OK, after my in-retrospect-ill-advised ribbing of the judges in the first SpinTunes competition, it's my turn to be your "fair and unbalanced" jurist. And wouldn't you know it, I have a really amazing competition to judge! If you were around in the last competition and were unfortunate enough to stumble across my blog, you might understand something of the way I think; for those that didn't, here's my thought process:
First, the challenge is paramount. You can write the best song in the world, but if it didn't meet the challenge, then I'm sorry. I mean I'm really sorry; I will well and truly weep as I move you to the bottom of the list. Crashing and burning in style is still crashing and burning; so if you do nothing else, make sure you meet the challenge unambiguously. Also remember that the challenge was given to you for a reason. This is the "Iron Chef" of music competitions. It's not enough to write just a great song; you also have to meet the challenge better than the other challengers.
Second, I see this as a songwriting competition: it's not a battle of the bands. So you've got a pretty clear shot even if your rhythm section is a metronome and your face is on milk cartons printed by Auto-Tune. I have no problem filling in (in my head) entire missing arrangements, so long as your intent is clear. That said, don't be surprised if people who can fully produce a song are also capable of writing kick-ass songs... and obviously, their intent doesn't have to be guessed at. They do have an edge.
Finally, keep in mind that I'm judging the songs. I'm not judging you, or your potential. You may have greatness in you, and may simply be stumped by a specific challenge. Nevertheless, I have to go by the song. In scoring, factors include the challenge, emotional impact, the lyric, the tune, technical factors, and je ne sais quoi. It's not a scientific formula, so I'll be astounded if anyone agrees with all of my choices.
In this particular challenge, you were asked to write a song about your hometown. You should have included the name of the place in the lyrics; and it should have been a place where you have roots, which means to me a definite place. No one's hometown is a fictional place, so in good conscience I have to score real places much higher than imaginary ones, or imaginary versions of real places(*). And for this challenge, I'm giving a lot of credit for songs that allow me to draw a mental picture of your hometown. The more descriptive, the better. I want to know what it feels like. There are so many great entries that I can afford to be picky, and that's where I choose to draw my lines.
* So did I track down these locations? Well... yeah, I did. Not for any rules compliance... we had already concluded that we really couldn't verify what is or isn't your hometown... you could pretty much pick any place you wanted. Take it as a compliment that you folks instilled enough curiosity in at least one judge to go check out the great places you were writing about. I was hoping that this challenge would yield a musical world tour compiled by the most creative minds we could muster. You folks did not disappoint. You have done a fantastic job, and I am not worthy to tune your instruments. Be proud.
Now, on to the reviews...
Governing Dynamics (Stars Over Avalon) - We begin with a coveted no-prize for "Best Title", hands down. Hell, it's a gorgeous title. And the song matches it. Sure, this is a competition, but songwriting isn't all about energy. It's also about creating and communicating a mood, and not every mood is "get up and dance". What I like here is the way Travis has painted this picture in sound using shades of vivid Blues. It's a sleepy, laid-back tune for a sleepy town, and immensely descriptive. I'm also pleased that Travis manages to get through the bridge and instrumental with sufficient variety, yet without shattering the mood by shifting into high energy. This song was the perfect storm for me... I listened at the right time of day and in the right frame of mind to fully appreciate it, and it's carried over to subsequent listenings. This is an artistic piece all around, and I'm diggin' the ebow. The weakest part is Travis' vocals. To me that's a quibble, but I can't help thinking that if Travis Norris and Austin Criswell were ever to join forces they would be formidable indeed. Despite the shaky vocals, I love the song, and I have a soft spot for small towns. You're free to disagree, but I'm giving top marks this round to Governing Dynamics. 28 points. (Dave goes into detail about this song on his blog.)
Zarni DeWet (Where I'm Gonna Go) - Wow, what economy of words! I'm not writing these individual critiques in the order you're going to read them. Elsewhere you'll hear me write about how a song needs 'more of the town', which in many cases means more lyrics devoted to description. Not here. With a few short lines I can see the houses of Durban, and I know why those poor men are rich. Three cities, three verses, and for each, a single line that tells you without a doubt why it's home. The repetition of "That's where I'm gonna go gonna gonna go" gives that assertion a sense of eagerness. This is, without a doubt, the most emotionally powerful song on the entire playlist. I visited three cities in South Africa via Google Streetview thanks to this song. The weak point here is, perhaps ironically, the same. This hometown song, being spread over three cities, doesn't allow Zarni to engage in the depth of description we hear in "Stars Over Avalon". We do, however, hear allusions to a personal journey that, coupled with her strong performance, lands her in second place.
Ominous Ride (San Francisco) - Great hippy groove! I've been to San Francisco and I couldn't find the sun, either. I thought it was just a bad day. The groove alone gets this song extra points, as it evokes the 60's, free love, and the feel of vintage San Francisco. That's before you listen to a single word. Then the lyrics drive home the fact that this song could be about no place else on this Earth. This is how it's done, folks!
Mitchell Adam Johnson (London) - I LOVE THIS! SO SIXTIES! I can just see the mini-skirts in bold geometric print. It's a killer tune, and I could listen to it all day, every day. Here's why this song is not heading this list: you can replace "London" with "Marvin" and do nothing else, and this song still works, even with the offhand references in the bridge. That's a very weak association, making it hard to say that it's a song "about London". If Mitchell had handed us a song that you can't shake the London out of, then he would easily have had my top spot.
Ben Walker (Oxford) - I spent a lot of time in Oxford during the five years I lived in the Midlands. It's a unique city where ancient charm meets modern erudition, and the minds of children play dress-up with adult ideas. Ben has captured it perfectly, right down to the late night pickled eggs. This is a song bound to Oxford and nowhere else. The tango in the bridge had me smiling... a great change of pace. Now the bad: I didn't like the "Cheers" homage. I thought it was entirely unnecessary and distracting. After painting this lovely picture of Oxford, Ben covers it over with Bostonian whitewash. It's like cleansing your palate with peppermint mouthwash between wine tastings. I would unreservedly love this song if that weren't in it.
Ross Durand (From There) - This is a really strong entry. This feels like a movie soundtrack, and Ross performs a neat trick here: although the lyrics are totally descriptive of an idealized Thousand Oaks, as I listen my mind plays out scenes of dusty roads and a lone hitchhiker, travel-weary and dreaming of home. Ross' distinctive voice and style really sell the imagery. This town is only a figurative stone's throw from Long Beach, but the contrast between this entry and and "LBC" couldn't be starker. What a difference 60 miles makes!
Edric Haleen (Lansing Michigan) - I seem to recall that prior to its unveiling, Edric nominated his song as most likely to suck seed. No! Wait! It was most likely to be like someone else's song. Well, perhaps it is, but not like anyone's in this competition! The barbershop quartet works, especially when delivered with Edric's insufferably perfect pitch. A bit meta, but in this case, the pandering works, and there's a lot of humor. Sure, some of them are in-jokes, but Edric knows his audience. I laughed out loud just once during this song: I started at about :22 seconds into it, and I finished at 2:09. The thing is, instead of making things up out of whole cloth, Edric works a LOT of Lansing into this song along with the humor. I have no doubt at all that Edric had more fun than anyone else writing and recording his number. Who else could've turned a horrible economy and a housing sales slump into sugar-spun entertainment? Well done, Mr. Haleen!
wait WHAT (LBC) - OK, this song is pure entertainment, and like Edric's it manages to be so without sacrificing the real town. As to the relative placement of "LBC" or "Lansing", it's a virtual toss-up. Long Beach is inextricably woven throughout this breezy number. And breezy it is... so much so that if you don't start out by listening closely to the lyrics, you might find yourself saying "wait, WHAT?" and hitting replay to make sure you heard correctly. This song wins not one, but TWO coveted no-prizes from this judge! The first is a Chutzpah Award for working their band name into the song more times than most bands mention the town. The second is the first-ever Insensitivity Award for rudest lyrics disguised as a Sesame Street song. This review has been brought to you by the letters L, B, and C; and ... Wait W H A T.
Gweebol (Darktown) - I don't exactly know what a gweebol is, but I do know it looks a bit like a suction-cup monkey, and it has a gorgeous voice. I love this quirky little waltz, and don't really feel the need to explain a reason beyond the fact that it's fun and I like it. Out of sheer curiosity, I had a lot of fun tracking down Darktown; and there are enough clues in the song to get you there. (That's right, this challenge is not only a travelogue, it's an Internet scavenger hunt!) You may want to take Shaggy and Scooby with you.
Steve Durand (In Paradise With You) - This is a really brave entry, and I think the bravery pays off. Hawaiian music for a Hawaiian town: it seems like a natural, but it still hit me from left field. Steve Durand is getting his own coveted no-prize: The "Finally! An Internet Musician Who Knows What A Ukelele Is For!" Award. Also, I'm going to give you a private peek behind the scenes in the life of Dr. Lindyke. I know a certain young lady who refuses to swim in the ocean because whales have sex in it. Guess which song is going to be played in her presence at every possible opportunity? Go on... guess!
Ryan "Ruff" Smith (Golden Valley Sunday) - I have visions of vintage Dinah Shore in this suburban picture postcard. It's smooth, it's sweet, and I'm old enough that it feels nostalgic and not put-on. Well done, Ruff!
Chris Cogott (Fairfield) - This song about about Fairfield, NJ sounds a bit like Weird Al backed by Rush. This is straight up rock-and-roll, competently done; but I'm struggling to find something really memorable about it. I've listened to it a lot, at different times of day, hoping that maybe it just needs to catch me at the right moment. As a result it's somewhere in the middle. Oh... needs more cowbell.
Rebecca Brickley (Here) - Rebecca, as I listened to this the first time, I was getting madder and madder because it's such a great piece and I couldn't find a shred of hometown in it! I came this close to tossing this down at the bottom of the heap for missing the challenge entirely. And I'd've been so extremely pissed to have had to do that to you when you have it in you to win this competition. So, listening desperately, finally in verse 7, I find a single mention that -- barely -- saved it from the trash heap. Don't ever do that to me again! I had to listen to the song all over again just to enjoy it. And a third time, because I enjoyed the second. It's a beautifully nostalgic piece about a lost relationship... and it would've scored much higher if it better met the challenge. The only reason that it scores this high is that, as a song, it is simply superb.
Austin Criswell (Mount Holly) - Austin has excellent voice: it's just a perfect, clear folk vocal. reminiscent of John Denver. And this is not a bad song at all. The only problem I have with it is that it doesn't tell me anything about Mount Holly other than 'you' are in it, and I'm going there. I wish Austin had given us something of Mount Holly here. What an awesome talent!
Charlie McCarron (Stillwater MN Air) - This humorous little vignette of life on the river is beautifully arranged for piano and recorder. I can smell the stale fish from here. We also get a nice hint at Stillwater's historical roots as a lumber town.
Heather Miller (Fairfield) - This song is very much a bit of homespun Americana. The hook, "Fairfield all the way" could evoke visions of football cheerleaders. Or, depending on the amount of sleep I had last night -- not enough, apparently -- it could suggest the way that zombies prefer their Fairfielders. Or even... cheerleader zombies! You don't get any more American than that! Now, you might not like the Country style; you might think this song is just plain and simple. Remember what I said way up top about the song illustrating the town? When you're talking about plain and simple folk, then a plain and simple song is 100% appropriate. Heather, the main criticism I have here is performance-wise... back off of the mic a little bit and get your voice out of the rafters. Sitting way up there, you can't put any volume or excitement to the lyrics, which is bad news for a cheerleading hook. And since you do have a guitar, don't forget the bottom. Lay a bass track. For some reason, my mind says there should be a jaw harp on this arrangement.
Brian Gray (South Bend Aid) - This is a really fun song, parodying the "Band Aid" songs like "We Are The World". It is, however, greatly fictionalized. Nevertheless, the place names are real. And there's no denying that South Bend is not Saint Louis, so Brian's already got Inverse T. Clown beat on verisimilitude alone. Perhaps more than any other artist here, Brian Gray made me hop on Google and research his home town. Well done, you sneaky sonnuvabitch. Performance-wise, it seems a little timid, it could open up more. I also wish you had some diverse voices, but I know how tough that is to arrange on short notice, and I'm happy to fill them in as I listen.
Inverse T. Clown (The Pinpoint Accurate Telling of the History of Salem, OH) - The title was enough to tell me that The Painted One was going to be in trouble this round. First, the good: this is one of the best vocals I've ever heard come out of ITC's freshly stitched lips. This is delivered with far more force and conviction than the timid stylings of some of his earlier songs. And I like the song, too: it's already on my MP3 player along with "Devastator", and I'm scoring it WAY up for that. BUT... it hangs on to reality (and the challenge) by the most tenuous thread imaginable. *sigh*. I still like it. If you're looking for the history of the Salem of Earth-2, look no farther! But the listeners should really look up the Wikipedia article on Salem, OH to find its connection to this world.
Duality (To the End of the World) - Beautiful work as always from the Joe/Den duo. But I have the same comment here as with many of those that I didn't rank near the top... I wish there were more of the town in it. That is, after all, the topic. This seems to be about aspiring to be somewhere else, and Dundee doesn't seem to have a lot to do with it. Other songs met the challenge more decisively.
Emperor Gum (Cheltenham) - This is one of those songs where my imagination did a lot of work to compensate for the execution. I didn't mind doing that at all, because Graham's given us a lot of Cheltenham in his lyrics with which to work, When he sings, "...the town I love", you know it's true. Best line: "Falling leaves like copper flakes".... nice. Musically and structurally, the song is very simple. It would be nice if there something to break it up and give it more texture than it has. Also, which is unusual in this batch of songs, there is perhaps too much detail; the song is in danger of falling into the "here's a list of stuff in my town" trap. It's a fine line... you want to pick an aspect of the town and emphasize that, without feeling as if you have to say everything there is to say in one song. For example, if it's a friendly place, write about those things that make it friendly, leaving off the rest. This plays more like a tour. As a result it doesn't communicate much emotion to the audience.
The Boffo Yux Dudes (It's My Hometown, Syracuse, Baby!) - It may be that that this is the first non-comedic song I've heard from BYD. There's a lot of local color here, but it doesn't have the impact of some of the higher-ranked entries. I think that my criticism here is the same as with "Cheltenham"... it's mostly a list of stuff. This sort of song sparks fond recollections in the people who lived there, but I'm not sure it really gives those of us who didn't much of an idea of what Syracuse feels like.
Charlie Wolf (I Love LA) - This is a song that could use a little career guidance to find out what it wants to be. Almost everything other than the "I Love LA" lyric points to a song about missing the girl, wanting to get to the girl, to be with her and to see her face. So is it a song about LA or about the girl? With a tweak it could be either... but it needs that tweak.
Danny Blackwell (A Song About Woodsetts) - This is a wistful little hometown song. I think the time signature works better in the chorus than in the verses. Most memorable line: "And we were searching for songs 'tween their thighs". Sure you were, Danny. I think you'd have gotten better results in this recording if you'd recorded the guitar and vocals separately and mixed them. Then you could have controlled that guitar a bit better and still gotten the emphasis you were looking for.
JoAnn Abbott (Not In Copiage) - Very thought provoking and a LOT of her hometown in this. I like the song, and it's a shame Jo couldn't get someone to accompany her, because the song's much better than this rough recording would lead you to believe. I played it several times, and I kept thinking it was a tad too long, but looking at the clock it's not. Accompaniment may fix that, but honestly I think that the lyric toward the end should just be tightened up.
Common Lisp (Leaving Ann Arbor) - OK, do this... go back and listen the spoken portion of this song, and compare it to the rest. It's as if they were written by two completely different people. One is hip and solid and edgy, and the other is lost and looking. Now go back and listen to "Polly Loves the Rain" from Song Fu 6, round 1. DAY-um! Paul... spoken word is your forte. You're GREAT at it. Keep the rap, replace the song.
Russ Rogers (Song For St. Michael) - Runner-up for best title. Sadly, I don't think this is Russ' best. I was a little turned off by the 'Corner Bar' verse. It's a good verse, but it seems out of place in this song. Here we have a theme of "my town's so small..." so instead of expanding on that, we have an entire verse (one of only two!) devoted to this bit of violence. It may be that yep, it's big news. It may be that two verses are indicative of the smallness of the town. But we really need to see that in the lyric; If you're going to have only two verses, make them count.
Swatshots (Level) - I can't understand a single lyric. I don't mean I don't comprehend them... I read as well as the next guy. But I had to read them because they're muddy and unintelligible. What's clear is that you don't like Plainfield. What's not clear is why. "I hate Smallville" is a perfectly good sentiment for this challenge (and I was surprised not to find more of it), but the same criteria apply for hate as for love. Show us why.
David Ritter (Fired) - It's supposed to be a song about your hometown. There are other songs in the round that precariously skirt the challenge, but this one doesn't even try. Mentioning a town name in passing when you write a song about something completely different doesn't cut it. This is a song about getting fired. Which is ironically appropriate. I only wish we could get The Donald to do the honors.
And that's it for this round. I'm not reviewing shadows simply because this job is tough enough as it is, and I expect future rounds to be even harder to judge.
OH, ALL RIGHT... THE SHADOWS:
(and would you like cake? Or death?)
Duality (I Just Can't Find A Virgin) - I once wrote an Irish song on which Joe was kind enough to play bodhran, and I was guilty about the accent. I have a song or two that could be done in a Scots style, and I've held off because I've been guilty about the accent. No more guilt. This song releases me. Awww, c'mon. It's a shadow and it's funny, and I laughed.
via Satellite (From Home) - Evanescence Lite. I'm not personally a big fan of styles that break up and disguise the lyrics to the point where they can't be understood, but I can certainly enjoy this tune. It's just as well that it's not really lyric driven, in that the message is mixed there. We're told Kalamazoo is a prison, but not shown why; the city "means nothing", yet it's constantly refered to as "home". This wouldn't have placed near the top of my list, but it would have made a fair showing, and you'd have moved on to the next round, I'm sure. Keep shadowing... I'd like to hear more. Particularly it would be nice to hear one where Kylie's voice is not muddied up in the mix.
Bram Tant (Living In The Countryside) - Bram, I told you you could fit it in (twss). And now we know how to pronounce it. For a song that you didn't think you could write, this would have fared well. And you are the lone exception to a rule... even though this song is fictionalized, I get the feeling that it's not done for mere humor, but to illustrate your feeling about the place itself. Ironically, you tell us more about your relationship with Bachte-Maria-Leerne with the stuff you made up than you would have had you stuck to the facts. This places "Living in the Countryside" well above other fictionalized accounts such as "Salem" and "St. Louis". By "well above" I don't mean "barely above". Good work. Next time sign up and compete.