SpinTunes #3 Round 2 Review

TL;DR Matt and Donna made a fantastic song. It’s my favourite one this round and you should check it out!

Judging this round is easier, because there are fewer entries; it’s also harder, because you need to consider the newspaper story for each song. Personally, I found this challenge a bit too liberal – so many possibilities. Then again, my personal style relies on puns, and ordinary news rarely provide them. I guess I liked those entries best that strayed from the original story a bit and developed a life on their own. Here’s the individual verdicts.

Godz Poodlz: The pop band production gives this one a Jonathan Coulton feeling, yet I’d prefer a more basic approach in the style of the folk singers from the 60s. The lyrics require knowledge of the story, which might diminish the impact of the song. Apart from that, the plot and the values sung about speak directly to the listener (at least to me) and there’s little to no part I’d skip / shorten. Nice one.

Caleb Hines: Great atmosphere, beautiful melodies. The instrumentation gives the song a movie soundtrack / music vibe. I’m not sure the handclaps belong there. Also, the chorus could have done with a bit more closure imho.

Matt and Donna: I like this one from the very start. Yes, I’m a sucker for synth melodies (and sounds) like this one. The rhythm is this perfect mix between sparse basics and driving beats. The changes to some minor chords throughout the track give the song enough emotional depth to render the lyrics somewhat unimportant. And then I read them and the annotation, and I wish I had a) found such a story and b) come up with such a small, yet clever idea. Hot contender for my favourite song of #3 so far. (PS: A different, more memorable title could have made more sense in the challenge, like “stuck between the bars”. Then again, the actual title fits the song and is clever.)

Alex Carpenter: The sound of this stripped recording reminds me of the German Monsters of Liedermaching. The quirky man-with-guitar approach isn’t the perfect vehicle for a rather serious, highly motivated lyric. Alex should have changed productions with the Godz Poodlz! The ending could have gotten bigger with some more instrumental toys, I guess. In the present state it sounds rather flat, and the song remains nice at best.

Ross Durand: Top notch vocals – love the many words in one line vs. short line endings contrast. The guitar playing is exquisite as well. Once again, switching to a minor chord (?) when it comes to “Land of the free” give the chorus an extra bit of emotion. I’m not sure how including three headlines in one song is in line with the challenge. Still, the way they are combined into something new (i.e., this song) works perfectly for me. Very good entry!

Dr. Lindyke: May I suggest you add some vinyl playing sounds (crackling?) to the recording? It’s difficult to compare this contemplative song to the rather upbeat entries most other contestants made. I like how peace is in the center of the whole song. A bit more “plot” in the lyrics (as in the third verse, where a person, a place, and an action is given) would have appealed to me, I guess.

Alexa Polaski: Mmh, this seems to suffer from deadline writer’s block. Or maybe the flat, sober rendition is intentional. I find myself impartial to this entry.

Matt Walton: I get the feeling that this is a good idea. But the execution lacks energy and passion. Or maybe it’s intentionally clean. Speeding up the whole thing and adding a jig somewhere in there would have spiced up things. Speeding up your song is generally a good idea to figure out possible changes/improvements. I’m not a native speaker, so my impression of the lyrics is rather vague. The verses sounded too much alike. It’s a song about demonstrating, so it could have done with more outgoing temperament – and possibly a mellow last verse for contrast.

Charlie McCarron: The production and performance sound quite good – still, it’s a tad too jazzy for my taste. The soaring vocals in between are a nice touch. The song managed to turn a newspaper story into a song story, thumbs up for that!

Jon Eric: Epic song, longest entry so far!? It starts out good, but the first chorus is already taking the drive out of the song. The atmosphere is gripping and it becomes clear that this will be a longer journey. The whole thing reminds me of Trans-Siberian Orchestra – probably the pathos in the vocals and the piano. When I say that this one’s too long, I don’t mean that parts are very enjoyable. The plot line holds the thing together and is one of the better ones this round.

Wait What: Did the planned marriage involve a robot? No? Then why the excessive auto-tune? The music is solid, creating a dense atmosphere. I like how it becomes bigger half-way through the song. Having the vocals in a higher register afterwards is a good idea. But why the auto-tune?

Governing Dynamics: Much better than the previous entry – or at least more true to the dynamics and the vocal/e-git combination I admire Travis for. The choice of the news item isn’t exactly quirky or anything. But the aura suits the musical style. Tip for future hit songs: Try writing a refrain that starts with an offbeat (that is, the vocals have a couple of notes before the 1 of the first chorus bar). Right now the song seems to me like a reflection of a big city in turmoil (which is an achievement), but with the right kind of hookline it could have been, well, catchier.

Pat and Gweebol: The topic of the song is rather serious, but the overall tone is quite joyful. Apart from this cognitive dissonance it’s a solid song, neatly produced and with much better vocals than I can ever hope to perform myself.

The Offhand Band: Did Billy Joel sneak into the contest? The style of the song along with its unintrosive melodies makes it easy to dismiss it as (quite flawless) background music for movies, elevators etc. The story told in the song has an important message and I wish it would have been put into more concise words.

Chris Cogott: Amazing vocals! The news were translated into highly original lyrics. I don’t think you can meet the challenge more than this entry does. There’s little to complain here, only that it’s ever so slightly outside my musical pleasure zone. Maybe it’s a bit too soft, a bit too much U2 (though there’s little to begin with), a bit too vast a harmonic soundscape. I don’t know. It boggles my mind that this appears to be one of the earliest submissions as it sound really professional. Maybe next time there will be rock guitars or melancholic twang guitars. No wait, we all will be rapping.

Steve Durand: I like how Steve has a rather unique sound that sets him apart from the other competitors. His tune is cheerful and less elaborate than some of his previous works. The vocals struggle with the higher notes – transposing is no crime, I think. The music is a bit too casual for my taste. The instrumental part in between hints at a bit more depths. But in the end it’s a plain waltz with a lot of happiness.

Gold Lion: Again, this is not exactly my cup of tea. However, the droning motive in the guitar and the strong vocals make me enjoy this song quite a bit. The refrain is beautiful and the story rather touching. The guitars could be a bit tighter, but this doesn’t keep me from enjoying the song. Also, the second vocal track is a bit confusing, at least to my ears. I could imagine that some more instruments here and there could give the whole thing a bit more colour. Anyway, a pleasant entry.

Inverse T. Clown: Oh boy, why isn’t the rhythm in the chorus a double-time feel? The verses are a bit dull, but the chorus is strong and the sounds fit the song well. The dramatic chord near the end of the refrain is very effective. The instrumental is kind of cool. There could have been a tad more plot development throughout the verses. Nice ending, good song.

Happi: Not a pleasant entry, partly because I’m not into rap. Oh, the irony. The plot fits the style, sort of. The individual parts a rather flat, but the transition keep the ball rolling throughout the song. The chorus melody is sung out of key, I guess. But who am I to point that out?

Menage’ a Tune: A jolly tune with some nice rhymes and a sincere vocal performance. I would have liked the title line to be bigger, more like a recurring refrain, maybe sung by a bunch of players. (Is it baseball? Or basketball? Or American Football?) I’m sure I’d dig the song if I had a connection to the team/type of sport.

Noah McLaughlin: The off-beat hi-hat in the verses is an interesting choice. The twangy guitars are cool. The distorted vocals work well. The songwriting feels a bit rushed. The middle-part is rather confusing, yet another indicator that more time would have led to a better song (or no song at all, who knows). The lyrics deal with a complex matter (or well, a matter I’m not too familiar with), so while I’m catching glimpses of the news in the song, I struggle to connect all the lyrical dots.

SpinTunes Feedback, Metal Influences, and Statistics

The first round of the SpinTunes #3 song writing competition is over. Lo and behold, I made it to the next round! So needless to say I’m happy with the results. But equally important, the reviewers provided a lot of feedback. One is often inclined to retort when faced with criticism. Musicians even tend to reject praise if they feel misunderstood. I’m no exception. But this time around I actually agree with everything the judges wrote about my entry. (I Love the Dead – remember?) There wasn’t even the initial urge to provide my point of view, shed light on my original intentions. I will now go into the details, before I turn to a quick statistical analysis of the ratings in the last section of this post.

The incubation period for this song was rather long. At first, I was considering writing about the death metal band Death. It would have meant stretching the challenge and alienating anyone unfamiliar with the history of death metal (read: pretty much everyone). The only reminiscence of heavy metal in my actual entry is the adaptation of Megadeth’s “Killing Is My Business and Business Is Good”. I toyed with the idea of celebrating the death of a person who has lived fully and left nothing but happy marks on the lives others. Translating this idea into an actual song was a complete failure, though. I also considered writing about mortality statistics. There’s people who estimate the space needed for future graveyards and health insurances and so on. I’m somewhat familiar with the statistics behind that. But it would have taken weeks to turn this into a cohesive songs. So I returned to the notion of the happy grave digger. (Yes, Grave Digger is the name of a German metal band.) The working title was “Grave Digger’s Delight”. The music started with the chorus while I was playing an older idea I hadn’t used so far. Basically, I threw away the old idea except for the initial G-chord and the final change to D. I did add the intro melody, more on that soon. The verses are the good, old vi-IV-I-V, but with a ii thrown in for good measure. That’s not too original, but I was already running out of time. The lyrics started out with a word cloud of related terms. Plots With a View was a big inspiration when it came to the sincerity behind the mortician’s word. Here’s a person who’s dedicated to his job! I had wanted to include a couple of fancy funeral descriptions. But the music called for more concise lyrics. All that’s left from that idea is the line “I can give you silence – I can give you thunder”, which I kept to rhyme with “six feet under”. That one is indeed very plain, but I felt that the huge number of competitors called for a straight song that brings its message across during the first listen, preferably during the first 20 seconds. I think I succeeded in this respect. (This also a major reason why I changed the title to “I Love the Dead” – keeping it straight and plain.) The 2 minute minimum length gave me headaches. This made me keep, even repeat, the intro melody. I was tempted to use a fade out. But I always see this as a lack of ideas. So I used the working title for the ending. Given a few more days I might have come up with a more adequate closure. Even as I was filming the video, I felt the need to shorten the ending. I tried to spice up the arrangement with a bridge (post-chorus?) of varying length. I wasn’t completely sure about it during the recording process, but now I’m glad that the deadline forced me to keep it as it is. At one point I had a (programmed) drum track and some piano throughout the songs. To me it sounded as if they were littering the song rather than filling in lower frequencies. So I dropped them and just used a couple of nylon-stringed guitars (one hard right, one hard left), a steel-stringed guitar (center), a couple of shakers, lead vocals plus double-tracked vocals and harmony vocals in the chorus (slightly panned) and, of course, the last tambourine.

TL;DR – I appreciate the feedback and I resolve to start working on my next entry sooner.

Russ requests statistics. I happily obliged and performed a quick factor analysis using the ratings. What this method basically does is to create a multi-dimensional space in which the ratings are represented. There is one dimension for each judge, yielding a 9-dimensional space in the present case. If everybody judged the songs in a similar way, you would expect “good” songs to have rather high ratings on all dimensions the “bad” songs to receive low ratings. A line is fitted into this space to model this relationship. If all data point (i.e., songs) are close to that line in that space, the ratings are supposed to be uni-dimensionally.  In other words, there appears to be one underlying scale of song quality that is reflected in the ratings. This would be at odds with the common assertion that judgments are purely subjective and differ from rater to rater. (It would also suggest that computing the sum score is somewhat justified and not just creating numeric artifacts void of meaning.)

Using Stata 10 to perform a factor analysis with a principal-component solution, I get the following factors:

. factor blue-popvote, pcf

Factor analysis/correlation                    Number of obs    =       37
Method: principal-component factors            Retained factors =        2
Rotation: (unrotated)                          Number of params =       17

Factor   |   Eigenvalue   Difference        Proportion   Cumulative
Factor1  |      4.44494      3.29466            0.4939       0.4939
Factor2  |      1.15028      0.33597            0.1278       0.6217
Factor3  |      0.81431      0.08112            0.0905       0.7122
Factor4  |      0.73319      0.19850            0.0815       0.7936
Factor5  |      0.53468      0.05959            0.0594       0.8530
Factor6  |      0.47510      0.11760            0.0528       0.9058
Factor7  |      0.35750      0.05932            0.0397       0.9456
Factor8  |      0.29818      0.10635            0.0331       0.9787
Factor9  |      0.19183            .            0.0213       1.0000
LR test: independent vs. saturated:  chi2(36) =  137.45 Prob>chi2 = 0.0000

Wait, what? Let’s just focus on one criteria for exploring the factor solution: Eigenvalues larger than 1. Here are two such factors, which suggests that the rating data represents two (independent) dimensions. (For those familiar with the method: I tried a few rotated solutions, but they yield similar results.) Now the first factor explains almost half of the variance at hand whereas the second factor has a much smaller Eigenvalue and subsequently explains only 1/8 of the variance in the data.

Let’s take a look at the so called factor loading to see how the two factor relate to the raters. Stata says:

Factor loadings (pattern matrix) and unique variances

Variable |  Factor1   Factor2 |   Uniqueness
blue     |   0.6128   -0.0039 |      0.6244
mike     |   0.7690   -0.1880 |      0.3733
mitchell |   0.7188    0.1032 |      0.4727
glenn    |   0.7428   -0.0309 |      0.4474
randy    |   0.8830    0.0089 |      0.2202
kevin    |   0.7768    0.1219 |      0.3817
david    |   0.6764    0.3650 |      0.4092
ben      |  -0.0672    0.9439 |      0.1045
popvote  |   0.7512   -0.2534 |      0.3714

Without going into statistical details, let’s say that the loading indicate who strongly each rater is related with each factor. For example, Blue’s ratings have less to do with the overall factor than Mike’s ratings. Both rater’s show rather high loadings, though. Given the high loading of all raters (except one) indicate a high level of general agreement. The only exception is Ben, whose ratings have little to do with the first factor. (You could argue that he even gave reverse ratings, but the loading is quite small.) Instead, his ratings play a big role in the second factor (which is by definition statistically independent from the first one). There is some agreement with the remaining variance of David’s ratings and a negative relationship with the popular vote (if you use the somewhat common notion to interpret loadings that are larger than 0.2). So there appears to be some dissent regarding the ranking. But on the other hand, the “dominant” first factor suggests that the ratings reflect the same construct to a large degree. Whether that’s song writing skills, mastering of the challenge, or simply sympathy, is different question.

PS: I must admit that I haven’t listened to all entries, yet. It’s a lot of music and I’m struggling with a few technical connection glitches. Anyway, I liked what Jason Morris and Alex Carpenter did, although their music wasn’t that happy. Another entry that necessarily caught my attention was Wake at the Sunnyside by the one and only Gödz Pöödlz. Not only did they choose the same topic I used, they also came up with a beautiful pop song and plenty of original lyrical ideas. Good work!

Feedback Webmailer 2.0

As you might defer from the administrative details of this homepage I am a costumer of 1&1 (which is a member of united internet). Yesterday evening, they upgraded their webmailer. The first odd thing is that it’s the second upgrade while I’m using it; still, they call it Webmailer 2.0. Similar logic was probably applied while creating the new, allegedly improved webmail interface. In a vain attempt to turn it into a web-based MS Outlook, they managed to slow it down. The new layout clutters the screen with windows, leaving only tiny frames for the actual emails when you’re using a somewhat small screen resolution. (800×600 in my case.) Of course, I didn’t expect them to make the webmailer better. Of course, I wrote them a message. Of course, they responded with a form email. Surprisingly, it contained useful information, i.e., it’s still possible to switch your accounts back to the old webmailer via the admin configuration; a fact that could have been included in the actual welcome mail. Of course, I proceeded to switch back. A feedback form appeared half way through. So I wrote the following message. (I don’t know why I wrote all this in English whereas the feedback is naturally in German. Yet another of life’s mysteries.) It’s just one example of what in German is called “Verschlimmbesserung” (making things worse while trying to improve them); I could write similar things about most message boards, MS Office 2007 and even WordPress.

Das Produkt reift beim Kunden, jaja. Der Webmailer 2.0 sollte ein grünes Layout haben, damit es schön ins Auge sticht. Das Blau ist noch viel zu subtil. Und dass man kontraintuitiv zu Weblinks (und dem alten Webmailer) doppelt zum Mail-Öffnen klicken muss, sollte auf alle 1und1-Links übertragen werden. Wenn schon einheitlich, dann richtig! Nachdem die vollkommen überflüssige Funktion/Pfeillinkfläche “nächste/vorherige E-Mail” bei der E-Mail-Ansicht eingespart wurde, würde ich mir wünschen, dass “E-Mail löschen” und “E-Mail beantworten” auch noch wegfallen. Braucht doch kein Mensch. Auch beim Gesamtaufbau bleiben dem User viel zu viele Möglichkeiten. Ein paar Leute sollen sogar schon herausgefunden haben, wie man den Kalender von der Startseite entfernt. Zum Glück wurde immerhin am Erfolgsrezept festgehalten, den User nach dem Ausloggen mit Werbung zu überschütten. Sonst hätte ich mir schon wirklich ernsthafte Wechselgedanken gemacht.

Update: Spitze, ungefragt wurde bei der Umstellung das Verzeichnis mit den gesendeten E-Mails gelöscht. Endlich wieder Platz! Was interessiert mich schon, was ich das letzte Jahr über geschrieben habe?

Und noch ein Update: Und siehe da, es ward ein Verzeichnis “Gesendete Objekte” zusätzlich zum Verzeichnis “Gesendet”. Tzehe.