Most of the people I've had guest judge this contest over the years have been people I've known about & been fans of for a long while. But with Scott, that wasn't the case. Just recently, I saw Travis Norris tweet a link to Scott's new album, and I was hooked. Listened all the way through, and never had the urge to skip a single song. Since I hadn't gotten a guest judge for SpinTunes 7 yet, I figured I'd see if the guy was interested in judging round 4. Lucky for us...he was happy to lend us a hand.
Learn more about Scott & his music by visiting his website: scottbarkanmusic.com After you become a fan, you can also stalk him on Twitter. (@scottbarkan)
Thanks so much for asking me to participate as a guest judge in this contest! I've decided to break down my reviews into 4 categories: Composition, Production, Performance and Concept, each worth 10 points. So, the entry with closest to 40 points wins! Here we go!
COMPOSITION: This song has a cool 70's rock sound stemming from the 7th chord voicings on the jangly pianos and string arrangements, and it's clear you spent some time on the arrangement, bringing the band in and out for dramatic effect. It could potentially benefit from a change in tonality at some point, or the addition of a true bridge as opposed to just extending that final phrase of the chorus at the peak of the song. Still, it has a nice arc to it even without a true bridge, and it matches the somber tone of the lyric.
As for the lyrics, your point is coming across, but there isn't a lot of poetry in it. Many of the details are just presented as a list - "This happened, then that happened, there's this thing, there's that thing" - Some more attention to the delivery of these ideas, with some real details, could make it a bit more vivid. The final line of the tune does add some weight to things, making it all feel like theres more going on here than just reminiscing around your hometown, which I appreciate.
PRODUCTION: The recording quality is getting the job done, but is lacking overall. Sounds are somewhat dry and thin to my ears, especially the vocal. A little reverb can go a long way, along with some light compression to make it all gel together a little more.
PERFORMANCE: Similarly, the performance is covering the bare essentials, but lacking in precision and cohesiveness. Some extra time invested in perfecting your vocal and tightening up the rhythm section will make a huge difference.
CONCEPT: This photo, a run down building against a lush and vast open landscape, conveys a sense of a lost and forgotten piece of americana right off the bat. You've definitely tapped into that, but it would have been nice to see you push the inspiration from the photo a little further and see where else it could lead. It did, however, make me think specifically of a Drive In Movie as well, so I appreciated your use of that in the final verse. I also think this photo has a sense of hope about it, coming from the bursting colors, and I think your piece does manage to capture a little of that with the final line, so nice job there.
Edric Haleen - Reality - FINAL SCORE: 35/40
COMPOSITION: The scope of this is surprising and impressive. It feels like a self contained musical, and the harmonic choices are definitely capturing a sideshow/circus vibe, which really works with the lyric. It's hard to look at it in conventional terms, because of the through composed nature of the piece, but for what it is it is definitely working. The lyric is as extensive as the arrangement and your point is coming across loud and clear. The opening shouts of "Follies!" and "Foibles!" really sets the tone and lets the listener know they are in for a wild ride. And, again, you can't look at through a conventional songwriting lense, but as a broadway-style piece it really hits the nail on the head. Well done.
PRODUCTION: The production also captures the vibe very well. I'm generally someone who prefers the sound of real instruments, but you worked with what you had available very well in order to realize your vision, and it's definitely appropriate for the song. All the sounds are rich and well mixed, it feels like a polished final product.
PERFORMANCE: Again, right on the money. Everything is in tune and in time, and the singing is perfect for this style.
CONCEPT: I totally see your jumping off point of the sideshow/circus ticket booth, and it seems like you've extrapolated a similar "death of the american dream" idea as some of the other entrants, though you've pushed it well beyond the obvious tableau of run down and boarded up buildings, making it into a commentary on modern American society as a whole. Bonus points for creativity and vision, too.
RC - Home - FINAL SCORE: 30/40
COMPOSITION: This is a straight up roots/rock ballad which, I have to say, is right up my alley. Personal preferences aside, I might say it's almost too text book, as there are few surprises in the arrangement, but the melodies, chord progressions and structure are solid, so I can't fault you much for that. Lyrically, the devil is in the details, and you have some nice ones here. The sentiment of "entropy's remorseless" brought up in the bridge is particularly striking. This is text book genre songwriting.
PRODUCTION: Again, classic execution, from the carefully layered guitars to the backing vox and soaring post bridge guitar solo. The sounds are clean and well recorded. The flip side of that is, again, it's all a bit predictable. It totally works, but I would love to hear you push some of the production ideas a little bit.
PERFORMANCE: What can I say, it's solid as a rock, but..are we seeing a pattern develop here? I'd like to hear something more than just playing the parts. It's clear that you can do that, so now it's time to add some real subtlety and dynamics to the performances. I hear a lot of Buddy Miller in your voice and writing, and if I were a betting man I'd bet you know that already. Give any of his records a close listen and I think you'll hear the kind thing I'm talking about. It's hard to put into words, it's just a certain thoughtful touch, but you're clearly at the point where the next step is examining things on that level- pushing yourself to go beyond the obvious take on a part and making it more personal and unique.
CONCEPT: The loss of small town america is prevalent here again, though in more general terms, as pertaining to the image in question, than I'd like to hear. You're capturing a basic essence of the photo, but drawing more from its specifics would help in this category.
Ominous Ride - Waiting For Julietta - FINAL SCORE: 23/40
COMPOSITION: Fun tune with a real vibe to it, kind of feels like brit-pop in the old west. The central melody, while a bit monotone, works and digs its heels in deep. What I'm missing from it is a real hook in the chorus that I can grab onto. Changing the lyrics with each instance of the chorus makes it a bit more difficult to find something that stays with me after the song is over. Also, some more harmonic variation would be nice. If I'm not getting a solid singalong chorus, I might like a bit more color in the changes to keep my ears fresh all the way through. A bridge could also help with this issue.
Lyrically, some of the rhymes feel a little forced (Station/Validation, Window/Limbo) and I'm not sure what lines like "Rusted sign that says to crawl" are supposed to mean. It seems like concern for fitting into the rhyming meter you've established has taken precedence over delivering your message in a thoughtful way. The line "Whiskey led to conversation, flirting to infatuation" is a great example of what you should be striving for. It has solid rhymes, specific imagery, and emotional thrust. Let that be your benchmark.
PRODUCTION: Getting the job done but your guitars and vocals are a little thin, and the snare drum gets a little lost in the mix at points, as if your compression settings are squeezing it too hard at points, while the kick is a little too upfront. Overall it would be nice to hear a warmer sound and be careful not to over compress.
PERFORMANCE: Vocals are solid, but the rhythmic playing of the band is definitely a bit wonky. Zero in on your downbeats and make sure all the instruments are hitting together, especially your bass guitar and kick drum. You can't underestimate how important groove is, and locking in the rhythm section would improve the experience of listening to the song dramatically. I would suggest simplifying some of the parts when the whole band is going and focusing on getting that groove happening.
CONCEPT: I like how you've created this whole story that takes place specifically at the location in the photo. It's not just a passing mention, but the centerpiece. I could even see you taking it further, instead of having the initial interaction with Julietta at "a booth", wherever that is, make it at the station, too, and incorporate some more details from the photo. She has to leave, and then you're stuck there waiting for her. But what you have works.