Saturday, July 29, 2017

ST13R2 Reviews: Brian Gray

As I listen, I’m picking up patterns common to many of these songs, so for fun I’m going to make like TvTropes.com and name them:

  • It Gets Better (self-explanatory)
  • Gray’s Sports Almanac: Giving yourself lottery numbers, stock tips, etc. You know, materially valuable info
  • Runaround Sue: Warnings about avoiding heartache and pain
  • Floss: General life advice (referencing Kurt Vonnegut’s 1997 MIT graduation speech)
  • Butterfly Effect: Talking about time-travel mechanics, paradoxes, etc.

I realize any implication that an artist’s work may be even the slightest bit derivative can be anathema, but given the challenge it was pretty unavoidable. I myself had an idea that I thought was a pretty unique take, but still would have been a mix of Runaround Sue and Butterfly Effect. So please don’t take offense.

Oh man, I just had another idea. How about a breakup letter to my 15yo self? Sorry dude, it’s not you it’s me; you’re just not the right past for me, I need to move on and find someone better.


Melissa Phillips: For You
    Themes:
        Mostly It Gets Better, a little Runaround Sue
    Production:
        Professional. This is way better than I could do, so I don’t know what standing I have to critique.
    Music:
        Light and breezy composition appropriate to the overall feel of the song, but with the maturity and patience to lean on the subdominant through ii and IV and even introduce a IV/IV on “anything I've learned” before resolving. Shows you’ve come quite a way since being taught three chords ;-) I do think I’d have preferred some trigger like a strong IV and higher-pitched melody to start the lead-in to the refrain (i.e. “But they're just stops…”) if not backup harmony in addition. It would strengthen the idea that we’re getting to the part you should write down and remember even if you discard all the other advice.
    Lyrics:
        I’m glad you introduced the “for you” refrain; it ties things back together and centers us after all the examples of advice and understanding in the verses. The rest of the lyrics are likewise convincing, and at times touching.

Jerkatorium: Steady On
    Themes:
        It Gets Better
    Production:
        Excellent. You manage to balance dirty guitars with clean vocals and keep everything separated properly. And the guitar solo works well to keep the energy up and keep us from getting bored until it’s time to repeat the chorus and bring it home.
    Music:
        Solid. You sold me on the strength a chorus can have while still downbeating on a vi. In fact, do you ever hit the I anywhere in there?
    Lyrics:
        A few places where the lyrics feel a bit awkward. The only one I feel is worth bringing up here is “those high school pricks”. It just feel too on the nose. You sound like an old guy trying to “get down” with a youthful “vibe” the kids can relate to. At least I at 15 would be rolling my eyes at the guy thinking I’ll see him as someone to be trusted because he uses stark language. And now it’s weird that I’ve only said negatives about a song I really like other than my notes here. You must be confused by this review, given your ranking.

Boy on the Wall: All the Way Up
    Themes:
        I’m going with Floss, though the message is a bit closer to the soul than what the trope implies. Also a bit of It Gets Better thrown in for good measure.
    Production:
        Well balanced, fills the stereo spectrum as well as all the frequencies. Feel complete, with good separation between instruments and voice.
    Music:
        Well constructed. Good contrast between the 16th note rhythms in the verse and slowing it down to make an impact in the chorus. The chords and basic but work fine. I think this is going to end up pretty high when I do my rankings.
    Lyrics:
        Some really nice stuff here! And not just the rhymes, which are excellent at points, like musician/inhibition/wishin’/listen (and the parallel part in the 2nd verse). But also the artistic way you parallelize concepts like “least of all yourself, least of all today”. It all fits together very well.

Edric Haleen: To My Fifteen Year Old Self
    Themes:
        Wow, some references to a few of the tropes, but mostly subverted in support of a very original premise. Even the part about winning the lottery (which I assumed would be in at least a couple songs) was of course not the expected version.
    Production:
        I like it. The instrumentation is simple at any given point, but changes up pretty regularly to convey different feelings. Clean too; did you add an expander? The added reverb for the indented persona helps differentiate them somewhat, especially with voice #1 as dry as it is, but I think you could have gone further, like changing location in the stereo spectrum and/or narrowing the frequency range of #2 or something. There are a couple places where I had to check the lyrics to determine who is singing, if for no other reason than my brain grew accustomed to the current sound.
    Music:
        Varied, and quite reflective of the exact thing going on right now, yet still returning to previous themes from time to time to tie everything together. Everything fits together nicely.
    Lyrics:
        Lol @ “are you writing a fucking musical?!”, as if that would be out of character for you. The lyrics and dialog flow well, and there’s nothing really I can critique about the craftsmanship. I might however take combined issue with the length of the song given your overall message, and some editing choices you could have made. The section about teleportation? I mean, I kind of get how it maybe ties into the similar discussion that follows about erasing timelines, but it’s a bit of a detour. There were a couple other spots where I thought maybe a redundancy was an opportunity to tighten things up, maybe clock in under 9:00 or so. It definitely had to be a long song given the character interplay plus the resulting, final, complete song at the end.

Sara Parsons: Better
    Themes:
        It Gets Better; some Floss
    Production:
        You know what? I think with an intimate song like this, you could go strictly one-on-one and ditch the drums. Just you with a guitar and you. Or if you bring in drums with harmonies at “please take this letter”, go stronger with them. Especially with a beat that skips 2 and hits the snare only on 4, go ahead and hit that one, let us hear it. Then take it back down again after “give it time”, either going all the way back to no drums or just hi-hat to get the 2nd verse just a bit above the 1st’s energy.
    Music:
        I-IV is always strong, and there’s probably no place better to start for a ballad in a major key. The way your melody rolls over its time slot is very nice, ending a phrase on the downbeat of the next measure, then waiting to start the next phrase again in a non-obvious place. Gives it an easy, organic feel. There’s kind of a moment where you telegraph the second half of the chorus. Like the IV precedes “Please” and we feel like it’s a positive movement into the section. But then after “sign” on the tonic, you go to IV again a full measure before “you wish”, so that when we get there it doesn’t feel as strong. I’d try staying at I for all of the measure after “sign”, and switch to the IV right before “you wish”, in parallel to what you do to enter the chorus.
    Lyrics:
        Very well constructed, from the concern for the listener’s apprehension at the beginning to addressing your own lingering state of mind as an adult at the end. In the middle plenty of advice for how to grow up strong. A bit cliché with the smelling of the roses, but other parts like calling off your (I assume persistent) search for trouble is quite poetical. Notably, I once again don’t get drawn out of your song by clumsy verse; it all feels natural.

Glen Raphael: Dear Me
    Themes:
        Gray’s Sports Almanac, Butterfly Effect
    Production:
        There’s some tinniness that may clean itself up if it’s caused by being too far away from the mic. It’s hard to say without knowing anything about your setup. There is plenty of background hiss, so perhaps both things can be remedied by getting closer and not needing to boost the signal (plus noise) as much when you produce. Nice guitarring though; wish I could play like that.
    Music:
        Well I’m a sucker for flat 6s and you work those in, so I’m automatically intrigued. The style is not far from your personal comfort range, but it’s less common than a lot of patterns out there. It’s more like I can hear something and say, “that’s a Glen Raphael (or Edric Haleen or Travis Norris) song” immediately. It works overall. There was a part during my second listen where I paused and noted I’d have gone another way with the chords, but now I can’t find it. Maybe I was just in a weird mood that day.
    Lyrics:
        Overall, good. There are definitely some parts where I think maybe you chose to say things when you did just because you could get a rhyme out of it. Like “I don't want to seal you up in a box” feels to me designed to rhyme with “paradox”, like that’s really what you wanted to say. So the box thing feels kind of jammed in, on one hand paired with “the Wisdom Of Old is overrated” as a reason not to listen to the letter, but the two reasons have nothing to do with each other and feel incongruous. Still, a good song, and a solid primary message: Buy Apple. But don’t cash in, enjoy it, and run out before you become me.

Jailhouse Payback: Don't Let Mom and Dad
    Themes:
        Wow, one specific warning about something specific and meaningful to you. I’m going to go with Runaround Sue, but this is a very creative take.
    Production:
        Seems to me the bass is kind of high, keeping in mind I’m listening on studio headphones. Yep, when I use my laptop’s internal speakers it’s fine, and I bet it’s ok on earbuds, so you probably didn’t include in your mixing a monitoring solution that can reproduce healthy amounts of bass. I’m often the other way around and end up with songs that sound too thin on small speakers.
    Music:
        Nice descending lines, use of minor chords to contrast the energy and set up payoffs. Very well done.
    Lyrics:
        Again, you get a bump for creativity with respect to the subject matter, but your rhymes aren’t doing it for me. I mean, there’s near rhyme, and then there’s “built” & “it”, “left” & “Dead”. I mean, I guess the song is honest and those really are the actual CDs you got from the record club. But I also bet another songwriter would have fudged some of them and “used a lie to tell the truth”, getting some nice rhymes in the process.

Alex Valentine: 12 Years Past
    Themes:
        It Gets Better
    Production:
        A bit hot. You could have backed off both the guitars and vocals at the beginning, giving more to the bass and allowing headroom to go bigger in the chorus (basically leaving the chorus as it is now). Excellent sound at the chorus, with the healthy low end and harmonies. One of the more memorable hooks in this round.
    Music:
        Simple approach with the vi-I verses and IV-I-V-vi chorus, work well for the style, very powerful when you get to the payoff. I also dig the unusual move to add a prechorus the third time around when it wasn’t there in the 1st couple verses. Almost like a bridge, but not a traditional one.
    Lyrics:
        I’m having some trouble with how on-the-nose the lyrics are. The imagery of the ill-fitting shirts and being carried by Green Day albums reflect what I found myself wanting this song to be. But so often you fall back onto just outright saying “fake fucking friends” instead of showing it, or “You're not something to walk on and you are not alone” instead of something more subtle like “You’re not some cobblestone on one more road that leads to Rome”; or something better than that. Bah, so I guess it’s not so easy to write lyrics. I think the straightforwardness of the lyrics could have carried better in a ballad, and I wish I could give you better advice, seeing as that’s my job. The music even evokes quite a bit of punk, which is likewise aggressive, but the Ramones didn’t sing, “I have a show tomorrow, and I’m so excited that I need to calm down.”

Megalodon: Mixtape - 1987
    Themes:
        Primarily Runaround Sue, though half the time Sue is metaphorical, addicting you or (assuming here) causing you diabetes? Also some Gray’s Sports Almanac and Floss
    Production:
        Nice use of the stereo spectrum. It doesn’t even bounce back and forth, it just feels really full.
    Music:
        Cool inclusion of major 7th and suspended 4ths, even in the basic structure (intro).
    Lyrics:
        I like where you obviously mean something personal and the listener doesn’t even need to know exactly what it is to get the emotion (“marry the pun”? I imagine if dating Christine is carrying the cross, then your spouse’s name must be some kind of pun). Also like the line “smooth sailing can be so rough”. I’d have preferred some way to tie this all together into a coherent whole. I’m seeing this tendency with a few of these songs, that they seem to be a lot of advice thrown back to back without much commonality there to give us an arc or refrain.

Governing Dynamics: To A Stubborn Young Man In The Year 1998
    Themes:
        Floss
    Production:
        Great, as always. I’m a big fan of your guitar work and the way you blend the parts together. This time, I might have gone easier on the vocals; I think there was at least a little room to sit them farther back within the accompaniment.
    Music:
        Really nice. Digging the way your chords seem to be simple and straightforward, but the way you allow the guitars to wander makes them more complex as the odd notes sustain. Same with the melody, which hits quite a few minor seconds with various chords, often the tonic against V or the fourth against I. It’s a lovely blend of complexity emerging out of simplicity.
    Lyrics:
        Some strange choices that get you landing syllables on odd beats, like “should still try” with the accent on “should”. This one stands out not ony because I don’t feel like it would normally be spoken that way, but because switching around to “still should try” would be so easy. You evidently did spot exactly this issue with “you never will shake off”, singing it a better way than the lyrics are written on Bandcamp. Mainly, I’m hung up on the repeated message to back off on the perfectionism, but “good enough” may not be, so try harder. Is the advice that there’s some optimal point upwards of good enough and shy of perfect? The contradicting advice both to try harder but don’t waste time trying too hard is leaving me in a place where I wish the end goal were a bit more spelled out.

Little Bobby Tables: Hindsight
    Themes:
        Runaround Sue, Gray’s Sports Almanac, plus… UNIQUE! A bit fast and loose with the part of the challenge that goes “sung by your present self”, but who’s to say your present self is not 55, pretending to be younger for those initial verses?
    Production:
        Overall pretty darn good. I’d back the vocals more into the mix, and maybe try to tighten up the timing with the guitars. Oh, and I know I just generally go in this direction most of the time anyway, but some vocal harmonies might help the chorus pop.
    Music:
        Basic rock chords, but then not so much. There are a few places where you do some pretty cool stuff like a secondary dominant, but in minor. That caught my attention and I’d analyze it to see how you pulled it off if there weren’t so darn many songs to review.
    Lyrics:
        I love the premise of each verse showing the perspective of a man a decade wiser than the last. But with the song clocking in at 5:42, I think maybe you could trim the fat and limit yourself to a single stanza per decade. I did start to grow weary after about 4:00.

James Young: Everything Will Be Alright
    Themes:
        It Gets Better
    Production:
        Crazy stuff with that oscillating organ, or whatever you did there. I go back and forth between thinking you could back it off and make it more subtle, vs. keeping it as-is and letting it ring out. I kept waiting for a pair of snare hits on the first two sixteenth notes of a beat 4 and then a big crash on the next measure to start a rock beat. Never came.
    Music:
        The fingerpicked guitar really sets the stage here. You stay in a pretty standard pseudo-minor setting, which usually needs that energy boost to the relative major in the chorus, but you manage via production to keep things strong without it. I might suggest upping the tempo a bit if you perform this live and unplugged; it starts to drag by the time you enter the 2nd chorus.
    Lyrics:
        Hey, no one said a letter had to start out with “Dear Young Me” and end with “Sincerely, Old You”. This is a really cool way to write one of those songs that has meaning even though many (not familiar with the contest/challenge) will never know the context. I mean, you could argue “Hey Jude” is a good song for this round, right?

JoAnn Abbott & M.A.T: Happy Birthday to We!
    Themes:
        Wow, I’ll check again, but I think you hit on all the tropes except Gray’s Sports Almanac. And you hit Floss literally! I was thinking of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1997 MIT graduation speech when I named it, and now I wonder if that was somehow colored by having heard your song at the listening party. I guess we’ll never know.
    Production:
        Some interesting stuff going on that I don’t know if I’d have noticed had I not been listening with good headphones. The kazoo? The glockenspiel? That high warbly thing laying out a pad? The details really make this production.
    Music:
        Pretty tight with the simple oom-pah beat, until that V7/vi takes you to the chromatically descending line that really feels like it’s masterfully setting up an intro to the chorus. Then… well it keeps going and I believe loses some potential. Had you launched into the chorus after line 2 (“alone”) or 4 (“same”) and obviously rejiggering the lyrics to work in that amount of space, I think you could have really hit “Brush your teeth!” on a strong downbeat. There’s also that old mantra “don’t bore us, get to the chorus”, which you had the opportunity to do here a few seconds earlier. The key change into the second chorus also keeps things fresh in the absence of a bridge.
    Lyrics:
        The main thrust of this song is how brushing your teeth is the most important piece of advice you can (or dare) give. This is a great nucleus from which to grow your crystal. But just as how the music was ready to go earlier than the song, so were the lyrics. And it’s surprising advice, so it can be blunt! And funny! The second verse is the same. You list out a bunch of advice that’s meaningful in its own way, but really in service of the the revelation that all of the regrets and pain, friends and family, everything that most songs propose as important, pales next to the importance of Brushing Your Teeth! And as it’s subservient to the main point, it can afford to be shorter. In fact, had you saved the 30 seconds or so to tighten up the song, you could have added in a bridge to talk at right angles to the topic, adding on Use Sunscreen, Go Easy on the Toblerones, and other similar things that would be funny if placed higher in importance than anything else but brushing.

Rob From Amersfoort: Dear 15-Year-Old Me
    Themes:
        Floss
    Production:
        Stuff about production
    Music:
        I’ve been enjoying lately when people dare to use minor. And real minor, not the kind of toe-in-the-water minor where it becomes obvious you’re really using vi as a fake minor tonic but we can tell because of all the IV and V and even sometimes I. This one has those cool chromatic details that signal you’re truly operating in a predominantly minor state of mind, and it doesn’t have to mean “sad”.
    Lyrics:
        You may be the first person ever to consider 15 a “joyous age”. I’m happy for you. Aside from that, this appears to be one of those songs that throws a whole bunch of advice against the wall to see what sticks. Some of it relates to each other, like being confident, don’t be shy, trust yourself, etc. Other parts are just general life advice.

Kevin Savino-Riker: Catch-22
    Themes:
        Butterfly Effect for sure, a touch of It Gets Better, but mostly lampshading other tropes and holding back from exercising them. I mean, that appears to be the point of the song: that you ought not do the other things.
    Production:
        Intimate, but satisfying. There’s enough shaker and harmonies and such to feel full, while never losing the sense that you’re just a dude talking to another dude, through a time machine.
    Music:
        You don’t hear a song hang on repeated I-bVII back and forth too often. I think it works because there’s an implied IV in between, so in my head I hear I-IV/IV-(IV)-I. Regardless, the point is that it works. Nothing in the music stuck out as out of place, we just drift from section to section nice and easy.
    Lyrics:
        After three rhymes of shoes/choose/views, I was ready for the fourth line to avoid rhyming. Ending with “use” feel too tidy, too complete. You could even just stop after “wisdom”. Also a few times where the lines just didn’t seem to fit neatly. But the arrival at Catch-22 is really solid, and brings the song together.

Micah Sommersmith: Take Care of Yourself
    Themes:
        From the title I was preparing for straight up Floss, and this does qualify. But rather than a list of advice, zooming in on this one aspect of being kind to yourself when you’re sick is a good angle.
    Production:
        Stuff about production
    Music:
        Nice and bouncy, which serves to contrast against the subject matter, like we’re all in good spirits about being sick. The chorus is super memorable and the irony inherent in the combination of accordion, lyrics, and transitioning out of rap is strong.
    Lyrics:
        I think I’ve been spoiled lately by a lot of really good rap out there, but now the art form demands a higher level of rhyme sophistication. You hint at it in flashes like “Drag yourself from desk to desk, your respiratory mess infesting the rest”, but I’m sitting here demanding the entire song live up to that level of attention. It is what it is. If you enter a bluegrass song and your banjo rolls are weak, you’re going to hear about it.

W8 What: To My Teen Self
    Themes:
        It Gets Better; a little Gray’s Sports Almanac; just a touch of Floss
    Production:
        This sounds great! What are you doing in the chorus that imitates the richness you’d get with harmonies, but way too precise with both timing and pitch to be human. Is it an auto-harmony plugin with the output set to a low level such that you get the effect but not the conscious knowledge of the note fundamentals? Are you just that good at singing? Anyway, it’s really intriguing and gives this song a signature sound.
    Music:
        The chorus composition sounds weak to me, and it may be the starting out on the vi. Had you gone IV-I-vi-V instead of vi-V-IV-V it may open up a bit and really feel you’ve landed, while still ending up at the same place. I do like the choice to hang out on the V at “it’ll get better” and “in this letter”. I’m always tempted to keep moving around, but staying put was absolutely the right thing to do.
    Lyrics:
        About what I was expecting from a lot of these songs. You give advice, stock tips, and encouragement. Somewhat rambling at times, covering bases that maybe do not support your main thesis. I have to say, nothing particularly stands out about this one other than how it sounds, and I have this self-imposed thing about making an attempt to separate the songwriting from the production, so you may end up ranked lower than would be reflected by my simply judging how much I like hearing the song, which is quite a bit.

Matt Walton: Hey Me You Probably Don't Want To Hear This
    Themes:
        Some It Gets Better, more Floss, in a way that’s more specifically meaningful to your own life than anyone else’s
    Production:
        Timing and intonation are problems here. With live-performed acoustic instruments it’s really hard to sync up perfectly, but some of the tedious legwork of dragging the audio around can help tremendously if you don’t have access to a DAW like Logic that has a fancy “quantize audio” function. Also, the percussion is affecting the level of the vocal. Are the two on the same channel? Do you have a compressor helping tame the levels, but when it gets a drum hit it has to bring down the whole thing, including your voice? Something is happening there.
    Music:
        I think there was room for more variation. With no chorus or refrain to speak of, you’re just telling a story throughout over essentially I-V the entire time. Even the melody does not range far in either pitch or rhythm. It gets heavy, and I was surprised to find the song clocking in at a svelte 3:47.
    Lyrics:
        I’m sorry, this is not really landing for me. A lot of places where the melody makes you stress unstressed syllables (“have cats as pets”) or struggle with non-idiomatic language (“This path isn’t yours to adhere”).

Jordan Carroll: School Report
    Themes:
        I get what you’re doing here, and if I had to slot it into a template I’d go with stock tips and lottery numbers. You’re giving your younger self a freebie on something of value, in this case a song. It’s clever.
    Production:
        See everything I wrote about the same production 2 weeks ago
    Music:
        See everything I wrote about the same music 2 weeks ago
    Lyrics:
        Yeah, so you know how in school they have rules against not just copying someone else’s work, but also your own past work? I’m not going to send you to the disciplinary committee, but I am going to limit my review to those parts of your song that were written for this challenge. The new preamble kind of, well to me doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Either the things in the song are already fact as of you in the 11th grade (Reagan died in 2004) and you could have just looked up the info online, or else they haven’t happened yet and you wouldn’t be able to get away with submitting it as a school report. Either way I don’t see how it shows that you invented time travel. And these lyrics all by themself with no music, it’s just not enough.

PigFarmer, Jr.: CoMo '93 (Shadow)
    Themes:
        Run. Around. Motherfucking. Sue.
    Production:
        Excellent blend of power chords. You could really built out a full, satisfying song on this presentation and feel.
    Music:
        No time for music! Just play!
    Lyrics:
        LOL

Red Watcher: As Long As They Choose (Shadow)
    Themes:
        Not very tropey at all! I could imagine fitting a couple of them, especially as you did give advice (Floss). But it’s very real. It may or may not Get Better, you’re not advised to avoid Runaround Sue, you simply trust yourself to be honest with the world about who you are and let the chips fall where they may. Nice.
    Production:
        Very subtle octave up, but effective. It all sets a mood, along with the piano reverb and those weird synthesized beeps that bounce left-right. I think you could have set the vocals back into the mix a bit more and still heard every word. It’s sparse enough for that.
    Music:
        I’m really struck by the interplay between the left and right hands on the piano, and how the right hand gets to dictate when the chords change. It’s rare to hear the bass line follow anything higher up in the spectrum.
    Lyrics:
        The rhymes feel natural, and the lyrics are so sparse that you can fit them in wherever they need to be, rather than need to fit a fixed template to ensure there’s room for everything. This all put together makes for a very chill experience, which fits the simple message in the chorus.

\αlpha.ßeta\: Stop! (Shadow)
    Themes:
        Runaround Sue
    Production:
        Strong 1st impression! The groove hits very well and sets things up nicely. And a fade-in  :-)
    Music:
        I don’t know if this belongs here or in the lyrics section, but I thought there was too much repetition for my taste, especially in a song that clocks in under 3:00. The harmony on “Stop” is awesome though; always loved minor 2nds, especially as part of something larger.
    Lyrics:
        I really like rhyming “him” with “victim”, that stood out. You do a good job of focusing on the main point without getting distracted. But you also have plenty of time to spare if you repeat yourself less to tell a more complete story. Want more.