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Saturday, November 13, 2010

SpinTunes #2 Round 3 Review: Dr. Lindyke

I posted my Round 3 judging criteria on my own blog previously. What it boils down to is I'm ranking the songs in the order I like them. You might wonder how that could possibly be when you read the list... the answer is that I am mentioning some bits about production this time 'round, but I'm still ranking sans production where possible. There are certain situations where this simply isn't possible. Good examples would be techno-pop, or a good bit of rap, where the delivery - or even the personality of the performer - is inseparable from the song itself. There's at least one case of that in the current round (more, if you count shadows). I also found that the extent to which a song met the challenge did, in fact, affect my enjoyment of the songs; enough that it affected the rankings. As it also turns out, I'm generally liking the real-life subjects better than the fantasy.

I was thoroughly intrigued by something this round. With the entirety of human history to choose from (at least 6,000 years of it recorded for posterity) and with only a few competitors remaining, we nevertheless saw similar or duplicate concepts. There were TWO songs involving Rosa Parks; TWO fictional time-travelers, THREE songs about Civil Rights, TWO songs about the formation of The Beatles; TWO songs about Amelia Earhart, and FIVE on which Duality performed. ;)

The same sort of thing happened in a Song Fu round where the contestants could write about a number... any number at all. The same sort of duplication occurred. Obviously, there are more similarities than common wisdom admits where human thought is concerned. Perhaps it's simply that all of our meat computers are running the same OS. Maybe as well, the Universe is more deterministic than we care to believe.

One last thing... I've tried to identify the character and event for each song based on whatever clues or bones I've been thrown. It is entirely possible that I've gotten one or more completely and totally wrong... if so, be the first on your block to get a coveted no-prize for stumping the judge, but it won't change your ranking.  And I'm not blaming Heather, either... it's your job to communicate that info, preferably in the song.

Anyway, my fellow automata, here are my reviews, ranked from from top to bottom:

Zarni DeWet - Eric
Character: The mother of Eric Harris (serial killer)
Historical event: The Columbine High School Massacre

I don't care who you are; I don't care where you live: the idea of a mother dealing with the knowledge that the child she gave birth to and loved and raised becoming a psychopathic mass-murderer is powerful. This is a dangerous story for a musician. It's very easy to miss your mark, falling into melodrama or cliche. Zarni does not miss. To some extent, in tone and subject matter, the song reminds me of Elton John's "Ticking"  (from his "Caribou" album); the difference here is that Eric's was a real story; his mother Katherine is a real person. Zarni's song is far more up-close and personal than Elton's. Zarni made me emote with the music alone, the lyrics alone, and with the total package. Challenge-wise, Zarni walked the tightrope beautifully. This is not a song about Eric, and it's not a song about the shooting. Just as the challenge demands, it's about Katherine... her feelings, her reactions, her regrets and sorrow. Nothing more is needed than the sparse piano accompaniment. Superlative.

Mitchell Adam Johnson - Pictures Of Love
Character: Stuart Sutcliffe (bass player, artist, 5th Beatle)
Historical event: The formation of The Beatles as we now know them

The Bandcamp page describes the song. Mitchell's facility with retro styles allows him to offer a good approximation of The Beatle's sound, helping to set the locale. Actually, it's quite a bit better than their early sound, so from my perspective this is an incredibly listenable song. It probably helps that I literally grew up listening to the Fab Four. I love the execution; I love the song.

When I first heard this song, and until I read the Bandcamp page, I completely misunderstood it, as there are a string of freaky coincidences at work. Astrid Kirchherr's involvement with The Beatles didn't end with Stuart's departure, or his death. She became their photographer and continued to take pictures until about 1967. Paul McCartney left the band with Linda. He took up painting. His family album has been described as "Pictures of Love". I'd never notice these parallels before, and think it interesting

Chris Cogott - Final Flight 
Character: Amelia Earhart's Mechanic
Historical event: The disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan (1937)

This is a very nice take on the story of Earhart's disappearance. Her mechanic agonizes over whether he could have prevented the loss of the Electra. The real-life evidence suggests multiple radio problems: Chris has incorporated these into the song, nicely placed as a checklist in the bridge.

The opening echoes get on my nerves... like immediately. They descends into noise rapidly, and by the time it clears up at around 0:39 I'm already ticked. On subsequent listens I just jumped straight there. Excluding that, the song's very well executed, in Chris' classic rock style. The echoes will probably keep it off my MP3 player, but I'd love to listen to a band performing it live without the effects.

Rebecca Brickley - Oh Mercy
Character: An unnamed Confederate Soldier
Historical event: The Battle of Gettysburg

This song has an interesting perspective. A Confederate soldier comes to the realization that he's fighting on the wrong side. At the moment of laying down his weapon and choosing to desert, he is felled by what (for the sake of irony) I choose to be a Union bullet. It's an inventive and moving story. The quality of the "judge's mix" on this song is pretty dismal, so I really expect to see it marked to the basement by the other judges. But bless you, Bekka, for using a soldier's first-person perspective: it makes it easier for me to justifying my usual technique of judging "the song". In this case, I "hear" it performed in period instruments: a strong baritone male voice, accompanied by guitar, tambourine, and violin. Not too damned bad. I do have some quibbles with the lyrics: a Southern boy is unlikely to use the phrase "by unhappy chance". You must understand that we are "American by birth... Southern by the Grace of God," even after all this time. ;)  Nevertheless, the musical hook in the chorus is simply stellar. Despite the poor performance it stuck in my head and stayed there. I still can't shake it... in a quiet moment I find myself singing "Oh, Mercy..." After several incidents like that, I moved the song way up in my estimation.

Steve Durand - Cuban Missile Mambo
Character: Miguel (Castro's Barber)
Historical event: The Cuban Missile Crisis

OK, ok, ok... if aliens were to land tomorrow and threaten to burn the Earth to a cinder unless Steve Durand sung an entire verse on-key, we would all die horrible, fiery deaths. We know that. But DAMN, this is a fun song! Not just musically fun (because, who doesn't like a mambo? Really... mambos are like musical parfait!) but because it's got a terribly clever plot. Not only is Miguel responsible for the Cuban missile crisis, but it's all part of a bigger plot to gain long-term security for Cuba by scaring the Americans into a treaty. What is a frightful episode for the Americans is a major win for Cuba, easily deserving of a celebratory mambo. Smart man, this barber. Smart songwriter, this Steve Durand. And a talented musician at that... this is the best showcase in SpinTunes I've heard so far for his instrumentality. Well done!

Inverse T. Clown - I Have A Leap
Character: Sam Beckett (Quantum Leaper)
Historical event: Martin Luther King's assassination (indirectly - see below)

Well... I suppose we asked for this when we said "fictionalization is OK". Inverse took this to the furthest extreme with what is easily the most creative fictionalization on the playlist, still tied to a real historical event by a slender thread of ITC's invention. Let's see if we can sort this out. In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life was destined to be saved by a particular physician. This was not to be. The doctor himself was killed ten years prior to King's death by a crazed woman. The result is history as you and I know it... the good Reverend dies. History having thus gone a little ca-ca (as happens, apparently weekly), Sam Beckett, time traveler, leaps into the life of a policeman in 1958, in so doing saving the would-be surgeon from his knife-wielding assailant. The doctor then lives on to prevent the death of Reverend King ten years later. The story would make such a good installment of "Quantum Leap" that I checked to see whether ITC was documenting a real episode. Nope, this is all Inverse T Clown. The MIDI orchestration gives me a good idea of how this would sound with a studio orchestra, and the "Quantum Leap" sound effect at the end is a nice touch. OK, so it's cheese, and it's fan-service, and it's a novelty song. But I'm scoring these based on my enjoyment, and I like this piece of fluff.

Ross Durand - Ivan Vaughan
Character: Ivan Vaughan
Historical event: Formation of The Beatles as we know them.

It's catchy, it's memorable, and Glory Be! It's about a real person! (Ivan Vaughan was a close personal friend of both Paul McCartney and John Lennon, and introduced them.) The song would work with any number of arrangements, but as the song is really just one musician's narrative, I like the simplicity of just Ross and the guitar. I almost feel guilty for not having more to say here, but really, the song says it all.

Governing Dynamics - Los Alamos
Character: Junior Lab Assistant on the Manhattan Project/Trinity
Historical event: Creation of the first nuclear bomb

This has some really nice imagery. First, I like the juxtaposition of the momentous historical event with the lowly status of the guy sweeping up the lab and checking dosimeters. I also like little touches, like "I feel a little sicker every day," and Oppenheimer quoting from the Bhagavad Gita, "I am become Death" (even though the latter is in a pretty awkward verse). There's a nod to the security of the entire project, which our protagonist circumvents simply by being unimportant. Travis does a very good job here of making the song about the character, as the challenge requires. The true purpose of the Manhattan Project is a puzzle to him, and the character focuses on his own experiences and conjectures in solving it. It doesn't grab me like "Stars over Avalon" did, but it is very much in that soft Governing Dynamics style.

Ryan Ruff Smith - The Driver (Dallas, 1963)
Character: the driver of the Presidential limo
Historical event: The assassination of JFK

Ryan does a great job keeping the song about the driver. "As long as I keep driving / None of this is real". That's a great take on this event. In life, the faster events happen, the fewer details register on your consciousness, and the deeper and more lasting are those specific, seemingly inconsequential, details that remain. Ryan captures this feeling well. With time spiraling down, he documents a pivotal moment in history to an incongruous, surreal backdrop of soft guitar and Secret Service radios. (I hope you don't get any flak for leaving those radios in throughout, Ryan. I agree with your placement). There is some really well-played understated dark humor here. Ryan, you get a coveted no-prize for the lyric, "I see his holy head / Ever blooming rosy in the mirror". What a picture.

Charlie McCarron - Queen Of Heart
Character: An unnamed man on a bus
Historical event: Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger

This is a nice song... and I mean it's a really nice ballad. Charlie doesn't try to recite history, going instead for feelings and impressions, which is a style I can appreciate. In execution, I particularly like the trumpet, and the guitar works in very nicely, though I personally don't need that much drum. However, the challenge here was to write a song about the secondary historical character. Simply put, this is a song to Rosa Parks, and it has more of Rosa in it than the protagonist, particularly in the more memorable parts. There's basically a verse and a bridge that deal with the character himself. It does meet the challenge, but I feel that others do it better, and that nagged at me a bit as I was listening.

Gweebol - She Said, As She Handed Him The Telephone
Character: Mabel Hubbard
Historical event: The invention of the telephone

It's been said (and Harcourt Fenton Mudd wasn't the first) that behind every great man is a woman nagging him on. Mabel Hubbard is an interesting character. When he married her, Alexander Graham Bell gave her all but 10 of his shares in the newly-formed Bell Telephone company. Not a bad character for a song, very much in the tradition of Alma (our example). Despite the incongruity of having a deaf character sing at all, this song starts out on a promising note with the first verse alluding to Mabel's deafness and the phonautograph. Beyond that it is really inconsistent, and ultimately just sort of falls. The chorus should really contain the hook, and it just isn't there. Gweebol, it sounds to me as if maybe time constraints got you and you're settling for a chorus you could deliver instead of the best you could do. It's a shame, because I generally love your sound. There's a lot of "white space" in there, and it's really in need of tightening up. The rhythm is pretty steady throughout. You might consider changing it up, or restructuring the last four lines of the chorus. Then again, it could just be me. On a performance note, the "Mr. Bell's" get lost. It would be nice if they were sharper and not so timid.

Edric Haleen - I Was There
Character:A white man and a black man on the bus
Historical event: Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger

This is a very plausible reconstruction of the events in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955. Unfortunately, it drags. I know that it's "being important", but that is, I think, the problem. This is one of those occasions where the performance is integral to the song. Performance-wise, Edric, I really think you over-reached here. It's a bit too dramatic. I found myself so busy listening to the performance that it was an effort to listen to the song. It's like watching a play and seeing the actor instead of the character. I kept thinking, "wait a second... I should be the one emoting". Then there was the technical aspect of separating the characters, both of whom sounded a pretty much like Edric. Maybe a different voice for the two characters might have helped, But then again... I tried imagining it with someone else, or with some other emphasis, and kept running into the same problem. The song on its own doesn't make me feel anything; you have to drag me there. That and no memorable hook really limits its playability outside the context of a musical. Even there it's unlikely to be a number people remember on the ride home.


Unranked, Grouped by Artist: 

JoAnn Abbot - Candle in the Dark (Shadow)
Character: George Mason's teacher
Historical event: The Birth of the United States of America

George Mason is known as "The Father of the Bill of Rights", the first ten Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which lay out the basic rights of all citizens. The idea here is simple... the teacher shapes the child; the child shapes a nation. Musically, this is very much a period piece. It's structured, arranged, and performed as would have been a piece written in 1776. In that regard it's very successful, and it does meet the challenge extremely well. It wouldn't be on my MP3 player because I'm not generally inclined to regularly listen to 18th century harpsichord music.

David Ritter - Portal of Doom (Shadow)
Character: Reggie (lab assistant to Mikkel Andersen)
Historical event: First photograph of an individual atom

David thoughtfully included a link to the source of his inspiration.  Sounds simple, right? Two lasers scavenged from old CD players to capture an atom. Guess it wasn't so, so, so -- so easy. The first thing that struck me about this song was that the instrumentation would be really good. The second was how perfect David's voice is for the mad scientist role. I might've like to hear some consequences from the release of those creepy evil things, but hey, it ain't my story. This is an easy listen, and it will probably get some repeat playtime from me.

Common Lisp featuring Duality - Sherman's Lament (Shadow)
Character: Sherman (Mr. Peabody's boy)
Historical event: None

OK, I saw the title and I immediately thought General William T. Sherman. Didn't you? Surprise!  This one's about Mr. Peabody's boy. That's right, Mr. Peabody, the time traveling dog, lost his boy. So now we have a potential for anything at all! As Paul mentions in his intro, Mr. Peabody is connected to many historical events.  Sadly... and I hate to have to mention this... just having the connections doesn't meet the challenge. You must "write a song about an unknown character from history, and what connection they had to a major historical event". In other words, the event must be indicated in the song. Paul, though you went to great care writing your story (admittedly very nice), and you had all of history and a lot of stanzas, you forgot to actually include any major historical event in the song. As a result this entry would fail the challenge.

BTW, I don't think the samples are necessary. And what's going on at 0:32? (I know, I know... Dave's hard to please)


I'm wondering if all those tweets from Joe 'Covenant' Lamb about "the judges will hate this" refer to the sheer number of shadows heaped upon us by Duality to review? Actually, it's not a big problem if we review them 'Covenant-style' ("Elton!")

Duality - All Entries  
Character: various
Historical event: various

Nice songs.

OH... very wellll....

Duality - Columbia (Shadow)
Character: an Astronaut
Historical event: a Space Mission

Nice song.

Duality - Historical Verity (Shadow)
Character: the man who shovels the shite
Historical event: various

Nice song.

Duality - St. Andrews (Shadow)
Character: an Unknown Person
Historical event: a Thing that happened in Scotland

Nice song.

Duality - Triangle (Shadow)
Character: The Singer
Historical event: A Disappearance in the Bermuda Triangle

Nice song.

WHAT? Still not good enough?  *sigh*

Duality - Columbia (Shadow)
Character: Michael Collins (Astronaut)
Historical event: the Apollo 11 moon landing

Now THAT'S what I'm talkin' about! Great concept, great song! Nearly everyone on this planet with an education knows that Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the Moon. Many know that he was accompanied by 'Buzz' Aldrin. But how many know that while those two were making history on the surface of the Moon, that Michael Collins was making history possible as he piloted the command module Columbia in orbit around the Moon? Damned few, and that's exactly the sort of thing I was hoping people would address in this challenge. Find an event, a significant "unsung hero" behind that event, and right that wrong. Duality deftly capture the disappointment and loneliness that Collins may have felt as his companions became celebrated heroes and he was quietly acknowledged and largely forgotten by the public. The tune complements the lyrics; it has exactly that sort of contour that I was disappointed not to find in "Mars..." last round. If Duality had survived the last round they would have taken my top spot with this song. For now, though, it's a wholly inadequate, yet well-deserved coveted no-prize for the for the Best Submission. (Dave posted more about this song on his blog.)

Duality - Historical Verity (Shadow)
Character: the man who shovels the shite
Historical event: The First War of Scottish Independence
Joe jokingly proposed this idea in chat when the challenge was revealed and it was apparent exactly how broad the challenge was. Of course, at the time he seemed to be of the opinion that there would be no shadows from Duality at all. So I'm not sure whether I should be more surprised that this song was actually produced, or that Duality went on to enter enough shadows to populate the entire fourth round all by themselves! It also seems that Joe may be having a bit of fun with us by giving us a song so completely divorced from the style of the previous Duality entries. Well, joking or not, this song meets the challenge squarely. It's a clever story of a man using his low station to spy on the English during the First War of Scottish Independence. He comes home with the information that enables the Scots to triumph in the battle of Bannockburn, and is handsomely rewarded. The song is wrapped up and delivered in a kilt with Denise providing vocal color with an Irish lilt. Simply reading the lyrics you'd expect it to be interminably long, but it's extremely fast-paced, clocking in at an entertaining 3:30. We provincial Americans would find a parallel to this sort of song in "The Battle of New Orleans" by Johnny Horton (coincidentally involving the same enemy). Both songs are fairly dripping with ethnicity and humor. Both can take a lighthearted approach despite the bloody subject matter, being as they are songs of ultimate triumph. Given a choice between the two, I'd rather listen to Duality's.

Duality - St. Andrews (Shadow)
Character: An unnamed witch
Historical event: St. Andrews witch hunt (1572)

"In my Lord Regent's passing to the north he causit burne certane witches in Sanctandrois and in his returning he causit burne ane uther companie of witches in Dundie" 

This is the story of one such witch. She sings this to her lover as she's awaiting execution. She's unclear whether she expects to be thrown into the water to drown or to be burned at the stake, but both were very real possibilities in this place and time. This very minimalist style works for me. I'm OK with being a bit confused and off-guard here. After all, this is a witch. I like as well that in the "Mother Crow" stanza Denise gives us a glimpse of the vast reserve of vocal talent that she rarely unleashes at full strength.

Duality - Triangle (Shadow)
Character: Amelia Earhart's lover
Historical event: The disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan (1937)

This is not the kind of song you figure out; it's the kind of song you feel. Listen to "Triangle" with the lights out, and the sound turned way up in your headset. If it creeps you out (and it will), then it's a resounding success. It's definitely got this Hitchcock feel to it. There's a certain surreality about it as well, underscored by the hard rock playing in the background at almost subliminal levels.

On the other hand, the only reason I know that this is about Amelia Earhart's lover is because I asked and was told. Even knowing it and looking back on the lyrics, I'm still scratching my head on that one. Besides, Earhart's plane disappeared in the South Pacific, not in the Bermuda Triangle. To me, it seems to be about the Bermuda Triangle, and not about any particular person or event, so it feels a bit of a challenge fail. Not to worry, it's still creepy-afraid-to-go-to-sleep music, and there are three other Duality shadows AND a collaboration to choose from!


  1. For clarification...

    "I Have A Leap" isn't about MLK's assassination. In 1958, a crazy woman by name of Izola Curry really did try to kill the man. She saw him at a book signing in a Blumstein's store and stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener. The cops pulled her away just in time; the blade was resting right against his heart, and if he had sneezed, it would have killed him.

    The only part that's fictional is the Quantum Leap element. At least...as far as WE know...

  2. Thanks for the correction! Out of 3 rounds and God knows how many listens, I get to flub one interpretation. (so far)

    I still like the song, and this wouldn't have changed my ranking of it. Buy you do get the Coveted No-Prize for stumping the judge!

  3. I appreciate the review. Not really meeting the challenge: it's a fair cop. In earlier drafts of the lyrics I had mention of some historical specifics, but they were too vague. I did not want to go through all the episodes and make it about one of their adventures in specific. That would have used up pretty much all the storytelling time I had to work with. So I made it entirely about Sherman's life after the show, thinking that _that_ story was the one I want to tell, even if it didn't quite meet the challenge. Since I was no longer in the running, I was trying to make the process more like fun, less like work.

    For various reasons, even with Joe and Denise's help and encouragement, because of a lot of technical problems this one turned out not to be much fun to work on, but in _retrospect_ I'm glad I wrote it the way I did.

    The sound at 0:32 is a tuba player making a rasberry or something: whenever Peabody makes his horrible pun at the end of the episode, there is this foghorn sound to indicate "THE HORRIBLE PUN HAS ARRIVED... CLEAR THE BUILDING IMMEDIATELY."

  4. You're so much better at writing reviews than I am! I have such a hard time at thinking of words to describe what I hear.

  5. You're still my favorite, Zack.