Saturday, December 8, 2018

ST15R3 Reviews: Micah Sommersmith

The following is submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the position of SpinTunes 15 Judge:

PREAMBLE

This was a very difficult round to evaluate. It seems to me the judges were tasked with ranking each song along three independent axes: 1. Similarity to the target artist; 2. Difference from your usual output; and 3. Quality of the song in its own right.

Some of you produced great songs that sounded different from what you usually do, but couldn’t quite pass for the target artist’s work. Some of you produced great songs that hit the target, but the target was a little too close to what we’ve already heard from you. And some of you chose a brand new sound and hit the target, but ended up with a song that I didn’t enjoy in its own right. So you see how reconciling these three criteria could be difficult.

I ended up producing no fewer than six rankings:

  • First, I ranked the songs based on my gut feeling about a combination of all three criteria. There was no way to ensure that the balance of criteria was the same for each song; I just went for my overall impression.
  • Then I ranked each song according to the first axis: fidelity to the target artist's style.
  • Then according to the second axis: difference from your usual fare.
  • Then the third axis: simply how much I enjoyed the song on its own.
  • Then I added together your ranking 1-10 from the previous 3 to produce an aggregate ranking.
  • Finally, I compared the aggregate to my first, gut ranking. They ended up being very similar, with half the songs in identical positions and the rest only a few spots apart. I didn’t just average the two, but I did make some compromises, resulting in a single final ranking.

For all I know, my fellow judges threw darts at a board to determine their rankings. It would probably be just as fair. Without further ado, here are my reviews of your songs, presented again in ascending order of excellence:

OFFICIAL ENTRIES

10. PigFarmer, Jr. as Vanilla Ice - Who Are You?
Hip-hop was not a bad choice for getting far away from your usual style while remaining in at least somewhat comfortable territory. Your lyrics are very end-rhyme heavy, which is ok because Vanilla Ice’s are too for the most part. You get in some good lines (the diss on Edric and “Sorry… not!” standing out as highlights), but more specific references and similes would always be welcome. 
The biggest problem is the lack of energy throughout, due in part to the monotonous instrumental and the lackluster chorus, but mostly to the tempo - I clocked a live performance of “Ice, Ice, Baby” at 116 bpm (which is not particularly fast by some rappers’ standards) and your track at a sluggish 88 bpm. Getting your flow up to speed takes work, but it pays off.

9. Brian Gray as Philip Glass - Boy and His Kumquat Tree
Kudos for going further afield than anyone else in this round. I was very very torn about how to feel about this song. 
On the one hand, you’ve clearly taken a hard look at Glass’s compositional style and applied it here: The multiple rhythmic layers of repeating phrases, adding up to a slowly shifting soundscape, are on the money. There’s some cool phasing effects between the various parts, especially in the section beginning at 2:07, though I think you could have let it play out further and become more obvious. Glass generally writes for orchestral instruments, and your synth sounds suffer a bit in comparison, but I do think it was smart to go full synth rather than fake orchestra, avoiding a repeat of last round’s trumpet problem. 
On the other hand, this is a SONG writing competition, and the “song” portion of your competition is the same phrase repeated on one note, with the same rhythm every time. While Glass is primarily an instrumental composer, he does offer some models for vocal writing, e.g. “Songs from Liquid Days”, and your vocal feels like a cop-out, both as a Glass imitation and in its own right. 
On yet another hand, your song bio does a lot of heavy lifting here toward making your intentions for the song explicit. I don’t think one needs to read the bio to enjoy the song as a piece of Glass-inspired (mostly) instrumental music, but it seems like a different kind of cop-out to give us soooo much context outside the song. I think the judges should be expected to evaluate this song on its own merits, not as a portion of an epic song cycle/musical/concept album that’s only 3/?ths completed. With that in mind, it’s interesting but I don’t think it stands well on its own.

8. Vom Vorton as Fu Manchu - Silver Streak
Here’s a band I had never heard of, but from what I listened to, you managed to emulate the style quite closely. Your song doesn’t feel quite as high energy as their music - I think part of it is your voice and part of it is a dearth of crashhhhh ccccymbals. The tone on your guitar in the very beginning is grating and pretty unpleasant to my ears, but when the whole band kicks in the guitar tone is fuller and a lot more fun to listen to.  
It’s a smart move to write lyrics within their subject matter, though your own lyrical style still comes through, with multi-syllable rhymes like “steering” / “engineering” and especially “cost to me” / “velocity.” The melody, or lack thereof, seems in keeping with theirs, but that doesn’t make it interesting to listen to. I think, again, that your voice is a little too restrained for what the style demands. In general, you’ve crafted a song that is both fairly true to the target style and fairly different from your usual work, but it doesn’t excite or interest me the way some other songs this round do.

7. Zoe Gray as Hank Williams - Old Lovers' Bridge
Not many artists in this round deliberately set out to imitate the vocal inflections of their targets to the extent you did, which merits recognition. At first listen it felt like a parody, but when I actually listened to some Hank Williams and came back to yours, it felt more natural. You clearly took seriously the task of adopting his vocal style.
Lyrically, adopting the story of Odysseus into the language of country music was a clever idea which I think paid off. Of course the ground was set for you by “O Brother Where Art Thou” but you make the concept your own. One could argue about whether Hank Williams would have written these lyrics, but that’s a pretty subjective argument to get into. For me, the lyrics work and feel natural.
The music, on the other hand, displays some elements that I simply can’t find in Hank’s catalog after listening to and reading chords for kind of a lot of his songs, among them:

  • Minor chords in a major-key song (vi in the bridge)
  • For that matter, a bridge, i.e. a contrasting section that only appears once - all of Hank’s songs I listened to were either ABABAB or AAAA…
  • The back-and-forth IV-V-IV-V harmonic motion of “and i walk through the valleys  / and i walk over the ridge” - in fact, I couldn’t find motion from V to IV in a single Hank Williams song.

All this is to say that Hank had a very consistent musical vocabulary that you deviate from in some notable ways. That’s not to say it’s a bad song - I think it’s a pretty good song. But if an unattributed lead sheet showed up in some archive, I don’t think any musicologist would mistake it for a long-lost Hank Williams song. 
As for the instrumentation, it’s clear you studied and attempted to emulate what you heard on his recordings, but the MIDI sounds don’t do justice to what I’m sure you’re hearing in your head. I don’t want to penalize you for that, but at this stage in the tournament I kinda feel like I have to.

6. Faster Jackelope as the Ronettes - Ghia's Got Room For Two
The talent, ingenuity, and technical know-how contained in this band is on display as clearly as ever here. Lots to love here. Similar to Zoe’s Hank Williams pastiche, the Ronettes’ influence is clear here, but it sounds more like a modern song consciously borrowing some elements of their style, and less like a song completely within their style. 
Frisbee’s vocal melody is great but sounds very, well, Frisbee-like (compare “Is it your French perfume?” to Round 1’s “their purpose seems so ambiguous”). Bella’s (excellent!) vocal feels more in the style, although the final line “But there’s not enough time to do everything” feels like the phrase is going to continue, but instead everything drops out before returning to the A section. It’s a neat effect, but it doesn’t feel like something the Ronettes would have done. 
The percussion is consistently excellent and does feel right for the style, but the other instruments don’t always add up to produce the true wall-of-sound effect, and the guitar solo, while subdued and tasteful, feels especially out of place - I’d expect a string melody instead or something similar. 
It’s a very very cool moment, probably the highlight of an already very good song, when the male and female lead vocals come together in countermelody, especially when they lock together on lines like “me and you.” But it doesn’t sound like the Ronettes, which, from all that I’ve listened to, very much featured Ronnie as the lead, with the other singers secondary. 
Speaking of the vocal layering, when Bella has multiple lines overlapping at the end, they start to crowd each other out and things feel a little confused. It might be solvable with some different mixing or EQ choices, or you might want to simplify things and cut out one of the parts. 
Finally, the song is longer than it reeeeally needs to be, especially given where you’re taking your cues from. “Be My Baby” is 2:41; “Baby, I Love You” is 2:50, etc. Cut out one or two of the choruses at the end, and the 60s radio DJs will like it a lot more.

5. Governing Dynamics as Bob Dylan - Leave It At That
Lyrically and musically you hit the target here. Using the title as a brief refrain is a classic Dylan touch, a la “Tangled Up in Blue”, “A Simple Twist of Fate”, etc, etc, as are the elliptical, wistful lyrics. I like this stanza especially: “I'm the trickster of this village / I'm the truth's bell ringer / The harder you try to hold on / The slicker I slip through your fingers.” Oh, and the AABCCB rhyme scheme of the B section, ending with the refrain, is executed very well.
The guitar is played well and the harmonica does its job. I don’t love the mix: the harmonica and especially the organ are too loud, the vocal is often too soft, and the drums are waaaay too soft, though from what I can hear of them, they don’t really add anything of interest to the arrangement, so I would suggest cutting the drums out entirely.
I’ll give you credit for deviating from your regular style, at least as displayed so far this tournament. You play the acoustic guitar in a style distinct from your electric guitar playing, and your voice, while not going full Dylan (probably a good thing), is more suited to the folk style than what I’ve heard from you before (and - no offense - just nicer to listen to).

4. Temnere as Bad Religion - The Grifter
I was not familiar with Bad Religion at all, so I appreciated the AVClub link. Your song is both true to your target style and a good one in its own right - it packs quite a punch in its brief runtime, has a satisfyingly anthemic chorus, and its lyrics are notable for their political cynicism and their verbosity - “thesaurus punk,” indeed.
I do feel that you had a chance here to go a lot further from your home style than you did. No guitar harmony or keyboards, sure, but we’ve got pounding drums, killer riffs, and soaring vocals, as expected from Temnere. You admit you’ve wanted to do a song in their style for a while, which tells me you know it’s not too far out of your wheelhouse.

3. Good Guy Sojabe as Moby - Ahab
Prior to this round, I wasn’t aware that Moby actually sang on any of his tracks - I only knew the loop-heavy Lomax-sampling tunes from “Play” that have infiltrated everyone’s brains. Once I listened to his album “18” I started to recognize what you’re going for, and I hear the subdued, low-register vocals and short, repetitive phrases of songs like “We Are All Made of Stars” and “Sleep Alone” echoed in your song. The refrain “And I don’t want to feel sober / And I don’t want to feel love” is clearly a nod to those Lomax samples and a very nice touch. I think your vocal melody is actually stronger than any I’ve heard of his, and the “under my skin” section is especially memorable - I just wish it were further forward in the mix. The vocal gets buried just when it should be brought out.
Lyrically, this gloomy, oblique track is either a break-up song or a loose retelling of “Moby-Dick” or both, and I don’t mind the ambiguity of the lyrics because they combine perfectly with the music to create a distinctive atmosphere. Stylistically, I think it actually lands somewhere between Moby and Good Guy Sojabe, as you are generous with your guitar parts and use a more varied harmonic progression and fewer loops than Mr. Melville Hall tends to.
If I may pick a nit for a moment - the multi-tracked vocals sound great, but you need to coordinate the ends of syllables, not just the beginnings. In the line “Ignore the news” I hear no less than 3 distinct “s”’s in the word “news.” Maybe it doesn’t bother other folks, but it drives this church choir director crazy.

2. Third Cat as Yaz - Hideaway
I wasn’t familiar with Yaz (or Yazoo, or whatever) but I really enjoyed listening to “Upstairs at Eric’s”. Your song seems to come closest to “Only You” - which I think I have actually heard before? Or maybe it’s just so good that it seems instantly familiar. In any case, you take a number of cues directly from that song, including the opening synth arpeggio. Ideally an entry this round should identify the underlying musical assumptions behind the target artist’s body of work, and use them to create a new song, rather than lift surface elements from one specific song. I found the rest of the Yaz album, with a couple exceptions, to be more consistently upbeat and dance-y than both “Only You” and “Hideaway”, and I suppose I should be upset that you’ve given us a pastiche of one specific song, rather than the artist’s whole body of work… but… this song is really good? It’s sweet and sincere and also catchy and just very pleasant.
Small things to criticize: the synth countermelody under e.g. the opening lines is overly busy and feels like it clutters things up. It’s a good idea to have the more sustained synth to contrast with the staccato arpeggios but I don’t think this particular idea is the right one. (The corresponding synth line in “Only You” is simpler and cleaner.)
And one lyrical complaint: “in love let’s stay” and “love we play”. Object-subject-verb word order almost never sounds good in modern pop music. I understand that it allows for the rhyme across sections with “hideaway”, and that’s great and all, but… no. Leave it to the sonneteers. 

1. Mandibles as ABBA - Right Again
It’s a tall order to imitate the style of one of the greatest songwriting teams in pop history, but you pull it off. Production-wise we could quibble, but compositionally, this slips perfectly into ABBA’s musical language. The chorus lodged itself into my head on first listen and has stayed there for most of the week. It’s based on a simple hook, both lyrical (“right again”) and melodic (three descending notes), which gets varied in both respects (lyrically: “right again” / “alright again” / “right, my friend”; melodically: mi-re-do / fa-re-do).
There are many other brilliant musical moments: The swing from minor to major in the verse; the imitative melodic repetition of “If you saw the good in me, / How wrong could I ever be?”; the borrowed minor chord on “right, my friend”. And lyrical ones: the stealth rhyme in the chorus of “get” and “let”; lines like “And I demurred, the words all blurred into a mess / And I confess” - I mean COME ON! And it all adds up to a great complex picture of a relationship, with the narrator both contrite and defiant, as summed up perfectly in the title and elaborated through the whole song. Damn, this is a good track.
I suppose I should criticize something. The song has two brief instrumental sections: an intro before the first verse, and an interlude between the first chorus and second verse. In my opinion, the interlude is much stronger and fits better with the sound of the song as a whole than the intro does, and I’d recommend replacing the intro with an expanded version of it. If you do keep the intro as it is, the synth part has some weird dynamic issues where some notes are dramatically louder than the preceding and following notes.
Additionally, you have some great synth countermelodies throughout, but they’re curiously absent in the chorus, e.g. after “What does it get you when you’re right again?” You could fill out the sound more with some instrumental responses in places like this.
Did I mention that, um, this song is amazing?


SHADOWS (UNRANKED)

Jocko Homomorphism as Jimmy Buffett - We Were So Grand
Sounds like quite the party! Your voice is in particularly fine form this round, and I can tell the lyric draws on fond memories. The fun-loving party theme is there, but does it really SOUND like Jimmy Buffett? No, but maybe it could with some more involved instrumentation. And lines like “Solidarity, / We march to the sea, / And our hymn never sounded so grand” are a little, well, grand for the Parrotheads. Since it’s a shadow entry, I’m content to forget about Mr. Cheeseburger in Paradise entirely and enjoy the song for what it is.
Menage A Tune as the Beach Boys - Surfin' The Web
It’s fun, it’s funny. The Beach Boys’ influence is obvious, although the lyrics make it more of a parody than an earnest homage. The layered vocals are very well done, although the lead vocal is dramatically louder than the other tracks - this is most conspicuous during the “summer never ends” sections, where the various vocal lines are basically equal in compositional importance but not in volume. 
The organ is a little loud, the drums a little quiet, and I’d like some guitar or something else to spruce up the instrumentation.

Faster Jackelope as ??? - They Know -
Sorry, Song Fight is down the hall.

Jerkatorium as Matchy Matchy as [presumably] A Flock of Seagulls - Eagles 
Solid lyrics, nice production, Chumpy’s voice in fine form, etc, etc. When are you guys going to surprise me?

APPENDICES

APPENDIX A: GUT RANKING
PigFarmer, Jr. - Who Are You? 10
Brian Gray - Boy and His Kumquat Tree 9
Zoe Gray - Old Lovers' Bridge 8
Vom Vorton - Silver Streak 7
Governing Dynamics - Leave It At That 6
Faster Jackelope - Ghia's Got Room For Two 5
Temnere - The Grifter 4
Good Guy Sojabe - Ahab 3
Third Cat - Hideaway 2
Mandibles - Right Again 1

APPENDIX B: FIDELITY RANKING
PigFarmer, Jr. - Who Are You? 10
Faster Jackelope - Ghia's Got Room For Two 9
Zoe Gray - Old Lovers' Bridge 8
Good Guy Sojabe - Ahab 7
Brian Gray - Boy and His Kumquat Tree 6
Vom Vorton - Silver Streak 5
Governing Dynamics - Leave It At That 4
Temnere - The Grifter 3
Third Cat - Hideaway 2
Mandibles - Right Again 1

APPENDIX C: DIFFERENCE RANKING
Temnere - The Grifter 10
Faster Jackelope - Ghia's Got Room For Two 9
Good Guy Sojabe - Ahab 8
Vom Vorton - Silver Streak 7
Third Cat - Hideaway 6
Brian Gray - Boy and His Kumquat Tree 5
Zoe Gray - Old Lovers' Bridge 4
Mandibles - Right Again 3
Governing Dynamics - Leave It At That 2
PigFarmer, Jr. - Who Are You? 1

APPENDIX D: QUALITY RANKING
PigFarmer, Jr. - Who Are You? 10
Brian Gray - Boy and His Kumquat Tree 9
Vom Vorton - Silver Streak 8
Zoe Gray - Old Lovers' Bridge 7
Governing Dynamics - Leave It At That 6
Temnere - The Grifter 5
Good Guy Sojabe - Ahab 4
Third Cat - Hideaway 3
Faster Jackelope - Ghia's Got Room For Two 2
Mandibles - Right Again 1

APPENDIX E: AGGREGATE RANKING
(Numbers = Sum of previous 3 / New rank out of 10)
PigFarmer, Jr. - Who Are You? 21 / 10
Brian Gray - Boy and His Kumquat Tree 20 / 9
Vom Vorton - Silver Streak 20 / 8
Faster Jackelope - Ghia's Got Room For Two 20 / 7
Zoe Gray - Old Lovers' Bridge 19 / 6
Good Guy Sojabe - Ahab 19 / 5
Temnere - The Grifter 18 / 4
Governing Dynamics - Leave It At That 12 / 3
Third Cat - Hideaway 11 / 2
Mandibles - Right Again 5 / 1

APPENDIX F: FINAL RANKING
(Subjective combination of A and E)
PigFarmer, Jr. - Who Are You? 10
Brian Gray - Boy and His Kumquat Tree 9
Vom Vorton - Silver Streak 8
Zoe Gray - Old Lovers' Bridge 7
Faster Jackelope - Ghia's Got Room For Two 6
Governing Dynamics - Leave It At That 5
Temnere - The Grifter 4
Good Guy Sojabe - Ahab 3
Third Cat - Hideaway 2
Mandibles - Right Again 1