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Saturday, February 13, 2016

SpinTunes #11 Round 2 Reviews: Jonathan Nelson

Stumbled onto Jonathan's FAWM page recently.  It took me to the Blomberg & Nelson SoundCloud, and I really enjoyed their music.  So I did what I do when I find musicians I like...I asked him to guest judge SpinTunes.  Give a listen to the embedded track as you read his reviews.

- Spin


I’m coming to SpinTunes fresh, never having been a judge before. I’ve enjoyed this very much: you all are amazing. As a songwriter myself --I’ve taught songwriting seminars, and written in styles from folk and salsa to R&B and music for a Gospel choir-- I try hard to listen with a sympathetic ear, from the inside. I ask myself: What was this artist trying to achieve, even if they haven’t fully accomplished it? I’m well aware of the hard work and the fragile ego (speaking for myself) that’s laid out there for everyone to pick apart. So this SpinTunes thing takes guts.
While a sympathetic listener will say, “I can see where you’re trying to go with that”, out in the real world every element of your song has to sell your song’s vision, and your vision has to be crystal clear, original, and memorable, so the listener is able to come along on your song’s journey, and wants to come along. That, in essence, is what I’m looking for, and it’s something we can all achieve with practice.

My specific criteria are:
1. Challenge: Does your song do what the challenge asked you to do? Beyond that, does it meet the challenge in a clever or unique way? Did it surprise me?
2. Message: Is your song’s message clear? Does everything in the song develop the message? Did you “write to the hook”? Your song should do more than repeat a single idea (no matter how clever). It should take me on a journey.
3. Songwriting artistry: Does the music of your song support the lyrics and vice versa? Does your song have at least one hook-- something memorable lyrically or musically, preferably both?  Does your song have originality and surprise? Are your images unique and memorable? Does your song make me feel and care, or are you just giving me information?
4. Musicianship and Production: Can I clearly hear everything that’s going on in the song? Do I know what you’re singing without looking at the lyric sheet? Are your instruments in tune? Are there mistakes or distractions in the recording? Is your recording rhythmically tight (unless looseness makes the song better)?

The songs
1. Bathe in Media
Challenge met: yes. The title is intriguing. The topic is clear and writing focus is good. The contrasting verses --relaxing v. staying connected-- sets up the conflict nicely before the first chorus. There’s a nice spare sound especially at the beginning. A very appealing vocal style. “What I’m wearing when it’s just me” is a great line. There’s also a fun punch line in the very last couple of beats of the song that changes the story unexpectedly. Unfortunately, the vocals get somewhat buried by too-loud strings and piano. The kick drum syncopation is nice, but the bass isn’t working with it. I’d also consider doubling the vocals at key points to give them more punch on the important lines.
Ranking 12

2. My Dear Wife
Title: prosaic but potentially interesting.
Challenge met: definitely. Title is prosaic but potentially interesting. However, as the song develops, it becomes clear that it isn’t really about the singer’s wife, but about a video game. To me, this is the song’s only weakness. The message takes a few lines to develop and only becomes clear on the last word of the intro lines, “played”. After than, the storyline moves along very well, and has real emotional punch at the end, with the line, “I’m not sure I’d want it to anyway.” Did you rhyme “levels” with “levels”? ...Hmm. Other than misleading title and that rhyme, the songwriting artistry is top notch. Musicianship and production are excellent, first class. The varieties of intensity in the song make it memorable, almost a hook in themselves. I loved the quirky whistling sections. Loved this song.
Ranking 4

3. Watching “Lockdown”
Challenge met: yes. Regarding the title, it’s was hard at first to know what to make of it. About halfway through the first listen, I realised it was a movie reference. There’s a good storytelling flow, with a unique viewpoint of living the jailhouse life vicariously through a film. “Solitary for both of us” is a good line and adds a depth of meaning to the story. The third verse is intriguing, adding new elements: Is the singer also a criminal? Outcome is unsure. At the end of several listens, I’m still not sure why the singer’s eyes are “guilty”. I wish I knew just a little more. This song is melodically and rhythmically strong. Very singable and memorable. Recording is a little muddy to my ears, but overall a good solid sound.
Ranking 9

4. Exact Change
Challenge met: Yes. The title is just what it should be. Without hearing the song, it’s a title that promises to lead somewhere interesting. The message of the song is clear and focused. High marks for originality and for capturing the essence of an obsessive-compulsive attitude and what it does to other people. Great use of detail and observation. Good jangly pop guitar and overall sound. Very strong chorus. The intro gave me a great first impression, but then it seemed to switch styles and become a different song. Both are great but I’m not sure that intro works with this song. Same to a lesser degree with the ending. As for the mix, the guitars and voice seem to be too much in the same sonic space.
Ranking 8

5. Ireland Delay
Challenge met: definitely. The title is rather obscure: a guitarist’s reference that may not to work with a general audience. The lyrics take awhile to get to the point. Very poetic and evocative, but I felt I needed to know where we were going sooner. I didn’t really know until the first chorus. Verse 2 works well as an evocation of U2 titles, and the bridge personalises the theme. Guitar sound is excellent; a good use of a musical device to support the message of the song. Vocally, the singing works well for the verses but needs more power on the choruses. Having set up the U2 sound as a device, the vocal needs to follow through; for example, I missed hearing typical Bono “aahs” over the guitar solo. The mix is clean. Emotionally, I’ll be honest: this left me a bit cold. The evocation of the U2 sound is very good, but the singer seems philosophical rather than passionate, so as a listener I felt detached too.
Ranking 15

6. Cheap Wine
Challenge met: definitely. The title is prosaic and average but it works, especially as the theme develops. As for the message-- Bang! It jumps right into the theme on the first line: “I’d like to make a confession”. That’s great. Love the “Mercedes / ladies” rhyme. High marks for originality of approach to what could easily have been just a wino’s ode to cheap booze. That said, the story didn’t go quite far enough for me. I wanted more a reason or explanation than just, “It tastes alright to me”. The pre-chorus and chorus are VERY strong, very singable. The vocalist isn’t quite up to the high notes at a few spots. The voice is mixed to thin, so it’s not always easy to follow the story line without looking at the lyrics. There seems to be a bit of a mistake with voices coming in near the end. Synth solo a bit clunky.
Ranking 10

7. Uh Oh!
Challenge met: definitely. Title: funny and intriguing, which makes up for it not giving a clear idea of where the song is going. Wherever it goes, the title says it will probably be fun! This is catchy from the beginning. Good story set-up in verse one. Verse two uses good description and vivid images. Verse three revisits verse one, but is saved by the “I’m gonna eat what I like” attitude. There are many deft rhymes and fun word-play, like “a little bit loopy”. The title is definitely the hook, lyrically and musically. A perfect example of what a hook should be. The mix is a bit out of balance. Nice addition of electric in v. 2; nice build using background voices in the hook. The title promises fun and the song delivers.
Ranking 6

8. Love (Actually)
Challenge met: Yes. The title, though, is too derivative. Wouldn’t it be better to play with the movie title, something like “Love (Actually) Love” or “Loving Love (Actually)”? The message is clear and focused and the song delivers on the title, without a doubt. I like the device of singing directly to the listener (“you can borrow my BlueRay” etc.), and of referring to the characters in the movie by their names in other films the listener is more likely to have heard of. That’s all good. The basic problem is that the song doesn’t take me on a journey anywhere; it’s simply a series of descriptions. The film “hits the spot” but I never really feel WHY that happens to the singer. The musical beginning and ending are nice, and the vocal delivery works well for this style. Overall, the song is pleasant but leaves me a bit cold because it’s a series of descriptions without development or emotional punch.
Ranking 16

9. Girls in Leggings
Challenge met: Yes. The title is simple and fun. Not great poetry, but it lets us know where we’re going with this! The song jumps right into the topic. Great rhyming from the start; nice rhyme-- “begging / legging”. Paints visual images much more than talking about the subject, which is great. The whispered part at the end helps get across the somewhat obsessive feeling of the singer. Still, musically I needed more of hook, something to really lift the song. I like the vocal mix: there’s a lot going on musically but still the voice is easy to follow and understand. Good instrumental variety. Well produced and fun to listen to.
Ranking 7

10. I Like P0rn
Challenge met: yes. The title is pretty basic and obvious; after listening I think it could have been a little more creative; say, “Porn and Beer” (a line that appears in the chorus). Very solid playing and sound. The song gets straight into the topic. Very focused and clear. Doesn’t go on a long journey emotionally, but captures the scene and feelings well. Gets the guilty pleasure aspect perfectly (I suppose this topic is kind of a dictionary definition of guilty pleasure), especially being a first person, as-it’s-happening narrative. Good hard-hitting mix in the intro and throughout. Excellent overall sound.
Ranking 5

11. Electricity
Challenge met: unsure. The title is simple and not suggestive of very much. What direction will it go to? Is “electricity” the guilty pleasure? The message is a familiar one, about society’s enslavement to technology. But does it fulfil the “Sorry Not Sorry” challenge? I hear the “guilty” part but not the “pleasure”. The music does a good job evoking anger and frustration in a technological dystopia. Impressive playing. Yet I get the feeling that the song takes second place to the instrumental chops, when it should be the other way around. Mix is a bit muddy. Good things going on here, but I’m not sure that the song meets the challenge.
Ranking 17

12. Ode to Internet Explorer
Challenge met: yes. The title is a bit prosaic but potentially interesting. At least it lets me know where we’re going. Verse one sets the topic up fairly well, along with the title. There’s good close rhyming, especially on the last verse. The storyline is a series of descriptions that don’t really progress or take me anywhere. There’s no punch line to the story. Basically the punch line is the title. The melody is a bit derivative (reminds me of “Under the Sea”) and needs polishing to give it a strong melodic hook at the title line. Handclaps, glockenspiel-- good! The recording is spoiled by an out of tune guitar. Vocal delivery is appealing and works well for this style.
Ranking 13

13. Secret Desire
Challenge met: Yes. Title is generic. Where’s it going to go? A very impressive beginning, excellent instrumentation. As far as the message, there’s quite a long set up in verse one that eventually pays off at the end of the first chorus. That’s a bit too long for me; I’d like to get to the chorus after the first two lines of the verse. Really nice contrast in the break. And the whole concept is funny and absurd. Playing and singing are great. Hey, a fade-out! You don’t hear those too often nowadays.
Ranking 11

14. Candy Cigarette
Challenge met: definitely. The title is intriguing, poetic, and perfectly captures the essence of “guilty pleasure”. The message stays perfectly on track all the way. Excellent rhyming. “Creme filled game of craps” is a fantastic line. I loved the self-referential “in this metaphor” and the rhyme with “petit-four”. Brilliant. Overall, writing is brilliant. The crazy dance hall piano solo is so cool. Timing of instruments a bit loose at times. Mix needs to be cleaner. Wish I could have heard more handclaps on the last chorus. Overall, this is a fantastic song and I loved it. It edged out very strong competition for number one in my ranking because the title image absolutely nails the essence of the challenge.
Ranking 1

15. Guilty Pleasure
Challenge met: Yes. As for the title, in the context of this challenge, it’s too generic; but in the wider context of the world of music, it’s fairly good. The song takes its time getting to the point, not really there until after two verses and two pre-choruses that hint at some legal setting, but nothing more. The minor key of this first section makes the chorus very unexpected, almost jarring, when it arrives in a major key and makes the big reveal about what the guilty pleasure is: Judge Judy. Nice intro though: simple drum hit and short bit of music. I like that. Very nice musical riff under the verses. And the chorus is catchy, well written, and humorous. “Should have got it in writing” is a great line (though the stress is wrong). The chorus is the solid core of a good song. My problem is that the verses seem to come from a different song, and they just take too long getting to the point.
Ranking 14

16. Cadbury Shanty
Challenge met: Yes. Title: interesting and provocative. It telegraphs both the guilty pleasure idea and the song style. A clear, concise set-up. Story-telling moves through the stages really well, from recollections to a future application or “moral” at the end. “Keister / Easter” rhyme-- ha ha! Clever poetic references to “Easter window”, “whipped eggs”, etc. Beautiful folk guitar accompaniment. Voice perfect for this style. Nice spoons percussion at end. Excellent sound. One question: why did you choose to have verse one describe weight LOSS when the whole point of the song is an obsession with weight gain? That threw me a bit. Loved this song.
Ranking 3

17. Building an Orc Army (Shadow)
Challenge met: Yes. The title is fan-interest, which narrows the appeal of the song.  But hey! There was no way the title prepared me for the super-tight Prince style funk, deft rhymes, and word play. This is without a doubt the best example of perfect lyric-music synthesis of any of the songs in this round. The best song lyrically. Top marks for tight rhythms and word manipulation. Sax solo-- yeah! As far as the mix, I would have liked more vocal prominence on the hook/title line. Overall the mix doesn’t “pop” and is a bit flat, which is a shame considering the superb writing and performance. Loved this song.
Ranking 2


  1. Thanks for your comments, Jonathan!

    (Here's some insight into those "quirky whistling sections": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3sfCoTMxXQI )


  2. To answer your one question: In the last year I lost over 30 pounds - 15% of my bodyweight - in the process going from "substantially overweight" to "nearly normal". This was a highly salient fact as I was writing the song - that I'm currently looking *back* to a time when I had gained weight doing such dumb things as regularly eating cadbury eggs. I mostly don't eat them anymore.

    So framing things that way in the first and last verse (the last verse has "to lose the weight I had to kick the habit...) has the benefit of being literally true to my current self but I agree that the logic's a bit hard to follow. The song would be structurally simpler if I rewrote it to be sung from the point of view of the fatter past-me (with a "don't follow my sad example" vibe) rather than that of thin-again current-me.

    I accept this feedback and will take it under advisement. Thanks!