My reviews are in order below. I've been traveling all week down at SXSW and headed to Hawaii on Saturday so I had to type all of these out on my phone this time around. I hope there's not too many typos or formatting issues. Also, I went into more depth than in the past for the finalists.
Brian, each round you've delivered high-caliber songs. I hope there is something useful for you in my extended review below.
There are some really cool call-and-response melodies between the verses and instrumentation. The refrain goes to an interesting place with some rich chord changes which the musician in me likes but if I'm being honest, I can't say it's all that memorable of a chorus. What's interesting is that your songwriting has had some theatrical flare, but where musicals typically have extremely catchy choruses, your songs are less bubble-gum.
This is where you really set yourself apart. The interplay between instruments and the thoughtful choices for when to introduce new sounds give this song (and your others) an extremely well-produced quality that has less to do with recording technique, and more to do with mature song craft.
This was an interesting take on the prompt. As with the last round, I'm probably out-of-step with some of the more literalist judges, but I'm looking for good songwriting first and less about whether your lyrics are literally about 3 people. I'm actually glad you came back this round with another song that pushed the envelope in this regard. Incorrigible. ;) The story is not just relatable for all of us day-job/night-job musicians but also for pretty much any nine-to-fiver.
Your tunes by their nature lend themselves naturally to being songs that I think would be fun to hear live. The banter between your keyboard fills and the lyrics is almost conversational and entertaining to hear unfold.
There's definitely a painted-on-smile undertone going on with this song that I can really appreciate. The music at times is boppy and upbeat, while the story is unforbearing. The chorus takes a sharp turn and the two flip-flop... the music sheds its major-scale cheer and the story describes how someone else's magic brings forth "Happy Me". I think it's pretty clever... after Happy Me is introduced we are treated to some fantastic passages of musical dissonance which is not an easy feat to pull off without sounding like an absolute train wreck. I enjoy the complexity and tension because it ultimately forces your listeners to feel the uneasiness that the main character experiences.
Your music is thoughtful. The trade-off is that it may not always be the most accessible for everyone. I'll let you decide whether that is important or not. After listening to all of your songs over again, Code Red stands out as a notable tune. I think you were outside of your comfort zone a bit more and that's something you should consider doing more of. (Not necessarily in terms of genre) Another characteristic that I've noticed is that you tend to sing like a keyboard player. By that I mean, there isn't a lot of bending of notes or even vibrato in the notes that are sung. The note changes tend to fall exactly where syllables or words change. This can cause it to sound kind of robotic or percussive. I'd encourage you to try to develop your voice by folding in texture and vibrato in a way that is natural for you. Practice some vocal exercises like singing the major scale within a single-syllable word. Then transpose it up or down a half step and repeat. This is a very common exercise, but it might help you escape the "Doe Ray Me..." thing you've got going on where note changes are accompanied by word changes.
Zoe, as a finalist, I'd like to make sure you get a little more out of my review than just a pat on the back, so I've broken down this review into a couple sections that go a bit deeper than in reviews past.
The Coven has decent melodies that are well distinguished from other sections within the song. There are a few places where the phrasing feels rushed and therefore you might consider a slight rewording of the lines to simplify the syllable count. Is the hook strong enough to be memorable at first listen? Probably not, I'll let you decide whether that's important or not. Some of my favorite songwriter's hooks take me a few listens before they achieve permanent retention.
Musically, I wish there was something more interesting happening. The simple instrumentation and limited range cause the song to quickly plateau.
The story has an interesting subject matter but lacks some of the tactile details that you've used in past songs. The lyrics do attempt to create a picture within the mind but the lack of poetic details leave the picture somewhat abstract.
Your singing combines two interesting characteristics that I don't often associate with a single voice; glossiness & impassiveness. You're able to smoothly bend into notes and sprinkle in melismatic flourishes in a way that great singers do... (Think Mariah Carey) To the contrary, you tend to stay within a tight melodic zone which leads to anticlimactic compositions. See the considerations section below for examples of artists that use both of these qualities successfully.
The sound is mysterious which is appropriate for your story. There is some tension that builds leading into the chorus which i'd prefer to hear erupt with more drama, but overall the tune is successfully emotive.
As a producer, I hear all kinds of possibilities for your music. I think a top notch band would really elevate your songs and add the energy that is currently missing.
Listen to how singers like Adele are able to deliver a powerful punch with their vocal dynamics alone. Imagine the chorus of The Coven sang this way. It can be pulled off by changing the register, or the intensity of the vocal. Alternatively, listen to how more limited-range singers like Lucinda Williams rely on the character of their voice to deliver powerful lines with confidence and emotion, all the while being somewhat impassive. Imagine how a singer like this would cover your song. You're singing combines characteristics from each which is why I think it would be interesting for you study these different approaches and see if any growth comes from it.
Second Coming Semantics
Ryan, congrats on being a finalist! You'll notice I spent a bit more time on the finalists' reviews in hopes to give you some things to think about that may (or may not) be helpful.
You spent a notable amount of time and effort working out the melodic/harmonic phrasing between the instruments and your characters vocal parts. As you now know, I'm a Zappa-fan, so... I approve. As for a main hook, I can't say this tune really has a primary refrain, punchline, or even a repeated phrase to help make it indelible. This is not necessarily a criticism. It just means the song will have to rely on other means to stick in your listener's heads... which I can't really say that it does for me.
It's not often that I hear cut-scene arrangements in music. This was a bold choice for you. You're first three submissions have all been so musically diverse yet really strong in terms of composition. Honestly, the tri-polar arrangement of this song is my least favorite of the songs you've submitted. The abrupt directional changes feel like several incongruent parts mashed into one tune. While it supports your storyline and checks the box for the prompt, the literal interpretation left this tune feeling disjointed overall.
You have a very compelling story. (Some might say the greatest story ever told). It makes use of some crafty tongue-twisters and engaging character development. The contrast and interplay between the characters is identifiable, fun and well-written. I am particularly intrigued by Mari's character. You have a gift for being able to revive an old tale with a fresh take.
You did a good job personifying each of your characters with distinction. In some ways this must have felt like an acting challenge for you which in this case deserves a standing ovation.
This song has moments of emotive quality throughout. Joe and Mari's opening verses start out somewhat dejected while the overall vibe remains mostly upbeat. Sprinkle in a frenetic diety and a stoic choir of narrators and this emotional mess probably starts to resemble a pregnant meltdown during Mari's third-trimester. I have to believe that most people would have mixed emotions about this mix of emotions.
I found it insightful to hear Steve Vai once tell some music students to deliberately NOT focus on their weaknesses. Instead, to exploit the hell out of their strengths. What you did with Existentialism On Senior Spring Break and Mareno, I would consider strengths. They're both somewhat folksy and have those simple repeated chorus lines. Will Hoge may not be your cup of tea stylistically, but there are some similarities in vocal delivery that I think if you were to study, you'd pick up some tricks that could be really powerful. Plus he's a hell of a songwriter.
Shiny And New
Steve, great work on becoming a finalist. I've tried to go into a little more detail to reward you for hard work in hopes that you might get a little more out of the project.
Shiny and New has a decent hook and lyrical lines that are melodically satisfying. Even though the words and notes have some movement, the phrasing becomes very tired and predictable. The line near the end: "You might find just what you need" is really the only line that drifts outside the very tight melodic range that the rest of the song is in.
You've presented your tune with a very classic arrangement that is tried and trusted for mainstream music. The guitar part added to the second verse/chorus has an intriguing variation from the rest of the instrumentation but mysteriously drops from the mix at the word "Nothing". I would have like to have heard some more modal exploration around that change to make it seem more intentional. That would likely make the instrumentation a little weirder and more intriguing but also... probably less accessible to most people. I'll let you determine which direction you think is best for your music but I'd encourage you to explore ways to escape sounding too "cookie-cutter".
Your story is fun and optimistic. You've told it in a way that has clever details and good character development. The woman is especially well-described with small details about her personal tastes and future goals that really help a listener complete the picture of who this character is. As I've said before, using idioms as your main chorus hook seems like a real crutch. I'd encourage you to invent your own by exploring new ways to describe things like a "One horse town", and "Shiny and New". These are borrowed phrases that are also the lyrical hook of a hundred other songs out there. I only bring it up because it is something I push myself to be better at and I think it's something worth being cognizant of. It's not an easy task, but writing in a way that is a little more thought-provoking will ultimately be more satisfy for you and your listeners.
I'm not really sure this recording captures anything special performance-wise. It's so polished, quantized, double-tracked, and overall so "plastic feeling" that it could have been tracked verse-by-verse for all anyone knows. Yes, it has good production value but so can good performances. Think about ways to capture irreproducible moments or feelings, and how that could elevate your songs. Sometimes details like the little breakup in someone's voice on a particular day can really reinforce the vibe and help listeners "feel" the emotion of your song.
The choice to make your song sound futuristic is appropriate although when I first read the description with the instruments that were used to represent your characters I thought I would be in for a totally different kind of song, based on how organic they typically are.
The songs you've submitted are all so different and yet have a signature quality to them. Consider employing production and recording techniques that are outside your typical wheelhouse. I don't say this because there is anything wrong with how you're doing it, but rather because I hear a common thread that I think you might have fun unwinding. For me. An Ineffable Moment of Mazoom was a standout song of yours.