Saturday, August 12, 2017

ST13R3 Reviews: Brian Gray

This was obviously a unique round, both for writing and judging. We didn’t ask you to write any lyrics; in fact we proscribed it! But we did ask you to change the song style in addition to writing new music. So I’m going to break from my usual practice of “if they meet the challenge, that’s all I have to know”, and substitute judging the nature of your style change in place of lyrics. Whatever I thought of your original lyrics is now immaterial, but how you changed the feel of the song matters.

Another unique thing about this round… after many listens I usually start the rankings with three buckets: top, middle, and bottom, generally getting something like a 25%-50%-25% distribution and refine my rankings within the buckets. This time, I actually ended up with NO BOTTOM BUCKET at all. There was not a single song I deemed disappointing enough to place categorically lower than the pack. Also, the top bucket was not 25%, but 5 out of the 12 entries! So basically half-and-half top and middle. This was a very good round. It also might leave you wondering “if he liked my song so much, why is it ranked in the middle?” or “he obviously didn’t dislike my song, how could it be so low?” It pained me to see where some songs ended up and I had to go back over everything to figure out how it happened.


Sara Parsons: DAY(by)DAY
Style:
WAAAY different! That’s all I have to say about that.
Production:
Sounds like you’re clipping the vocals, especially at the beginning. In a song like this I could definitely go for some distortion to create warmth in the lead line, but I’m not convinced that’s what we have here. I think you’re running out of headroom before sending the vocal to the main mix. Other than that though, I love the production. You leverage the full dynamic range and stereo spectrum, and just flat out load it up with off-the-wall sounds and effects. It’s crazy! I think a remix with a little more attention to gain staging might really help you smooth out the rough edges.
Music:
You either have amazing instincts, or you really thought through your battle plan here. The downbeat establishment of the “home” minor contrasts well with the immediate jump to relative major, and it’s a couple measures before we settle into the feeling that we’re actually in a major key. Just returning to a minor part of it from time to time. This is reinforced by the almost purely pentatonic melody that manages to range just a bit up to the fifth, but connect back to the root in a nice scale. Finally, the regular insertion of triplets in those connecting scales plays very nicely off the style you’ve chosen. This piece more than most took in the whole picture and built up a composition that ties itself together in times both comforting and challenging.

Edric Haleen: Beating the Challenge
Style:
Dude. The hell? I bet this one gets you quite a range of scores.
Production:
Really amazing sound on the instruments. Are those Native Instruments Session Horns? Some of the articulations remind me of them. First listen through it’s a bit strange with the background sounds before you go in on the letters, but the second time it’s more evidently like you’re taking a big breath and setting up equipment to prepare for the task ahead. I get it now.
Music:
The beginning is very reminiscent of the theme to “Get Smart”, but still original music, and of course the whole things sets up the coded message to follow. Not sure how many kudos I should give you for the melody per se, but it was astoundingly creative of you to devise the method by which it composed itself! And all the music surrounding that “melody” is inventive and fits the overall feel to a T.

JoAnn Abbott & M.A.T: A Swinging Happy Birthday To We
Style:
Style is the word for it!
Production:
Featuring the drums was a good decision; it gives the song a nice rolling momentum. If there’s any way you can give some of that brass a dirty, growling mute you could tap into a sweet Brian Setzer or Cherry Poppin’ Daddies vibe. Also might be nice to add some harmony to the chorus to make it pop. Otherwise, really nice sound.
Music:
You dug into your chosen style very well here. The choices to change keys where you did, and the occasional chromatic movement and baseline that dares to wander off the root are all idiomatic to the old school swing you’re emulating. Parts of that extended pre-chorus sound a bit more… I don’t know, cinematic(?), straying a bit far afield and making me wonder how you’d get back on track to bring in the chorus. But it does all come together. Nice job.

Glen Raphael: One More Thing
Style:
At the listening party I was like “Hey, he didn’t change his style at all! This sounds just like the last one!” Then I realized I was thinking of “Dear Me”, and that the original “One More Thing” was fingerpicked uke. So quite a classic Glen Raphael sound, in contrast to how you did it originally. You got me.
Production:
Pretty much the same comments as last time, which you explained. The vocals are back a bit, more so in quality than level, with the timbre avoiding some of the lower frequencies that might fullify your voice (some of the same qualities I hear in Melissa Phillips’ recording this round), and more room reverb than I feel the song is probably asking to have. But as it sounds similar, you likely recorded it the same way, and so we can look forward to it being recorded later “for realsies”.
Music:
One of the more inventive compositions of the round, with the repeated use of the I-IV/IV-IV leading and pervasive suspensions. A lot of places you have “wrong” notes creating tension, and I like that thing where you start with a A7 shape and move your fingers up strings 2 & 4 to make a rising line that causes dissonance with the rest of the chord. Not sure if that pattern has a name, but it both sounds good and builds the anticipation of whatever comes next.

Jailhouse Payback: On Wax
Style:
Creative, taking a common time rock song and rewriting as a slow 6/8 country piece! The harmonies coming right at the first word really set the tone and drive home how different this one’s going to be from the first. It’s funny how the change in style implies a difference in the outlook of the narrator. Were it not for explicit references to specific bands I’d have imagined him listening to old Johnny Cash and Waylan Jennings records.
Production:
No notes! I hear nowhere in this production that I can intelligently add value, unless it’s the note below in “Music” to put some emphasis where the chorus begins. I especially dig the understated harmonies throughout. You keep the melody front and center, but flesh out the entire feel with softer backups.
Music:
Pretty straightforward, but appropriate to the style. Nothing feels forced or rushed, it’s all just easy swaying back and forth. You might have done something to add a bit of punch to the chorus downbeat (could be production as easily as composition), but though it’s delayed you do make it fresh with that bVI on “on wax”, which is excellent design as that’s the word we really want highlighted.

Jerkatorium: Center Square Redux
Style:
Interesting how you got me thinking “bouncy” for both songs, but still somehow different. I like the syncopated beats in the chorus as well as the new lengthening of lines 3 and 6.
Production:
Really nice. I love the handoff from electric guitar filling in the harmonic space with a pseudo-pad in the intro, to the vibrato organ in the verses, to the vocals serving that role in the chorus. I guess it’s obvious by now that in a verse-chorus structure I like to hear the two sections sound markedly different from each other, and your production does a good job of making this happen.
Music:
Classic pseudo-minor with the vi-V-IV-V7/vi descending line, I’m pretty sure I did that in one of my songs though I can’t recall it now. But it’s the rhythm that makes the piece. That bossa-nova-sounding stuff in the chorus is the soul of the song. Guess you could have gone all in with the accompanying 6th chords and all, but for what it is I like this.

Melissa Phillips: For You - Do Over
Style:
I went back and forth regarding the style of this one. Yes, it’s a different instrument, but it’s still an intimate ballad with just you and one or two instruments. But it’s slower, even eigth notes rather than swung, and basically makes me feel different from the first. So I’ll call it a different style.
Production:
This one isn’t really about production, is it? Did you set up a mic by the piano, or go in 2 passes? If you did a 2-pass record, you could have sung closer to the mic, get out some of that unnatural treble. But then you’re trying to blend separate piano and voice and maybe you’re spending more time than you have trying to get it all together by the deadline.
Music:
From what I can mentally piece together, it all makes sense, from the AABA verse pattern starting on I-ii-IV-I to the secondary dominant on “so be brave”, which was a great place for such an accent. It does take some work to do this with only 2 notes per chord, but I can try to file this as a production issue. Some areas where you take the weak option from minor subdominant to a resolution where the lyrics call for something stronger. Strong melody with a range that complements the emotion in a pleasing way.

Little Bobby Tables: Star Man Redo
Style:
I can’t decide which I like better. Your first version sounds heartfelt because of the intimate interplay between guitar and voice that we’ve all been conditioned to accept, so you get a lot for free. But with this version, you tap into a different feel that by means of science fiction we’ve learned to associate with space and advanced technology. Perhaps there’s no need to choose, and I can just enjoy each for what it is. I am going to dock you just a bit for leaving out so many words. I wouldn’t normally, but it’s becoming really difficult to put any of these songs above another, and we did have a pretty specific challenge.
Production:
Top notch production. You were ambitious with all the software instruments, but found a way to make space (lol) for everything in the mix and blend it well. Some extra harmony or shimmer up top could be called for in the chorus, since the lyrics slow down there and we need something interesting in the empty parts.
Music:
If this one ends up ranked lower than others, it’s going to be because of the melody. I like your progressions, but the melody doesn’t carry me through and keep me interested until we get to the chorus. In this composition, you really need not to repeat the verse section (which is a rule violation) and get to the chorus more quickly, or increase your melodic range and probably the tempo to keep the energy up.

Governing Dynamics: To A Stubborn Young Man In The Year 1998 (red mix)
Style:
I’ll allow it ;-) You took a multi-electric-guitar ballad and transformed it into a rock sound with drums and bass. Not the differentest of this round, but you fulfilled the challenge. In part I’m forcing myself to overcome the tendency to feel that it sounds similar just because your voice has a distinctive quality that I know pretty well now after all the years of listening to it. That wouldn’t be fair.
Production:
The bass is both too far forward and has too much in the low mids, muddying up the overall sound. I think scooping out some of that 200-400Hz stuff with eq could help separate the instruments and make your details punch through better. In fact, do that first and maybe with that bit of energy removed it won’t be as far forward anymore.
Music:
You’re melody is not really riding the chords like I’d want it to. I get the occasional note – even a strong downbeat or held note – on a 2nd or major 7th or something; that can give some nice flavors, whether resolved or not. But your melody feels like it ranges with less purpose. Maybe it’s your intonation implying things, like that root on “should still try”. It’s a I over IV, which is right in the chord as the 5th. But to me it sounds like you’re meaning to resolve to the tonic I, not the 5th of IV. It’s been too long since I studied just intonation to describe with any authority what I’m actually hearing in terms of frequencies, it’s more the impression it gives me with respect to what was intended melodically in contrast to how it feels.

Kevin Savino-Riker: 22-Over
Style:
From clean guitar, shaker, and harmony to distorted guitar and drum set, you kick up the energy and generate a new feel that works well with the content. First thing I thought was I could hear Rob Thomas doing something that sounds kind of like this.
Production:
There’s a garage bandy feel to it that I dig. It’s not polished like some others of these, but I think you could easily put too much polish on this and ruin it. Erring on the side of the sound of a real live band jamming was the right decision.
Music:
This was a hard one. Because of the challenge you were stuck with a whole lot of words. In turn, because of that the way you composed the song made it take way too long to get to the payoff. I love your melody in the verse, but the composition is suited better to a more concise song. If this were me, I’d keep the first song with its sweet folksy 4s and reuse this melody for a new song. I’ve actually done that before and ended up with something more suited to the music (a slow ballad about the depression when Pi Day is over became “Off the Grid”).

Alex Valentine: Past Adolescence
Style:
You’re really riding the line here. The verse sounds very much like your first incarnation, only with the chords going from vi down to V rather than vi to I. Add to that the rhythm of your lyrics essentially being the same and you don’t get many points from me on the whole “completely new […] style” part of the challenge.
Production:
As dirty as the instruments are, the mix is extremely clean. The doubling an octave down is used to good effect, and I love the attention to all those extra little guitar noises in both ears. The chorus can have some words a bit unclear in a couple places, but that’s really not a problem. Most of the professionally produced songs on the radio sacrifice intelligibility in places in favor of a fuller mix.
Music:
There’s so much good here in the music. The clean demarcation between verse and chorus, that overlapping transition where you bring the 2nd verse in, the overall energy level. By itself it would have scored higher, but the patterns of composition you have here is so similar to the original, that even aside from the “style” being close to the former version, the music itself didn’t range very far.

Boy on the Wall: Bail Me Out (Do Over)
Style:
Above average in this category. You went electric-guitar-based rock to synth pop and it sounds convincing.
Production:
Love the feel of this. The syncopated rhythms are great. I think I’d have taken all of it out at the bridge rather than leaving in that basic beat. Maybe highlight the lack of beat with some kind of whooshing or phasing pad or something before bringing everything back in. The similarity between the verses and choruses leave only the bridge where you have the opportunity to break up the pattern and do something to grab back the listener’s attention. You’d have gotten a substantially higher score from me if I were counting production value in my rankings.
Music:
That melody in the verses doesn’t do it for me at all. You’ve got a basic I-IV pattern harmonically which I doubt is the problem, unless perhaps establishing a little more solidly if we’re in major or minor could help. I really think it’s the melody, perhaps ending the phrase on the I over the IV chord, but throughout it sounds weak and unsatisfying. Then we get to the chorus and there is a tiny bit of difference, but basically still I-IV (with a leading chord in the middle) with the melody on almost the same notes as the verse. There’s just not the kind of contrast I’d hope to hear, and any energy you do have left is sucked right out by the odd, abrupt “But you were still in pain”.
Extra Notes:
I’m in a strange position here, for the first time writing reviews after the rankings have been submitted and finalized. And so I know as I write this that I have you ranked lower than any other judge (by far), and further that you missed the cut for the finals by 1 point. So it’s my fault, and I hope you don’t hate me. All I can say is that I too have plenty of experience writing songs that get both first- and last-place rankings from different judges, and yeah it sucks.