't think you should even consider not doing contests because you don't think you're professional enough. Everyone in the contest is at a different stage of learning. Whether it's Song Fu, Nur Ein, Song Fight or SpinTunes that's true, and it shouldn't matter as long as you're being challenged & contine to grow.

Thanks for reviewing the round Paul.

Edric Haleen said...

Hey, Paul!

After reading your blog post, I wanted to leave a comment. After reading Jules' comment, I now want to leave two...

Comment #1)

Masters of Song -- erm... I mean, SpinTunes -- is not about winning. (Sorry about the confusion -- I've written this kind of comment before...) It's about pushing yourself. Growing as an artist. Rising to meet a challenge. Beyond that? It's about a sense of community. Supporting and being supported by other musicians. Getting your music heard.

It's supposed to be a lot of fun -- if, perhaps, under a manic deadline at times...

The more you do, the more you grow. JoAnn is perhaps the greatest SpinTunes-specific example of this. And while the voting may admittedly be working against her, and while it may be discouraging in the moment to read a review that picks on a lack of production skills (or -- possibly worse -- to be UNABLE to read any kind of a review when your entry is a shadow and the judges restrict their comments to the "official" entries), JoAnn has not only grown musically, but has received assistance and suggestions and musical tracks and attagirls from a whole cadre of people.

I agree with Jules. I think it would be a shame if you didn't do another one of these.

Speaking of Jules?

Comment #2)

"Nobody saw that one coming"?!?

Have you forgotten your history? (#blamejuleslupus?)

The person who, in SpinTunes #1, had a 32-point "lead" going in to Round 3, and finished fifth -- when only the top two would advance?

The person who placed FIFTEENTH in the voting when he submitted "Quickmud" in MoSF #5?!

The person who is now a veteran of no fewer than SEVEN Internet songwriting competition cycles, and has NEVER written more than three songs for ANY of them?!?

The day that Edric makes a final round, the Earth may crack in two...

:-D :-D :-D :-D :-D


(We love you, Jules! We love you, Paul! Keep doin' what you do!)

(And Jules? Someone just told me that there's a poll? . . .)

Travis Norris said...

Middle school?! I am offended, sir!

...oh wait, I just remembered last month I got carded. For an R-rated movie. Suppose it beats looking 15 years older at least...

All joking aside I'm glad you enjoyed the song, and I empathize with your feeling of not quite belonging.

re: sloppiness, some is intentional and some is not ;) But, my overall... attention to detail, shall we say, and especially my mixing has improved a lot since you first heard me (Song Fu 4? 6?). I have a similarly increased appreciation of Common Lisp since SF 4.

I completely understand the lack of motivation to complete a shadow--I'm not sure how you folks with actual families and responsibilities manage to find the time and sanity to compete in these contests at all, actually. I've sacrificed a fair amount of sleep and time-I-could-be-doing-something-else to Spintunes myself and when there seem to be pretty good odds of getting no attention or only a passing glance from the judges, the motivation is hard to drudge up.

But I wouldn't let the strong field from this contest put you off entering future iterations.

Jules said...

HA HA, Edric :)

Placing 5th is not placing dead last. I've heard many state that they were surprised over you coming in dead last.

As for Quickmud, let's not talk about that more than we already have :P

As for the poll, yes there is one. But, I'm not going to pimp it here.

And we love you too, Edric.

ITC said...

Expand on "standard"?

Paul R. Potts said...

Inverse, I was going to try to do a little listening and answer, to see if I thought it was a fair or unfair comment and maybe elaborate -- but is there a single place I can hear a bunch of your songs? I went to MySpace, it said all your songs were "not available." All I've got access to now is the original Today's the Day and these few SpinTunes tracks.

Anyway -- listening to what I've got, I'll say that the canned-sounding percussion doesn't quite do it for me. I don't mean this as harshly as it sounds, but it sounds to me a bit like a demo I'd find on a Casio. I don't know anything about your recording process, but it sounds like the whole "band" is coming directly from the line out of some kind of integrated keyboard/workstation. I don't hear any instruments physically played into a mic or direct box, and that turns me off a bit. Am I misunderstanding/failing to hear something that I should be? It's perhaps an unfair criteria, and it doesn't stop me from enjoying a lot of your lyrics and vocal parts, but there it is.

Paul R. Potts said...

Forgot to say, all, thanks for the encouragement. Without these contests I would never have been motivated to complete five original songs. So I'm not intending to quit. I do think, though, that somehow Spintunes is winding up going to folks who... really don't need songwriting contests to hone their skills, if that makes sense. Although I guess everyone can use the practice and feedback. Yes, part of my discouragement is not getting much feedback on a shadow entry. But feedback itself can be kind of a double-edged sword unless I can find a kernel of something useful to take with me to the _next_ song.

ITC said...

All my music is synthetic. Nothing "real" about it. I try to make that clear when I enter these contests, but a lot of people seem to miss it.

Currently, the songs on MySpace are my Song Fu and Spintunes stuff. No idea why they'd register as unavailable. Once ST is officially over, I'll be finishing some more recordings (with my vocals WAY up front) to load up onto Bandcamp. But they, too, will be synthetic.

Paul R. Potts said...

Inverse, I'd love to be able to listen to more of your stuff on Bandcamp or wherever it winds up.

Your voice is real, right? We're not hearing a sophisticated android? : )

I use canned percussion and synths inside Logic; I'm guessing a lot of the entrants did except for a few folks who either have more space or more sound insulation or fewer other people around and can (and have the skill to) record their own drums.

Perhaps slightly ironically, it seems that most of the negative criticism I got about my Thomas Dolby sequel was that it didn't sound electronic enough...

ITC said...

Yes, my voice is real, I suppose. The Bandcamp project is the next thing on my list. I'll let everybody at ArtiFiction know when it goes up.