A quick word about judging:
As I have previously indicated, I will attempt to judge the songs on their own as much as possible - not the musicianship of the competitor, not the vocal or instrumental skill, not the production quality or recording quality, just the song. I won't look negatively, for example, upon bad singing - unless the singing is SO bad that I can't understand the words or hear a discernible melody, etc. Great instrumental skill, vocal work, or production can only help you as a bonus, but lack of it will not hurt you, as long as the level of musicianship is adequate to communicate the song to me.
Over the course of my career as an "internet musician" I have had the pleasure of getting to know many of the competitors in this contest, both personally and professionally. I know that some of you are professionals, some of you are very dedicated amateurs and hobbyists, and some of you are just looking to have fun. The same thing applies: Your professional background, or lackthereof, will not, in and of itself, impact your score. Obviously a professional artist is going to be able to write and produce a much higher quality song in the given time than someone who is just getting started, and that is ok. I intentionally avoided reading bios or researching the entrants - I'm just listening to the song. Of course, nothing takes place in an vacuum. I won't pretend I haven't worked with / shared the stage with some of you. One of the most valuable things I learned at school was the ability to separate the song from the person, and I'll be applying that here.
I have listened to each song through twice while looking at the lyrics. The first time, I'm just listening to the song as a work. When it's done, can I sing the chorus back? Is it memorable? Does it feel too long, too short, awkwardly paced? Is this something that someone with no musical knowledge whatsoever would enjoy if they heard it on the radio? (Like it or not, radio play has always been the metric of what the wide majority of the non-musical population enjoys. This a powerful metric of the overall appeal of the song, but for certain challenges, may not be applicable for obvious reasons.) Then I will go back and listen a second time paying attention to the technical aspects: melody construction and contour, phrasing, lyrical stresses and rhyme schemes, chord progressions, forms, etc.
As far as criticism, most of the other judges will be reviewing the entire song as a whole so I'll focus on one or two tips I feel would improve the work.
One final note: I don't know what I'm talking about. If I say something you disagree with, so what? I'm probably full of shit. On to the reviews.
Governing Dynamics - Alive Again
This is a funny entry from Travis. An appropriately strong chorus for this tune. This is a case in which production can affect the delivery of the song: He has included parenthetical text in his lyric, which is tough to communicate - you can't count on your listeners having the lyrics sheet in front of them. He has panned those vocal lines slightly off axis which works ok with headphones on, but will be lost in larger spaces, cars, and any situation where music is mono-summed. To increase the effectiveness, I'd say try a change in vocal EQ for those lines as well - try low cutting around 250 or 300 hz to lose some of the fullness which should contrast nicely. The only reason I call so much attention to this element is because the parentheses go a long way to developing the mindset and behavior of the character that he is singing about. My only other suggestion is that the vocal "oohs" before the second verse are unnecessary and pause the story where it doesn't need to be paused. I think the song is much better paced with the omission of this section.
A solid entry.
Gold Lion - In The Afterlife
This is a spritely blues rock tune, which is a very exciting style to see especially from someone of this competitor's age. Blues is generally not associated with a 'happy' style but this seems to pull it off nicely with uptempo, solid guitar backing. The tune is based on a modified 16 bar blues form which is a form that shows a pretty solid understanding of the genre. It is a clever idea and has a solid, repeatable hook in the chorus/refrain section. I am ok with the talking/sound fx section in the middle but I really think a second verse would have strengthened this song a lot more than the syllabic filler of "sha la la." With the addition of a second verse, this could be a fun tune for live performance with a full band.
A charming concept.
Dr Lindyke - Wake Me When It's Over
Ah, Dave we meet again. Despite some friendly competition in the past, is is always a pleasure to hear the confident piano/vocal stylings of Dr Lindyke. This is a great tune from Dave, but I'm not sure it's happy: As someone who has played at hundreds of catholic funerals, it has that same feel about it: "We're all telling each other this is a happy occasion, he's in a better place now, chin up, etc etc" but it's not hard to see that no one actually believes that. Bittersweet, calming, absolutely. Not completely sold on 'happy' though.
I'm not quite sure I understand the form here - there are three opening verse-like sections which are all pretty different, which leaves the ear going: "And, chorus...oh wait, no that's not the chorus." Beginning this third verse section with the title REALLY makes the listener feel like this is the chorus, especially with the percussion entrance here, but he actually holds off on the chorus until the fourth section in. If you want to keep all of these sections in your song, try moving one of them 'down' in the form until after the first chorus to give it a more accessible structure - this would have been confusing without lyrics in front of me.
The chorus melody is strong and solid, and while instrumental sections are usually viewed as a cheap way to fill songwriting real estate, it actually worked very nicely here, considering the reflective tone of the song. Strong piano playing carries through to the final cadence. (If your last line is "It's never over," consider not playing that final I chord and instead just leaving that line hanging there. It could be very effective.)
While not the best fit for this challenge, with a little polish this song is a strong addition to any songwriter's catalog.
Alexa Polasky - You Will Never Die
This tune has a strong 80's indie rock feel to it, which does not surprise me considering I know Alexa is a fan of Driftless Pony Club.
After the first chorus, I was pleased to hear the initial guitar riff come back. I think this would be even more effective if the drums dropped out there for 2 bars or so. This is a very strong chorus, especially with the additions of the harmonies on the second time through, and the drum arrangements throughout the whole tune. This is some of the best guitar playing and songwriting I have heard from Alexa so far. The vocal FX are a bit strong for my taste and can obscure some of the clarity of the lyrics - try running the vocal effects off a separate buss so they can be panned to the side or EQ'd separately.
The final section had a major feel to it which was a bit surprising after the minor, modal feel of the entire song, but given the repetition of the line "it only gets better" (why isn't this your title?) this is a very strong device and a good choice here - a great example of when to 'break' the rules. This song clocks in at over 5 minutes but it didn't feel too long to me.
This is a great entry. I would love to hear it on stage with a full band.
The Offhand Band - All Over
This relyricing of "Get Back" comes in at just under three and a half minutes, and while Alexa's tune didn't seem long at five, this seems long, probably due to the repetition of the hook. I'm not sure how much McCartney is to blame for that, but "Get Back" seemed like a somewhat random choice for this entry. That being said, the song does its job and tells the story efficiently. My only gripe is that the change of heart in the second verse seems to come about a little too abruptly - we've just established the situation that he's in a few lines ago. Get Back was the only Beatles single to be credited with another artist, and the Preston-style EP playing here gets the job done. Even though the original tune repeats ad infinitum, I could do with one less chorus here, or combine it with the keys solo at the end, since it's not really adding anything to the song by repeating again.
Although I can’t give full weight to springboarding someone else's song for a songwriting contest, Beatles fans will appreciate this "part 2"ish tale of JoJo.
Matt Walton - We're All Going To Die
Ah yes, we've managed to make it six whole songs into the round before a ukulele shows up.
This entry felt like it was poking some fun at the Ben Kweller-esque "sensitve guy" songs which is a tactic that I very much welcome. Form-wise, it's a good chorus, but it occurs three times with the same prechorus before the first two, and no prechorus preceding the last one. This feels kind of lopsided to my ear - some ways to 'fix' this would be to lose the second prechorus, or write another set of lyrics for it. Omitting it the second time seems like a better choice given the lyrical content of verse 2 and how well it would flow right into the chorus again. I appreciate the tone and point of this song very much. Another verse outlining increasingly ridiculous deaths would make this a surefire youtube success.
It's quaint, entertaining, and doesn't overstay its welcome.
Brian Daniell - Cubbies Will Win
Is that a mandolin I hear? This is exciting. Some great bass playing here as well, although at some time this made it a bit tough to hear the lyrics. This is a fresh and pleasant musical flavor and a funny idea for a song. I rather liked the premise especially with the addition of the sports joke. Execution-wise, the only word of advice I would offer is that it's hard to parse the exchanges within a single line- "Did I die?" "yes, you died" as being spoken by the two characters. This change of speaking point is pretty tough to do in song, be wary of it.
A fresh, enjoyable entry.
Byron Blocker & The Offbeats - She's Dead
I really liked a lot of the imagery in this song, particularly the first verse. My one lyrical criticism is that the line "She made it hard to live without suffering" is repeated almost ad nauseum but the narrator has really done nothing to say what exactly she did or why his life sucked so much with her. Some may find this insignificant but I think it's an integral part of taking the listener with you to the place of being happy that she's dead. Vocally and stylistically this was very well done, however, and there's a few interesting rhymes that made this fun to listen to.
Edric Haleen - I Hope You Die
Edric once again manages to cram an impressive word count into less than three minutes. This hilarious tune shows some serious Weird Al influence on top of his usual musical theater style. The last few seconds really develop the story and hint at a larger plot outside of the song. I really would have liked to have heard the last line sung instead of spoken. As usual, Edric’s work is excellent, with this being a great example of his lyric setting prowess, and I don’t have much to say.
Charlie McCarron - Grandma And Grandpa
Pulling a risky move here, McCarron submits a gimmick-free, humor-free, ‘serious’ song to the competition. It’s a strong song, and a good vocal delivery easily carries the plot through some minor lyrical setting issues. The vocalized section after the last chorus really rounds out the song. Although I tend to shy away from ‘extras’ like that, it’s very effective here. One thing that really would have made this song come together for me would have been executing a ‘colored’ chorus - using one of the several very good lines here at the end of each section, which would gain more meaning as the story progressed. “Grandma leans back in his lap, and takes in the stars” would be a great choice for this.
Spencer Sokol - Keeping Calm
Nice folky feel on this entry. I could go for a little more clear definition in terms of the different repeated sections of this song. There wasn’t much that I would have been able to sing back after hearing it once. I sense some very clever lyrical expression here but some of it is so cryptic that I can’t really tell what the overall message is as well as I’d like. There is some interesting imagery but I would definitely have trouble determining that it’s about death if I didn’t have the lyric in front of me. The vocal performance becomes more confident as the recording progresses - this is usually a sign that another take or two will land you right in the sweet spot. (Also try turning up the guitar in your recording headphones just a tad.) The line “be still” gets the most repetition and I would think about using that as the title, as well.
Luke Brekke, Esquire - Cannibal
This is kind of like Monster Mash only about cannibals. I thought a lot of people would go with the zombie route so this is fresh. I could definitely go for a bit more lead vocals as the organ is kind of overwhelming to my ear when trying to make out the lyrics - listen in particular to the beginning of the verse. Also worth trying: Running ALL the vocals, lead and bg vox through a single bus with compression. This helps keep the doubled BGV’s from overwhelming the lead, even though they are more multiple. The other thing I would have liked to hear from this entry is a steady time or beat at some point. It sounds established at some point but it is inconsistent at best. Some smoothing out of the connective tissue between sections of this song would really move it along nicely as well. I feel like this is a good start and good idea from Luke, and with some more refinement could turn into a great addition to the catalog.
"BucketHat" Bobby Matheson - No Worries
Bobby is back with his unconventional orchestration and quirky yet frank lyrics. The opening line is already funny. The first verse is great at establishing the rest of the song, and the instrumentation follows well. Bobby always pays clear attention to the sections and form of his songs. I really would have loved some percussion here - he does a great job keeping the rhythm driving but drums or at least shakers would have picked it up even more. This has a Jimmy Buffet / Garth Brooks bar anthem feel to it. On paper, the lyric looks massive but it doesn’t feel to long or crowded upon listening.
Alex Carpenter - The Day I Died
Alex Carpenter is a well-established pop writer and he will be a formidable competitor throughout this entire competition.
It is nice to hear Alex back on electric guitar - it really supports his voice well. The first two stanzas establish a very strong pace, mood, story, and melody. Him talking actively to his diary as the last human left alive during the zombie invasion kind of has a Wilson the Volleyball feel to it and it works well to hint at the desperation of the situation.
Going into the final verse would have been a great place to drop all the instruments out except for an acoustic guitar to really accentuate the finality of the story at this point. This song is well-paced, without much unnecessary fluff or dragging, but long enough to make the story arc feel natural. My two cents: Delaying the last two lines of the chorus by two beats each (I’ve held out long enough, it’s time for giving up) would result in having the words ‘held’ and ‘time’ on the downbeat of the bar and I think it would really strengthen the second half of the chorus, which seems like it’s struggling to follow the catchy singable opening half of the chorus. This is definitely one of the strongest entries this round, but those familiar with Alex’s career won’t find this a surprise considering his extensive experience.
Inverse T Clown - Caroline Is Dead
This is a great vocal performance. The harsh non-rhyme of the first two lines is somewhat softened after hearing the entire first verse and learning that it’s a through-written rhyme scheme. The sharp four half diminished passing chord is Coulton’s calling card and is well applied here. Another weird-al-ly entry. This song borders on having too many words but it doesn’t seem extremely burdened given the delivery.
It’s almost as if Inverse is counting on the listener having prior knowledge of the back-story of the Caroline character.
Jutze - I Love The Dead
The fun part about these challenges is seeing what out-of-the-box solutions people come up with. Undertaker / gravedigger is definitely an interesting route that I wouldn’t have thought of. This is a funny, quirky tune with lots of entertaining wordplay. With the slight exception of the “six feet under” line, nothing seems too forced. The last line seems a bit out of place and maybe just repeating “I love the dead” again as a tag would be a better cap to this very enjoyable song.
Godz Poodlz - Wake At The Sunnyside
This boppy beat has a Paul and Storm meets Backstreet Boys sound. The registered trademark symbol in the lyrics is a funny little joke that is lost without the written lyric in front of the listener. Part of what made this so fun is that I could almost imagine this song being used in a really bad promotional TV commercial for a funeral home. This suspicion is overwhelmingly confirmed once we get to the Major Credit Cards lyric. My only constructive criticism is that, aside from the modulation, little is done to break up the somewhat receptive sound, and even the modulation doesn’t free the ears all that much.
Tally Deushane - My Dead Goldfish
This is a pretty interesting idea for a song, given the challenge, and the line “but I only wanted you for a week” is very funny, almost laugh-inducing so and I think trying to rework this as the closing line of the chorus would be a very successful idea. Melodically, it can be a bit repetitive and a little more variation is desired. Plot-wise, all we get is that the goldfish was “needy.” We never find out why - maybe replacing one of the repeated sections with a second verse going into some humorous explanation would be something worth looking into.
Ethan Ivey - The Four-Year Itch
This song started out sweet and then took a turn. And then took another turn. And then took another turn. This triple twist was pretty well-executed, however the last section felt a bit too long for my taste - maybe a line or two being dropped could be the difference here. I feel like one less stanza would make this feel much lighter and snappier. There are some truly funny moments and some mildly appalling moments. I would love to hear this song done in barbershop quartet format.
Matt And Donna - Lady On The Gray
Absolutely everything - piano part, melody, vocal delivery, style, horn lines, production - screams Ben Folds - in a good way. Given this reviewer’s chosen genre, that statement should not be taken lightly. The storytelling was a little less than clear, but maybe that’s intentional given the subject matter. The one thing that I really can’t let pass without mentioning is the background vocals - the bottom part sings the notes A and C. The C calls over an A major chord, and it really should be a C# to avoid clashing quite strongly with the piano part. Overall, however, this was a very enjoyable entry.
Ross Durand - No Taxes
Cramming both a penis joke and a religion joke into the same chorus is a big plus for me, I won’t lie. I much enjoyed the guitar playing on this as well. I really wanted the last chord of the verse to be VI- rather than IV, given the progression leading into it. This is a very good idea and a pretty good execution, but I think changing the second and third chorus sections up to include more jokes instead of repeating the same ones three times would take this song from very good to excellent.
Menage’A Tune - Isn’t It Nice
The ‘box of chocolates’ lyric at the end of verse 2 is a nice cap and it would be neat to hear this at the end of each verse. This song relates a somewhat harmless but satisfying childhood scheme (or is it really harmless? is the song about death? in that case it’s pretty scary.), and the vocal delivery has a kind of “told you so,” struggling to hold in laughter quality to it, which added to the listening experience. This seems like a good addition to a children’s entertainer’s catalog. It is the slightest bit draggy, which might be aided by a very small tempo increase, maybe only 4 or 6 bpm.
Glen Raphael - When You’re Dead
I appreciate the stylistic effort here, especially the spoons. When recording this type of vocal production, it’s best to have a piano scratch to help you maintain pitch. Key establishment fades in and out and this song’s impact would be much stronger if it had a stronger pitch center, and the tools of harmony and melody then start pulling their weight. For the most part I can hear the progression that is being implied, but it’s difficult. Despite this, I was able to enjoy the groove and the premise. My only other gripe is that the section about the mortgage and the chores seemed 2 lines too short and felt a little off kilter. I definitely think this is a great approach to the challenge.
Doom SKITTLE - A Better Place
I’m not sure the pacing was the optimal approach for this challenge - at least to me, the only ‘happy’ part was the final line, and even then it really didn’t feel happy at all, mostly due to the melancholic nature of the accompaniment. The lyrics make sense on paper but are kind of scattered in delivery. The lyrics read with hints of a southern baptist poetry which is pretty interesting and I think definitely adds to the atmosphere of the story.
Wait What - Death: Everyone’s Doing it!
Funny title! A song about death in the style of a children’s song, while perhaps slightly overdone, is hilarious. This song packs a lot of entertaining content, but it feels unnecessarily long. Going through with a fine-toothed comb and picking the funniest lines would improve the ‘density’ of the song. The rap is funny as well, although it feels kind of shoehorned in. Excellent concept.
Steve Durand - Die Happy
Excellent production and instrumentation. Usually that wouldn’t impact my rating but this style really requires the kind of brass performance present here. This is a very authentic shot at this style. It’s light heated... I could have gone for a slightly more humorous approach but I really enjoyed this entry nonetheless.
Jason Morris - Burning For You
What a disturbingly creepy entry! The shining upbeat production masks its truly grisly plot. The combined prechorus/chorus section is very well constructed and definitely builds appropriately. Jason is an experienced player and producer, and I don’t have much negative to say about this entry, especially given the time constraints. I really wanted to hear that tambourine come in on the chorus. There, how’s that?
Caleb Hines - Haven’t You Ever
The first makes me wonder “where’s he going with this?” and builds excellently into the chorus. Caleb presently surprised me with the very successful execution of this great idea. Instrumentally and compositionally this is a wonderfully crafted little song. I really liked the five minor chord on the chorus, and the rhyme scheme is appropriately pleasing. I don’t feel the change in the last chorus was necessary, it was funny enough as it was, and changing to “I’m dead” doesn’t really add anything to the song’s comedic value, in my opinion.
Bryce Jensen - Thank You
Despite some lyrical setting issues, this lyric is pretty well done and another great execution of what may seem like an overly simple idea. There’s nothing wrong with the length or the pacing, per say, but another verse or bridge section would be a welcome addition here to provide some more ‘real estate’ for jokes. I really enjoyed listening to this entry.
Pat And Gweebol - Baby Go To Sleep
The carefree nature of this song makes the tragedy of its subject matter quite surreal and dreamlike. Perhaps this was intentional to highlight the drug-induced haze. This is a quaint little piece, not overly inventive or original but executed well and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It seems like, at times, the bass part and the piano part were not in agreement about the chord progression or perhaps inversions being used. It’s not overly distracting, but it definitely sounds like 2 things going on rather than the solid support that a bass guitar generally provides when it’s playing on a piano-centric arrangement. The vocal performances in this song are well above average and go a long way to improving the listener’s reception of the song.
The Boffo Yux Dudes - Marked For Death
This feels more like a spoken word performance piece set over music rather than a ‘song’ but it is entertaining nonetheless. Given this format, the repeated chorus seems a little but unnecessary. The BYD have managed to cram a ton of lyric into just over 2 minutes and that might alleviate some of the bulging nature of the lyric. The vibe I am getting is Monster Mash meets poetry jam. It’s a solid idea, but it could become a great idea with some more refined characters.
Young Stroke aka Young Muscle - My Name Is Death
Hip hop and rap are generally pretty rare genres in songwriting contests and for that reason I welcomed this change of pace. This portrayal of Death brings to mind the family guy character. The rhyming style is authentically early 90’s NYC/ east coast hip hop rap scene, and the pacing is pretty good for the most part. There are some moderate mis-settings and some breaks in the flow but overall this is a great entry. A few of the rhymes seem a bit forced and I would have liked to see more complex internal rhyme happening, but to be fair, more complex internal rhymes weren’t really prevalent in this style of hip hop until the late 90’s and might not sound genuine with this track.
Chris Cogott - Drag Me Down
Some great prosody in the chorus section here, and overall great production on this simplistic but very enjoyable tune. Those not heeding the opening lines will miss out on most of the ‘backstory.’ This song’s execution sits right in the sweetspot between too much of a storytelling burden and being frustratingly ambiguous. Other than some slightly tired rhymes, I have little to say in terms of criticism.
Happi - The Next Part Of Life
This wins the award for most intellectual and philosophical entry hands down. I found myself listening multiple times and following the lyrics - this is definitely not fluff. If you haven’t heard this track, give it a listen: It is a bold and confident presentation of some very interesting lyrics. There are few minor lyrical mis-settings here as well but it’s an excellent dense, well-flowing rap. The track builds well and is paced well. The dead stop on the refrain line is very effective. The bridge section is thrash-y and heavy -- try easing up on the master compression a bit to give this section a lot more teeth. This is an excellently constructed and executed lyric.
Emperor Gum - Frequency
The pacing is quite slow on this entry but I’m ok with it because it mirrors the events of the plot and the listener can sense the protagonist's frustration.
The prechorus chord progression might not be the most appropriate for the lyrical content. However the chord progression of the ending section is cinematic and fitting. While I see how this can be classified as a ‘happy’ song, it definitely left me feeling more of an eerie grisly chill than joy. But I think that’s part of the fun. I see the radio connection but I think the lyric contains a more appropriate title for this song.
Jon Eric - Birthday
This song really has the feel of a traditional folk song that has been passed down for generations around campfires, both in content and execution. The pacing of the story for the first two verses is excellent. I’m not sure about the third verse, as it really doesn’t match the tone or timelessness of the rest of the song. Try ending the third verse on a half cadence rather than the one chord. I really like the lyrical construction of the chorus and I think this is a fine song, definitely something to be proud of.
Hudson And Day - Silly Baby
The lyrics of this song are frustratingly difficult to make out, and I really wish I could hear them better to absorb the interplay between the two vocalists. While the piano holds down the harmonic setting of the song, at times the vocals are out of time and some of the harmonies aren’t really meshing nicely with the chord progression. The story seems purposely ambiguous as to time and place, but it definitely feels like a Sam Spade, Fosse’s Chicago type setting. That being the case, this is an interesting start to a neat idea and I feel like a lot more could be done to develop the concept. I would stick with this post-spintunes and really put some time into neatening it up, because there are a lot of possibilities for this song and it has the potential to be very dramatic and interesting.