International Songwriting Contest, 2013: My Picks

I enjoy browsing the winners of large songwriting contests. It’s always fun to discover  brand new talent, and it reveals something about my own musical tastes when a large selection of completely new music is put in front of me. Most recently, I took a listen to some of the musicians who placed in the 2013 International Songwriting Contest. There are certain genres I just avoid altogether (electronica, hip-hop, etc.) and others where the genre isn’t what it used to be (Top 40, adult contemporary). And then, happily, there are the genres where good music is still being made. This year, I kept coming back to the Americana, folk/singer-songwriter, blues and country selections. I guess I prefer music that says something to “music” that exists merely to put a worm in your ear.

The wealth of untapped talent out there is incredible. I laughed and cried over several of the songs that placed in these categories. In several cases, I actually preferred the 2nd or 3rd place finishers to the category winner. Below are some of my favorites. Think of this sampler as a little slice of “coffeehouse cake,” or alternatively, “songs that are too good for radio.”

Continue reading “International Songwriting Contest, 2013: My Picks”

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Country Singing Coal-Miner/Military Vet on America’s Got Talent

I think the pickings are pretty slim for America’s Got Talent this year, but there are a few acts  I’ve enjoyed. There’s a popera trio named Forte who’s easy on the eyes and reminds me of Il Divo. There’s a teenage magician who’s as good a showman as he is a magician. Perhaps most impressive is Anna Christine, a 10-year-old girl with an old soul who sang and played “House of the Rising Sun.” Let’s also not forget the black guy who came out and sang like… well I won’t spoil the surprise, but watch his audition here, and stick around after the performance for a great extra “Awwwww” moment.

However, as soon as I saw the audition I’m sharing with you today, I knew I’d instantly found a new favorite. The singer is Jimmy Rose. This video gives you some background about his life as a coal miner in Kentucky, then choosing to serve in the Marine Corps for four years. He is now 32, pursuing his dream of becoming a country singer. But he’s not just another country singer. He’s a singer/songwriter, and for this audition, he made the daring choice of performing an original song dedicated to the coal miners of his hometown. Continue reading “Country Singing Coal-Miner/Military Vet on America’s Got Talent”

Recently Added: Billy Joel

Since he turned 64 the other day (cue the Beatles!) it seemed appropriate to showcase some Billy Joel songs I’ve been enjoying recently (which you may or may not recognize) and to try to capture in one humble little blog post why I’m such a fan.

As a child, I never listened to secular radio, and my knowledge of popular secular music was shaky beyond the 1940s. So my earliest memory of hearing Billy Joel’s music goes back a mere 5-7 years. I was hanging out with a neo-classical composer friend at a university roadhouse. We took turns making fun of the songs on the radio. Then the first few bars of “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” started playing. My friend paused, listening intently. “This…” he said, pointing to the speaker. “This is a great song.”  Continue reading “Recently Added: Billy Joel”

Two Articles for Retuned

Interested readers can read two more pieces I’ve posted at the site The Retuned since I was invited to be a guest contributor there. One of them examines the biblical symbolism of justice and mercy in a song from Les Miserables entitled “Who Am I?” The other discusses secular love songs that are beautifully written but offer a vision of romantic love/passion that their authors themselves feel is too good to be true. I view the songs from the biblical framework of our longing for Eden and the joyful fulfillment of that longing in God’s perfect design for marriage and sexuality.

So, unless you hate Les Miserables (or musicals in general), Simon & Garfunkel, or Marc Cohn (or secular love songs in general), I hope you can take something good away from my thoughts on all of the above.

“Who Am I?”: Harmonizing Grace and Justice in Les Miserables

Whenever I May Find Her: A Song for Paradise Lost (Note: The image for this post depicts the creation of Eve. If a Dore engraving of Eve in her original created state would bother you… then don’t click on the post.)

Britain’s Got Talent 2012: Who Were My Favorites?

Simon Cowell may consider his life’s work complete, but I was a tad disappointed that this year’s BGT was won by a dancing dog act. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge dog lover, and Pudsey is adorable and talented, but with so many deserving acts that placed below the dapper canine and his trainer… it was just a bit disappointing, if predictable.

So I thought I would write a little post about a few of my favorites from this season, because I really think this was one of the best “batches” yet. I think I’ll work my way backwards and end this post with who my personal top three would have been. Hopefully that will keep you reading to the end. 🙂

First, I’ll mention one semi-finalist who didn’t make it to the finals: Hope Murphy. This 16-year-old girl was pretty quiet, but she was classy and really had a great voice. In her semi-final, she covered Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” and even though she messed up some of the lyrics at the beginning, it was an impressive moment. Because she literally left out a whole phrase in verse one, and because her accompaniment was minimal, it’s impressive that she was able to get back on track. Watch her performance here. I would have definitely preferred to see her in the finals over one of the boy bands or dancing acts who did make the cut.

Next, there were two similar contestants who both happened to fit the “clean-cut heartthrob/crooner with a guitar” image: Sam Kelly and Ryan O’Shaughnessy. I enjoyed both of these guys. I thought they were sweet, likable and had actual talent. Sam’s voice is somewhat squeaky/emotional for my taste, but all three of his performances were good, and my favorite was probably his cover of “Bless the Broken Road” in the final. Even though this song is a standard in America, neither Rascal Flatts nor the song is well known in Britain, so it was refreshing to see them getting some exposure “across the pond.” Sure enough, I went over to a video of Rascal Flatts doing the song and saw British viewers saying, “Sam Kelly brought me here!” So this is a very good thing. Watch his performance here. (Be warned though—looks like he’s been raiding Ernie Haase’s closet recently. The shirt is fine, but the pants…)

However, I preferred Ryan, both because he has a cleaner voice and because he’s a songwriter too! The Irish 19-year-old had the guts to perform exclusively original material throughout the show. There’s a bit of a sad story surrounding the song he auditioned with, “No Name,” a heartfelt expression of love for a certain girl he’d fallen for. The judges pressed him to reveal her name, but he shyly refused. Later she came forward and revealed herself, but then the story didn’t have a happy ending because she told Ryan she had another boyfriend and couldn’t go steady with him. I felt bad for him because he just seems like the nicest guy, and he wrote the sweetest songs for her. Everyone agrees it’s her loss. Here is his audition. When he puts out an album, I’ll check it out for sure. A very warm, folksy sound.

Now for my top three. In third place, I would have put child singer Molly Rainford. She’s only 11 years old, but she has an amazingly pure, mature, well-rounded voice. It’s an old-fashioned pop voice, not opera in a Jackie Evancho vein, but very impressive in its own way. And she’s an absolute dear as well. Sadly, I can’t help feeling it will be bad for her if she does become a star, since the industry always seems to take the innocent girls who enter into it and spit out ruined, sexualized young women on the end. We’ll pray that’s not Molly’s fate. Meanwhile, enjoy her innocence and sweet voice while we have it. Here is her breath-taking semi-final performance of “It Must Have Been Love.” (I had never heard the song before, and then I discovered her arrangement was COMPLETELY different from the original. Her arrangement is light-years better.)

In second place, I would put the Welsh boys’ choir Only Boys Aloud. Now these lads did take 3rd, so that wasn’t so far from where they deserved to be, just a little behind IMO. This 133-voice choir is easily one of my FAVORITE acts ever to take the stage on this show. They gave me goosebumps, they gave Britain goosebumps, they were classy and inspirational to the max. There’s nothing like over a hundred fresh-faced teenage boys singing Welsh hymns fit to burst. It’s everything I love about male singing and male bonding rolled into one. Hats off to their director and the men who have mentored them. Watch their brilliant audition here, which also provides the group’s inspiring backstory. Here are the lyrics with English translation to the hymn they were singing, “Calon Lan (Pure Heart)”.

Finally, some of you may have heard of the act I would have placed first. They came so close, but they had to be content with second: Charlotte and Jonathan. The two teenagers  (16 and 17 respectively) came on the show together to sing pop/opera duets, Charlotte being the pop half and Jonathan being the opera half. Their friendship is a really special thing, because Charlotte has encouraged Jonathan in his struggle for self-confidence as he battles obesity. His gift is truly remarkable, so remarkable that when the pair first auditioned, Charlotte was somewhat lost in his shadow, and Simon even wondered if Jonathan should “dump her.” But Jonathan determined to stick by her, and it paid off, because I saw Charlotte grow vocally as she sought to prove herself through the remainder of the competition. She could definitely have a future in musical theater. Meanwhile, I just hope Jonathan has the emotional strength to deal with his newfound stardom. Break out the tissues, prepare to be blown away, and watch a couple of their performances—their semi-final here (this was where Simon officially ate his words from the audition) and their final here.

What do you think?

Ballad Buffet!

“It’s a ballad!”

“Oh, that’s helpful.”

There’s been some recent discussion around the southern gospel blogosphere over the vagueness of the generic term “ballad” by itself. I personally believe David Bruce Murray nailed it with his categorizations, even though they were tongue-in-cheek. There’s nothing wrong with the term, but without appropriate descriptive adjectives, it really doesn’t tell the reader much. But if you couple it with its proper modifier(s), you’re on your way.

So instead of describing the different categories of ballad in depth, I’m going to share some of my favorite ballads from all genres, just for fun and just to show how much variety they can have. And just to make it a little more fun, I won’t say what songs I pick, to try to tantalize my readers into clicking on them out of curiosity. (Though I will give you a hint that the artists range from Josh Ritter to Celine Dion to Journey to Sandi Patti.)

The Classic Ballad

Okay, so “classic” may be a kind of generic term in itself, but when I use it, I mean a long, lyrical piece of poetry that tells a story, in a folksy musical setting. The reason I call it “classic” is that it probably represents the earliest and purest manifestation of the term. Here is a perfect example of the classic ballad.

The Folk Ballad

A folk ballad can be the classic kind that tells a story, but it can also include political rants, musings on the meaning of life, or just about anything that occurs to a dude or dudette with a guitar. As DBM said, they tend to run long. Very long. Here is a classic example of such a ballad.

The Country Ballad

The country ballad typically tells a story as well, but it revolves around a limited set of themes. Familial or romantic love, heaven, and patriotism would probably claim the vast majority of country ballads. Here is a perfect example of a country ballad.

The Piano Pop Ballad

I sort of made up this category. It’s a pop song that begins with the focus squarely on the piano and then stays there instead of drowning it out in guitars and drums (see the power pop ballad). Here’s one of my favorite examples.

The Power Pop Ballad

Otherwise known as inspirational or torch songs, these are generally sung by female divas, with an adoring crowd of fans waving lighters in the audience. One or more ear-piercing high notes are regularly involved. Here is a perfect example.

The Rock Ballad

A ballad that rocks. You don’t HAVE to have long hair,  a dirty ‘stache/scruffy beard, or a sleeveless shirt to perform it… but it does help. Observe, a perfect example. There might be lighters involved here too, except they would be real cigarette lighters, not glowsticks, candles, or whatever the cute little girls are waving in the power pop ballad.

The Orchestrated Ballad

This is the category into which many southern gospel ballads fall. It starts quietly but dramatically and builds to a huge finish with all the instruments pulling out all the stops. It also covers inspirational anthems from the Steve Green/Sandi Patti era. Here is a classic example.

There might also be room, in between country and folk, for the Western ballad as its own category. Lyrically it tends to take a classic form, but instrumentation can be sparse, orchestral or anything in between. “I Hung My Head” is an example of a Western ballad that’s been interpreted both ways.

Discuss… Do you agree with my categories? Are there some categories I left out? What’s your favorite kind? (Oh, and it’s just possible that I put the wrong Youtube links in the wrong places, so if you were expecting Sandi Patti and got Journey instead… let me know and I’ll fix it. :D)

Scotty McCreery talks us through his debut album

Well, I’m feeling kind of under the weather—coming down with something or other (and I have a ton of deadlines to meet in the upcoming week-and-a-half, which is fun). But Scotty McCreery is very cheering/comforting. Here’s a cute track-by-track commentary from him on his debut project. Okay, so maybe all country music sounds basically the same, but when it sounds this good I’m not sure I mind…

[Edit: Link broken.]

His love is like a river, splishin’ and a’splashin’…

Ever noticed that you can play “Splish Splash” and “Love Is Like a River” back-to-back and hardly notice when the one bleeds into the other? Compare:

Striking, isn’t it? It’s that same 50s rock feel, right down to the electric guitar stylings. Even the dance moves are the same. But then, Bobby Darin and Elvis were pretty much exact contemporaries. (Side note: I always get a slightly surreal feeling when I watch these old, old clips from when rock ‘n’ roll was in its embryonic stages. It seems so innocent and harmless looking back.)

Anyway, I guess this might fall into the category of “singing the world’s music for Jesus.” Whatever. I’m lovin’ it. Now I’m off to see if I can layer them together in Audacity so that they’re playing simultaneously in sync. (Can you tell I’m not having a busy summer?)

A New Favorite Song: “Seventy Years Ago”

Twila Paris is one of those singer/songwriters who, it seems, never really learned how to write a bad song. Oh, she’s made a few half-hearted attempts, but deep down, she just doesn’t have what it takes to craft a convincing dud. It takes work for her to even come close. And on top of that, she has a sweet voice, and she’s beautiful—inside and out.

Every time I think I’ve found my favorite Twila Paris song, I find another favorite. My latest find is a cut from her 1993 album Beyond a Dream, best known for the smash hit “God Is In Control.” But the whole thing was solid, and tucked in the middle was an absolute jewel of a piece called “Seventy Years Ago.” It tells the story of her ancestors’ life as traveling evangelists in the early 20th century. The lyrics and music are stunning and inspiring. If you love songs like “Find Us Faithful” that carry a message about leaving a legacy behind you, put this one right up there with all your other favorites. It has been in constant rotation in my library for… well, I’m not sure how long. A long time. Just listen: