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Saturday, August 4, 2012

Spintunes #5 Round 3 Review: Mark Meritt

This round's challenge was structural instead of topical, form instead of content. But just like we can ask what the "last day of work" means or what constitutes a "motivational pump-up song," we could have different ideas about what a mini-opera might be.
I gave some thoughts to try to help out entrants as they were starting work on this round, and though it caused some controversy, I believe I was in line with the way the challenge was stated. I only really said anything at all because I felt that the examples given with the challenge description could have thrown people way off from what the rest of the description asked for, and if not for the examples I probably would have said nothing at all. As it turns out, I feel like none of the entries were particularly influenced by those examples, and for the record I didn't vote to disqualify anyone.
I'm looking at the kinds of things I mentioned in my post and some other challenge-specific details that I'll mention occasionally in my reviews, along with the rest of what I described about my judging approach at the top of my first round post. Onto the reviews.
Mariah Mercedes - Dear Jeremy
Qualified Rank: 1
Overall Rank: 1
Total Score: 47.5
  • Challenge: 9 (Good) – Taking a page from Gurney's epistolary play "Love Letters," you hit just the right beats to give a sense of a large story very economically. The ending -- beginning with the man's last letter, suggesting he'd received a fake letter from the deceiving mother, then the woman discovering the truth years later -- is paced just right to feel simultaneously like a surprising revelation and yet not at all abrupt or rushed. I'd have seriously preferred no spoken word segments, but there's enough else strong here that I don't feel like it detracts much from the whole.
  • Lyric Content: 8 (Excellent) – The story is colorful with detail, poignant with emotion, longing, conflict, betrayal. There's scope and yet economy. Thinking about it now, in hindsight, realizing how much is there and yet how naturally it flowed while listening, without feeling over-filled, I'm really impressed.
  • Composition: 6 (Good) – The wandering melody isn't immediately catchy but it is appealing, and there's a lot of color to the music, especially in the differences between the sounds used for each of the characters. It would work less well as a plain old song but feels apt for a mini-opera. There's a very strong sense of development over time that's enhanced by the arrangement, as I'll mention.
  • Songwriting Craft: 8 (Excellent) – The looseness of the music is all the more apt given the scope of story it has been fit to. This is one of the pieces where opera-like recitative makes inconsistent, free-flowing melody work well. There's a lot of nice imagery and poetry in the lyrics to color the story, the best perhaps being the very last word. The mother keeps the lover at bay, away, yet there's a double-meaning suggesting that he is kept out on the water. Yeah, the sea is beyond the bay, but I still think the double meaning works well enough to put a bow on the whole sad story. With all that was juggled here, I think this has been put together really well overall.
  • Arrangement: 4 (Excellent) – The sound effects and percussion to paint the sailor's harried life on the sea. The wind(-like) instruments for the girl's life at home, sweetly longing like a breathy sigh. The spare acoustic guitar and the intriguing bass lines tying them together. The guitar harmonics, the sounds hiding inside the spectra of the guitar's waveforms, coming in at the point in the story when the mother's hidden deceit subverts the relationship. Colorful and appropriately varied from beginning to end, and even though there aren't many layers it never feels like anything is missing. This gets my first and only Excellent score for Arrangement for all three rounds so far.
  • Performance: 3 (Good) – The male vocal isn't nearly as strong as the female. It sounds like a stodgy old boat captain, like the gal's grandfather spinning yarns about his voyages instead of her sailor lover longing for her the way she longs for him. If the male had been as strong as the female, this would have gotten Excellent. With enough good stuff going on in the female vocal and the instruments, I'm fine giving a Good here.
  • Recording: 3 (Good) – A few plosive pops in the vocals, but overall sounds good, especially with the ebb and flow in the mixing of instruments/effects.
  • Judge’s Whim: 6.5 (Good) – Not an archetypal opera, but an exceptionally nice entry.
Edric Haleen featuring Kevin Savino-Riker - (Vows)
Qualified Rank: 2
Overall Rank: 2
Total Score: 47
  • Challenge: 9 (Good) – The ritualistic nature of exchanging vows isn't the most organic basis for a piece drama per se, since within that reality the characters themselves have scripted everything they'll say. Everything is by its formal nature designed to disallow the possibility of dramatic conflict or character development. Still, it's also a somewhat elegant choice to use an event in which dialogue actually is action (promising, marrying), so in that sense the characters do change. It was especially helpful that you interpolated elements of the couple's individual and joint backstories to give a larger sense of story to the moment. That makes seem more like a whole in itself what would otherwise seem like just a scene from some larger story, especially a scene with the contrivance of prepared speeches. It's particularly nice how they at first sing wholly separate stanzas, then interweave, then sing as one, yet even then they subsequently have some time singing separately. Mirrors the story of a relationship growing closer and yet with both people retaining an individual identity as well. A propos for dramatizing the marriage event.
  • Lyric Content: 6 (Good) – What I just said about the challenge I'd want to say here as well. Beyond that, it's both nice and appropriate that the words could work universally for any marrying couple, highlighting both the specialness for this same-sex couple having the opportunity to marry and the notion that theirs is an experience relatable to all married couples. And yes, I read the song bio, and I know you said the song wasn't necessarily designed for two men, but that choice clearly plants the idea in the listener, so I think it appropriate to think of the song on that level -- and also to see its universality.
  • Composition: 8 (Excellent) – Strong melody, nice progressions and development, including coming back for a quiet ending. Bringing everything full circle, giving a sense of wholeness that mirrors the married completeness, the symbolism of round wedding rings, etc.
  • Songwriting Craft: 8 (Excellent) – Reserving the bridge for the weaving vocals, with individual verses preceding and the joint one afterward, musically highlights the relationship arc, with a transformation process from separate to together. Nice how the melody takes its time with "Today, I marry you," suggesting the long married life the couple hopes to have. That last word's relatively closed vowel, though, along with the same in the final "I do" lines, felt to me, every time through multiple listens, like a failure to pay off. (Kevin's delivery of that last line felt particularly closed, almost like a French pronunciation of "adieu.")
  • Arrangement: 3 (Good) – Good overall, though I found it distracting when at "Who's been there at my side" everything thinned out so suddenly.
  • Performance: 4 (Excellent) – Strong all around, especially the convincing but not cloying emotionality of the vocals.
  • Recording: 3 (Good) – Sounds good.
  • Judge’s Whim: 6 (Good) – A strong submission, definitely, though when you're known for both a musical theater bent and oblique takes on challenges, I (and I suspect others) can't help but wonder what you'd have done here with a more direct angle on a challenge that seemed to speak directly to your wheelhouse.
Dr. Lindyke - Mr. Nobody (Shadow)
Qualified Rank: n/a-Shadow
Overall Rank: 3
Total Score: 42
  • Challenge: 9 (Good) – You know what "meta" actually means, right? It means something about itself or its category. Songwriting about songwriting is meta-songwriting, so that's what this is -- in addition to, not instead of, being autobiographical. Quite a meta set of back to back rounds, and there's nothing at all wrong with that. This entry is good not because it's meta, it's good because it's good. Some of the lyrics are more typically song-like and not so obviously dramatic dialogue. And it's overly long, or at least the drama is very disproportionately paced, feeling at 3:30 like we're heading toward resolution, and yet we've actually got nearly half the track left to listen to with not much more new story content. But on the whole, even though I really appreciate a lot of the other entries and how they stretch, usually in good ways, what the challenge can mean, this is definitely one the most true-to-form in terms of what at least I was hoping to hear from this challenge. Drama, story, self-containment, (essentially) all singing, even the bonuses I was looking for in multiple movements, a combination of solo and not-just-trading-off-lines ensemble vocals, plus another bonus I secretly hoped for but didn't really imagine anyone would do (except maybe Edric, and he didn't do it): stage directions, at least in your off-Bandcamp PDF script. And all with a topic and execution that's meaningful, personal and generally pretty solid.
  • Lyric Content: 6 (Good) – The ebb and flow of "monologue" and more interactive dialogue is nice, mirroring the different levels of confidence and conflict throughout. The action actually dramatizing the writing of a song as opposed to being simply a conversation about the creative process is strong. The Lon Chaney and Claude Rains parallels are nice. The last half of the story does feel really long, though. Now, you'd think on that score that I wouldn't like the second "there'd be no" chorus, but I do, for a few reasons. With new song examples and the need to assuage William's confidence after Dave messes with his words, it brings us back to dramatically meaningful content without making us feel like story is compromised. Also, William's response lines add depth. But the piece's length is only amplified by William's last solo line. At a time that feels like we're really, after a fair bit of waiting, finally arriving at climax and resolution, we get merely a repeat of his earlier "That's ok" sentiment from nearly half the song ago. The storytelling can't withstand that and could definitely be tightened to great benefit.
  • Composition: 6 (Good) – Good use of multiple movements, each being memorable and unique with a nice sense of development overall. Nice ensemble vocal melodies.
  • Songwriting Craft: 6 (Good) – Except for the length/pacing issues, everything feels pretty solid. Many nice images and other details in the lyric. I especially like (was it on purpose?) how Dave actually has more dialogue than William, and how William's portion of the Rains/Chaney parallel is hidden inside a dialogue exchange while Dave's stands out in the final solo section of the song. All of this form mirroring content (the overlooked invisible nobody William) adds integrity to the whole.
  • Arrangement: 3 (Good) – I usually wish for more arrangement from you, and on some level this is no exception, except that what you've done works well given the topic.
  • Performance: 3 (Good) – Nice work all around, though, despite the form-and-content integrity you point out about "they only hear my voice," I really would have liked to hear the two separate vocalists as you initially intended.
  • Recording: 3 (Good) – Sounds good, though there are times when the "two vocalists" simply sound like a chorus effect on a solo.
  • Judge’s Whim: 6 (Good) – If it weren't for the length and redundancy that hurt the pacing of the story, this very possibly could have been my favorite entry of the round.
Governing Dynamics featuring Rebecca Brickley - Dark Places
Qualified Rank: 3
Overall Rank: 4
Total Score: 41
  • Challenge: 9 (Good) – This is pretty nice as portrait of a specific couple falling out for particular reasons. There are some lines and some aspects of the vocal performance that tend more toward "typical song" and away from the challenge, and at first they inclined me to score Fair here. But as I thought about the entry more, more often than not, I could imagine even those lines enacted. More likely cinematic than theatrical, but dramatized either way, and that's what counts here. And I especially liked the thematic underpinning which I'll talk more about in the next category.
  • Lyric Content: 8 (Excellent) – Again, the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. A solid metaphor of dark places as going out or calling at night but also being the difficult places the male needs to go, behind the charade, where he wishes he didn't have to go to find truth. The woman being nostalgic for a time when they feared nothing yet also being unwilling to accompany him to those dangerous areas is a palpable irony. I imagine she fails to understand the difference between, for example, exciting recreational activities and confronting emotional scars so that she can't see that he's facing things more fearful than they ever did together. Keeping that title phrase for the end, followed only by the reiteration that the male will stay in the dark alone and not bother to try to bring the woman there anymore, puts a great button on the emotional depth of the whole piece.
  • Composition: 4 (Fair) – There's a nice overall sound here, I like it when I hear it, but somehow it escapes me afterward and I can't remember how most of it goes. When I then listen again, I feel the same and notice that it's the frequent looseness of the composition that makes it hard to latch onto. Formally, that's acceptable for a mini-opera structure, but on a sheer musical level I think the composition would gain some strength from being a little tighter. There are number of strong moments already, though.
  • Songwriting Craft: 6 (Good) – Whatever weakness there may be compositionally is mostly made up for when everything comes together. The lyrical/narrative content helps orient the listener and, though loose and recitative-like at times, it works pretty well both as song and as mini-opera. The spare rhyming in many places, limited often to the last lines of stanzas, seems to echo the relationship having been somewhat lost for a while and now realizing it must come to an end.
  • Arrangement: 2 (Fair) – Not much to speak of but appropriate enough for the song.
  • Performance: 3 (Good) – Strong performances.
  • Recording: 3 (Good) – I caught some hiss at the beginning and some balance issues between the two vocalists, but it still sounds good overall.
  • Judge’s Whim: 6 (Good) – After consistently solid work time and again and a strong submission with a difficult challenge, I really hope this one gets you to your first Round 4.
Menage a Tune - Poison, Or, All Of Hamlet In 4:04
Qualified Rank: 4
Overall Rank: 5
Total Score: 35
  • Challenge: 9 (Good) – I appreciate that you tried to do something ambitious. I expected several entries to try to pack big-scope stories into small packages. I appreciate the heightened language and the vaguely "Old European" music to go with it. But there are some real issues here. "All Of Hamlet In 4:04" is betrayed. In a minor way: right there on the Bandcamp page, next to 4:04, it shows the length of your track as 4:08. That may not be hugely important in the grand scheme, but it certainly dampens the joke -- a joke which also doesn't pay off in that the piece itself is serious in tone throughout. In a major way: you don't tell all. Not by a long shot. You tell the last part of the last scene of the last act. If the challenge were to write a number from a musical or opera, this could be fine, but the challenge was for a mini-opera. A small opera. Not an excerpt from an opera. Even if I felt like not being picky about that, you open yourself up to criticism when you state your own intention to tell "All Of Hamlet" then make no effort to do so. We don't even get a word of context for the portion you give us -- what enmity exists between Hamlet and Laertes, why the king plans to kill Hamlet, much less that the whole story is actually about why Hamlet wants to kill the king, which doesn't come up at all in your piece. If "Hamlet" is about one thing, it's the bloodbath the pursuit of revenge can cause. Imagine how entertaining four minutes of that would have been, outlining every death that occurs as a simple but effective hook for summarizing, indeed, "All Of Hamlet." If "Hamlet" is about anything else, it's likely madness and corruption, both of which could easily have been included in that same four minutes -- corruption by simply stating why Hamlet wants to kill Claudius, madness in Hamlet's desire for revenge and suicide, both as subtext to the unintended consequences of the pursuit of revenge, and madness amplified by the frenzied pace at which the whole thing would take place in mini-opera form. That would have been a tour de force. I believe only a few entrants would have had the wherewithal to pull that off. You're on that short list. It was within your reach. Instead, you've got an excerpt, which basically becomes the king's story instead of Hamlet's, and it's told through enjoyable but mostly languid music. The biggest missed opportunity of this round by far. And yet there was much good here, and probably the best attempt at a piece that actually could play as a piece of drama. But was that you, or does your source (you know, one of the greatest plays ever written) get the credit? My gut tells me that I should score you Fair here. My head says that there's enough worthwhile, and no point being too picky about the excerpt vs. whole story issue especially in light of the overall controversy about the initial challenge description, and not enough reason to hold your title too much against the work itself, and therefore Good. But I can't help but think about how truly vastly much better a "Hamlet" mini-opera could have been.
  • Lyric Content: 4 (Fair) – Poison as an overarching theme, as both mechanism for death and metaphor for the twisted emotions that lead to homicidal tendencies and can bring ruin to kingdoms, is effective. Taken in itself, this part of the Hamlet story is well enough told. The weaknesses I just mentioned about the challenge still apply here. The most important, for pure content separate from the challenge, is not knowing Claudius' murderous motivation. There's also very little attention paid to the dramatic climax when Gertrude dies. I fear that most of what's good about this, from a pure content standpoint, is the source material rather than the adaptation.
  • Composition: 6 (Good) – The feel right off the bat is evocative. Nice melodies, some really nice unexpected turns of harmonic progression. Very good use of multiple movements.
  • Songwriting Craft: 6 (Good) – Overall pretty solid. Nice turns of phrase and rhyming. The climax, when Claudius discovers his plan has been unmade, would have benefitted from a much stronger musical underpinning, instead of just continuing to trot along at the moderate tempo that characterizes so much of the rest of the piece. There's also some poor prosody/phrasing here, e.g., "By my hand I wish not…" These things in your entries aren't happy accidents where you unwittingly stumble upon something better than what you'd had in mind. They're just moments of poor craft that are hard to both sing and listen to, yanking us out of the natural flow of music and story. You generally do so well, too, and have such generally well crafted melodic foundations that would help everything come across with such strength if you'd pay more attention to prosody and consistency in melodic phrasing (along the lines of my critiques of your first round entry). In a way, because of what you're otherwise strong with in these areas, it's more disappointing when you let these things slide than when many other entrants do this.
  • Arrangement: 2 (Fair) – The somewhat old-fashioned piano sound is evocative. Sufficient for demo purposes, the rest definitely warrants fuller orchestration, especially to give more unique character to each movement.
  • Performance: 2 (Fair) – The piano work is really nice, but the vocals are about as mellow as the composition. If we didn't pay attention to the words, we could never know that deaths and suffering and tragedy were taking place. I mean, Claudius' "Gertrude, don't drink!" doesn't express much more concern than Willy Wonka's deadpan due diligence when he tells kids to stop doing things that can get them in deep trouble. His next line acknowledging Gertrude's death isn't any better, coming across as if he's snapping his fingers and pursing his lips, as if to say, "Oh, rats," with mild frustration.
  • Recording: 2 (Fair) – Sounds like a demo.
  • Judge’s Whim: 4 (Fair) – As good as however much good is here, this could have been so unbelievably much more. It could have been not only something that would have unquestionably and maybe even unanimously trounced every other entry in this round. It could have been something for theater fans everywhere to enjoy, something that every student on the planet who studies the play could be assigned to listen to. Alas, your plan's un-made.
Ross Durand featuring Bryanna Acosta - Apart
Qualified Rank: 5
Overall Rank: 6
Total Score: 34.5
  • Challenge: 6 (Fair) – I imagine an old story, sometime between the Civil War and maybe World War I. "Cold Mountain." A back-country version of the dastardly, mustache-twirling "you must pay the rent" sort of villain. The musical styles you chose work well for telling the different parts of your story. It sometimes feels more typically song-like, though, and I would have liked to hear the longing, despair and resignation of the lovers expressed with the same kind of strength the "bad guy" has in his part.
  • Lyric Content: 4 (Fair) – Listening to this after "Dear Jeremy" I can't help but compare it -- lovers separated by war, doomed to remain apart. The reasons are different, the villains are different. Dave Leigh's opinions about these two entries are opposite my own. This story is fine as far as it goes. Divorced from the music, the pure text can take on a bit stronger emotional reading. Even so, I think the reader has to bring that. It doesn't flow so directly out of the text itself. The ending, though sad, is told matter-of-factly, and it's unclear why suicide is the woman's only option, so the climax doesn't hit with a lot of force. In addition to possibly some more emotion at the climax, I think it also would have helped put a bow on the song if there'd been some connection made between the forces they'll "never understand" that lead to war and those that lead people like the "bad guy" to do what they do. It would have tied the events of the story together more strongly, giving an opportunity for a stanza reprise with added depth of meaning, putting the lovers on more of an equal footing in their seemingly separate sad ends and giving more purpose to why this story went where it did. As it stands, the story is more or less about how much of a bummer it is that bad things happen to good people. That's sad, but it's not tragic.
  • Composition: 6 (Good) – Nice use of multiple movements. The bad guy's part could seem somewhat abrupt and out of place, but even on just a compositional level you make it work, segueing well. Each part has a lot of musical appeal.
  • Songwriting Craft: 6 (Good) – Though the music may not provide as dramatic an ending as the story might warrant, everything feels like it comes together pretty well. There's a sweetness to the music that, when put together with the words/story, makes even the ending play pretty well. Not as well as I'd want for a mini-opera, but well enough just in terms of general craft.
  • Arrangement: 2 (Fair) – Not much to speak of but appropriate enough for the song.
  • Performance: 3 (Good) – The performances work well in light of how the whole comes together, meaning especially that since the music's sweetness was made to work for the ending, the vocals don't need to be plaintively emotional to fit. Separate from the challenge, the vocal performances fit as is, on your piece's terms.
  • Recording: 3 (Good) – Sounds good.
  • Judge’s Whim: 4.5 (Fair) – A solid submission overall.
Felix Frost - Lyman Boone And The Moonshine Scoundrel
Qualified Rank: 6
Overall Rank: 7
Total Score: 34
  • Challenge: 6 (Fair) – You got to do your sequel to your first round song, and instead of squeezing it into a challenge where it didn't fit, it fit just fine for this one. But I find the story less than compelling, the disjointed music not clear enough in communicating the dramatic arc of the story, the tale's ending abrupt and incomplete, and the narrated sections (where Lyman is talking to, well, who knows who) distracting. Also, for someone with such a strong artistic vision, I'm surprised you'd not be more protective of your saga, letting yourself do the next episode in a form (opera) distinct from the previous one (story song) just because a contest challenge happened to allow you to do a story.
  • Lyric Content: 6 (Good) – There's a fair amount of color, but I find it ironic that in this challenge, one that specifically asks for a story, you give us a story that's less interesting and colorful and meaningfully eventful than the ones you gave in the last two rounds. Still, just for the vision you have for your stories and the aptness for the challenge, I'm game for a Good here.
  • Composition: 6 (Good) – Though it ends as abruptly as the story (and in a way I don't like), there's plenty of musical inventiveness here. For this particular challenge, being more potentially open in form, it's easier to enjoy the flowing variety for its own sake, though it still feels somewhat too varied to make real sense as a single unit. Worth noting, though, that when the music shifts after the first stanza, it sounds an awful lot like the surf rock song "Pipeline."
  • Songwriting Craft: 4 (Fair) – You have some nice poetic lyrics, including some inventive (if imperfect) rhyming ("bust you out / dusty route," "blunderbuss, see? / trust me"). As with other entries this round, this challenge is resilient to being loose and freeform, so I won't critique on that basis. But once again, however the music and lyrics work on their own, you just do not bring them together effectively into a whole. I'm going to say what (and how much) I say here because it's clear that you do have talent, both musical and lyrical, and I think you could go so much farther with it, improving your work tenfold, if you'd just stop shooting yourself in the foot by paying such little attention to prosody. Your quirky and fluid melodies, progressions and sectional structures are a tough enough sell on their own, bringing (I believe) many listeners to the edge of their ability to appreciate your music. It's never likely to hit the top 40, and I'm sure you're okay with that. However, all that music could stay in tact just as you like it -- weird, bizarre, spontaneous, unpredictable and interesting, as you self-described your work in a recent comment at Dr. Lindyke's blog -- and yet listeners could stay on the appreciative side of that edge. You just won't allow it. Your lyrics are square pegs in the complex polygonal holes of your music, and it sends your work over that edge, beyond the pale. Prosody is one of a songwriter's truly greatest and most important friends, and all the more important if you want your music to dance on the edge accessibility. I'm not saying simplify your music. I'm saying fit your words to it. You far too often don't, treating prosody like an enemy, thumbing your nose, dropping far too many of your lyrics messily on your melodies as if out of spite. Some of the worst offending lines: The lightning fast gloss over the word "pitted" in "Alcohol pitted against the law," especially in a stanza that already includes a rhyme on the sound "-it." "Your distilling skills" with the stress on "dis-." The zip over "half the" in "half the West," especially in a stanza where just the line before you gave lots more stress to the very words "half the." Then "it'll take the West by storm" and "with the taste of sugar cane and corn" with respective strong stresses on "take" and "taste" whose imperfect aural link doesn't remotely make up for the loss of focus on the far more colorful and meaningful words that follow each. Perhaps the single most egregious example: "and sell it as the juice of jewels," with "as" by far the most prominent word in the whole phrase. Seriously? You come up with such an evocative and original image with "juice of jewels" and then you make it take a back seat to the word "as"? My heart sinks thinking about it. For real. You do this sort of thing throughout, with even lesser examples being noticeable and distracting. Now, maybe you don't care at all about whether anyone else appreciates your work. Maybe you really like all of these things being difficult to sing and to hear because for you maybe it's all about throwing down the gauntlet. Or at least maybe you don't care if they're like that because you have other artistic priorities, because your music must be just so, and your lyrics must be just so, and you feel you must keep them just as you set them down, even if it means accepting utterly untenable weaknesses when they come together, and you're happy to have whatever niche audience is willing to appreciate you on the basis of what you see as artistic integrity on your terms, with your priorities. If so, more power to you and your audience, don't change a thing, and obviously it won't bother you a bit if you don't get great feedback when you put your work in front of people beyond that audience. Otherwise, if you have a strong need to keep your words and music just so no matter how poorly they play together but you also want more people to appreciate them, well, you might consider keeping them separate. Stop writing songs. Become a composer of instrumentals and a writer of poetry instead, putting out your music and words as separate and unrelated works, each of which would then almost certainly find wider appreciation separately than when you shove them together, because you do, in fact, do interesting things with each. Your other choice is to consciously develop your songwriting craft, especially prosody. My hope is that you would come to see that it wouldn't be an artistic compromise to avoid all these crazily awkward phrasings and make the things you work so hard on much easier -- physically, physiologically, neurologically easier -- to both sing and listen to. I think you could keep everything about your words and music as quirky and unique and true to yourself as you want while making your challenging work just accessible enough for more people to want to come meet the challenges you set down for them, giving them more reason to appreciate what you do. With the countless different ways any thought can be verbally phrased, and with you clearly having a way with words, you could without any doubt find ways to say the things you want so that they'll fit nicely with even the most arbitrarily quirky music you compose. That's not compromise. That's just craft. That's just art. And I'm pretty sure it would lead lots of people (myself included) to enjoy your work a lot more.
  • Arrangement: 3 (Good) – Lots of interesting sounds along with interesting and story-appropriate use of sound effects.
  • Performance: 2 (Fair) – Just as your music and lyrics don't fit each other, I think your vocal performances seldom fit what you write, more often than not having little regard for what's going on in the story, how the characters feel and act, etc. It's almost as if someone handed you a song in a foreign language and didn't tell you anything about it other than that you had to sing it. So you just sing without regard for content. Not always, but very often. You've said how central storytelling is to your work. Your work will improve greatly when you find a way to make good on the fact that varied and situation-appropriate vocal expression is central to storytelling itself. Make your words fit your music, and make your vocals fit the meaning of your words.
  • Recording: 3 (Good) – Sounds good.
  • Judge’s Whim: 4 (Fair) – About this piece, I think I've said all I'd want to say above. About what I've said, I really hope you can see that I'm not just simplistically expressing dislike but that I'm trying to provide constructive criticism. Because I think you could really use it, and because I think you have enough ability that you could really take some positive leaps if you act on what I'm saying.
The Chocolate Chips - The True Way
Qualified Rank: 7
Overall Rank: 8
Total Score: 33.5
  • Challenge: 6 (Fair) – While there are a number of issues I'll get to elsewhere, I found this the most interesting entry of the round. The soundscape creates a unique storyworld. On lyric alone the story would seem somewhat obvious, but the aural world led me to believe the story began with some kind of sci-fi visit, so the development of the story took me a bit off guard. I actually felt some poignancy with a cult dying from drinking the Kool-Aid. That twist seems more effective in audio than it would have been on stage or screen (like the central twist in William Goldman's novel "Control," so ideal and shocking in a novel that it may be why there's never been a screen adaptation), so you get added benefit from using your medium especially well for a challenge that otherwise would have tended to "want" to bust beyond audio-only. I also like that "Chorus" can work as both an indicator of song structure and as a reference to who may be singing that part (and of course the two are historically related). The entry is supremely odd, and not always in ways that I like, but I think you were bold without quite going over the edge. I actually almost gave you a Good here.
  • Lyric Content: 4 (Fair) – An interesting story for the reasons I just mentioned. Could have benefitted from a more detailed telling where we see the conflict prior to anyone being convinced to go along with the Pathfinder's plans. Could have stretched beyond "mini," yes, but also could have been written more densely to communicate more in the same amount of time. But the trancelike feel, the calmness of the whole thing, as if the Pathfinder's success is a foregone conclusion and he's just that good at brainwashing people, may justify the sparseness of the dialogue/drama. It also contributes to any surprise the ending may hold upon first exposure. Still, in the end, there's just not a lot here.
  • Composition: 4 (Fair) – I find the melody's fragmentary nature and inconsistent phrasing a bit challenging to listen to. But even divorced from the words, treating each vocalist as a separate instrument, it's interesting to hear each "instrument" repeat its own uniquely assigned melodic phrase, yet in structures from verse to verse that make things seem less repetitive. The choruses have their own development from one to another with the addition of a musical line each time, heightening the sense of development. It's all more chance-taking on your part, not always with brilliant results, but still interesting. For the music overall, I think in itself it's not something I'd want to listen to as an instrumental, but there's enough here of interest, at least from an analytical standpoint, even without regard for how the lyrics would come into play.
  • Songwriting Craft: 6 (Good) – Tied to the lyrics and the story, what was interesting enough in how you structured the melody becomes more so. It's like the characters each have their own Wagernian lietmotif. Even the inconsistent phrasing ends up forgivable since it comes across as being like operatic recitative. The chorus development is also amplified by the movement of the story. There's a bit of awkward prosody, but I feel like, taken on its own terms, you've done enough interesting things here (again, from an analytical standpoint if nothing else) in terms of how lyrics and music associate, and in terms of song structure, to warrant a Good.
  • Arrangement: 3 (Good) – Lots of interesting sounds that contribute to the otherworldy aspects of the story, even if they may all just be the Pathfinder's lies.
  • Performance: 2 (Fair) – Even if there may be a kind of thematic appropriateness for the relaxed vocal, it still reads as somewhat unimpressive in terms of sheer performance, as do the instrumentals.
  • Recording: 2 (Fair) – Sounds good in terms of audio quality, but the vocal effects, though they contribute to the otherwordliness, combine with the prosody issues to make the lyrics hard to understand.
  • Judge’s Whim: 6.5 (Good) – I don't think I actually really like this enough to want to listen to it again, but I appreciate the unique things you did enough to give a Good here.
RC - He's Dead, Jim
Qualified Rank: 8
Overall Rank: 9
Total Score: 32
  • Challenge: 3 (Poor) – There's a story, with an unexpected ending to liven up otherwise familiar material. Everything is expressed in what could be considered dialogue. But I can't shake the feeling throughout that this is weak for the challenge. Except for the few "you've lost your mind" interjections, the title line is the only one not in Kirk's voice, and its monotony prevents it from seeming at all like actual dialogue. Except for some things clearly directed to Bones and the judge, the song mostly comes across as internal monologue, with lots of general Trek-based commentaries (alien affairs, doomed Red Shirts) that pull us out of the intended story to make everything seem like a more typical song and not a work of drama. To paraphrase something said in one of the movies that inspired last round's challenge, "Either you story do 'yes' or story do 'no.' You story do 'guess so,' [makes squish gesture] -- just like grape."
  • Lyric Content: 4 (Fair) – An amusing riff on Kirk tropes that simultaneously plays to and bucks both his cocksureness and his intensity. I'm not sure the desperation is so believable coming from him, but it plays well. Like I said about the challenge, the story could have benefitted from being more specific, more like a genuine episode, instead of veering so often into generalities. Applied to pure content separate from the challenge, that criticism on my part is lighter in weight, but I think it still holds.
  • Composition: 6 (Good) – Clever and judicious referencing of the theme song, interpolated into a song that's got a nice mysterious feel in the verses and a strong chorus. Catchy.
  • Songwriting Craft: 6 (Good) – After you set up the triple rhyme in the first verse, I was disappointed to see it lost in the later verses, and especially to see how close you might have been if only "screw" had been placed differently in verse two. Similarly with the last chorus line's internal rhyme, left out in the second chorus in favor a line that's amusing but would have been even funnier with a rhyme to sweeten the punch. The title, though, makes a good hook to keep coming back to even as the chorus lyrics change, and overall the craft is pretty strong like your other entries.
  • Arrangement: 3 (Good) – Nice guitar sounds and background vocals.
  • Performance: 3 (Good) – Strong performances.
  • Recording: 3 (Good) – Sounds good.
  • Judge’s Whim: 4 (Fair) – As a song, this is pretty good. As a mini-opera, it’s only marginally better than the teleporter can do in bringing a glob of Lou back from the final frontier.


  1. Thanks for the review, Mark. Great stuff.

    As for your questions; yes, it was on purpose: not only the fact that I have more dialogue than William, but also his buried identification with Claude Rains and the fact that my identification with Lon Chaney stands boldly alone.

    Regardless of my pre-announced priorities, I DID read your blog, so I had a pretty clear idea what you were looking for, including the stage directions, which you did telegraph on Facebook ("The definition of opera given there has to be taken with a grain of salt, otherwise we'd have to DQ everyone who fails to mount a theatrical production."). In a fit of whimsy we chose to sail "over the top". We made a point of hitting every interpretation of opera we could EXCEPT "bel canto", because we truly think musical genre is unimportant to this art form. I'm please to say you got nearly all of the references and meaning we intended to put into it, with only minor loose ends:

    1. William is supposed to come across as the character the audience should empathize with, whereas my lines should come across as sympathetic platitudes delivered from a position of privilege. I don't feel his pain. The platitudes don't keep me from ripping the hell out of his lyrics, and I don't offer to put them back after he slams my fingers in the piano and complains.

    2. The song is long by design. You felt exactly what we wanted you to feel about that, and I'm glad you chose to comment about it. After all the song is a behemoth: 20 seconds longer than "Bohemian Rhapsody". There are several reasons, which you were "this close" to getting:

    a. The first is to provide some room for the "duet". I wanted that as well as the dialog.

    b. The second is to pad my part and to depict, rather than talk about, William's complaint. I know I already do that when editing lyrics, but he then needs time to respond... and get walked on again. In the "duet" he's singing past the proscenium because I'm rattling on without really listening. (All I can say is it works on stage ;) While I'm singing to him, he's very close to breaking the Fourth Wall.)

    But the primary reason is this:

    c. Every opera I've ever attended has always, without a single exception, felt repetitious and too long at some point. And there is always, without exception, one number usually somewhere in the late middle, that is a really good time to take a trip to the loo. They always lose me, then get me back before the finale. So that's what we tried to provide here. We never expected anyone else to like that, because it basically is an "in-joke" for William and myself. We do a lot of in-jokes: for instance, those song titles were very carefully chosen.

    (to be continued)

  2. (continued)

    BTW, "meta" in the sense I used it is borrowed from "metadata", a programming term. Since I'm a programmer by trade, this is my briar patch. "Metadata" are additional information specifically about the information at hand. It is NOT information about information in general, unless it's clear that the concept currently under consideration IS information-in-general. In other words, it's very specific to the current domain, and it never, ever extends to a higher domain (though it can be inherited). In this context, writing a song about writing THIS song makes it "meta", but writing a song about songwriting in general doesn't necessarily make it "meta", especially not when your characters are songwriters. For example, "The Benny Goodman Story" isn't meta even though it depicts the writing of songs that appear in the film itself, because the film's domain is higher than that of the songs'.

    With careful reading you'll find that there's nothing in this song that refers to THIS song. But the OPERA is clearly about THIS song. That's the distinguishing factor. The SONG is about William's insecurities, and merely uses the songwriting process to show the audience why they're justified. The OPERA gives you additional information that makes it clear through stage direction that we're talking about not JUST his insecurities and not JUST songwriting, but the process of meeting THIS challenge itself.

  3. Thanks for sharing all of this, Dave. I love how you guys think :)

    I think it's fairly common usage to talk about meta-art of whatever kind as including works of art that comment in some way on their overall art-form, not limiting its meaning to works of art that comment only directly on themselves per se. But I do see what you mean. Your piece this round is meta only in the looser (and still valid) sense, not in the stricter (and also valid) sense.

    I totally agree about opera not needing to be bel canto. Musical genre isn't what's crucial to the form.

    I got that William was the one we should empathize with. Not sure what I said that made you think otherwise, but no big thing.

    I would have had no problem with length if I'd felt that the story was well-paced. After all, I'm the schmuck whose own Round 3 entry in SpinTunes #3 was only half a minute shorter than this piece of yours, and it was really at least three separate songs in one and really should have been just one. Pretty universally everyone thought it should have been shorter, and everyone was right, I think, and I pretty much figured that's what people would think, and there are particular reasons why I did what I did anyway.

    And so I love hearing your extra thoughts here about this, the reasons why you did what you did anyway. I'm really tickled to hear that the length and pacing and repetition were all about reproducing the typical experience of attending actual operas. That's hilarious in the best way. Knowing that ahead of time probably wouldn't (or at least shouldn't) have affected my review, because strictly speaking even your own point is that this quality of opera-going isn't so entertaining. Even so, what a great way for you to take a liberty. If the challenge had been to give us a real operatic experience and you'd have pointed all this out in the song bio so as to not leave it to judges to be clever enough to make the connection on their own, since most including myself very likely wouldn't have, then I'd have had no choice but to consider the length and pacing and repetition as great strengths of your piece instead of weaknesses -- and you'd probably have taken my top spot, as is!

    I'm often tempted to ask you over and over why you just shadow. I can see here's a decent hint at an answer, that you want to feel free to take these kinds of liberties. Well, that's cool. And frankly we might get even more interesting entries if everyone felt that free, to just be inspired by the topic in whatever direction they fancied, with no worry about scores and eliminations. That kind of thinking makes me wish the competition aspect just went out the window. You could just as easily, though, do what you want and enter to qualify anyway. Others take edgy liberties knowing they'll risk a poor ranking. Sometimes they get that poor ranking, sometimes they actually do well. And everyone always has the opportunity to shadow even if they're eliminated, so you could just go right on doing your thing anyway. I'd love to see a blog post from you about when one would choose to enter "for real" vs. shadow, and your particular reasons for preferring to shadow. I think the topic is probably rich enough, and enough people might benefit from the greater visibility of what you'd say, to warrant a whole post instead of just a comment here.

    1. Oh, that's a short answer. It boils down to the guarantee of availability. I enter for real when I feel that I'm probably going to have the time give the challenges proper attention and make even a weak stab at production. If I have work priorities (as I have recently... we've just released a new software system and as the designer I'm doing initial warranty support) then I can't guarantee four rounds.

      We've managed three rounds so far, but that has everything to due with re-scheduling and waiting for project approvals at work. If things there had gone according to the projected schedule, then we wouldn't be discussing this or the last round. I see the sign-up as a promise, and I don't like to make them if I can't assure delivery.

      It's as simple as that.

    2. In the interests of full disclosure,I probably should also mention that the REASON for that "fit of whimsy" in which we attempted to recreate the full experience was your "Mini-me" comment on my blog. That's another one of the in-jokes I was talking about.

      Be careful what you ask for, you may get it. ;)

    3. Makes perfect sense. In that case, I think it would be great if more people followed your example. Whipping out entries in shorter amounts of time than one would feel comfortable with for a full entry, but then having the freedom to be a little more creative with a shadow, sounds like a great recipe for more interesting songs for us all to hear.

      I'm glad I wished for what I wished for, because it's what I really did want to get :)

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  5. Thank you for your review Mark. There were a lot of problems involved in the production of this song; more than half of what I wrote wound up being cut- the reasons now do not matter. It was a highly stressful week for us all. I was going to write the bio of this song, showing my first version, which was more like 3 people spouting exposition than having a conversation to get the story told. I had to add the epilogue to tie it all together only a few hours before deadline, then get it recorded in 3 different places on the planet and mixed in Denmark. I don't know if I will bother to post the first draft- which is still a pretty good song, though not a mini-opera, or the second, which would have taken 15 minutes if Ted didn't add any of his wonderful piano work. And you know he would have wanted too.
    Since Spin doesn't like Hamlet though, it didn't matter if I met the terms of the competition. He didn't want me to go forward, and ensured we couldn't by putting us dead last. Thank you for >your< time though.

    1. It's pretty wild to see how you all have been handling global collaboration. Challenging, but also cool and impressive that you manage to get things done!

      I do think it's unfair when judges carry biases from outside of a challenge into their judging. Like if a judge hated hip-hop and then, just because of that, gave a bad score to an excellent hip-hop entry. That would seem to me to be ineffective judging.

      It's a bit harder to say with what Spin did, if he really finds the story of "Hamlet" so boring. Maybe it's not really different than if he felt someone's fully original mini-opera entry were boring, and then maybe it's not the same kind of bias at all. I'm not sure.

      I also don't know if it's fair to say that Spin is why you didn't move on. If he'd ranked you 5th like Steve did, you'd have been tied for 3rd and still maybe not moved on. The four more points that would have assured your moving on could have come from any of the judges bumping up your rank a bit. If there's any truth to judge's opinions beyond the subjective, it's in the consensus. Throw away Mick's and Spin's extremes, and the rest of us had you right in the middle where you basically ended up anyway.

      In any case, for all I also critiqued your entry, there was a lot I liked, and I think overall that you did well throughout the three rounds. I would have liked to have seen you go onto Round 4 this time. Sorry you didn't get to.

      I remember once while planning to write a book (which I never got to), thinking it was going to be 300-400 pages. A well-known author I respect a lot read my book proposal and told me I'd have a much better chance of publication and readership (as a first-time author) if I shot for 200. I thought, wow, that's going to compromise a lot. He made the point that if you can write a paragraph summary, or a two-page summary, or a 30-page summary in the form of a book proposal, then you can write a version of the content at any length and consider it to be a legitimate final product. The 200-page version could have been my stepping stone to something more in depth, and it would have been viable in itself, too.

      I think you had the same opportunity here, where maybe a longer version would have provided opportunity for some really satisfying things that a shorter version couldn't, but that still wouldn't prevent you from doing a shorter version successfully. By which I mean a shorter whole as opposed to a portion of the larger whole, like I described. And I think you could have had the time and talent to pull that off and end up with a (possibly much higher) overall ranking.

      When you're up against deadline, though, yeah, it can be really tough. Like I said to Dave above about my really long entry for #3 round 3, where it was easier in hindsight to see that I could/should have done something shorter.

  6. Most judges I have seen here in the past competitions go first for the question "Did it meet the challenge". No matter how much they may have liked it, if it was supposed to be a song about a puppy and all they got was a song about going to work, then it didn't meet the challenge and would be dropped. Spin said that I clearly met the challenge. The judge would next sort by other criteria, such as "Do I like this?". Spin said that I clearly met the challenge. Had he judged my song like things usually are, I would have placed fifth on Spins list, tied for a position and my having the highest popular vote would have gotten me in. He knew that.

    1. SpinTunes judges have always had more or less carte blanche to rank entries based on whatever criteria they each felt like using. Many judges have gone primarily on challenge and then other things, like you said. But plenty of others have taken different approaches. I haven't kept track of how Spin has tended to do it, but what you're saying here would only make sense if Spin always tends to rank the way you mentioned but made a lone exception for you. And even then, if your math is right, he'd have only had to rank you sixth to keep you from moving ahead, so your notion wouldn't explain why he ranked you two steps lower. And even then, it'd still be true that any judges changing their rankings could have ended up keeping you in.

      I truly empathize with taking things hard, because I often do, too, and that includes reviews of my past work. I also empathize with being on the knife-edge of elimination, since I've been there, too. But the consensus was that your entry fell squarely in the middle of the pack. If Spin's review was anomalous, so was Mick's. Them's just the facts. I came to realize that my taking any of this sort of thing hard was just my issue and not really connected in any way with the reality of the contest and the opportunities it gave me to pursue and cultivate my craft.

      Remember that it's just an amateur contest, with no real prizes, that the winners don't have their lives changed much at all, that some of the most well-respected regular contestants have never won, and that others of the most well-respected regular contestants didn't do as well as you did this time out.

      Write each time with your own voice and your best craft. Be happy with your own work, and you'll have nothing to regret. Learn what you can from all reviews, whether they liked your work or especially if they didn't, and from all the other entries, whether you admire them or not, whether they were liked or not. To the extent that any of this can contribute to growth in your own craft, let it.

      When other entrants you admire receive bad reviews or get eliminated, know that you're in good company when the same happens to you. When anyone poorly reviewed or eliminated reacts with complaints and self-righteousness and others react with gratitude and good spirits, see what you and the rest of the community thinks of each of them in those moments. To the extent that any of this can contribute to growth in your own sportsmanship, let it.

      Looking forward to your Round 4 shadow :)