Friday, November 4, 2011

Occupy My Heart

Song Fight! is a place that you should visit - often. It a nutshell, it's a songwriting competition. In a slightly larger nutshell, it's a community of songwriters crafting music of every color and kind, from lo-fi Casiocore to surf-rock pyschedelia to country and grunge. About every other week, Fight Masters Spud and JB post a title (and the occasional optional challenge). Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write, record and submit an original song by the deadline. Then you get to listen to everyone's else's submissions, vote for your favorites and, hopefully, share your thoughts on the review boards.
There's all kinds of other great stuff that goes on associated with Song Fight! including Nur Eincoverfights, the Daily Roll Call and the splendiferous annual Song Fight! Live event, but let's focus on the current fight.

A quick introduction to my review process. Usually, I only have time to listen to the whole fight once, and while listening, I jot down:
+++ what I like +++
--- what I don't like ---
/// what leaves me indifferent, or other comments ///
It's a quick and dirty but efficient process and I always try to provide constructive criticism unless a song is either too far outside my ken or, in my opinion, beyond saving. This time around, I'm going to go back for at least a second listen in order to introduce new readers to some Song Fight! stars and further develop my reactions. One of the great things about Song Fight! is the dizzying variety of musical genres available each fight.

Al Gore Band | lyrics
--- poor production ---
--- pretentiousness and self-reference fail ---
+++ internal rhymes and prosody +++

The production here is deliberately lo-fidelity, which some times I like (see Elephant Finger below). But here, while I like many of the lyrics, the abstract anti-mainstream nature of the ensemble is alienating. It's sloppy and self-righteous at the same time.

Berkeley Social Scene
+++ guitar tone, as always +++
--- wobbly vox "looooouuuuuder" ---
+++ tempo change for chorus +++

BSS is a Song Fight! staple, an LA-area (oops) a San Francisco-area jam band with a often-shifting line-up. The "plant your flag" line reminds me of Baudelaire's "Spleen IV," I wonder if the reference is intentional?
— Et de longs corbillards, sans tambours ni musique,
Défilent lentement dans mon âme; l'Espoir,
Vaincu, pleure, et l'Angoisse atroce, despotique,
Sur mon crâne incliné plante son drapeau noir.
I'll be the first to admit to admit that much BSS's more complicated stuff goes right over my head: various key signatures and chord structures that my ear is not trained to hear. Though, if it weren't for the uneven singing, this is one of my favorite offerings from them.

Billy and the Psychotics | lyrics
/// thought at first this was DJ Ranger Den's solo submission; then the band kicked in ///
+++ it was a pleasant surprise +++
+++ rock opera awesomeness, fully channeling stuff like November Rain +++

Vote! Billy and the Psychotics is something of a Song Fight! superband, a collaboration between Billy's Little Trip, Denise Hudson (aka DJ Ranger Den, who also submitted a solo work to this fight) and, often, Paco del Stinko or other guests.

This is hands-down one of their best works to date. They excel at hard rock with a feminine snarl, and previous attempts to stretch their musical boundaries have been mixed successes. This one is a perfect blend of Denise's subtle piano sensibilities and Billy's hard-rocking drums and bass.

+++ groove and tone +++
+++ love that plucky guitar tone +++
--- maybe it's my sound equipment, but some of this is right on the edge of clipping ---
+++ breakdown +++

Vote! A fantastic slice of ambient music and independent rock-pop. c.layne has just put out a new album, I'm Glad We Met.

Dealin' Doug and The Rocky's Autos
+++ grungy guitar riff +++
--- intro goes on way to long ---
+++ very creative take on the title +++
--- bop bop bop bop bop bop ---
--- fake horns are really fake ---
--- nasal singing ---

Like a lot of my own offerings, I get the impression that there's both a lot to like about this song and a lot that needs to be improved. The vocals sounds consistently bored and always sung through the nose. I like that the synthesizer line mirrors the chorus melody but, damn, it sounds so cheap!

Dirge and Sara
+++ i'm a sucker for female vox +++
+++ great vibe and overall tonality +++
/// this is one of those tunes you really love and bob along with when you're at the bar, but then you forget you when you get in the cab ///

This song has a great, solid vibe. I love the contrast of the clean vox and the dirty guitars and there are great accents all over the place. The main problem is that the whole thing lacks something for me to hang on to. It's not necessarily a matter of a hook, but just a memorable bit of melody or a really great line somewhere.

DJ Ranger Den | lyrics
+++ melody "you won't occupy my heart" +++
/// I wonder if the piano isn't too busy ///
+++ the lyrics and pining tone remind me of Ani DiFranco's "Dilate" +++
and i learn every room long enough
to make it to the door
and then i hear it click shut behind me
and every key works differently
i forget every time
and forgetting defines me
that's what defines me
DJ Ranger Den is a somewhat recent addition to the line-up for Song Fight! regulars and the feminist in me is very happy to see a woman contributing to what can be a pure sausage fest.

My only quibble with song is the very busy piano part, which seems to try to make up for the lack of other instruments. However, the "you won't occupy my heart" line makes this for me; the delivery is perfectly vulnerable. This is easily one of the best songs she's submitted, so vote!

dont reply
--- not a song ---

Elephant Finger Et Le Casio Ensemble Contemporain de Paris | lyrics
+++ delightfully lo-fi +++
/// the accidental mispronunciation of cœur, renders it corps (body), which actually works anyway. but there is a proper miss on liquidation [lee kee dah see-on] ///

Vote! The difference between this and The Al Gore Band is that the singer here (J$, or Johnny Cashpoint), is having fun. The Al Gore Band sound like they're sneering at the conventions and being snide.

Jon Eric | lyrics
+++ there's the core of a really good song here +++
--- but it's lost in some extraneous material ---
/// I would cut the verses in half; pare it down to the best lyrics ///

Jon Eric is another SF! veteran. In general, I'm a fan, and learning to play a bunch of his songs for this past year's Song Fight! was a real eye-opener about chord progression and composition. Here, I feel like Jon has just submitted too much. He jokes in this lyrics post, "I'd have written a shorter song if I'd had more time," and I think he should take this to heart and revisit this tune in order to pare it down.

King Arthur | lyrics
+++ lead guitar in the left ear +++
--- oh, but it stays in the left ear for the solo and really just kind of noodles ---
+++ it's always astounding that you program your drums +++

King Arthur is a Song Fighter in the stratosphere of nearly 100 submissions like Paco del Stinko and Ross Durand below. The critique I made of Dirge and Sara applies here: well put together with some great individual elements, but nothing for me to hang my hat on.

MC Charlie Oh
--- misogyny ---

I'll admit to some genre bias: rap and and Hip-hop needs to be exceptional for me to enjoy. This is worse than unexceptional, it crosses one of my few really firm ethical boundaries. I do not tolerate misogyny and hit the "skip" button the moment MC Charlie Oh took the lazy and hateful route singing about "bitches" and masking his own insecurities in machismo.

Metaluna | lyrics
+++ pretty guitar tone +++
--- lyrical prosody ---
--- singing ---
+++ dynamics +++

This is an example of half of a great song. I love the instrumentation and the arrangement. However, the prosody of the lyrics makes the song unlistenable. It trips over itself, forces the wrong places and just rubs me in every wrong way.

Monkey Touchers
--- what the ... ? ---

This contribution is something of a conundrum, because while it's nearly unlistenable (it certainly isn't enjoyable), someone obviously put some thought and effort into it. Maybe not a lot, but enough to set up the recording equipment and some... percussion and riff for two and a half minutes.

noah mclaughlin | lyrics
+++ chorus +++
--- not the right development ---
/// singing needs to be tightened up; probably more like battened down ///

As is my wont, I came up with a better arrangement for this tune just minutes after the deadline passed. The link above with play the submitted version, but for your listening pleasure, I'd rather you listen to this one:

In the very beginning, the third "verse" was supposed to be a 16-bar guitar solo. I didn't have anything interesting to say with the guitar and ended up riffing some lyrics over that bit instead. Alas, they pretty much repeat the second verse. To boot, the opening guitar riff really isn't that strong. Hence, the new arrangement that opens with the swelling chorus instrumentation and cuts the third verse to an 8-bar breakdown.

Paco del Stinko | lyrics
+++ RAWK! +++
/// chorus is kind of cliché... ///
+++ Did I mention the RAWK?! +++
+++ Owns the outro +++

Vote! This song almost lost me with the outro. Rock is already pretty frakkin' sexy, and layering overt sexuality on top of it is usually overkill. But Paco (another SF! vet) plays it so straight and with such talent that I end up convinced.

The Pannacotta Army
+++ channels the Beatles in all the good ways +++
+++ solid production +++
+++ great melody +++

Vote! There's nothing not to like about this tune: catchy melody, dynamics, solid prosody in the lyrics, good performances recorded well and mixed well.

Pigfarmer Jr | lyrics
+++ guitar lick +++
--- "You need a break today" : awkward prosody ---
+++ cello is a pleasant surprise +++

This is an example of the "GnG" done right. The guitar work is interesting, the singing is solid and the cello is a great minimalist touch. An often-denigrated genre at Song Fight is "Guy/Girl and Guitar," and rightly so It's an easy paradigm to record, and you often get naive beginners who think they're the next Bob Dylan. This is not one of those cases.

--- misogyny ---

See my critique of MC Charlie Oh above.

Ross Durand
+++ guitar riff +++
+++ melody +++

Ross Durand is a Song Fight! regular (and FAWM and SpinTunes). He's a really talented writer, singer and guitarist. This tune is pretty representative of his work: folk-influenced guy n' guitar work. Individually, the songs and their recordings are always strong, but it gets kind of samey. I always want him to expand more with his arrangement and production.

--- sloppy ---
--- derivative ---
--- dumb lyrics ---

+++ boldly surrealist lyrics that are still accessible enough to invite analysis +++
--- live production/recording is a little too raw ---
/// this sounds like an B-side, or something from Pearl Jam's Vitalogy album ///

I might actually vote for this, because it is so daring and its unusual elements congeal so well.

Sportswriters | lyrics
+++ opening that makes me go "Ooh! That sounds good." +++
--- lyrics rhythm is uneven; it kind of trips over itself and doesn't resolve in a satisfying well ---
+++ really solid, profession production +++
/// I feel like this should be in a scene from a Brat Pack movie... ///

This song is written 15/8 time, which might account for weird lyrical rhythm. Sportswriters is a newcomer to Song Fight! and his work reminds me of Manhattan Glutton. This offering is basically a list-song and it doesn't do much with that genre.

If I can remix my stuff, so can Sportswriters, check out a version with punchier vox, reworked drums and a new ending:

Occupy My Heart by The Sportswriters

State Shirt
+++ delicate and fully-realize soundscape +++
--- some of the vocal effects are grating ---
/// this would be a great song for a montage ///

The only thing that keeps me from voting for this is that the grating vocal effects pull me out of the "ooooh, this is pleasantly spacey" vibe.

Tony And Juan And Adam
+++ RAWK!+++
/// some one likes Rage Against the Machine, I see ///
/// as fun as this is, the lyrical take is kind of obvious for the musical genre and the music itself is derivative ///

I'd love to see this live. It would be a lot of fun, but then I would have another beer and forget about it.

The Yyarrell Brothers Band
+++ groove +++
--- tinny solo guitar tone ---
+++ melody +++
/// lyrics are kind of emo ///

One of the few straight-up pop song offerings this fight, and as such a refreshing part of this listen. I love the piano tone and the production is tight, but I can't relate to the story, which is very adolescent, and that guitar tone is horrendous.


glennny said...

Hey thanks for the review! One minor correction, the BSS is not an LA based band. We are near the San Francisco Bay, more specifically the East Bay, you know Berkeley. We rehearse in Oakland these days, and Occupy Oakland went right by our rehearsal space.

Nutrients said...

c.layne here. Thanks for the review! I think the near-clipping you hear might be intentional distortion, or could also be a product of my recent tendency to blow things out just past where they should be. It's a stylistic choice that admittedly works better some times than others. I just released a new album at my site called I'm Glad We Met. This song shares a lot of similarities to the ones there.
Thanks again!

John Brownlow said...

Sportswriters here. Thanks for the review, Noel. The vocal was the hardest thing to get right in the 15/8 timing, ironically. I re-recorded it and also re-did the drums and the ending to make more of a climax, so hopefully it now feels like it goes somewhere. Check it out here if you wish...