Tuesday, November 23, 2010

SpinTunes 2, Round 4 Reviews

I did not submit a shadow for this round, but as a contributor I was given the opportunity to submit a vote. So I'll just go ahead and review the entries. Since we're down to the finals, this time there are far more more shadows than officially competing songs (of which there are only four).

The challenge was to write a song from the perspective of a character in a video game. The drawback of this, from my perspective, is that the song will assume that the listener has played a specific game, or is at least very familiar with it.

I do like video games and I've played quite a few of them over the years, going back to home Pong and Motocross consoles, through the heyday of arcade games (my personal favorites included Ms. Pac Man, Tempest, Gyruss, Burger Time, Robotron 2084, Pole Position, Tron, and Reactor) and early Apple II, TRS-80, and Commodore 64 games. Scott Adams Adventures, Flying Saucer, Pyramid, Asylum, the original T80 FS-1 Flight Simulator (loaded from cassette), Castle Wolfenstein... pretty much the entire Ultima series, including the Ultima Underworld games... M.U.L.E... Seven Cities of Gold... Root Beer Tapper... I had a serious fondness for the Infocom series (are text adventures actually video games?)

I don't play any MMPORGs, I've played very few modern PC games (I think that last one I played was Alone in the Dark), with the recent exception of Half-Life 2 since Steam was released for Mac. The last games I've completed were for the Nintendo 64 and GameCube -- Paper Mario and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. I like (and still have) some of the more obscure Nintendo 64 games like Space Station: Silicon Valley, Rocket Robot on Wheels, Tonic Trouble, Conker's Bad Fur Day, Kirby: the Crystal Shards. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask and The Ocarina of Time sucked up enormous amounts of my time almost a dozen years ago...I got pretty far along in Mario Sunshine and Pikmin for GameCube. I played some serious Pokemon games with my son.

But my proudest moment was beating the evil duck jack-in-the-box boss in Donkey Kong 64 -- that was a hard, hard fight! Although I couldn't be bothered to finish the game -- it just seems to go on forever. Apparently it can take upwards of 100 hours or more to finish, at least if you're a perfectionist like me and want every point. And these days I hardly have enough time for even an unbroken hour of gaming, much less a hundred.

I tend to prefer game console games to PC games and intermediate or advanced kid-oriented games, oriented around puzzles, platform jumping, or racing, to "adult" games. Back in the day I played a lot of Doom and Quake and other first-person shooters like Goldeneye, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, Perfect Dark, and similar, but I've mostly lost my taste for first-person shooters as they've gotten increasingly realistic.

So what were we talking about again? Oh, yeah, reviewing songs! All this is by way of saying that if you are considerably younger than I am, or you had different consoles than I had, or were a big PC gamer in a different decade, there's a good chance I know nothing at all about the game you're writing about. So how much "research" should I do in order to understand the context and try to judge your song as if I was familiar with the game? Well, as I'm not an official judge I'm not going to do very much. I'll be judging these songs mostly for how much fun I think they are to listen to and how well they stand up even if I haven't played the game.

1. Zarni DeWet - The Bleeding Effect

OK, so right off the bat I'm confronted with a song where, apparently, there's a hugely complex back-story described by paragraphs and paragraphs of text on the Bandcamp song page. Honestly, I get that these games can be very compelling and one can be really drawn in to the storylines -- I know this especially from the many nights I spent solving Infocom games "back in the day." (Did anyone else cry when the robot Floyd died in _Planetfall_?)

But I'm not going to read all that if she can't be bothered to edit it down to a couple of paragraphs. Even if I managed to put it all together, it wouldn't have much emotional resonance.

What I will say is that Zarni's vocal performance is gorgeous and impassioned here and I like the instrumentation. It does leave me feeling a little bit on the outside looking in, though, so I can't really rate this one as my favorite. It's too long for so few lyrics, for one thing. There's a long stretch of silence at the end of the track, too, which is a pretty big technical flaw.

I listened to all these songs three or four times. I initially rated this one the lowest of the four, but now I've changed my mind and I rate it best of the four, mostly on the strength of the vocal performance. Isn't that weird? Basically, it's because as I listened to this album over and over, I found myself thinking "oh, cool, I get to listen to that song again!" Initially I thought that the storyline was a little too self-contained to the video game world, but as I listen to it I think the lyrics stand by themselves more than I initially gave it credit for. I think that was something she carefully worked at, and not accidental. It reminds me a little bit of the lost '80s band Quarterflash, with their song "Harden My Heart."

Is that fair? Who knows?

2. Mitchell Adam Johnson - In Another Castle

This one is fabulous -- the instrumentation is fun and bouncy. Here we have a song that requires less R&D to understand; the whole Mario storyline is much more embedded in general pop culture. The video game sound effects work wonderfully in this track. We get a storyline told from the POV of Princess Peach. The lyrics are simply hilarious -- Princess Peach is supposed to be the carrot, but she's also the stick -- kind of an obnoxious tease, don't you think? The song captures that perfectly.

It's a damned tight race, but I rate this second of the four.

3. Rebecca Brickley - Where I Am

The recording here is a little odd (a very hollow tone, especially on the vocals, and some strange distorted sizzle on the hi-hat). The intelligibility of the vocals suffers just slightly for that. I had to read the notes to determine who the song was about. It's Carmen Sandiego, which (I think) has sunk into popular culture enough to be recognizable. Am I over-reading it to think something else about Carmen Sandiego is being implied by the phrase "playing for the other team?"

Nice swooping vocal performance, fun song, but it gets third place of the four. No, it's not really fair, and it doesn't reflect the fact that it's a fun song. It's just got slightly lower replay value for me, if that makes sense, and it's mostly because of the character of the recording. These songs are mostly really close to each other in quality so it's hard to decide.

4. Chris Cogott - In Bright Falls

I have no idea what this song is about without reading the notes. Oops, there's nothing about what the song is about. Who is Alan Wake? Huh. Google. Apparently it's the name of a game for the XBox platform, and a very recent one (released only five or six months ago). I've never played an XBox, and what with moving and working from home since May I have, in fact, been living under a rock, so it's no wonder I've never heard of it.

The production is fantastic. It sounds very much like "Paperback Writer" and very much like Brian Wilson was involved in the production somehow. This one is definitely the best produced of the four, although it's a little loud and the overall EQ and compression situation grates slightly. It's a very tight decision but it gets last place, mostly because the lyrics don't really click with me. It's not fair. Or do I want to give it third? Or second? Dammit. No, last place. Sorry. I'm sorry about everything. I'm going to feel bad for the rest of the day now. Crap.

Now, on to the shadows.

5. Charlie McCarron - The Pac-Man Duet (Shadow)

This is the funniest of the whole bunch. I think it is technically too short to meet the requirements, but it is absolutely-freakin'-hilarious. I'm hoping that Charlie's voice is electronically processed in some way. If he can sing like that without plug-ins then I'm both stunned and confused. And maybe slightly aroused. But mostly confused.

6. Mark Humble - I'm Q-Bert, Babe (Shadow)

I'm sad that this is a shadow. This is as good as the songs actually in competition this round. The integration of the video game sounds into the track, and the overall mix, are just great. Mark just seems like a music nerd after my own heart, perhaps a better producer than a performer. It's a little short, time-wise. Some of his rhymes are painful (what would _you_ rhyme with Q-Bert?) Still, really nice effort.

7. Brian Gray - Hard to Get (Shadow)

I think this pretty clearly about Donkey Kong, unless I've missed some games. The use of backing vocals is great and I like the bouncy keyboard track. I feel like if you're going to write a song about one of the classic platformers, it had better be bouncy, or you've failed to capture the humor and energy of the originals. This one does. The lyrics are funny and he came up with some excellent rhymes.

8. Boffo Yux Dudes - Floating Away (Shadow)

I'm not sure I get what game this is about. Who is Major Tom? The sound effects seem to be from Asteroids, if I'm not mistaken. Did the original Asteroids have some reference to the name of the avatar character actually piloting the spaceship? The song's a little hard to listen to with the layers of booming voice, but I like the slightly ethereal feel and the mournful lyrics. The vocal performance is actually pretty strong and actually feels like it wants to break out of the constraints of the "novelty song" it's stuck in.

9. JoAnn Abbott - Go For the Eyes (Shadow)

Again, I don't know what game this is referencing. The lyrics are funny but without context I'm not quite sure what is going on. The weird lyrics contrast oddly with the perky music and performance. I Googled "miniature giant space hamsters" so I guess this is from Baldur's Gate? But I've got no idea what that game is like.

10. Boffo Yux Dudes - One Level Down (Shadow)

I love the way the volume and beats per minute keep ratcheting up -- a perfect "form follows function" structure, and it completely captures the way the old Space Invaders game sped up and sped up until it became simply traumatic. Are video game songs the perfect niche for the talents of the Boffo Yux Dudes?

11. David Ritter - Pitfall (Shadow)

An ethereal, acoustic-guitar oriented song about Pitfall is very strange. Very pretty instrumentation and vocals though.

12. Boffo Yux Dudes - Elf Shot the Food (Shadow)

Wow, we have a third shadow from the Boffo Yux Dudes. This one is really funny and made me smile, even though I don't think I ever played the Gauntlet arcade game much.

13. Caleb Hines - The Writing on the Wall (Shadow)

Interesting -- actually a Caleb song, but sung by JoAnn. I have to confess that I've never actually played Portal, although of course as a Jonathan Coulton fan I know at least something of the storyline. The lyrics are funny. JoAnn doesn't seem terribly into what she is singing.

14. Governing Dynamics - One Four One (Roach) (Shadow)

I've never played any of the Call of Duty games so this one doesn't really resonate. Travis has gotten good at boiling storylines down to their lyrical essentials. This isn't one of his most compelling songs but like all his recent songs it grows on me the more I listen.

15. Inverse T. Clown - I'm Tops (Shadow)

After some Googling I think this must be from Mega Man 3 for the old Nintendo Entertainment System, which I confess I've never played. Inverse's sarcastic lyrical style works really well here in the "mouth" of a video game character and the all-electronic production works well for this as well. There's a harmony vocal that fits nicely in the track and makes me want to hear more layers of Inverse singing. This song works very well overall and it's not only one of the best shadows, but fairly competitive with the competing tracks.


Caleb said...

About JoAnn's song, I haven't played Baldur's Gate either (yet) but it's a D&D-based single-player RPG. My understanding is that Minsc is a ranger who joins your party at some point, and his animal companion is a Hamster named Boo.

Regarding my song, the lackluster performance is my fault. Under severe time-constraints, I sent JoAnn a -very- simplified draft piano track with a poorly-sung vocal guide at 3 am, so she didn't have a whole lot to go off of. I intend to redo it this week.

Paul R. Potts said...

I think there's kind of a danger with all these songs -- that they're a little bit like writing a song about what I did on my summer vacation, if my summer vacation involved something that happened only to me, and which no one else had any clue about. The real challenge is to make them feel more universal. (This is about a robot monkey who lives under the sea and who hates himself... because I try to write about the human condition...)

And "Under Severe Time Constraints" should be the new name of my SpinTunes Shadow band... : )

ITC said...

Yes, Top Man was a Robot Master in Megaman 3. He's also one of the stupidest themed Masters the series ever had. He throws tops. Come on.

But,I digress. I'm really glad and relieved to hear such high praise on this song. I kept vacillating between loving it and hating it while writing and recording, and nearly didn't submit it. This positive reaction, not just from you but in general, is very good to see.

Charlie said...

Thanks for the review Paul! Yes, I wish I had a natural helium reflex in my voice. But actually the whole track is time/pitch-shifted up one whole step.

Chris Cogott said...

Hi Paul. Please don't feel bad. I don't take it personally. It's all for fun right? I had a blast doing all these songs. You can't please everybody all the time and I'm cool with that.