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Sunday, July 10, 2011

SpinTunes #3 Round 2 Review: Hazen Nester

There are a few people from Masters Of Song Fu that I have enjoy listening to that I have not been able to drag into SpinTunes yet.  Hazen is one of them.  He may be too busy to compete at the moment, but at least I got him here to do some reviews.  I'll keep nagging him about competing though.



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I was asked to provide a guest review of this round of Spintunes and, in some ways, I barely feel qualified. My only music credentials of note are the six songs I produced as a competitor in FRED Entertainment’s Masters of Song Fu (both as a solo artist and as part of the short-lived band His Name is Legs) and even though I am currently working on a proper album, I’ve been out of the game for so long, I’ve forgotten how difficult songwriting can be for me. Never mind producing a completed record in a week’s time. For that alone, respect to these competitors and shadow songwriters must be given.

For my reviews, I shall endeavor to judge as objectively as I can while recognizing the various budgets, production skills, and production values that our artists have to work with. That can only go so far, though. In the end, de gustibus non est disputandum; it must not be disputed regarding tastes. While I’m certain that my critiques and individual ratings will indicate who the cream of the crop is, there will probably be a few discrepancies in the rankings. No critical offense is intended. Now, then, let’s begin with the Shadows.





SHADOW ENTRIES


Glen Raphael – “Billion Metal Dollars”: The notes for this song indicates that, due to being on vacation, this is basically a demo. If that’s the case, don’t change a thing; just rerecord. I love the singer-songwriter vibe and the image of $1 billion worth of coins being kept out of circulation presents a wonderfully innocuous image that’s perfect for Glen’s aesthetic.

Overall Rating: 9/10

Doom SKITTLE (featuring Luke Brekke, Esquire) – “Going Undercover”: I have to admit that I’m surprised that Doom SKITTLE was the only one who used America’s Finest News Source for the germ of their song. Pity, though, that I can barely hear anything he’s singing. Also, the recording seems a bit sloppy with seemingly random percussive effects.

Overall Rating: 7/10

Noah McLaughlin – “Fear Drive”: Georgia’s ramping up immigration enforcement and the debate is presented in this entry. While it’s rocking and driving, the vocals exist in this nebulous area between Johnny Cash and Van Morrison that doesn’t really work that well. The guitars also seemed to be a bit too present in the mix.

Overall Rating: 7.5/10

Menage' a Tune – “The Furries Are Heading Back To Pittsburgh”: A furry convention is taking place in Pittsburgh and that demands a theme song for the year. If I was organizing the con, though, I’d get it rerecorded. The synch issues stick out like a sore thumb. The tune is cute, though, and it was a nice little touch quoting Doctor Doolittle.

Overall Rating: 6.5/10

Young Stroke a.k.a. Young Muscle – “One Dollar Robber”: What a fantastic opening. And then the rapping began. I’m not sure if the hick voice was intentional, but it was distracting. Also, including the news music in the middle of the second verse destroys the feel that YS established in the first. Also, a lot more creativity could have been done with the remix to keep things interesting rather than having two separate grooves.

Overall Rating: 6/10





COMPETITORS’ ENTRIES


The Offhand Band – “Program aids food stamp users”: Although bonus points aren’t technically awarded in my judging, it’s fairly inspired thinking to go with a local news story as opposed to the major news headlines. Furthermore, I was surprised that the lyrics were of the artist’s creation and not taken from the article itself. To say that I was fooled would be an understatement.

There’s also something about the 70’s folk band vibe (think Eagles or America) that works well with the song’s aesthetic. For me, it denotes a folksy, down-home feel where everybody works together and is happy. In other words, and I mean it in the best way possible, Sesame Street. The Offhand Band may not exactly have an ideal studio set-up or training, but in my book this song strikes a chord that more than makes up for it.

Overall Rating: 8/10

Gold Lion – “Message For Vivian”: The song hinges on a poignant photograph of a bald eagle perched on a tombstone in a military cemetery. While the article that the song is based on is a compelling human-interest piece, it didn’t seem to get translated well into final mix. Without the context of the article to compare the song to, it can leave one confused about what this song is even about. I certainly felt that way on first listen.

I really like the muted rock vibe that the song uses. Unfortunately, whether it’s lack of resources or production value, I feel it’s incomplete. I would have preferred to have some sort of bottom end present, even if it was just whole-note MIDI bass guitar that played only the root note of each chord. Also, I think that with a bit more time to work on the guitar solos, they could have been honed to an amazing point. Sadly, they sound a bit sloppy. Bear in mind that this comes from a guy whose own guitar solos are somewhat lacking. There’s a lot of potential; keep working on it.

Overall Rating: 6.5/10

Edric Haleen - “What About Love”: Before I begin on this, I must give kudos to Edric for doing a piece outside of the musical niche that he fills and fills well. Hip hop has been a vehicle for bringing awareness to social wrongs ever since the days of Public Enemy and N.W.A. so it’s a very appropriate genre choice when addressing same-sex marriage and New York’s recent legalization of same. Of the myriad of topics that could have been addressed, I’m glad that Edric took this issue.

Execution, though, could have been better. While I can’t find any fault in Edric’s always-stellar lyricism, the Eminem-esque groove feels haphazardly constructed and bland. While having the bassline be just one tone on the eighth notes allows the synths to develop around it (and develop well they do), it gets boring quickly and a boring hip hop song is a bad hip hop song. I can’t pretend to know why Edric chose the monotonous bass, but I get this niggling feeling it was to give the song some rhythm in the absence of percussion, save for a few accents in the form of cymbal hits. Even the most socially conscious rap songs have a strong backbeat established and without a regular snare and kick drum laying it down, Edric’s song is neutered.

Overall Rating: 6.5/10

Jutze – “Re: Your Oil”: The ongoing civil war in Libya (and NATO’s involvement in it) provides the impetus for this Led-Zeppelin-meets-Jonathan-Coulton rocker. Quick note: I feel that similarities with the refrain and the title to the latter’s “Re: Your Brains” are no accident. It’s certainly a cynical take on NATO’s intentions in the region and understandably so given the past history of Western intervention in the region. Also, much like a great deal of Jutze’s catalog, it was fun to listen to.

Not that it’s without its own set of flaws, though. Thick accent aside, the vocals are a bit on the pitchy side in the parts that are sung (the intro, outro, and refrain). Also, the piano parts are somewhat jarring when compared to the driving hard rock of the verses. All in all, “Re: Your Oil” is not a bad entry from our Teutonic Titan.

Overall Rating: 7.5/10

Dr. Lindyke – “Prayer For Peace”: Solo guitar and vocals are the order of the day in this mournful ballad about Israel and its continuing struggles in the region. The empty sonic space invites contemplation and that only helps this entry.

The only criticism musically I have regarding this song stems from ignorance. The harmony parts that come in sound more like a mariachi band than Hebrew folk music to my ear. Then again, I don’t listen to Hebrew folk music at all and if it does normally sound like that, mea culpa.

Overall Rating: 9/10

Governing Dynamics – “Cameras, Streetlights, And Things Worth Fighting For”: As an unabashed hockey fan, I must say that I enjoyed the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs and especially the Finals which pitted the Boston Bruins against the Vancouver Canucks. For our non-sports fans, the series was decided in the seventh and final game in a lopsided victory for the Bruins. Vancouverites didn’t take it well and they decided to party like it was 1994 (when the Canucks lost the Finals to the New York Rangers in game seven). In this background of chaos, the famous picture of a couple sharing a kiss in the middle of the riots was taken. The adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is certainly on display with GD’s entry as it analyzed not only the common perception of the events of the photo, but also what others testified to what happened.

The start of the song seemed promising with the guitars and the drum groove, but when the vocals began, I felt somewhat disappointed. They were buried in the mix and I could barely make out the words. Furthermore, I was at a loss in trying to discern a melody. It as if it was an afterthought as the words were crammed into an awkward meter to make the rhyme scheme work. It’s not terrible, but it could have been amazing.

Overall Rating: 7.5/10

Pat And Gweebol – “The Story Is Mine: Confession Of An Undocumented Immigrant”: Oh, the egg on peoples’ faces when a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist admits his past as an undocumented immigrant. Pat and Gweebol then adopted this story and converted it into a song of empowerment and hope for reform. The result is catchy and fun.

Great pop construction and instrumentation is the foundation of this song. Successfully channeling the feel of other piano pop artists like Ben Folds and Mike Lombardo, P&G gives a virtually flawless song. Whatever bugaboos I have are minor (I feel it’d benefit from a brisker tempo).

Overall Rating: 9.5/10

Alexa Polasky – “Infidelity”: I really hate to pick nits for a song like this, but I wonder exactly how well this song fits with the criterion “topical.” The inspiration was a piece about sex-advice columnist Dan Savage and it included tangential reference to Weinergate. The final product is very open-ended, though, and could easily have been a run-of-the-mill break-up song totally divorced from the context.

On the other hand, I am hard-pressed to find a fault with it musically. The vocals may sound a bit weak and fragile, but it fits in quite well with the ukulele and the song as a whole. It needs that fragility to help illustrate how delicate the relationship was. In the end, it took a great deal of deliberation to see if how I should rank this and I decided that it does meet the criterion...barely. As such, it does take a few hits in the rankings.

Overall Rating: 7.5/10

Matt Walton – “Take Your Placards Down To London”: The song doesn’t focus as much on the event covered but, rather, how it was presented. One can easily imagine thousands of English public-sector workers arriving on time, stating their case, and tidying up after themselves after they leave. It is certainly a unique take on the challenge.

Musically, it tries to channel into the folk vein with the unchanging drone, the sparse bodhrán, and the simple melody. While I can live without any chord changes or modulations, the harmonies jarred me out of the listening experience. Although tonally sound, they just didn’t seem to fit with the melody.

Overall Rating: 7/10

Godz Poodlz – “Independence And Freedom For All”: In the time that I’ve known the individual members of Godz Poodlz, I’ve seen their clear senses of right and wrong and as far as I know this is the first time they’ve done something overtly political as GP. Their inner Minnesota liberals comes to the fore as they craft a song around the story of an old man who robbed a bank to get the medical care he needs in one place where he could get it: prison. It was the perfect bone for the Poodlz to gnaw on.

The chord changes are simple, straightforward, and catchy – a must for political songs. Unfortunately, the mix seems a bit off for me. While the vocals aren’t buried in the mix, they are a bit deeper than they should be. Also, the quality of the vocals isn’t as assertive as the subject matter demands. Still, it was a good effort.

Overall Rating: 8/10

Chris Cogott – “Welcome To Kabul”: The improbable story of American Saiz Ahmed, who was trapped in the middle of a significant battle at the hotel he was staying at, is retold by Chris Cogott in a very intimate manner. It immediately sucks you in and paints a fantastic sonic picture.

Did someone tell Chris that I was going to be judging this round? Because it sure sounds like it was tailor-made for my personal music preferences. In any case, it’s clear that Mr. Cogott knows how to produce a record because it sounds exquisite. Even without a bass guitar or a drum kit, the sonic palette presented is perfect for the mood Chris created. Bravissimo.

Overall Rating: 9.5/10

Inverse T. Clown – “Something In The Air”: The International MIDI Master of Mystery takes an otherwise banal story of an increase in UFO sightings in Kansas City, Missouri and turns it into the beginnings of an alien invasion, otherwise known as ITC’s wheelhouse of nerdy electronic rock. It’s a pity that I feel like this song has been done before. In fact, the similarities I see with his song “Devastator” are a bit too close for my liking.

I can’t fault Inverse’s sequencing or lyrics. There’s something I can’t quite put my finger on that rubs me the wrong way. The singing (or rather how the vocals sit in the sonic spectrum) isn’t the whole of the problem; that much I’m sure of. I guess I’ll file this rating as a matter of taste. I really don’t like having it boil down to that, though, as it makes me seem like a douche.

Overall Rating: 7/10

Caleb Hines – “Too Soon To Say Goodbye”: The launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis hits close to Caleb’s home as someone who grew up in his hometown will be on board the program’s final flight. I participated alongside Caleb in his first competition (Masters of Song Fu #4) and I have to commend him on his progress as a songwriter; he’s come a long way in roughly two years’ time.

As a farewell to the shuttle program, Caleb does a good job tugging at the emotional heart strings with, appropriately, synth strings. The vocals, though, seem a bit muddy sounding and buried a bit in the mix. In any case, good job.

Overall Rating: 8/10

Matt And Donna – “A Tight Spot”: Let’s face it, we’ve all seen pictures and videos of kids who’ve gotten stuck in chairs, banisters, swings, and other sorts of gaps and whose parents had to call emergency personnel to free them. If you’ve laughed at those images, you’d probably sympathize with the hypothetical mischievous sibling that M&D have introduced to this story. It’s a clever way of adding another dimension to the original story.

While the instrumentation is great, the drum mix is really unbalanced with the open hi-hat nearly drowning out everything else. Mix issues aside, it is well constructed and well performed.

Overall Rating: 8.5/10

Wait What – “Bunny Please Don’t Go”: We all know that it happens, but we never EVER speak about Hugh Hefner having sex with any of his bunnies. The only exception is when there’s humorous material and, even with an auto-tuned Hef, this song comes up short of being funny. Instead it turns out kind of disgusting. Not unlike Hef, actually.

I won’t lie; “Bunny” has a great, danceable groove. My greatest bugaboo is that the lyric choice, while certainly reminding us that this 80+ year old man manages to get 20-somethings into bed with him, seem gratuitously shocking and disgusting and if Andrew Dice Clay has taught us anything, dirty words without a solid joke are not funny.

Overall Rating: 7/10

Ross Durand – “The American Way”: In this Dylan-esque ditty, Ross covers three separate news items and the apparent lack of equality in each instance. Ross certainly made good use of a rule loophole for creativity’s sake; no one said it had to be a single issue. While he wears his political feelings on his sleeve, it’s still quite entertaining.

As I mentioned before, this song borrows heavily from the Bob Dylan School of Songwriting and Recording. Sometimes the simplest ways of doing things are the best and descending basslines with simple chord changes are among the simplest tricks in the pop music book. Ross knew exactly what he was making and how to achieve it.

Overall Rating: 9/10

Steve Durand – “When Frankie And Johnnie Got Married”: Given how recent it was when the challenge was issued and the implications as a result of it, New York’s legalization of gay marriage has proved to be one of (if not the) most popular topics for this challenge. While some were more overtly political, Steve went the novelty route and did this as an old-timey sing-along.

Between the oompah-pah of the brass band accompaniment, which I’m having difficulty trying to determine if it’s synthesized or not, and the tenor singer, the only thing that was missing was both the surface noise of the wax cylinder it would have been recorded on and the use of a megaphone by the singer. Had those two been employed, it probably would have made this song reach a perfect ten.

Overall Rating: 9/10

Happi – “Double The Fetish”: The last thing you hear in this rap is, “Well, that was a waste of three minutes of your life.” I couldn’t agree more. Upon seeing the article that this song was based on, I had to admit that I was curious to see how one could make a song out of voyeurs hiding out in the receptacle of port-a-potties. And then the chorus began and two out-of-key people sing-spoke, almost making me turn off the song then and there.

Not that it’s all bad. The verse sections show a decent sense of flow from Happi. With that being said, there were a couple parts where some of the rhymes seemed to be crammed in to fit with the meter. Still, it’s as if Happi wants to get eliminated in this round. If the cause was hopeless, then a piss take like this would be understandable, but the competitors have a clean slate each time; there’s still a chance.

Overall Rating: 6/10

Charlie McCarron – “The Mountains Will Not Yield”: I’m not sure what that was, but I liked it (which happens to be the name of my Primus cover band). There seemed to be a great amount of musical depth in this first person telling of what may have been the last thoughts of a mountaineer who died in the French Alps. One of the risks of complexity is that the artist loses their audience. I don’t feel that has happened here.

I imagine mountaineering is an activity where there’s constant tension. Charlie maintained musical tension throughout the piece with an eerie upright piano and unorthodox chords and changes. What I don’t think was effectively communicated, though, was the sense of the narrator’s life slipping away.

Overall Rating: 9/10

Jon Eric – “North Dakota”: It takes real courage to do multi-part suites. It doesn’t make for popular singles and it requires a more attentive ear to fully appreciate what has been done. The fact that a song of this length and this complexity was completed on time is praiseworthy. The narrative may be unclear at times, both lyrically and musically, but the journey through it was still a fantastic trip.

Apart from periodically pitchy vocals, the production of the song was well done. The weakest movement of the piece was the fourth movement “Rain” because musically it seemed far too benign to be the great tempestuous storm and flood that was implied in the rest of the narrative. Warts and all, this was one of my favorites in this round. Bravo.

Overall Rating: 9.5/10

Alex Carpenter – “The Last Launch”: I was surprised that Alex Carpenter of The Remis Lupins submitted what amounts to a demo for competition, knowing the quality of recordings he is capable of. Then I remembered that he currently is on tour. Certainly, the pressures of schlepping from gig to gig put a hamper on writing and recording and I certainly sympathize with him.

Sadly, that still leaves us with an unpolished record. I have no doubt that with more time to refine it this song would have been great. As it is, it’s only the beginning of a tribute to Atlantis and the rest of the shuttle program. And a good beginning it is. I hope a proper finish will be released in the future.

Overall Rating: 8/10

3 comments:

  1. Thanks, Hazen... "Prayer for Peace" is done in a Phrygian Dominant scale, which is also commonly used in Spanish music. If you're more familiar with Spanish music than Jewish, it would certainly be familiar for that reason.

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  2. You know, I ran this song by a couple guys before turning it in, to see what they said about it sounding like "Devastator". This was supposed to sound like My Darkest Days, not NIN. I was told that anything I do that sounds like NIN will sound like "Devastator", but that's partly because half of NIN's catalog sounds the same, anyway.

    That is not exactly a defense; it is unfortunate that they sound so similar, in my opinion. But, given who it ended up sounding like, I guess that's not too awful bad. However, I agree with your assessment 100%. Thank you for doing this, Mr. Nester.

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  3. Thanks! Yeah, there's something poignant about these coins that nobody wants and it's also pretty funny that our government can manage to lose vast sums of money even while trying to produce...money. I'm happy I got some of that in, but I'm also glad I managed to comfortably fit "Sacajawea" and "numismatic" into the verse. :-)

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