Unnecessarily Explaining My Art: Stars Over Avalon

Spintunes is under way once again (or rather, has been for a month as I write this) and I decided to sign up and try my luck and/or skill again. A quick word before I get going – there is immense talent in the field this time, and everybody really seems to be bringing their best to the table. Once nice thing about this iteration is that when I lose (and I do fully expect to) there will be absolutely no shame in it. Well done, everyone. I’m proud to be competing/comparing notes/listening to new songs with you.

That warm and fuzzy bit of personal anecdote out of the way, let’s talk about my song from the first round…

THE CHALLENGE

The challenge this time around was to “Write a song about YOUR hometown”. The name of the town had to be used at least once. A few qualifications – it did not necessarily have to be the town where you grew up, any town where you had demonstratable “roots” was acceptable.

This basically gave me three choices:

1. Avalon, MO. My real, actual hometown where I lived up until college. This is what I decided to go with so I’ll hold off on further description for now.

2. Chadron, NE. This is where I went to college and lived for four years (other than the summers). It’s a town in northwest Nebraska, home to around 6,000 permanent and residents and 3,000 students attending Chadron State College. This was doable, I suppose, but college went buy in quite a blur and in a lot of ways Chadron is just a series of dim impressions. I definitely learned a lot about music there and made some good friends but my attachment to the town itself is pretty slim – I have no real interest in going back there (granted that might have something to do with the 14 hour drive involved). Aside from all that, I already wrote a song called Nebraska Sky. While it doesn’t reference Chadron by name that is pretty much my Chadron song and I haven’t felt much need to write another.

3. Greater Kansas City Area, MO (Gladstone andIndependence). I’ve been living here since 2007. I feel very little emotional attachment to it, partly because I’m such a hermit (video games, music, work, sleep… I have yet to go to a single bar or “Mom n Pop” restaurant/shop, although like most urban areas there isn’t much of that left). In all honestly, I don’t think I could satisfy the requirement of having roots in KC even if I wanted to write a song about it, which I really don’t anyway, so it works out!

So I chose Avalon. At first I was sort of (for want of better term) “meh” about the challenge. Nothing much happens in Avalon. It has very little connection to the outside world. …and with those two thoughts I knew more or less where I was heading.

THE LYRICS

When I started writing the lyrics, I….
….
Hey, have you heard of Dr. Lindyke? The songwriting partnership between Dave Leigh and William Hoover, and also Dave’s internet handle? Check out this post on his blog. I’ll wait.

http://music.cratchit.org/2010/10/deconstructing-stars-over-avalon.html

Read that? Excellent. Okay. He’s right about everything.

(Well, that was easy..)

The only other thing I really have to add is that several people mentioned how lucky I was for the purposes of this challenge to live in a town called “Avalon”. I have to agree… somewhat. It’s a beautiful name and has all kinds of meaning that people will bring to it on their own (which I like). I did, however, struggle with finding a good rhyme for it that would 1) stand up to repetition and 2) didn’t seem forced, and as a result I only used the town’s name in the song the minimum required one time. If I was going to repeat it, I wanted it to be in the form of a hook. Since I didn’t end up writing what you would call a traditional chorus I settled for a more “emotional hook” at the end of the bridge instead.

RECORDING


(This might more logically be after the “THE MUSIC” section but I am saving theory related stuff for the end.)
Despite Dave being right about everything as far as what I was trying to say with the lyrics, it took me quite some time to get the lyrics written and get everything in a coherent whole. This is partly because I was busy the week the challenge was issued and partly because of writer’s block.

The recordings were due at 11pm (my time) on a Sunday… Unfortunately, I was working 4pm-midnight that day. I had also worked 4pm-midnight the day before and hadn’t really finished the lyrics until that time. So the entire song, music, vocals and all, was recorded on one night/morning between about 1am (when I arrived home) and 9am (just before I went to sleep to wake up at 3pm).

There were a couple of unfortunate consequences of this. The first was, due to not having lyrics, I had been pretty much unable to finalize music, so I was “learning” the song as I recorded it. The performance is actually pretty good (on the guitar end of things anyway) but I ended up recording it about 82bpm. It’s just drags a bit… slightly, and not even noticeable for some, but it was noted by several judges (and also a couple of the non-official reviews submitted this time around mentioned it). If/when I re-record Stars Over Avalon it’s going to be that critical 4-6bpm faster. It’s a pretty good rule of thumb for most of my songs that I need to speed them up that much from where I first feel comfortable.

The sound during the intro (also at the very beginning of the second verse) is a double-tracked semi-hollow guitar, playing a harmonized line with aid of the near-magical Ebow. I wanted a sound that was synth-like while still being fairly organic and this worked well. There are little Ebow fills through the song providing color and atmosphere, and the spooky little riff after the “secrets buried” line in verse 2 uses the same trick.
For the other guitars, one is a Strat type guitar on which I’m playing a “subtle nod to Jimi”-type rhythm part (nobody mentioned it, but that’s hardly surprising given the overall “modern” feel of the tune). The other rhythm guitar is playing sustained power chords during the verse, working with the bass to provide the bedrock of the song, and then switching to 8th notes during the chorus for a slight increase in intensity/difference in feel.

The solo is my usual combo plate of ProCo RAT-type distortion and delay. (Incidentally it’s being played on the cheapest guitar I own. I love me some good-sounding cheap guitars)
I think the bass line could stand to be a bit louder, especially since it is the main driving force on the verses, but I had some technical difficulties with it (my usual technical difficulty with both bass and vocals: turning it up to the correct level of audibility ends up leading to clipping).

I was somewhat baffled by the overall reaction to the vocals – I felt they were pretty good, at least by Governing Dynamics standards. Granted, by the time I recorded I was pretty tired but even now when I listen I don’t hear TOO many problems. It’s probably worth noting that a few of my favorite bands (and singers from said bands) have been/are: Counting Crows, Modest Mouse, Radiohead, Bright Eyes…. In other words I place more value on communicated emotion and expression than being 100 percent on pitch all the time. Also, asthma. Also, let’s be honest, I’m just not a singer. Or rather, I’m a baritone and I tend to write songs that need a tenor. I don’t know, whatever. Sadly I’m afraid I’m going to be fundamentally incompatible with several of the judges (and one alternate judge) on this point, and it will probably be the driving force behind my eventual elimination. Very sad, but life goes on.

THE MUSIC

I’m feeling kind of basic today, so here are the chords:

Verses:
Am Em F Dm
C G Dm (this part is repeated the second time through the progression)

Chorus:
F G/B Cmaj7 C/E
F Gsus4 G/B Am9 Em7
F G

Bridge:
Eb Bb/D Bb Ab(add9) (4x)
Cm (held for a second and the modulated back to Am for the solo)

Solo: Same as verse.

JUDGE/REVIEWER RESPONSE

Just for the fun/hell of it I’m going to respond to the official judges and any other reviews of the round that I found (for this round at least, we’ll see how the reaction goes and.. if poorly, I probably won’t continue to do this).  Some of these are written as direct responses and some not, because I wrote them at two different times.  If you’re a judge and want to tell me (for the second time in most cases) that I’m wrong please reply, I’m interested in The Dialogue.

Dr. Lindyke: Well, he gave me first place and wrote the lyrical deconstruction of the song for me, so I’m going to say Dave gets the song. Not much to respond to. Although this was the first mention of my lacking vocals (although in a way that made me shrug and say, “Eh, okay” rather than mildly infuriating me). I’ve got a great deal of respect for Dave as a writer and performer, so it’s a nice feeling to write something he seems to like quite a lot.

Glen Phillips: I quite enjoy singing, actually, but I was getting a little tired by the time I did the take I used. This was a combination of trying for subtlety, trying not to make my mic clip, blah blah blah, I could explain it for awhile and I think I’ve got at least one other judge who didn’t like my vocals to address so I’ll save it. The only place I really agree that the vocals should be more “intense” is during the bridge. Couldn’t really reach that Ab in full voice (couldn’t really reach it at all, apparently) so I did have to lay back a little. Glad you like the solo, I am admittedly a guitarist first, songwriter second, bassist third and singer a distant fourth, so solos are kind of the “potatoes” to my rhythm guitar’s “meat”.

Kevin Savino-Riker: I’m glad you like the music… I am fully aware that’s where most of my strength lies (or does that overconfident of me, hmmm). I have thought about it and I think I mostly disagree that the song really needs a “hook” exactly. There is one, it’s just kind of short. Basically any line that mentions stars/Avalon (ie. The last line of the chorus, or B section if you like). I am a little disappointed (not in you, or in me, but in general) that the verses and choruses weren’t more distinguishable. Paul Potts also had a similar complaint if I remember correctly and if I’m hearing it from two people whose ears I trust, I’m willing to believe it’s probably at least somewhat true.
But, they don’t have anything like similar chords, there is a change in the rhythm figure for both guitars, there is a signature riff (although it may not be terribly audible) for the B section.. and so on. It’s a little frustrating that this was the main complaint and it apparently got me deep into Elimination territory in your vote… simply because I don’t know what to do about it other than add another repeated section to a song already nearing the four and a half minute mark. As for the vocals, like I said above to Mr. Phillips, I was going for “subtle” and guess I came off as “does not want to be singing this song right now”. Oh well. If I had to guess between the two options you would gave me, I would guess it’s partly reservation (as I said, I was unfortunately learning the song as I recorded it) but a lot more just my timbre/style/etc.

Jeff MacDougall: Sorry it didn’t work for you. As for the challenge – I didn’t feel that the song could be about anywhere other than Avalon and I think it’s fairly obviously my hometown from the lyrics. Unfortunately not being London or New York or Lansing or some other town that people might be at least mildly familiar with, saying/repeating the name of the song wouldn’t help the problem much, I don’t think. I can tell you “we are in Avalon” as many times as I like, but nobody’s ever heard of Avalon (MO), so there is no real information communicated by doing so. I attempted to show rather than tell, but that’s always a gamble I suppose. I disagree that the guitar solo should replace the bridge. I think it would feel either a little lazy or “out of left field” – the guitar solo was more specifically designed to make the modulation/transition from Eb back to C (Cm to Am? Whatever..) smoother (also because any song about my hometown and my relationship to it needs a guitar solo). If I took out the bridge I’d probably just go to the second chorus and finish the song. I think that would be boring (verse-chorus-verse-chorus-out? Meh); although I guess I didn’t do good enough job of making the bridge feel like a separate part of the song, either.

Zack Scott: I can’t tell you how relieved I was to read the line “Causes feelings of nostalgia in me despite never being to Avalon.” That was PRECISELY what I was trying to do and over the course of Glen/Kevin/Jeff’s review I was starting to worry I’d failed completely (Dave’s review didn’t say this outright, but his later deconstruction did—of course a first place review was not going to bother me much regardless, haha). It is nice to have my intent understood. Thank you.

Spintown (Travis Langworthy): This review is a good example of why I’m frequently frustrated by your reviews. :p I have no idea what I did differently in this song, lyrically, that caused you to like them (apparently) more than (chosen for no particular reason) Eleyna Dreams or.. almost any of my songs other than Broken Boy. :p Actually you can apply the same thing the vocals. :p I don’t know, maybe I’ve just got (audio) blinders on but I can’t find as much to hate about my vocals this round as everyone else did. I might take another run at them and maybe this can finally supplant Broken Boy as my best song ever.

Paul R. Potts: Well, you paid me two big compliments – playing live and Sonic Youth. A TMA Concert would be pretty damn awesome, wouldn’t it? Now we all need to be millionaires who can take several days off work and make that happen… ahem, anyway. Something you’ll learn (or probably have already figured out since Challenge 2 is out) is that my lyrics tend towards the abstract… in any event, I don’t necessarily disagree that the lyrics could be better. They ALWAYS could be better. But as they stand they’re very genuine and I don’t know if I could change them at this point. I can agree that in one respect it doesn’t tell you much about the town itself – that’s because there’s very little to tell (especially if I want to back up any claims I make with evidence, haha. I looked – there are VERY FEW records relating to the town anywhere, and what there are contradict each other at some points). I guess it would be fair to say that my song is more about how the people in the town feel about living (and dying) there… but what is a town without it’s people?

Niveous: Well, since I’m responding to you last you unfortunately get the copy pasted reviews from three others:  1) Glad you enjoyed the solo.  2) I disagree about the need for the chorus, see Kevin’s response if you need more.  3) Sorry the overall song didn’t work for you.   That said, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful–I very much appreciate your perspective and hope that the Backlash from your round 1 review hasn’t put you off writing further Spintunes reviews.

And one more I forgot originally:

Graham Porter: I am glad you liked the intro, I am quite proud of it for a number of reasons (mood setter, successfully made guitars sound more or less like synth, harmonized, etc. etc.). We’ve already discussed the lyric repeating elsewhere, I think, but the part I think you had the most trouble with was really just a vocal adlib… mostly trying to keep it from sounding like the guitarist killed the vocalist and started playing a solo. Not that that makes any sense in the context of my band. Unfortunately I’m not sure I can agree that this isn’t a pop market… it’s not a “Hot 100, On A Boat” type of market, certainly, but the degree to which production and, for want of better term, “catchiness” seem to be weighted in the judging it’s a little close to “pop” than I would have assumed originally.

IN CONCLUSION…


Pretty good round, overall. I ended up about where I expected to: mid-pack and out of elimination range. However I expected to be more evenly in the (say) 10-14 slot across all reviews so the bell curve voting pattern was a little surprising. Although my Dad did warn me people were either going to love Stars Over Avalon or hate it. I guess the moral of the story is, listen to your Dad… er… wait…
But anyway, I felt this was a good challenge, that allowed me to finally write a song that I should have written long ago (and quite possibly needed to write).
On to round 2….

-Travis

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3 comments so far

  1. Graham Porter (Emperor Gum) on

    Wow, we’re having a weird cross internet discussion about this. As I said at the end of my review, I was trying to find something wrong with every song, but for the best songs of the round I was really nitpicking. I mean, I voted for yours!

    I would argue that good production (looking at you, Classical) and a catchy melody is in no way the sole domain of pop music, its important to all forms of music. Ride Of The Valkyries is a small part of a four-sectioned giant opera, but that’s the only tune that stuck. Had the judging been cumulative, Edric would probably have won SpinTunes 1. The man ain’t pop.

    • theedgeofcynicism on

      Oh, if that read like I was hurt or offended by the review, that wasn’t the case at all. 🙂 Much in the same way you were looking for something to nitpick, I was going overly in-depth in explaining the repeated-lyrics thing.

      Re: pop markets I was referring more to the “this needs a chorus/hook” reviews,, although I guess only one of those actually came from an official judge.

      And you’re right about Edric… in Spintunes 1. 😉 This DEFINITELY (to me anyway) feels like a different competition with the different judges.

  2. Graham Porter (Emperor Gum) on

    I didn’t take your review of my review to be offended. Curse the internet’s inability to convey true meaning! I agree about the judging having a different flavour, a different panel each time should keep things fresh, hopefully.

    As a general thought in regards making music to please the judges: for me at least, I’m not trying to. I listen to what they say, and have made changes when I agree. Ultimately however, I’m more interested in the fun/challenge of ‘engaging’ in an organised songwriting contest rather than ‘competing’ in it, if that makes sense. I don’t feel I’m good enough yet that I’m ready to play for the win.


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