Thursday, February 27, 2014

SpinTunes 8 Round 2 Rankings and Reviews

I found this challenge and the variety of responses to it very interesting. Once again we had a number of songs of very high quality, which made the ranking difficult. I think that I would have found myself uncomfortable and "stretched" trying to meet this challenge myself, so I have sympathy to the contestants who met it. I also think it was a good challenge, in that it forced people to go outside their comfort zones in some cases. Most of us don't want to think of ourselves as "haters" or even people who occasionally indulge in hate when provoked, and so contestants found a variety of ways to take the challenge and turn it: it became about self-hate, it was about hating humorously, or hating someone for impersonal reasons, or hating one's own weakness, or hating one's own inability not to hate(!)

There were a couple of songs which the judges felt did not express any form of hatred and therefore did not adequately meet the challenge. Personally I tried to keep quite a loose definition of hate, but I still just could not find "hate" expressed at all in three of the songs. At the time of writing, I don't think the final decisions as to disqualifications have been announced. I think Spin is going to edit our final rankings to reflect the DQ'ed songs.

Anyway, assuming that all made some sort of sense, or even if it didn't (I've been drinking rather enormous amounts of coffee here in my cube in the midst of a blizzard), here are my reviews, ranked from best to worst, followed by the shadows.

1. Jenny Katz, Voodoo Doll

This is the finest song of the round. It represents the best of what SpinTunes is all about. It is simply gorgeous song, plaintive but melodic, with a very fine lyric. The lyric is a marvel. It is absolutely free of excessive sentimentality, cliched images, or hackneyed rhymes. The vocal performance is lovely, emotive without being overwrought, tuneful without being flashy. The instrumental accompaniment is tasteful and uses very well-chosen chords. I'm impressed with the song in every single respect. It conveys a very "adult" mood of introspection and self-criticism, but without seeming excessively precious or narcissistic. It reminds me quite strongly of song such as Joni Mitchell's "Blue Hotel Room." If I had to be ultra-picky, I'd point to an occasional imperfectly muted string in the guitar part, but that's really barely noticeable; I just mention it by way of "constructive criticism," since I wanted to find something that I felt could be improved.

2. Ryan Brewer, Fear [of Failure] and [Self] Loathing in Las Vegas

I really enjoyed the darker mood of this song, damning the antagonist with faint praise. I'm not usually a big fan of what passes for country music these days, but the pulsing bass line and vocal style reminded me of some of the great country-rock acts of the 1970s, tracks such as "Ghost Riders in the Sky" and "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." This song has a tremendously enjoyable voice performance and I really like the way it is doubled; the instruments are very well-done as well, especially the ear-candy bits of backing keyboard. The drums are a little artificial-sounding and monotonous in places, such as the pinging cymbal during the bridge. When the song gets to the portion that is sung in a round, "there's a part of me that hates part of me," I'm completely hooked, and then it checks out at the perfect moment. Nicely done in all respects.

3. Ross Durand, Sometimes

This is a very appealing song. Ross is continuing to demonstrate that he's an old pro at this. The lyrics make it clear that the hate is a transmuted sense of loss, and that gives it a little more emotional weight. There are some great lines, like "set 'em on fire, just to watch you burn." The vocal performance is just a touch too loose with pitch here and there. The backing organ sound is gorgeous and lifts the song up very subtly from the background, reminding me of "A Whiter Shade of Pale."

4. TurboShandy, Stoic

This is a nicely recorded song with a great vocal performance and excellent use of harmonica. In mood, you might call it a happysad song, or a happyangry song. The layered nasal vocals against the chugging acoustic guitar lines move the song along very well. The howling hound at the very end is a nice touch.

5. Sara Parsons, Who Am I Kidding?

Parsons is doing something very nice with the vocal harmonies here and I love the way the song kicks off the vocal just a beat or two into the song, without an extensive intro, and the cold end works really well too. The lyrics feel a little abstract to me, not conveying a definitive story or set of images, and so I'm not really feeling the hate in any form I can recognize.

6. Dr. Lindyke, I Hate Myself For Loving You

This song grew on me the more I listened to it. The musical layers are roughly recorded but nicely done in a tango style, and there are some bits of ear candy like the triangle that add interest to the instruments. While the vocal performance is very fine, the vocal track leaves something to be desired -- besides boxiness, I hear compression artifacts, like this was recorded over Skype. The way the lyrics are structured and set to music, as far as rhyme and rhythm scheme, is very nicely done, but the lyric feels a little under-done, with a narrator who is a bit muddled. I'm reminded a bit of Portishead's song "Sour Times," because of the lo-fi sound of the track.

7. Governing Dynamics, Trump Card

This is moody even by Governing Dynamics standards. The lyrics suggest an elaborate back-story here, but it feels at times like a personal story that isn't adequately explained in the song, except for bits and pieces where the lyric really breaks through and becomes universal, in "a finger on the pulses of frivolity and vanity and greed." It conveys a lot of convincing angst, but there isn't quite enough of an arc -- that is, it starts angry and stays angry. The song drags a bit in the last third or so but ends nicely, and we get one of Travis's trademark mournful guitar solos, with some gorgeous effects strangling the life out of the tone and making it very fitting to the mood of the song.

8. Felix Frost, Steely

As soon as I heard those challenging chords in the somewhat long introduction, I knew I was hearing Felix Frost again. F.F. pulls out all the technical stops, creating a complex tapestry of tracks here, and I like his grotesque, angry word choices in the lyrics. I have a reservation, though: it sounds like there's a complicated backstory going on here, about a boss or former business partner, but I feel like I'm not sufficiently privy to this story to understand it emotionally. I think it's a bit of a problem when a lyric is too personal to the author and doesn't succeed in telling enough of a story to engage the listener. As in the last challenge, I feel like F.F.'s style can be, well, a little emotionally chilly, and leaves me feeling a little indifferent to the narrator.

9. Caravan Ray, Disdain in the Refrain

The lyrics here are hilarious, even borrowing a phrase from the challenge and then running with it. The bass line is a lot of fun. I have some very slight quibbles with the backing vocals here and there (the first "dance behind your hearse" sounds a half-step flat to me). The rhythm guitar work is excellent the whole song has such a bouncy ska feel and infectious energy; I'd call it not happysad but happymad. The tracks and mix could use some punching up with EQ and compression. I have some minor gripes about the way the percussion feels over-emphasized throughout the track, particularly that ringing ride cymbal sound that the song ends on -- it doesn't sound quite in key and right for the track.

10. Jutze, I Hate You

Jutze pitches his voice to sound like Cookie Monster and brings the layered, crunching metal guitars. The lyrics are quite funny and the narrator found a good reason to comically hate someone -- the person putting him through his hoops in writing the song! A really enjoyable bit of half-serious homage/mockery of the "black metal" genre.

11. Adam Sakellarides - Damn You

A nice reveal here and we have a good take on the challenge, where it's an impersonal sort of hate towards a celebrity who is preoccupying the women in his life. The awkwardly forced rhymes made me smile, with a twist as the narrator realizes that he is actually enjoying himself more than he'd like to admit. A fun song. I'm imagining it with a wailing saxophone solo in the middle, and a video with a chorus of soccer moms in sweatshirts and yoga pants, kicking their legs in the air, singing a backing vocal part consisting entirely of ooooohhhhs and aaaaahhhhs, from the leather sofas where they've been binge-watching season two on Netflix.

12. Edric Haleen, Born of Hate

This definitely has a dark and relevant story about hate, and demonstrates the way that hatred destroys the person that hates. But it is so emotionally wound up, from beginning to end, that I find myself not wanting to listen again. The whole "oops, I just got shot in the chest and I'm bleeding out -- whelp, better leave voicemail for the wife" just doesn't feel convincing to me (can you get Verizon service in Kandahar? Someone will probably explain to me that yes you can, and yes this really happened, and then won't I feel like a boob...) Also, I can hardly believe I'm saying this, but I think Edric is over-using the f-word in this song, almost to the point where this deadly-serious song veers into Book of Mormon-style satire.

13. Brian Gray, Stupid Face

Is this another song inspired by someone's personal story about a boss or co-worker? The beat-boxing is hilarious and so are the gross lyrics, and then as if it wasn't already weird, it gets _really_ weird. I love the way Brian layered the vocal parts, despite a mix that could use some punching-up. But ultimately there isn't all that much substance to this song.

14. James Young, I Hate You

A fairly simple take on the song, with a twist in that the person receiving the hate doesn't seem to be emotionally deep enough to understand or care. A soaring guitar solo can't entirely compensate for the weakness of the lyrics, with forced rhymes that don't quite work (rhyming "problem" with "autumn," for example). There are some strange popping artifacts on the lead vocal track. The recording sounds band-limited and a little tinny. The tracks could use a good compressor and the final mix could use a good mastering job.

15. Army Defense, What Can I Do

There's some really nice instrumentation here -- it sounds good, especially the doubled guitar tracks and keyboards, but it's hard to get a handle on the story and it doesn't convey a strong impression of some sort of hate. The vocal performance is quite good, although there are some odd artifacts (auto-tune gone wrong?) While I like the lyrics, I think overall there are too few lyrics, even for a short song, which makes it feel like it emphasizes musical style over meaning too much. The vintage keyboard sounds towards the end of the song are cool but at that point it is getting a little over-complicated, sort of a musical everything-including-the-kitchen sink.

16. Zoe Gray -- Black with You

The bridge really makes this song; the rest of it feels a little too long, repetitive and one-note by comparison. I feel like I understand what the lyric is getting at, but the phrase "fallen into black with you" just doesn't quite seem like it is going to take off as a catch-phrase. Maybe it works better in a different language, like the way "we will bury you" makes more sense in Russian?

17. T.C. Elliott - You Cheated On Me

Serviceable but a little drab, with some bad rhymes (heart of glass, alibi). Competently done but doesn't really break ground.

18. Jailhouse Payback, Clippedcorners

Musically, this song is beautiful. I love the use of the banjo here, and there seems to be a story implied, but I was not able to discern what it was about. I can't detect any sort of coherent mood of hate in the lyric or music. Is the antagonist dead? Has the protagonist forgiven him, or not? Is this a song about a song? It all comes off a little frustratingly vague. There really nice instrumental backing, especially towards the end, although overall the song is just a touch too long (the banjo riff is very nice, so let's play it over... and over...)


Heather Miller, You Make Me

A hate song about winter personified! As I'm writing this, it is supposed to hit sixteen below zero in Saginaw this evening and I nearly slid off the road driving in blizzard conditions. Yesterday as I came in to the office for a meeting I noticed that my knuckles were bright red and nearly bleeding where the skin had nearly split, just due to the extreme cold and dryness. This song has really fun lyrics and a nice sultry vocal performance, with a bass line that propels the song along. The guitar line tends to drift off the beat here and there. If it had been in the running, it would have been towards the top of the rating.

T. C. Elliott, The Kitchen Table

Some funny lyrics and a lot of anger, but there's not much to it beyond a contrived storyline and general feeling of misogyny. The timing drifts somewhat aimlessly against a canned drum track.

Menage a Tune, Wevenge

I think this would work perfectly as an animated children's video if the narrator's performance were much more over-the-top, and the quoted bits were actually in Mel Blanc's voice. That would present some copyright issues. The emotional tone of this song seems muddled -- it features real death in a way that the cartoons never did. Remember, kids, meat is murder! Overall it is pretty amusing, but towards the end the overlaid second keyboard part seems to wander off track in a few places.

Boffo Yux Dudes, Suitcase Full of Hate

This sounds like something very different from the BYD. I like the music track. Some very amusing rhymes. It sounds kind of like the Dickies, Ramones, or a similar early punk group. This one would have been mid-pack if it was in the official running.

@suspiciousden, to dust

This tune sounds like it should be performed in the background of a David Lynch movie, on an glowing, antique console radio set. A very nice mood is established and maintained through the whole song, with a beautiful vocal. It reminds me a little bit of the last track of Annie Lennox's album _Diva_. It works so much better than her round one song. I wish Denise was still in the contest!

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