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Saturday, July 27, 2013

SpinTunes #7 Round 2 Review: Brian Gray

As I’ve learned in the course of time served as contestant reading reviews, this is the part where I’m supposed to say how difficult it was to make decisions because you’re all so close. The things is, this round that really was true. I didn’t think there were any particular songs that stood head and shoulders above the others, and likely because of the nature of the challenge none got stuck in my head. I say this because I’m judging on a linear system where on any given axis my favorite song gets a 13 and my least favorite gets a 1. But my favorite, let’s say lyrics, are not by any means 13 times as good my least favorite. So whereas my final rankings mean something with respect order, the numerical differences mean much much less.

So let us review. I’m judging the big picture (narrative, characterization, concept, emotion) as 40% of your score, lyrics 30%, and music 30%. Each scalar goes from 13 to 1 in reverse order of ranking. Your final score is the weighted average of those three values. In addition, I reviewed performance and production as non-scoring aspects. You put in the work, you deserve all the feedback you can get. One thing that bugs me as a contestant is when I score low but the review only says positive things. So if you wonder why you scored low, feel free to ask. The answer may very well be “there was nothing wrong, but also nothing spectacular and others had spectacular parts that beat you out”. Or maybe I need to dig deeper and give you the advice you deserve.

It occurred to me midway through judging the music and moaning about how it’s different through the whole piece and it’s too hard to judge, that you all had an even worse time writing all new music over the whole song. I then felt much better knowing how much you suffered.

As a final note, two songs earned a numerical tie in my system. To make matters worse, the tie occurred between the 10th and 11th place songs, a.k.a. the cutoff for making it to the next round. As a tie breaker, I simply threw away all the analysis, listened again, and chose the song I liked better. Purely subjective, and if production or performance made a difference, then it made a difference. Since I’m not the only judge, I figure the odds of this decision being the deciding factor is still just about equal to my ranking of any other two songs relative to each other.

But I’ve rambled enough. The rankings:

  1. Governing Dynamics - Synesthesia (11.8)
    1. The Big Picture (13): I really like the concept. The relation of experiences to color is evocative. It seems vague on the narrative, which works here, allowing the listener to imagine their own events. I’m seeing a breakup. The dormitory evokes either a college or maybe a mental hospital because of the pill later on. Driving away after hearing the news, taking some mood-altering medicine to mute the “colors”. But I imagine others will take other things away from this and visualize a different scenario. I’d be interested in reading a bio of this.
    2. Lyrics (12): The concept suggests some interesting lyrical patterns, and you deliver. Sounds echoing with color, light that has taste of yet a third sense. I feel a contrast between moods triggered by muted colors (grey, brown, black & white) and the punctuated reality forced into consciousness by the ring of a telephone or the road disappearing behind you. All very good.
    3. Music (10): Typically in a 3:30 song I’d question starting out with a 0:40 instrumental, but I have no basis for complaint here. It’s beautiful and haunting, and it sets the mood perfectly. I’m questioning some of your melodic decisions. The jump to “red” to end the first stanza. I get how it fits the new chord, but make that a minor 7th and you can have the melody go up only a whole step while still surprising the listener (IMO a half step up would be most expected, and that’s exactly what you do later with “stairs”). Nice transitions between sections, and a very subtle energy boost in the 4th section, with combined crescendo and a slight ritardando.
    4. Performance/Production: The simple production works well with the haunting atmospheric guitar. There were times I wish you had transposed down just a bit to allow your voice to work in a more comfortable range.
  2. Boffo Yux Dudes - Bloodstream (9.5)
    1. The Big Picture (11): A drug overdose, sure, but I’m picking up on -- or perhaps just fabricating -- something deeper than that. Is the narrator intending to die? Certain phrases like “get me through” and “I don’t think I’m coming home” could be hoping to live, but they could also be hoping to die. Even the drug leaving him alone could be a reference to how death is something we all do alone. I like the ambiguity here, even if it wasn’t intended.
    2. Lyrics (10): You paint a nice picture, even if as I noted above it might be a bit fuzzy. I have no issue with that. There are still what I perceive as frustrating timing issues, but they’re balanced out by the sheer enigmatic poetry of lines like “I know I was, but not because, I know today I must be”. Even the “la la la”s at the end seem to suggest something, either embracing what’s happening, simply coming to accept it, or even being distracted between thoughts by your state of mind as it happens.
    3. Music (7): The bold i-III-V powerfully accents the section where you actually take the drug. Then the tempo ratchets up to a hyper rush that one might expect from taking... something druggie. Then kicks down to low psychedelic gear. I don’t even care whether this sequence of experiences could come from the same drug, I enjoy the journey. I do wish you had found some creative ways to smooth out the transitions. Maybe not in launching into the hyper part, that should be abrupt, but other places. I don’t think it needed the last repeat. In fact, I could completely see storytelling value in cutting short the fourth “la la-la la-la” and suddenly ending the song.
    4. Performance/Production: Good clear recording and production. The instruments set the mood and match your composition. Maybe a more conversational tone from the singer? It’s very sing-y, and I wonder what it might sound like putting more energy into the storytelling, even at the expense of hitting the notes at the right time.
  3. Menage a Tune - Transition (9)
    1. The Big Picture (9): I was sure someone would use birth as the thing they’re going through (was sure it would be “Breach”). I imagined it as a purely first-person baby song though. The duet model works well, and allows for the sentiments to reinforce each other at times while also occasionally pulling against each other. I might have liked for the happy ending to be replaced with “what the fuck did you do?!? Put me the hell back or I’m going to wake up screaming every night at 3:00 until you do!” But that may just be me.
    2. Lyrics (5): I’m hearing some nice naive characterization with “I will never be alone”. Why would a baby ever doubt that? Some music/lyric mismatches, but much less of that than in the first round. Phrases like “just for this” and “and it is home. I like” blend the lyrics into the melody very well, whereas I’m still hearing sore-thumb phrasing as with “I forgive you” near the end.
    3. Music (13): Outstanding. I’m hearing a lot of what I like in the first round. Little things like being in a major key and hitting the V/vi, but it’s not. It resolves to the parallel major VI that becomes the new I. This challenge thrives on interesting transitions and you have them. Add in the weird melodic rhythms and you manage a very entertaining way to tell your story. You also have a nice way of hanging out waiting to resolve for a while before committing to it.
    4. Performance/Production: Nothing to complain about. Your voices blend well and the piano is balanced. A few recording artifacts that betray this as a song recorded at home in a week, but that’s to be expected.
  4. Mariah Mercedes - Breach (8.6)
    1. The Big Picture (8): Love the concept. 1st person duet with each singing to a 3rd person, and the subject matter definitely backs up the format. As performed the final section sounds like the woman’s POV (because of who’s singing), but as written it could easily have been the child.
    2. Lyrics (6): This may be just another example of my allowing my personal perspective to affect my opinion, but I don’t get “I know it’s not much different”. Be the singer of that line a parent or child, absolutely everything would be different, emotionally, logistically... unless maybe the parents got divorced but still lived together? Also, I’d like to see the missing, overlapping lyrics to the 3rd section. I’m having trouble picking them out. Other than that, good consistent near rhymes, good flow to the words.
    3. Music (12): This is the part that ties everything together. They key is lack of resolution, of perpetual suspension and key ambiguity. The mood of the song and lyrics, and even the style of production and singing indicate words that don’t convince the listener, like they’re platitudes that may or may not be believed, but even if they are they change nothing. The music reflects this and just hangs out and sets the atmosphere. Until the last section, where you settle into an ironic I-IV that sounds peaceful on the surface, but the words betray a continuing lack of confidence in anything. Kudos.
    4. Performance/Production: I like how the music almost seems to happen in a haze. It’s understandable, but just barely, as if the child is listening but the individual words don’t really matter after he or she gets what’s happening. Then the voice at the end cuts through and is put up front to emphasize the narration.
  5. Ominous Ride - 2 Minute Meltdown (8.5)
    1. The Big Picture (10): I don’t completely “get” all the imagery, but that doesn’t feel necessary. The song seems to wash over the listener with mostly depression, some paranoia, fatalism, even a touch of martyr complex. Very poetic, very self-destructive, and a scattered kind of narrative that I can believe comes from the mind of someone in the middle of a breakdown.
    2. Lyrics (13): Just plain excellent. Trouble waiting for you to wake it makes you the agent of your own downfall. “Some would rather not live, but...” sets up a lean into optimism, and then delivers only uncertainty. Evoking Hamlet’s existential “to be or not to be” speech with the slings and arrows. This feels very well crafted. Good job.
    3. Music (2): Three basic sections: I-IV, I-bVII-bVI, and I-iii-IV. The harmony leaves plenty of room for the melody to be the focus, and I don’t feel it really takes over and drives the emotion. Your lyrics are so good they deserve to be delivered by a melody that accompanies them through their rollercoaster, and that’s not happening to me.
    4. Performance/Production: The beginning sounds tinny, but in an uncanny valley kind of way. When you transition to the fuller mix it becomes obvious you were holding back the dynamic range at the beginning, but I think you want to take it further. Listeners these days can recognize the technique if you commit, and it sets up positive expectations. So I would pull back even more as the song starts out.
  6. Emperor Gum - Halcyon (8.4)
    1. The Big Picture (12): I’m glad you posted the bio, as the stages of grief went over my head. I found myself seeing a simple tragic love story and thinking your song was too long, that it needed tightening up (or fleshing out with Pseudo-Apollodorus’ account of their hubristic role in the outcome). Knowing about the grief process however helps me understand how this is even more of a “going through” story than just people enduring an event.
    2. Lyrics (9): A much stronger effort -- according to my own biases -- than last round. The rhymes come naturally or not at all. Sometimes they’re end rhymes (“to leave me here alone” flowed very well), sometimes internal (“you think I’d go?/Yes, I know”). I still feel there are places where an unnatural feel to the timing interrupts particularly slow sections. Those need to glide through emotion without calling attention to the work it took to deliver it. Oh yeah, and “I’ll see/Alcy” is quite clever. I didn’t get it during the listening party because I couldn’t see that they were homophones.
    3. Music (3): I think the music lets down the rest of the song. Now that I know about the stages of grief, I miss hearing them in the music. Take away the layered instrumentation and I hear a lack of musical contrast between emotions. Especially the anger part. It’s followed by “because the fear”, which is composed perfectly, but lacks punch and release because it’s not clearing out all the dissonance and muddiness from an angry section beforehand. This challenge really lent itself to a song like this which makes a journey through emotions, but it’s begging for the music to make the journey too.
    4. Performance/Production: Really nice. I can hear the MIDI as placeholders for real instruments, and I love how it’s put together. If you plan on continuing your work on this piece, you are really starting with your best foot forward.
  7. Riker’s Island - Hell-A-X (7.1)
    1. The Big Picture (5): Another airport security song, but adding in a political aspect on top of the inconvenience. Nice progression where the mood is very positive at the beginning but the fun is held up by TSA. Then at the end, he wants to “fly away”, both literally and in the sense of being free.
    2. Lyrics (8): A little hit or miss. I find I’m preferring when you allude to your meaning as with “turn your head and cough” and “3.5 ounce increments”, to the more direct exposition such as “my belt and my shoes first must be taken off”. To your credit, you have more of the former, such as “somewhere beautiful”. It doesn’t matter where you’re going, we get it, and the scene is set for the roadblocks you’re going to put up between the narrator and his vacation.
    3. Music (9): Nice transition from the light major first half to a second half that hangs on the minor i-III-IV for the rest of the song. It follows the thematic evolution well and transitions elegantly by staggering the chord and instrument changes.
    4. Performance/Production: Good performance, both vocals and instrument. The layering hinted at early in the song I might have liked to hear more of, though I understand why you decided to go sparse with the electric guitar until fully committing to it later.
  8. Edric Haleen - Possibilities (6.7)
    1. The Big Picture (4): This one is tough. I’ve been there: searching the web, reading through Wikipedia, scanning lists and my own memories for ideas, examples, etc. Things you go through. How can that be interpreted? So it rings true. That said, I think the pure volume of lists drags the song down. It shines when you focus on getting through the day and seeking employment because we get more into the “meat” of the song, so I think it would benefit from making some choices and some cuts.
    2. Lyrics (11): Once again your lyrics are right on point. When you want to rhyme you do it well, and when you want not to I don’t miss it. The “something”s work well (reminds me of when I once put “blah blah blah” in a song). If you’re ever hiring someone, by the way, do not ask about medical history or marital status; those are big no-nos. Whatever, I just don’t want any liver.
    3. Music (6): Repeating your first line at the end, with the same lyrics, melody, and harmony? You took a risk and I’m not ready to disqualify over a single line, but I don’t know how hard of a fight I’d have put up if others objected. Ignoring that, you met the challenge on melody, often repeating a I-iii-IV-V pattern to tie the sections together. I like your bass movement. It doesn’t follow the textbook emotional pattern of “up = positive, down = negative”, but I don’t even know who decided that was a thing. You almost have them reversed at the beginning, going up while uncertain, then down when coming up with ideas. Overall solid.
    4. Performance/Production: Accurate vocals, excellent piano work. I’d have put more wind/pop filtering in front of the mic since you had to record at a piano, and maybe de-essing in GarageBand.
  9. Blimp Exhaust - Goodbye (5)
    1. The Big Picture (2): The unreliable narrator who insists he’s fine while obviously lying has been done quite a bit, as has the up-front being alone and sad about it. But I do like the progression from the former to the latter, and how the feelings evolve from a place where memories are ignored because they hurt, to a picture kept because it may one day heal.
    2. Lyrics (3): I’m going to go with too on the nose. I wavered on this point, as it’s a pretty straightforward song and some blunt lyrics feel at place. However, I think it goes overboard and some more subtlety would feel appropriate.
    3. Music (11): Good variation. You have a knack for augmenting, diminishing, and otherwise muddying up your dominants such that resolutions happen almost unnoticed. I think the boldest part of your composition is the sudden keychange triggered by the melody hitting a note in the new key and right on the heels of a change in time signature. With all that going on, it all manages to work together.
    4. Performance/Production: You voice works with the song, and the instruments (and voice in parts) are beautifully distorted. It makes for a good, cohesive presentation.
  10. TurboShandy - Generic Relationship Song (4.9)
    1. The Big Picture (7): Good characterization, having the narrator express actions and feeling through the lens of music, meeting at a concert, talking about music, etc. It’s almost like he’s a real person. I thought the breakup was too literal, like you could have found a way to relate what happened without playing it out in straight exposition. Then again, maybe the bluntness was called for as it breaks the mood (and the music) while changing up the narrative. I get the feeling there’s an unspoken cynicism in the coupling of being dumped with the label “generic relationship song”, and I like the depth that adds.
    2. Lyrics (2): All in all, very solid. Even the “kinda” in “kinda funny feeling” just plain works even though you had to flip the syllable stresses. Not thrilled about the rhymes in the second-to-last block. “Rip my heart in two” sounds forced, and it’s followed up with “begun” in place of “began” just to make it rhyme. I also think you missed an opportunity to turn “relation-” into a third rhyme in a row and at the same time enhance the internal rhyme before ending with “song” to match “strong” and “long”.
    3. Music (5): Solid, and appropriate for the styles used. The periodic IV-I-V ties together the different movements without violating the rules (melody is different). Some times I thought your melody tended too much toward the I, even over a V when it’s at its weakest. Then when you resolve it’s not as satisfying.
    4. Performance/Production: Top notch. I’m listening on my big studio headphones that I don’t use for mixing because they misrepresent the bass (give it too much). But your song on these headphones is super powerful! From the punk style at the beginning to the metal at the end, it’s all energy, well played, and well sung.
  11. RC - A Marriage in Seven Parts (4.9)
    1. The Big Picture (1): This one isn’t really landing for me. It seems at the end what I’m supposed to take away is that it was a learning experience, and now the narrator is going to fix himself. But what exactly did he do that needs fixing for him to be a better man next time? He needs to be faithful, obviously. But that’s not enough, as he’s more fundamentally a person who gets bored with daily routine, gets brought down by responsibility, is impulsive. Those aren’t necessarily faults, unless you want to be in a committed relationship. This guy could be learning that he’s better on his own, or he could be learning that he needs to completely replace his personality for his next relationship. Or even that 2 weeks is not enough to make a decision like this. It would be nice to have some direction here.
    2. Lyrics (7): I think the lyrics are the best part of this song. They flow naturally for the most part, rhyme in some sections and go without in others, creating a contrast. Some bluntness where I might like to hear more subtlety. The “faithless” section got to be too much repetition for my tastes, going on for 30 seconds when we’re already 4 and a half minutes into the song. Such repetition might be more at home when you’re talking about the daily routine, rather than when it is (and you are) breaking up.
    3. Music (8): You keep it interesting, with those suspensions at the beginning, some less typical cadences like bVI-IV-I, and secondary dominants. The fourth section stands out for me (in a good way). I’d like to hear better transitions though. You seem to just smash cut from one thing to another without thinking about a more elegant way of getting there.
    4. Performance/Production: Good attention to the stereo spectrum. I really like how you keep the instruments left-right at the beginning and the vocals center and forward. This loses a bit of punch later when you double and spread out the vocals, but it does create some contrast between sections.
  12. Sid Brown - Wormhole to Hell (3.9)
    1. The Big Picture (6): On first listen I thought the story was probably too straightforward. You’re being chased, you take a risk going through the wormhole, and that’s it. Then I started noticing how no one’s come back. So how do you know where it goes? Are we actually talking about death? Is the protagonist “escaping” by killing himself in a black hole? Hell as a destination makes sense if he’s running from the law because he did something damnation-worthy. Am I overthinking it? Speaking of overthinking, I like your choice of speed. At roughly 1.5% of the speed of light, you’re in that range of super fast but possible, and you’d even be seeing some minor relativistic effects.
    2. Lyrics (4): You obviously did your research on black holes (or just know your stuff). Time dilation, spaghettification, and you work them in neatly. Some discomfort in lining up words with music, and I have a thing about lines like “It’s here from the demons of the world I’ll hide” where you munge the grammar just to end in a rhyme.
    3. Music (1): Hmm... another case of a single line from earlier in the song being repeated at the end. Like with Edric I won’t hold this against you, but I noticed. Overall the music was solid, if uneventful. It felt harmonically repetitive even though it did change up periodically because you were drawing from the same limited canvas of chords. There’s a reprieve with the i-bVII-bVI-bVII-V-i part after the title section, but it just doesn’t feel enough.
    4. Performance/Production: Very full production. Very balanced, and I enjoyed the effects where used. Very nice.
  13. Steve Durand - Airport Rag (2.7)
    1. The Big Picture (3): Obviously a song with near universal appeal. From having to wake up early to learning the flight has been delayed, the emotional toll that flying takes on a person is very well described. The way you describe it is rather impersonal and unemotional, but I can sort of feel the numb detachment I experience as I tell myself it will be over soon and just endure it.
    2. Lyrics (1): I’m picking up significant sloppiness with stress alignment. Especially when the lines are slower, they seem to stumble and feel awkward. I did like the delayed rhyming of list/terrorist:ID/spree, and I wish I felt like the entire song were thought out as well. It has potential to be very funny... I mean it was funny, but the lyrics distracted me and held the song back from what it could have been.
    3. Music (4): Decent representation of the rag style, down to the secondary dominants (especially V/vi). I might take issue with your choice of inversions and bass notes. Often it seems you have the opportunity for a strong resolution with, for example, the vi becoming a vi over v on its way down to iv. But then you skip down to a weaker bottom note that sucks the energy out of the bouncy oom-pah-pah you’ve set up.
    4. Performance/Production: I like the band instruments, they really compliment the style you’re going for. The vocals may be farther forward than I’d like, but then again this is an older style from a time when recording engineers did actually feature the vocals more than they do these days.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review, you've told me some very useful things during this contest. :)

    -Gray [Emperor Gum]