Before I get into the reviews, I’ve got two things to get out of the way.
This was an incredible round. There’s quality and there’s a ton of it here. There were relatively few things I had actual problems with; everything else wowed me to varying degrees. Unfortunately, though, there’s no room for ties; not at the top, not anywhere. This means it’s possible that a song I’d give a general score of 90% might only walk away with five or ten points, while a song that I’d score 95% might walk away with 28 points. The points are not a measure of overall quality; they’re of relative quality, and with a field this tight there will be some exaggerated gaps between high-ranking and low-ranking songs, even if I think they’re both pretty damn good.
Here’s how I’m going to put you in order. I put the musicality of a song and the poetry of the song on equal and prominent footing. By which I mean, the *writing* of the music and the lyrical content have the same sway over me. If you choose a particularly tasty sequence of notes and intervals between them, that will make as big an impact on me as if you had written a very clever, moving, or otherwise exceptional lyric. If you’ve done both, it will be better still. Right up there in importance is how well you’ve met the challenge while doing those two things. Someone who wrote a song that aces the challenge has done better than someone who wrote an equally pleasing song that only barely satisfies the challenge. For this round, the more I can get a sense of what your town is like, the better you’ve done. Lastly, but still importantly, is the performance. By ‘performance’, I don’t necessarily mean ‘production values’. I’ve listened to everyone’s songs on reference monitors, and I’ve passed them all through a lo-fi filter. If there was passion and quality in your recording, it’ll be evident no matter the quality of the equipment that captured you. That said, I expect there will be a loose correlation between production value and rank... but only because I expect the better songwriters among us are the ones more likely to have the experience, equipment and expertise to best capture the song they wrote. Lastly-lastly (and my escape clause), is the “it” factor. This is still an art of subjectivity and subtlety. My preferences might escape my own reasoning. I might find one funny song better than a serious song, and find another serious song better than the funny one. If a song excels, and I mean, *really* excels in one criterion, it could make up for a deficiency in another. If a song stirs my emotions, it’s going to do VERY well.
Alright, now that that’s done, let’s hit some reviews. To be fair to contestants I’m not already familiar with, I’m treating all these songs as if they’re the first thing I’ve ever heard from you; my opinions on your previous bodies of work will not affect how I rank you here. Songs are reviewed in the order they appear on the album, and my ranked list appears at the end of the post.
Danny Blackwell - A Song About Woodsetts: A sweet nostalgia piece in a pleasant folk style. Upon repeated listens, the guitars grow on me - there’s more here than I noticed at first. This song isn’t so much about the town as it is a song about you at that time in your life, and while you write a nice depiction of your experiences, it only loosely approaches the challenge. In this case, the guitars brought you up a bit, but there are other songs here that will do better on the merits of meeting the challenge more directly.
Ben Walker - Oxford: This is one of the best songs of the round. It is expertly arranged with great subtle layers of instrumentation, and your lyrics are the most effectively descriptive of the lot. I’ve never been there, but I feel an almost intimate familiarity with it. Your story arc reveals exactly what you tell us in the chorus.... and on that note, I was delighted with the unique “spring attached to your back” metaphor. That’s a really inventive and impactful way to punctuate the theme that you’ll always be pulled back home. I don’t know if it was intentional, but the snare-drum brushstrokes reminded me of an erasing chalkboard. I was very close to putting this at the top, but I ultimately didn’t because of your ‘Cheers’ outro - it’s a risk bringing someone else’s creative work into a contest that’s supposed to showcase your creativity... I appreciate that it’s a fitting tribute, but you honestly don’t need to supplement a near-perfect song with a gimmick; I won’t be surprised if you have trouble with the other judges on this.
Austin Criswell - Mount Holly: Nice guitar and really pure vocals here, but this is a simple song about a lost love, and the destination city is barely more than a plot device. I could put any other city’s name in this space and it doesn’t change the song a bit. You’re a great singer, but I needed more of the challenge criteria for this one.
Inverse T. Clown - The pinpoint Accurate Telling Of The Origin Of Salem, OH: This is a fanciful and clever fictionalization/dramatization of the city’s actual history. The lyrics here are smart and entertaining the whole way through, and the storytelling talent on display here is worth a lot. The music is suitably epic to match the storyline, and your voice is strong enough to stand out over the intensity of the arrangement. This is in a category all its own.
David Ritter - Fired: This was the only song we had to DQ, and it’s a shame because this is a very talented composition. The music, arrangement, lyrics, vocals.... it’s all here. It’s a great fun song, but it has nothing do with the challenge. You followed the letter of the law, but completely missed the intention; if I were just judging this song on quality alone, the only critique I’d give you would be that you should strike the lyric about Stillwater because it’s a complete non sequitur. Having said that, I hope you continue to shadow in the upcoming rounds because you’re good at this and I’d like to see what else you come up with.
Governing Dynamics - Stars Over Avalon: This song gets a lot of things right. The music rivals anything I’ve heard in the ‘90s alternative / pop heyday. The guitars are fantastic, and they really carry the weight of the song. Despite being a personal tale, the lyrics never lose sight of their aim to convey the smallness of Avalon. There are some great lines, especially “If the news is a battle, we are soldiers far from the fight”. The only thing missing here is a hook. To my ears I hear extended verses, a slight musical change, more verses, a bridge-ish verse, and so on, but none of the parts really felt like a distinct chorus, and this song would be a knockout if it had one. The vocals sound a little... tentative... but I don’t know if that’s actually reservation on your part or just the timbre of your voice. The main thing is the lack of distinction between the verse and chorus.
Duality - To The End Of The World: Strong, soaring vocals and brooding rumbly piano combine to make a ballad that’s equal parts love song for your home and for your lover. This is one of the few songs that was successful in not-being-just-about-your-hometown-while-still-being-about-your-hometown. The lyrics strike a melancholy note in that you cannot have both together, though for me, the song didn’t manage to evoke the emotion to match that sentiment. It’s a great performance, though, reminiscent of the musical interludes featured in those Riverdance/Celtic-Thunder type productions I used to catch on the public broadcasting networks.
Edric Haleen - Lansing, Michigan: Coming into this competition with an a capella arrangement is a bit like bringing a knife to a gunfight, but that makes this song a slice-and-dice fest. This barbershop quartet performance is a vocal masterpiece; the tight harmonies and tempo changes showcase your excellent control and more than make up for the absence of any instrumentation. Add to that the lighthearted and wickedly funny implementation of informative lyrics, and you have a song that tops my “entertaining hometown song” list.
wait WHAT - LBC: Basically a list of factoids set to music, you’ve written the most information-dense song of the competition. That you editorialized those facts with wry and vaguely offensive jokes might give you trouble with some people, but I found it to be a successfully straight-faced funny song. Kudos for the nod to Snoop Dogg in the wording of your chorus; it works on multiple levels. Musically, the vocals, while on-pitch, sound a bit like you’re doing karaoke instead of singing your own song, if that makes any sense. On the other hand, you have solid instrumentation, a catchy tune and a nice guitar/harmonica break; these last three things coupled with your unashamed willingness to celebrate potty humor turn what should be an average song into something that has an unexpected charm to it. ***full-disclosure: these guys are very good friends and bandmates of mine. I originally placed this song lower in the ranks out of some sense of cautiousness not to be biased, but I ended up being artificially critical and that’s unfair to them. I ask for everyone to have faith that I’m placing their song where I think it deserves to be.***
Brian Gray - South Bend Aid: Wow... this song is just hilarious. The “celebrity charity song” is a really creative way to address the challenge, and the musical swell you create is a perfect parody of the genre. Your lyrics are not only intelligent and funny, they’re excellently constructed. These lyrics are rich with internal and mid-line rhymes, and the cadence is deliberate - every line is laid out just right. You pull off the choir vocals nicely, and while it’s not my favorite song here, it’s one of the strongest overall efforts.
Charlie McCarron - Stillwater MN Air: This song is the sound of Surreal. The music here is very intricate and distinctive, like it’s carrying more information than I can take in, but without also being cluttered or distracting. The core of the song is your unique voice and the story you’re telling. It’s another song-about-home-but-kind-of-a-love-song-too, and it slips off target a little as you get more focused on the story of raising your family. It’s full of beautiful imagery, and I especially like the contrast between yours and your spouse’s views of the little details of the home you’re fantasizing about. While it only casually meets the challenge, it’s one of the most interesting listening experiences of the round.
Emperor Gum - Cheltenham: You’ve hit on an interesting bit of music that sort of tumbles over itself in a series of ebbs and flows; it doesn’t seem to follow traditional verse-chorus structure, but instead proceeds like a limerick beat-poem. And the lyrics are *very* poem-y. This reminds me a bit of the Beatles in the middle of their hallucinogen-fueled experimental phase. Vocals shift between actual harmonies and emotive crowd speech. Depending on my mood, I either feel like this is a daring examination of where the line is drawn between song and poetry, or like I’d need to be on mind-expanding chemicals to fully appreciate it.
Common Lisp - Leaving Ann Arbor: Starting out as a stylish sing-songy guitar pop-folk piece, you have a nice lead guitar lick and great interplay between the guitar parts and bass line... but then the gear change into a fully-produced prog-rock rap track caught me off guard. It was sort of a “we now interrupt this song to bring you... THIS OTHER SONG” moment. The transition back to the pop-folk outro felt much more natural to me, though, so I’m not sure how to suggest a better way to lead into the rap segment. The lyrics throughout the song are great; this whole song is an awesome frustrated kiss-off; you got some great digs in there. The sound bites are a nice touch. Taken individually, I love each part of the song. The intro and outro lyrics are wistful and sweet, nicely matching the softness of the music, while the rap interlude completely rocks and the lyrics accordingly take on that great pissed-off edge. Taken as a whole, if the transition were a little less abrupt, I’d be less inclined to want this to be two separate songs.
Mitchell Adam Johnson - London: Okay, now this is what I’m talking about. This song is pop-perfect, radio-ready. This is so well done on all fronts that I’m not going to have much to say. The arrangement is total ear candy, the tune is catchy, the vocals are top notch, the instruments are expertly played, and it just elevates my mood when I listen to it. I feel like you’ve beaten us at our own game, in a sense. By singing *to* the town instead of about it, you’ve written a song that’s clearly about your home, despite your not describing it in great detail. I think you were a little too clever for us, and as such I have to give you full marks for meeting the challenge in a sneaky way.
Rebecca Brickley - Here: Beautiful. Soulful piano rock that switches effortlessly between delicate and driving. Your voice is so interestingly colored, and when you break into the prechorus before the drums kick in, it gives me shivers. There are a couple places where you get a little off-pitch, but I’ll forgive it for how emotive your vocals are throughout the entire song. Now, there’s no disguising that this is a love/nostalgia song, and the city plays a backdrop in a couple spots, but it’s used more as a metaphorical place in your memory. But, this is one of those cases where something in your chord progression, melody, and performance just move me... the song is good enough to overcome the handicap of not meeting the challenge as closely as others have. You’ve got everything else you need; hit the next challenge squarely and you’ll be in the fight for a top spot.
Charlie Wolf - I love LA: I wish this song were longer. You’ve got a great melody and nice folk guitar accompaniment, and while I question your sanity a little bit, “I love this town like I love the freeway” is a really intriguing and poetic lyric. I for one love to drive, but I hate LA traffic. Part of me projects a little of my own experience into this and assumes you could be talking about a love/hate/necessary evil relationship, but the rest of the song doesn’t sound like that’s how you feel about it. I’d have loved a verse or two that explores that idea in particular so I get a better sense of what it means to *you*. I feel like there’s more song in here if only you let it come out.
Ominous Ride - San Francisco: Using a well-worn guitar progression isn’t going to blow anyone’s minds, but let’s face it - that progression is well-worn because it sounds good. In this case, it’s really only there to give you something to sing over, and this song is made on its solidly-constructed rock vocals. You’ve got a good melody rendered great with the harmonies, though it’s all a little too effected for my taste, especially with the guitar being equally flanged out. “And I don’t know why I come back / and I don’t know how I really feel” is the killer lyric for me. The rest of the lyrics are again, solid. That’s pretty much my feeling on the whole thing. I’d call it an average song, but the vocal composition brings it up a few pegs. This song is... solid. A technical note - there were a couple spots where the guitar and drums get out of sync with each other... it’s usually not a big deal, but it’s very noticeable when you have a staccato strum pattern over syncopated drums. When it’s “on”, it sounds great, but as soon as it’s even slightly off, it’s really distracting. The drums sound like they were done on a machine, so I assume it’s the guitar falling off pace. If you don’t already do so, I’d try recording with a click track to alleviate this.
Swatshots - Level: There’s some neat programming going on (especially at the end), but I have a huge problem with the vocal treatment. If I had to guess, I’d say you aren’t confident in your voices, so you saturated them in reverb and buried them in the mix. It just doesn’t come off like a stylistic choice (and if it was, then I have another piece of advice for you - in a songwriting competition, it’s always a good idea to make your vocals prominent - weak vocals in front of a mix are better than indecipherable ones behind such a strong rhythm track). They get a little louder in the second verse, but I’m still straining to hear it. Lyrically, you’re gonna have a hard time making a fan out of me; I have little patience for generic angsty songs. That said, I have to give credit to the first two stanzas. The paper factory fire leads into some pretty well-written angry lyrics, and you have a nice turn of phrase with ‘level the Plainfield’, but then it effectively degrades into “this place is small and it sucks, and it REALLY sucks”. Never mind the fact that Plainfield looks like an absolutely gorgeous community... if you want to convince me that it’s worth hating, then give me something substantial to hate - don’t be stingy with the details.
Russ Rogers - Song For St. Micheal: What we have here is a small song for a small town. You’ve got a GREAT refrain and I’m glad you give it to us throughout the song; with those three lines I get a strong concept not just of the town, but also of the mindset of the people in it. The sad thing is, that refrain is almost all you’ve given us. It’s a really enjoyable listen, but in critiquing it, it feels a little more like a case of writers’ block. I have a hard time placing this, because I firmly believe that it’s important to have a simple song every once in awhile, and this song does ‘simple’ exquisitely... but I can’t in clear conscience put it above songs that try harder and deliver more content.
Chris Cogott - Fairfield: This just blows me away. Once more, we have a radio-ready tune. This is without a doubt the most impressive musical performance of the round (bonus points for changing up the number of beats in the measures of your main riff; that’s like musical catnip to me). Great use of lead and background vocals, and while this song is chock-full of instrumentation, it never feels crowded. The mood is fun, fun, fun, energy, energy, energy, and your lyrics are informative, personally revealing, and super catchy. I love it.
Ross Durand - From There: Man oh man. I’ve always said that guitarists shouldn’t be allowed to use drop D tuning until they’ve proven that they’re good enough not to need it; this song is a textbook example of how to use it right. I’ve done my best to avoid making comparisons to popular music in any of these reviews, but I have to do it here: you’ve taken the guitar sexiness from Bon Jovi’s “Dead Or Alive” and the nostalgic poetic beauty of James Taylor’s ‘Copperline’ and translated them into a terrific country-rock ode to the home you will always have, but will always miss. You’ve got a perfect voice for this style of music and your words capture that feeling of adult regret over childhood ignorance. Awesome song.
Ryan “Ruff” Smith - Golden Valley Sunday: I wasn’t looking forward to writing this review, because I’m having a hard time coming up with a compliment good enough for it. This song is so good, I want to eat it for breakf... um... no. This song is so good, I want to wear it to the... no. Okay, here we go: If this song was on the Christmas albums I listened to growing up, I’d still believe in Jesus. Your voice is a whisper sung out loud, and your jazz is so pure and professional it makes me want to meet a nice girl, move back to New York, load up the woodstove, and cuddle up in a blanket with a bottle of wine while you play in the corner of the living room. Nightly. The lyric, “city streets, slick with dirty city sleet” is the best line. Not the best line of the song, the best line of the contest. That line is dense with alliteration, rhyme and gorgeous description. On top of that your melody is just right and your guitar work is jazzy flawlessness. This song *is* a blanket in front of the woodstove. So well done.
JoAnn Abbott - Not in Copiague: This song is facing a massive handicap. I’ll abandon pretending not to know your previous work for a moment so I can touch on this. You’ve had luck in the past getting guest musicians to come in and back you up, and I’m bummed that you didn’t get it this time. I’m imagining different flavors of backing music, and the conclusion that I come to is that this song could just be another average little thing -or- it could have potential with just the right accompaniment. Unfortunately though, all I have to go by is your melody... which is nice... but I can’t say that it ever wows me. As for your lyrics, you share a very heartfelt and emotionally baring bit of reminiscence. My favorite part is your description of the cookie-cutter nature of these adjacent towns, using “another Copiague” to great effect. I love the story here, but I think you got stuck in a lose-lose situation. The song is long. I imagine you felt a need to make up for a lack of music by going longer on content - that gives you full marks for meeting the challenge, but it also detracts from the listening experience. Lemme try to explain this a little better - If you had music behind you, you could afford to take a few pauses and let the song rise and fall a bit, keeping things fresh for the listener. Unfortunately, without any music you’re forced to sing constantly, which removes all dynamics. It tricks the ear into feeling like it’s hearing one long verse, and as pleasant as your singing is, a three-and-a-half minute verse is tedious to listen to. I think a good rule for anyone doing solo a capella songs is that short n’ sweet is the way to go. The last half of this song includes a bunch of repeated phrases that could have easily been condensed into fewer verses, which would’ve helped a lot.
The Boffo Yux Dudes - It’s My Hometown, Syracuse, Baby! I like the music here, the stacking of all those different organ voicings really supplement the song, especially the synth wah solo. There’s a slight corniness inherent in the vocals as they change character from “low voice” to “high voice”, which suits the lyrics perfectly. They aren’t as slapstick as Brian Gray’s or Edric Haleen’s, but they’re still enjoyable goofy and full of information. I laughed out loud at “It’s the best large town in Mid-Central New York”.
Gweebol - Darktown: When this song started, I thought to myself, “who the hell is trying to kill a typewriter?”... but when you started singing, I forgot what I was thinking about, and I kinda lost track of where I was for a minute. My god, I’m utterly dumbfounded by your voice. It seems almost... juvenile-innocent, yet somehow mature and sexy, and terribly emotive. I’ve been noting “best ____s” here and there in my reviews... and you, my dear, have written the contest’s best melody. That melody, sung in your delicate honest voice makes this one of two songs that actually brought me to tears when I heard them. As if that weren’t enough, the piano and drum track (once I get over the snare fill in the intro) turn the whole thing into a dark cabaret masterpiece. Lyrically, well, the way you translate thoughts to words is fascinating. The anthropomorphization of the town’s features spectacularly portrays it as some kind of haunted playland. Ooh, and while we’re talking about haunting - your ‘banshee voices’ were a great use of background vocals. This, I’m pretty sure, is my favorite song here.
Zarni DeWet - Where I’m Gonna Go: I have to make sure I’m alone whenever I play this song. Without fail, within ten seconds or so, this song turns me into a blubbering, sobbing, useless mess. I mean, completely useless. I have to turn it off so I can write this. Yes, the piano is powerful and beautiful, your singing is beautiful, the picture you paint with your words in the song’s opening is just heart-aching, and the rest of your lyrics are so empowering... but moreso, this is a perfect storm of “it” factor. Objectively speaking, there are some flashier, “better” songs here, songs that I enjoy more even, but none of them manage to elicit such a profound emotional response in me, and as such, I have to grant the top spot to you.
Heather Miller - Fairfield: Out of all the U.S. residents submitting songs here, this one is alone in taking on a classic Americana vibe; you make the sort of case that would convince John Mellencamp to spend some time here. The song is jovial and affectionate, and so descriptive until you get to the chorus. On one hand, you’ve told me all about the town in your verses, but I can’t help but want to hear a little more than just, “that’s Fairfield”. The best example I can give is Ben Walker’s song - he treats the verse as exposition, and the chorus as an emotional conclusion, and I think that if this song had something similar, it would really pop. I really like the sound you got out of your guitar - every guitarist has their own “handwriting” in a sense; little nuances in strum patterns and the way you move on and off the fretboard between chords... all those little sounds work so well for this song. It really lends to that small-town, homey, Americana feeling that I can actually hear you playing your instrument as if I was catching it at a local show. I notice something in your vocals; you seem to spend a lot of time in a low register, but it sounds like you might be struggling a bit down there. When you hit your high notes your singing gets a fair bit stronger... I’m not sure exactly how to leverage this for future songs, but I suspect that singing in a higher range might do good things for you.
Steve Durand - In Paradise With You: Maybe it’s luck that you lived in a place where the local music is very distinctive, but I really appreciate that your song style itself is just rich with identity. On that alone, it leaves you with much less work to satisfy the challenge. And despite that, you give us great imagery of the island life and a sweet turn at the end as you dedicate it to your love. While this song isn’t likely to make it into heavy rotation on my ipod, it comes off as an authentic homage and is an absolute bullseye for this challenge.
Duality - I Just Can’t Find A Virgin: The devil is a bluegrass yokel; who’d have known (besides Charlie Daniels, I mean)? I know that this is sort of a throwaway joke song, but its unrelenting silliness is so damn enjoyable. Your serious entry was beautiful, but I had a much better time listening to this one. The duet vocals dance around each other in a haphazardly (and yet deliberate) manner that I cannot get enough of. You’re a little crazy for writing two songs when everyone else here is struggling to get one good song in, but here you are showing versatility, talent, and a true passion for making music, no matter where it takes you. Thanks for this!
via Satellite - From Home: Oh, man. It’s a bummer that this didn’t make the deadline. I’ve heard some of your older work from Song Fu’s past, and I have to say, you’ve done some serious improving. I like everything about this song. The arrangement is very nicely layered, and the way you accelerate into the chorus is just delicious. I said it before; playing with tempo and time signatures, especially polyrhythms, is like catnip to me, and you guys wow me over and over again with the drum track. The clean guitars work really well to make this a plaintive song instead of an angry one, and the string accompaniment just expands the scope of the thing like any good goth song should. You have a neat thing going on with your voice where your tone is very pure, but you have a couple great scratchy phrases that liven things up a bit. You only approach the challenge criteria obliquely, this mainly being a personal song, but the good news is you aren’t losing any points for that. I’m glad you wrote the song you did and am eagerly awaiting your next shadow.
Bram Tant - Living In The Countryside: Bram. Dude. I would so rather have had you sign up and miss the deadline than not sign up and get this song in on time. If Zarni’s song was my #1 on “it” factor, then this is little acoustic piece is my #2. This is a great example of when a song doesn’t need a full arrangement to strike a heavy blow. This song needs nothing more. In fact, if we could get your vocals rerecorded with a studio mic, I’d have you release it as-is. You’ve written a song for people who like to pay attention. At face value it’s pretty and upbeat, and your vocal melody is charming (the way you made ‘Bachte-Maria-Leerne’ flow musically is spot-on perfect), but you’ve embedded some wicked satire that just makes me pump my fist and go, “YEAH, YOU TELL ‘EM, BRAM!” This was, despite its sparseness, one of my favorite songs of the round. Sign up next time.
(Number represents how many points they got from Kevin.)
28 - Zarni DeWet
27 - Ryan “Ruff” Smith
26 - Gweebol
25 - Chris Cogott
24 - Mitchell Adam Johnson
23 - Ross Durand
22 - Ben Walker
21 - Edric Haleen
20 - Rebecca Brickley
19 - Brian Gray
18 - Inverse T. Clown
17 - Common Lisp
16 - Steve Durand
15 - Duality
14 - wait WHAT
13 - Danny Blackwell
12 - Charlie McCarron
11 - Governing Dynamics
10 - The Boffo Yux Dudes
9 - Heather Miller
8 - Ominous Ride
7 - Russ Rogers
6 - Charlie Wolf
5 - Austin Criswell
4 - JoAnn Abbott
3 - Emperor Gum
2 - Swatshots
1 - David Ritter