Friday, February 14, 2014

SpinTunes 8 Round 1 Rankings and Reviews

I am judging entries for SpinTunes 8. There are two basic requirements for a judge: I'm supposed to provide some sort of review for each song, and I'm also supposed to rank them in order from best to worst. The review part comes naturally to me; the ranking is a bit harder.

I find it especially hard to explain my criteria at ranking. I'll take a quick shot at it. Every day this week, I've listened to the whole album (almost two hours) Starting day three, I started making notes as things occurred to me while I was listening, and I've also come to remember the songs and I know which ones I'm interested in hearing again, and which ones I wish I could skip over (although I'm not actually skipping over any).

What makes me want to hear a song again? Well, first, lyrics that interest me and move me, and especially lyrics that don't make me wince because they use easy, cliched rhymes or phrases. (In 2014 you can only rhyme "moon" with "June" if you are doing it ironically). I appreciate clever wordplay and a song that tells or at least implies a real human story.

Then there's vocal performance. I don't expect perfection. Lord knows I don't achieve it in my own songs. I can be moved by a singer who isn't technically very good, but if you're really pitchy and your performance is not very moving, then that's a weak track as far as I'm concerned.

Then there's the music. I like a lot of different genres, but I don't really enjoy playing that is all flash or deliberately bombastic. Keeping it short and sweet is pretty important (and yes, I know I've failed at that in some of my own songs as well). I can't give you an exact time that represents a perfect song; it depends on the song. I know when I'm listening along, I know when I _feel_ that a song should end. If the song agrees with my feeling, that seems like the right length to me. A pop song has to be unusually interesting in its structure or lyrics to keep my interest for longer than four minutes; Don McClean's _American Pie_ is 8 minutes long, but it has a truly epic lyric.

Production counts for something too, but there's not just one kind of production I appreciate. A live track with just a singer and guitar can be just fine. So can a full multi-tracked song with all the bells and whistles.

I will review and rank a cappella songs, but I must admit that I find these a little problematic at times. Someone like Billy Bragg can hold an audience rapt with a song like "Chile, Your Waters Run Red Through Soweto," but he doesn't do an entire show a cappella. Very few pop acts can pull off a wonderful and moving a cappella song that consists of just one singer with no accompaniment. In general, I'll rank you on whether it seems like you know what you are doing with the recording. If you can only achieve a simple live track, record a good simple live track. If you want to record 24 tracks of instruments, feel free, but they ought to be well-mixed. If it sounds like a train wreck that way, maybe you should have used a simpler arrangement based on what you can achieve technically. And yes, I've _definitely_ attempted mixes that were technically beyond me, so I have sympathy for people who are learning as they go. One last thing: if you do use instruments, they shouldn't sound completely generic. If it sounds like you just hit the "demo" button on a Casio keyboard and sang along with it, I'm not going to really appreciate the music portion of your track.

Finally, if a song doesn't meet the challenge at all, in any sense, it would be disqualified, but subjectively, I will still rank songs on how well I think they meet the challenge. That includes whether songs take a very obvious, conventional approach, or have fun with the challenge. In this case the challenge is pretty simple. There's nothing wrong with just writing a simple song about a lost loved one. But I do appreciate the songs that took a special twist on the challenge.

I'm not going to assign numeric fractions to these general categories because I don't really believe I can make rankings somehow more objective that way.

All right, here we go:

1. Ross Durand: Sitting Right Here

This is a great take on the challenge. My stepfather suffered from an Alzheimer's-like form of dementia so this song speaks to me. The happysad approach is touching and the lyrics are powerful.

2. Sara Parsons: Guilt

I tried not to tip my hand too much in the listening party by making a lot of comments as I heard the songs for the first time, in part because I didn't want to praise a song in that context and then have to decide later that maybe it wasn't all that good. In the case of this song I couldn't really help myself -- I think I typed "Wow!" or something similar. This is a very strong song. The accompaniment is simple but I like the way Sara's pedal base notes (or sometimes alternating bass notes) keep a rhythm going and propel the song along. She should learn more elaborate Travis picking if possible at some point, but this works fine. The lyric is quite strong. She has a very straightforward take on the challenge but manages to avoid all traces of false sentimentality and cliche. The only real weakness I see is that the line "stroll up and down the lines" doesn't seem quite right to me, and the details of the story feel just a little unclear. But even in the listening party, even on a first hearing, this song brought tears to my eyes. Nicely done!

3. Brian Gray: The Child I Left Behind

Just when I was prepared to be fed up with a cappella songs, someone like Brian comes along and sings an a cappella song that is really beautifully done and moving. I appreciated in particular the use of reverb to thicken up a single voice. Brian mentions Mandy Patinkin in his song bio and I can certainly hear that. The twist on the challenge -- that the narrator misses his own younger self, his inner child, is a nice take on the idea.

4. Caravan Ray: Missing You

Well, you could not argue that the song doesn't meet the challenge. The arrangement is a lot of fun and the twist is the funny bitterness. I enjoyed the silly falsetto backing vocal parts. It is a short and sweet song and quite funny.

5. Governing Dynamics: Song to Stay Awake (700 Miles)

Travis has produced another moving and sad song. I particularly like the keyboard in this track. If I understand the story, the narrator has awakened from a dream in which he imagines that his absent girlfriend has shot herself, and he decides to jump in the car and drive to her side, whether she wants to see him or not -- although there is some real ambiguity here; maybe it's already happened, and he's just convinced himself that she is still alive? ("At one in the morning I'd reached the end / of the elaborate game of pretend.") In any case it's a beautiful lyric, and the whole song is one of the very best this round.

6. Turboshandy: Torch Bearer

I read Turboshandy's song bio about the very minimal and low-budget approach to recording this song. It's impressive that this was done with just an SM-58 and a couple of very basic instruments, and open source software. The simple but not simplistic lyric, a very straightforward take on the challenge, and some well-crafted lyrics, and the basic approach to melody and harmony, all make this a strong entry.

7. Jailhouse Payback: Hey Eugene

This is also one of my very favorite songs from this round. The mix and accompaniment are very nicely done. The vocal performance is understated but works very well. It seems like a happysad song, but then becomes an angrysad song. There's an undercurrent of bitterness to it that blends beautifully with the very upbeat music. The challenge is met adequately, although like several of the songs this round, the story feels a little hidden and vague. There's just a bit of a guitar train wreck at the end but that's only a minor distraction.

8. Dr. Lindyke: Why

Dave's vocal performance on this track is quite lovely and nuanced, although the harmony "aaaah" seem to be a bit off-pitch here and there. The lyrics are up to Dr. Lindyke's usual high standard. It's touching that Dave dedicated the song to RC. I've listened to this song at least five times, and I'm still a little unclear about how I feel the drums. Sometimes they seem just a little too busy to me, particularly the kicks, but then on another listen they seem just right, and they seem to keep the song propelled along. I can't quite decide. It's an interesting choice. This is one of the stronger tracks, but maybe not quite in the very top few.

9. Jenny Katz: Secret Love Life

Jenny's take on the challenge is one of the most positive. The song is beautifully performed and recorded, with some subtle vocal harmonies, marred only by some slight pitch trouble. I'm strongly reminded of some of my favorite chill-out dance tracks, particularly songs like "Future Love" by Presence. I was impressed by this song in the listening party, and after listening repeatedly it still sounds beautiful. The lyrics are uneven, though. Lines like "spinning like a maple seed" are gorgeous, but lines like "I know that nothing is ever gonna change" don't really make for a strong story.

10. T.C. Elliott: Broken Mind

I like it when a lyric can do things that are a little unexpected, with concrete details: "corner grocery or Japan" is a nice detail. Some of the rhymes like "changed/rearranged" aren't that strong. The electric guitar part is nicely done, and the acoustic breaks especially are very nice, and the rhythm has a "broken" staggering quality that fits the song well. The twist on the lyrics here is that the reason for the separation is that the narrator has "a broken mind" and I can certainly relate to that.

11. Felix Frost: Cat's Eye

I read the song bio with some interest. The challenge is met perfectly well, if with a strange conceit. I like what F.F. is doing with a real story, with a lot of concrete detail and very specific odd details. There's no denying that this song is very pretty. I wouldn't mark a song down because the lyrics were odd, or surreal, and this song's lyrics definitely are. The performance is not just fine but quite good. But the song is complicated, both in the imagery in the lyrics and the shifting beats and tempos. Somehow in that complexity it starts to feel a little emotionally detached, and fails to really sell the story as an emotional ride. I'm still scratching my head, but F. F. definitely gets extra points for creativity.

12. Edric Haleen: On the Matter of Bullying (Part 3)

The song clearly meets the challenge. In Edric's song bio he writes that "...this seemed far too aligned [with the concept of the previous parts] to consider writing any other song this round." I'm glad this challenge gave him that opportunity. It is again a very moving song and I know this is an issue Edric is passionate about. It's very nicely done technically. Edric has tied everything together in a way that feels very convincing. I feel a little bowled over, though, by the intensity of both the subject matter and the performance, and it's not entirely a comfortable feeling. I'm not sure there's an argument to be made that this subject would work with a little subtler or lighter approach, but if there is I would prefer it.

13. The Orion Sound: Without You (A Valentine's Stalker Song)

This is quite a thing! I'm impressed by a song that sounds like an extended piece in a musical theater production, although it isn't really that long. Musically, it is quite elaborate, and creates a real story arc. It definitely meets the challenge, and in a very creative way. The recording is a little fuzzy and distorted in parts, which is a shame, but not painfully so.

14. James Young: Never Coming Home

The lyric sounds boxy and that's somewhat distracting, although it's lessened because the performance is good. The twist on the challenge seems to be that it isn't entirely clear why the person in question is gone, and you never quite find out, although it does not sound like the person is dead ("your story remains untold/will you get to grow old?") I like that ambiguity. The lyrics are quite unsentimental and well-done and I always appreciate a good guitar solo. Overall the song feels just a bit long. I would not drop the instrumental ending or the guitar solo, but perhaps the verses could be tightened up.

15. Spencer Sokol: Burdens

A plaintive song and the lyrics have some nice parallels and interesting wording that leaves a lot of room for interpretation -- it tells a story quite elliptically. It sounds to me like the narrator is talking about several different people he's missing rather than one, so I suppose it technically meets the challenge, but not really in a strong way. There's some distracting crackling in the mix. Overall a good effort and this song reminds me of songs such as "Lightning Crashes" by Live.

16. Jutze: Nancy (Please Don't Go)

The lyric is very boxy and that's a bit distracting. The accompaniment tracks work fine, with a happysad approach (a very upbeat melodic figure) with sad lyrics. The twist on the challenge is that the song is a boy singing about losing his favorite teacher, which is funny and surprising.

17. Trader Jack: Doom Dah

I cringed when I first heard the vocal part, but it has grown on me because the narrator character is just so funny and weird. I wound up loving the creative twist on what seems like it could either be the drunken muttering of someone with a broken heart, or maybe someone having a psychotic break. It doesn't meet the challenge strongly, in my opinion, but I still enjoy it because it's just so goofy and weird, while still conveying the feeling of heartbreak.

18. Zoe Gray: Ginger Twins

This piano needs tuning and I have a hard time listening to an out-of-tune piano. The vocal performance is very nice. It seems to meet the challenge, although I'm not clear on the details of just who the narrator is missing -- a childhood friend? A literal twin? In any case the lyrics are still fairly strong. The song feels slightly too long, as well.

19. Menage a Tune: The Box Feeling

This is a 4 minute a cappella song. The lyric is a bit of a mixed bag. Rhymes like heart/apart and too/you are too easy, but other parts are better, like the way the verses end with five-syllable lines where the mood turns a bit each time. The song feels slightly too long and slightly too slow. JoAnn's vocal performance is touching if a little loose on the melody. I think the song would have been better with some simple accompaniment, because the vocal performance isn't quite powerful enough to really hold me rapt for four minutes. I did like JoAnn's twist on the challenge -- missing someone she can no longer talk to _online_. Overall this is a good effort that probably would have been better with accompaniment and a little more polishing.

20. Taylor R: Missing You

The raw-sounding guitar and bass here remind me strongly of Joy Division's classic track "Love Will Tear Us Apart." The lyrics have that raw feel as well. It's lacking just a little bit of something I can't quite put my finger on. Maybe it's just that the mix is too low and lacks proper compression and mastering.

21. Army Defense: Phil and Don

I like the arrangement and the vocal performances here -- there's a lot going on. It feels like an unsettling blend of E.L.O. and Sly and the Family Stone. This song seems to meet the challenge only by the skin of its teeth, though. The narrator misses his brother who has left -- in some way. In what way is not clear. Overall the song just doesn't have enough of a story; there aren't enough lyrics. So despite the fact that I like the music a lot, and the production, and the vocal performance, it gets knocked down for feeling incomplete.

22. Adam Sakellarides: Right Place, Wrong Time (The Time Traveller)

This is a great twist on the challenge: the narrator can't be with his love "right now" because she's a freakin' time traveller! I love the lyric, and the vocal performance fits the mood of the song. The bass line is muddy and the piano sound is not well-done, unfortunately, especially in the solo. A good effort but just a little too rough, musically.

23. Ominous Ride: When I Lost You

It's unclear exactly how the narrator lost his love, but the dark music suggests that there is something dark at work. I enjoyed the lyrics and the vocal tracks but the music is a little overpowering, and some of the keyboard tracks seem to fight with the guitar slightly. The vocal performance seems like it was very good but suffered a bit from a muddy mix. At almost five minutes, the song drags a bit.

24. Sid Brown: Who You Used to Be

Another pretty straightforward take on the challenge. I appreciate the garage band feel of this track, and the repeating acoustic guitar figure. The vocal performance is not very strong, though.

25. Ryan M. Brewer: Burn Out or Fade Away

The production is very nice here -- it's an interesting combination of very real-sounding and very artificial-sounding instruments. It's just the right length. The vocal performance is very strong. But the lyrics in many places seem to be more about the rhyme and sound than the meaning, which is disappointing (what does a line like "a moneyball boiled a bastard" actually mean?) and it does not feel to me that this song meets the challenge very convincingly, so unfortunately I have to mark it down for that.

26. The Boffo Yux Dudes: Dead Wrong

I sigh when I see that the song is under three minutes but the lyrics don't start until 30 seconds in. The lyrics are not strong. The challenge is technically met. The lyrics don't make a whole not of sense to me; it seems to suggest a few funny twists on the words "missing you" but doesn't really jell.

27. Hudson and Day: I Tried, Okay

This is a very conventional take on the challenge using a very unconventional song structure. Denise often uses these very unstructured, free-form songs that ebb and flow in a very organic way. I feel like from about 1:45 to 2:10 it is starting to come together and have some beautiful harmonies, and there are some sweet sounding parts here and there, but at least to me, the song fails to really come together as a coherent whole and the looseness in this case means it doesn't build up to much of an emotional peak.

28. Dex01: Monster

The mix is not good: the tracks feel like they are all at the same level, over-compressed, and the mixed track is too hot and filled with clipping and crackling. The lyrical take on the challenge seems fine. The vocal performance is a little disappointing; the song seems to me like it needs more of a Violent Femmes-style sarcasm.

29. Wait What (the Band): Without You Here

I don't really understand who this song is for. It's too dirty for minors -- I wouldn't want to play it in front of one of my boys, because he'd run around at preschool singing "stick my dick in peanut butter" and giggling. But it seems to me that anyone older than sixteen would not think it was that funny. So is it targeted at a Junior High School audience? That's when I thought Austin Powers was funny. So, the song clearly meets the challenge. The music is nothing to write home about. The vocal performance is actually pretty good, especially the backing vocal. I just don't like the adolescent lyrics. I don't think using "negro please" as an alternative to saying "nigger" is very funny, but what do I know; my wife and kids are black, but I'm white. I don't think the narrator hoping his wife or girlfriend's "gina" is intact is that funny, given how many female soldiers are raped over there. Honestly, this lyric just wants to make as many gross jokes as possible, and Wait What, Imma let you finish, but Philip Roth wrote the best scene where a guy masturbates with food -- in his novel _Portnoy's Complaint_, in the _sixties_ -- and that book was actually banned in Australia and pulled from libraries. In 2014 it's old news and has little in the way of either shock or comedy value.

SHADOWS -- I did not include shadows in the ranking (because I'm not supposed to). The fact that they are down here at the end doesn't mean they are "below" all the songs that are official entries. All three of these, if I ranked them with the others, would come somewhere from upper-middle to middle of the pack of songs.

Heather Miller: Greatest Generation (Shadow)

Sometimes simple is best. This song has quite a conventional style and structure while managing to avoid obviously cliched rhymes. It is one of the few songs that took, I think, a completely straightforward approach to the challenge. Heather's vocal performance is low-key but touching; it reminds me slightly of Stevie Nicks.

Andy Glover: What's Making Me Sad

This may be the most straightforward breakup song and the most basic take on the challenge in the whole bunch. It's a good effort, a basic but serviceable guitar part, and a vocal style that suits the song. Really I've got nothing to criticize, although the song also doesn't stand out strongly amidst a number of good entries.

T. C. Elliott: Will You Run Away with Me, My Love (Shadow)

Nice use of percussion. The guitar part feels a little busy to use as a continual backing. The vocal performance is good but not really strong. The lyrics feel a little cliched here and there (rhyming new/you), but the chorus "will you run away with me" feels very straightforward and honest, and I like that about this song. It's a straightforward take on the challenge.

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