Here are my James Owens Reviews
This was fun to review because there are so many different styles, so each song has its own special thing about it. You’re not just trying to write the same song over and over, but you have an idea for a style and go for that style, whether it’s effete musical theatre, Johnny Cash, or Irish ballad. So that’s fun.
Of the 20+ songs here, there are only 2-3 I outright hate, but also there are only 2-3 I outright adore too. Most of them fall in the middle. Which is weird, right? I mean, considering how many different styles are represented. Turns out my positive or negative reaction has little to do with the style you’re doing for the song. That very fact is telling though.
And what that tells me is that regardless of the style for a song, there are some issues throughout the collection. And the fact that you are all over the map with styles feeds into the issue. That issue is this: I don’t often hear you commit to a song. The songs feel more like exercises in pulling off a style, but none of the styles sounds like they are really you. Who you really are seems to be getting obscured by all the stylistic trappings.
This sense is backed up by some other things I hear in this collection. First off is the vocals. I think you’re expecting me to tell you you aren’t on pitch enough, but that’s not what I notice. The big problem is that you sing too close to the mic and too quietly. Sometimes this means you are popping into the mic, more often it means there is more low-range energy coming through which is an artifact of being too close, but most importantly, I hear you holding back, possibly because you don’t want to spike the levels, but possibly also because you’re too shy with your own singing. I hear a lot of melodic singing here, and you can hit the notes for the most part, and have a good rich sound, but it’s almost as if you’re choking it. Much better to step back a few inches and let go. But I don’t believe you want to do that, because you come across as insecure in your performance abilities. This insecurity is backed up by the fact you change styles all the time, which I suspect, like I said above, is to hide your true musical self, whatever that may be. The good news is I never once thought any insecurity you’re feeling was justified. Most often my impression was that you’re doing just fine, and the biggest issue is not How Good You Are – the biggest problem lies in How Good You Think You Are, and also Who You Are.
OK, speaking now about the arrangements, this kind of backs up my first hypothesis. When it’s a country thing, you have a twang-y instrument. When it’s modern sound landscapes, there are spoken voices and buzzes, when it’s about India, I hear a sitar, when it’s 80’s pop there are synthy pads. But again, I usually don’t hear that you’ve truly committed to the genre. So I don’t “believe” you. It sounds like you’re mimicking rather than truly embracing. And this keeps everything at a kind of mild level.
>>>Disclaimer for this paragraph: I hear a lot of my own foibles in this collection, so I think I know what’s going on in your head, but this paragraph is all total assumptions that I’m running with and may be totally off.<<< There’s a lot of fun in thinking “I like music style xyz, I wish I could do that – I think I’ll try that” and then when it comes out sounding like that style, that’s pretty satisfying as a songwriter. But like I said, they end up sounding like exercises in the aggregate. After a while I want to know the real artist behind all the exercises. And at the end of the day, you probably aren’t all that excited about the styles you’re imitating. You just want to see if you can do it. So the question might be: Why does everyone buy real Cheerios, when the store brand of Cheerios is half the price and 90% as good? Answer: Because that 10% makes all the difference.
OK, now that I’ve had that out, let’s talk about what’s particularly good. As I said, the voice is better than you think it is, at least potentially so. And you DO manage to be able to do these different styles. So there are composing chops. And your lyrics pay some attention to syllabic stress, imagery, rhyme, all that important stuff. All good. I think you need to trust yourself a bit more. Go for it more. Leap and the net shall appear. Do something that makes you nervous. Yell. Record drunk. Let go. Why not, next time you want to do a certain style, import a track that is an actual sample of the style, and compare what you’re doing to what they’re doing, see how it’s different? Is the difference because you’re just missing the mark, or is it a “good” difference, meaning the difference is highlighting what makes your music yours?
Reason-on or rhyme? I could never make out what you’re saying there! It takes too long to get to the accompaniments. I said your voice is fine and it is, but only the very best singers can stand to be heard completely naked for as long as you’re asking us to. I see what you’re doing structurally, and I’m on board, but the layering on of new sounds takes too long, and so I get impatient. Another solution would be to have more evocative lyrics that told a story we were really into, but since you aren’t doing that, I get impatient. I like the concept for the story, and the whole allegorical business, but the lyrics lack specific imagery. And you jump around tenses, sometimes past, sometimes present – it’s confusing and I start spacing out. The climax of the drama seems to come at around 2:30-2:40, but listen at how “climactic” it really is. It should be HUGE there. Maybe singing an octave up, more instruments, etc.
The bell is too hot, and therefore irritating, and it’s close to the center of the mix, right where the lead vocal is, so it’s like I’m getting poked in the eye every time. You don’t seem to do much reverb in your songs, (and when you do it’s a stylistic rather than sonic choice) and here would be a good place for it. Pan that bell off to the side a bit and add a bunch of reverb to give the whole song some epic Celtic space.
Nothing Is Everything
Cool concept. Kind of a Tomorrow Never Knows thing going on as far as I can tell. It can be taken further. Like They Meet, this could use some reverb, so more aggressive panning, a big-ness. And sing out, for crying out loud. At 2:48 you could have tried not to go falsetto. That would have been exciting. I like the little bit of vocal effect you put on it, but there could be more. A second voice with heavy phasing on it, for example. And I like the pizz string run, but it’s a little transparent that it’s a keyboard because you rush the beat and the note velocities aren’t smooth enough; simple fix, big payoff. I’m not one for over-quantizing, and perhaps that was your thinking here too, but the non-quantized notes are better off sounding like string players plucking off beat rather than a keyboardist striking keys off beat, which is what this sounds like.
Regarding the big-ness, you could benefit from compression on most of your tracks. It’s hard to do right, and I still massively suck at it myself, but if you just compare back and forth between a compressed and un-compressed mix you’ll hear a big difference.
Sometimes It’s Hard to Keep Yourself Moving
Your vocals consistently rush the beat in this song! Arrgghh! It’s so consistent that you could almost just drag the entire vocal track back a smidge and you’d be right on beat. And a song like this is all about the beat, so that slip-up is costing you dearly. How This Song Can Go Further: That snare at 2 and 4 is too weak. It should really pop, and the kick should have a lot more power. I think you’re going for heavy funky, but it isn’t really heavy or funky yet. Another thing working against you is all the clever words. It makes the song feel a bit cerebral, which is in conflict with the down and dirty vibe I’m sensing. Here’s a great example of stepping back from the mic, having a beer and letting go. I can hear you reading the lyrics, I want it to sound more spontaneous.
Made to Be Played
Tee hee. The stage itself isn’t made to be played; that last line makes no sense, just sayin’. Otherwise, it should have been required that this be the first song people listened to in that fight. Funny intro to the whole fight, in which case the line could be “randomly arrayed”!
Your New Dress
Stepping back from the mic would have solved a mix problem here, which is that there’s so much fighting in the low end between your voice and the bass guitar notes. Stepping back will reduce all those low vocal frequencies. And some EQ is necessary on the guitar so that low A doesn’t take over like it does. (There’s a useful and simple free plug-in from a company called Voxengo called Span that shows you the frequency spectrum of whatever you’re piping through it. I use it on basses and kicks and stuff to see what frequencies have all the energy.) This song is pretty nice and pretty interesting. I keep hearing Beatle references in these songs, maybe that’s just me, but of course I’m reminded of White Album ballads here. Lay down Blackbird next to this and you’ll totally hear what I mean about the low frequencies. That’s killing you. Visions of a girl spinning around in a dress “light and airy” needs to be musically evoked!! This took 3 listens before I musically “figured it out”, since it goes on and on without repeating. I don’t mind that at all, but I’m sitting here trying to figure out how to make that work more to your advantage. Changing up the arrangement midway through might be nice. Start with the low frequency problem and see where that gets you, I suppose. Lines like “Life is so off the rack” stick out badly. I know you’re going with the clothing references, but I don’t know that that gets you anything. It’s pretty as it is without the added cleverosity.
Cost of Living
I can practically hear you playing around with synth patches, discovering how accurate that organ sounds, and realizing you can just lay down these slow chords and it sounds like church. But man, this is as boring as it was back when I had to endure it in actual church. What exactly was the point of this? Because you could?
Of course the second version is much improved, so I’ll just talk about that version. This is catchy and has a nice poppy vibe. Maybe you could try it about a fourth higher? The verses might be too low in your register to have the necessary pep. Of course, the chorus is way high, so you might need to do some kind of clever key change to make it all work. My old wheeze about stepping back and letting go with the vocals plays into all this too. Assuming you keep everything the same, the vocals in the chorus sound really choked. I know it’s high for you, so you need to turn that into a plus by rocking out a bit. Anyway, the new version has a great feel, especially with that staccato bass playing. “Pile of mush” needs to go, it’s too obviously in there to rhyme and feels unnatural. “Puerile crush” is almost as painful, but I can live with it.
Keep All Your Promises
Really hard to get through, frankly, one of my least favorites. I hear the pseudo-gospel anthemic thing, but the vocal style problem kills it. In this case there’s too much low-end in the vocal track, from being too close to the mic. Composition-wise it feels way too precious. “Broken toys of childhood” is such a cliché, and then comparing them to your dreams is piling more cliché on top of it. You’re treading on thin ice as it is with the whole reflective retrospective introspective perspective act, and the only way I’m going to go there with you is if I feel it’s really honest, but this feels a little like you’re pretending to be this way. Better to focus on a specific image or two and let me connect the dots rather than make grand summarizing statements like “just ignore the pain”. What pain are you talking about? Clue me in and I’ll come along if I can relate. You say “All that you held dear”, better to actually tell us something you hold dear. Pick a single broken toy, so to speak. The lyrics are just way too generalized.
I really don’t understand this song at all. It sounds like you muted the lead vocal and submitted it that way. I can’t tell if I’m supposed to be able to make out the voices. I hear “Star Trek”, but that’s about it. If I am or I’m not supposed to make that out is not the point; the problem is I don’t know whether I should or not. This problem stems from the fact that I have no idea why this piece exists. The music part is like something I might hear on hold on the phone, though that part is nicely recorded with fine separation between the instruments. Then this fuzzy voice comes in and says “please stop”, but things don’t stop, at least not every time. Huh? Hey, I’m all for surrealism and intentionally confusing the audience, but I guess I’m not sure I’m supposed to be confused. It’s just a seemingly unrelated layering of things that doesn’t add up to any kind of whole. Very strange, and I come away just sort of puzzled, but not moved.
Robot Ninja Zombie Bear
This one has a lot of promise. I assume you know the Flaming Lips’ “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots”. This reminds me of that for obvious reasons. First off, I like the basic songwriting. You have painted good imagery with “the grave of a Japanese cartoon” and “follow the tendrils of the living moon”. The chorus is tuneful and memorable. Big problem is that you’re relying much too heavily on tired Japanese musical stereotypes. Hate to say it, but I was also reminded of “Me Japanese Girl I Love You”, a god-awful embarrassing Bacharach song. The pentatonic scale and pseudo shakuhachi are corny corny corny corny. Again, you seem so bent on mimicking a style that your own musical voice is obscured. Can you evoke the setting in some fresher way? Vocally, this is a better performance than many, though you still occasionally get stuck in your quiet “crooning” thing. (The lead vocal is mixed too low, btw.) I wish the arrangement had some more inventiveness, reflecting the dichotomy between the aokigahara forest and some underground industrial complex. You kind of set up the musical groove and never explore it. Instrumentally, what we hear in the first 30 seconds is pretty much all we ever get. Still, I like this one.
What Kind of Love Are You Looking For
So as I listen to this I’m thinking about eclecticism. What makes an eclectic collection work or not? Why is listening to different styles of music back to back usually not satisfying? When it is, why is it? (Part of the reason I’m asking this is because, obviously, your body of songs is quite eclectic. Also, though, it’s because so is mine.)
So if someone decides to write a song outside his “mother tongue”, it’s probably not going to sound exactly like the real thing, because it’s not a style that’s completely under his skin. On the surface he can copy what he’s hearing, but there’s something missing. If you look that song deep in the eyes, there’s a blankness where the song’s soul should be. If on the other hand, the songwriter is merely inspired by a style, but isn’t necessarily trying to copy it, the song might be a success, but the original inspirational style may not even be recognizable by the end of the writing process. (Famously, McCartney did this in trying to write a Motown hit with “Got to Get You Into My Life”. A fantastic song, but certainly not Motown.) Ultimately, whatever a songwriter is setting out to do, their first order of business should be honesty. And by honesty I don’t mean simply writing lyrics about things near and dear to your heart, (though that might be part of it), I mean making artistic choices based on that ineffable inner well that is the source of great music, rather than some external scholarly assessment of the “correct” note.
If in this song you were simply in love with 80’s dance pop and were driven to “sing along” by writing one yourself, that would be one thing. But here (and in many of your songs which borrow from another style), it feels like you decided to write a specific style, then made more or less calculated composition decisions based on that self-imposed rule. So when I look deep into the eyes of the song there’s nothing there. But there IS something there in countless “real” 80’s dance pop songs. Because I think what I’m really listening for when I hear music is the voice of the artist behind it, regardless of what kind of music they’re playing. So if, while writing this song, you had a moment where you thought “I wish the tune would go like THIS here, but an 80’s dance pop song wouldn’t do that”, that’s your muse trying to get your attention. That’s the inner well. To hell with 80’s dance pop – your idea is more honest.
Why do I think that? Because almost every one of your “genre” songs is trying to be smack dab right on the genre. It’s not a James Owens song influenced by style X, it wants to be EXACTLY style X. I would way rather listen to James Owens do his own thing and hear influences of those styles. (“This is kind of an 80’s pop thing, but it still sounds like a James Owens song.”) All those styles are already crowded with terrific examples from past years. I don’t need to hear another one. Unless you’re making something new out of it. Which in most cases here, it doesn’t sound like you are.
OK, this song does the 80’s dance pop thing. Is that your heart’s desire musically, or was this an exercise in writing an 80’s dance pop song? Frankly, I’m not so interested in your exercises. I want to hear what you sound like. That said, this is fine. I’d bring the drums up some and take any reverb off them. Vocally, here’s a problem I’m hearing: Go to the song and listen to the word “new” at 0:15. You trail off that note with a croony vibrato that is out of character for the style, and I think kind of drains the life out of the song. In the next line you do it on “meaning” and “screw”. You do it over and over. Solid lyric craft and tuneful enough songwriting. I don’t hate this at all. I just went off on this tangent since it turned out this is the song that finally inspired me to talk about eclecticism in general. Lastly, same problem here as with the Zombie Bear – about 15 seconds in and I’ve pretty much heard everything I’m going to hear instrumentally. Not like you need to go crazy, but a little sonic detail to hold interest goes a long way.
Jewel of India
This style of music suits your deep bass so nicely. You wrote a song for your own voice, and you sound so much more comfortable here, and so I am too. Too much low end in the vocal, step back from the mic a few inches or EQ it out. (Have I mentioned that before?) Lyrically you usually take some care in syllabic placement and all that lyric technique and it pays off in this case. This isn’t a criticism, but I’m confused by “sail northwest by Canada”. So… where was this letter posted and where exactly are they going? I don’t really care, but sailing NW by Canada in the Pacific means you’re going to Alaska, but sailing NW by Canada in the Atlantic means you’ll run into, well… Canada. Who cares though, I was just curious, maybe you thought the line just sounded good (which it does). Good enough for me. This paints such a clear image, it’s a pleasure to listen to. I want to imagine the singer also playing an instrument, as they do in those types of songs. I’d bring up the drum and turn down the drones and give the voice and drum a similar reverb space and pan them in the same location so they sound like they’re in the same room. That’s a minor quibble though, this song works good. Didn’t need the Within You Without You turn at the end. I’m expecting to hear “When I’m 64” now.
Look at the Sky
Another real low point for me. Comes across pompous in its clichéd generalities. More Beatle-y bits heard too, that Lennon-esque melisma at 1:04 is too on-the-nose. But ok, if you’re going to try to pull off this thing, here’s a case where you really need to be singing out with reverb to supply the size I think your arrangement is wanting. But those lyrics describing the sky… What does it mean indeed. I don’t feel any true inspiration from you in this song. I’m reminded of Spinal Tap a bit. Again, sounds like an exercise in trying to write a song about the sky. I like your chord changes, and the lead guitar is effective. Sorry James, I kind of can’t stand this song.
I’m Eating a Wasp (Part 1)
This sounds like it’s Please Stop (Part 2). I’m really into this for about 45 seconds. Cool sonic idea, with the voices and the wasp sounds and all. But James…. The song is over after the first minute. Nothing else happens. That’s it. The Monty Python-y cookie statements seem to make it like a comic song, and I want to punch that git by the end of the song, but the wasp belies the comic idea. This has the same problem as Please Stop in that I don’t understand what you’re going for. And you don’t go anywhere. Why did you stop at 2:27? Why isn’t this song 1 minute long? Or 3? Or 180? Where it chooses to stop feels totally arbitrary because there’s no sense of shape or form. If it’s supposed to be a kind of minimalist sonic soundscape, it’s not nearly long enough to achieve that effect. Fine idea, but that’s all this is unfortunately. Also, that low frequency bumping thing clips the recording, which doesn’t sound like it’s on purpose, so it’s distracting.
This one is promising. You pull off a cool psychedelic surreal effect, and the breathy flute was a good choice. Hitting the 2nd on that B chord is too on-the-nose for that 60’s style. Another too-obvious Beatle borrow. As with many of your more conventional pop songs, you could make good use of backup harmonies. When you get to “Get yourself to…a vest factory” it’s a nice catchy moment you could underline with a little more energy in the arrangement. The whole song is a silly idea that I’m done with at 2:45. Don’t need that last verse, I’d just play out with the chorus at that point. And again, once the arrangement starts, that’s all it ever does. Add some instrumental surprises to keep my ear from getting bored. Lead vocal is mixed too low. I wonder if this song would rock a bit more if you removed one of those guitars (and of course didn’t keep the remaining one panned so hard). Worth a try. Fun one.
Feels very demo-y. The clever opening line is a great starting place, and then you repeat it with a nice little change in the tune (which probably didn’t need to be so hard to sing), but then the tune dwizzles around, trying to find its direction, and I can tell you don’t really know where you’re going, and then the song sort of stops. That’s why it feels demo-y, you have some good ideas but nothing is developed. This sounds like it took you about 20 minutes to put together start to finish. And the reverb you put on the guitar is distracting because it’s so panned and there’s none on the vocal. Reverb is supposed to make everything blend, but in this case it makes it blend less.
Who Said I’m Dead
My favorite of the 21 songs. Mind you, it’s just another JO genre grab, but like Jewel of India, you sound comfortable. And the lyrics are funny and clever. I really wish it didn’t sound SO MUCH like Johnny Cash and more like James Owens, but you’ve heard me tell you this a dozen times already, I know. And your low voice fits what you wrote for it. Needs a punch line to take it all the way home though. The whole song feels like a charming setup, and repeating the first verse at the end is disappointing. Minor thoughts: Remove the word “evil” at 0:28, sounds better as “You don’t have to be a mastermind”. It throws off the rhythm and doesn’t add meaning anyway. And I’d pay good money if I could have come up with that great 7-11 line. Way to go.
Where You Can Go
After the first verse I saw what you were up to, and rather than thinking it was a clever fun thing, I kind of thought “oh no”, because having heard everything else by you up to this point I knew you would be nowhere to be seen. This exercise is about how many SF titles you can squeeze into a lyric. But knowing that was your game also clued me in that you didn’t have any other reason to choose the words other than this little puzzle. It’s all about the cleverness of the titles. Musically it’s not very inventive, and the titles strung together don’t hold any external meaning. You’d never have written them otherwise.
Pestilence, Carcass and Death at Skoochies
I really want to love this one. But I kept listening over and over to figure it out. The lyrics are so oblique, as is a common style for you, that it’s like a Jeopardy answer. I have lots of clues to what you’re talking about, but you never come out and say it. I keep thinking that if I get a piece of something I can latch onto that the whole thing will suddenly make sense. That happened with “They Meet”, where it took me a while to figure out what you’re talking about. (And with They Really Are you had to tell me.) With this one it seems like there’s something, but there are so many lyric “huh?” moments that I finally gave up.
I like the idea of a lyric that’s merely a list of fragments without being complete sentences or thoughts. Reminds me of “Casimir Pulaski Day” by Sufjan Stevens, whose lyric is also a string of random images. The difference is that he clues us in early on what it’s about, and it’s genuinely sad, and so we have an easy time connecting the dots and a big emotional payoff when we do. You waste too much time being coy with it so the emotional payoff might never come. (Also instructive is much of The Decemberists’ album Picaresque, because they use these old sea shanty styles to tell touching stories.)
Ha. Believe it or not, this is one of your most completely realized songs. Works beginning to end. Your vocal and the lowest frequencies of the instrument are stepping on each other some, but notching out the lowest frequencies of your vocal should fix that. I know it’s short and simple, but you nailed it.
They Really Are
I already reviewed this in the fight review thread of course. It was interesting to go back and re-read after having become so familiar with all your entries. And even there I was onto the lack of honesty inherent in borrowing a style without putting your own stamp on it.
Wrapping ‘er up
Thanks for agreeing to let me rip you a new one. I hope I wasn’t too harsh. Gotta call em as I see em. I’m asking myself what if you presented me with a dozen songs of yours I hadn’t heard before. I would come to it with a lot of expectations and assumptions based on how well I know this group of 21. What would I be expecting? I would expect a bunch of songs with different styles, leaning heavily toward old English ballads perhaps, with lots of Beatle references. I would most look forward to songs that felt like they were honest and not exercises. And I would hope you would be peeking through some of them somewhere.
When every time you set out to do a song you decide on a specific style, your decisions boil down to what will be appropriate for that style. This prevents you from exploring your own style, whatever it may be, and remaining at a surface level of mimicry. Ultimately this was your downfall for me. I’m not interested in second-rate versions of those styles. I’d rather hear the first-rate originals. You need more musical courage. If I were a teacher I might assign you the task of picking a set of, say, 3-4 instruments and to write your next dozen songs limiting yourself to only those instruments. And no genre grabs allowed.
Technically, sing out more, step back from the mic, watch collisions in the low frequencies with instruments, make use of reverb and compression to bind your sound together. Your discussion in the PM about your equipment made it sound like you thought maybe you didn’t have the best gear, but I honestly never heard anything that I could chock up to cheap equipment. If anything, I’d spend money on better synth patches, that’s hurting you a lot. But if you chose 3-4 instruments to stick to, those could just be ones that sound good. (When I did a lot of quirky jazzy standards about 5-10 years ago, I never put brass in them, even though it would have been appropriate, simply because my brass patches were so bad.)
Lastly, I will say that it’s been very instructive to listen to this collection, thank you! I have fallen into your traps many times. If I may bore you with a personal story: I’ve been writing music for over 30 years, and have a relatively enormous catalog covering a breadth of styles. Sometimes the styles were necessities of whatever project I was doing, and sometimes they were, like yours sound to be, exercises in “can I pull it off”, or because I happened to be digging an album of a specific style at the time. Despite the large collection, I’ve never felt I had enough really good music in any one style enough to make a whole CD worth. It’s been my decades-long “eclecticism” problem. Then last year I had to let someone else choose a CD’s worth of my songs, and suddenly I saw there was a unity in what they chose that I’d never noticed before. I realized that if I just re-arrange this song here, and tweak that song there, and rewrite this other one to be a little more like so, my own artistic voice would be shining through anyway, and so even though stylistically there’s a lot of variety, it would all hold together. And just like that my eclecticism problem went away. And to top it all off, I now know that if I HAD decided to release a whole CD of just one of those styles, that wouldn’t have been as honest, because I really am an eclectic guy I guess. Fascinating. And great timing to hear all your music.
Either you haven’t found your own artistic voice yet, or you’re hiding it, or it’s totally there and I missed it. But if you were to take the best dozen songs from this collection, they would still just sound like a collection of songs, and wouldn’t hold together as a unit. What’s missing is you.