LAUNCH: Can You Handle the Truth?
at the Lancaster County Convention Center,
Lancaster, PA (23 April 2011)

They had just 60 seconds to wow the panel.

Most of the musicians who tried fell short ... but, while the "wow" factor might have been missing, a few people earned fairly high praise during Can You Handle the Truth?, a panel event that is a high point at LAUNCH.

Here's the deal: Musicians wanting feedback on their craft dropped CDs in a box. The sound guy pulled them out, supposedly at random, and played the first minute of the indicated track. Then the panel let loose, sometimes offering words of encouragement, but more often giving it to those hopefuls in the face with both barrels.

Half the fun was watching the panelists' faces as they listened. Wincing and spasms of aural pain mixed with half smiles and sometimes even a bit of a chair dance if the melody clicked.

Panelists this year were Alan Douches from West West Side Music, producer/engineer Joe Fitz, Josh Maloney from Dean Guitars and DDrum, talent buyer David Silbaugh from Milwaukee's renowned Summerfest, International Creative Management agent Nick Storch, Chad Taylor from the bands Live and the Gracious Few and Crimson Management co-owner Leah Urbano.

Hopeful musicians and curious onlookers alike crowded into the seats, eager to hear what the panelists had to say. And, without fanfare or introduction, the first track was playing. One minute later, comments were flying about the room.

"I was waiting for it to get to the next level," Silbaugh said. "I was waiting for it to lift off, and it didn't really get there. ... But that doesn't mean quit."

"You need to sing it with more conviction," Taylor added. "It had the slightest bit of potential, but it didn't feel like anyone was digging into it."

Maloney was harsher, calling the vocals "nasally and whiny."

Only after the barbs were slung was the band introduced. The members of Revolution, I Love You, from Philadelphia, graciously waved to the crowd.

The next track quickly had Urbano bopping in her chair. "I think Justin Bieber's in deep shit," Maloney said. "I could definitely hear that on the radio. There's probably a lot of money in your future. ... It's not my cup of tea personally, but that doesn't mean shit."

"I thought the lyrics were a little bland," Storch interjected. "But the music was good." High praise for Colorsound, a boy band from Montreal.

There was a harder edge to the next sample, and the panelists responded, grooving in their seats. Fitz called it "thick," although he worried that the vocals were lost in the mix. "The singer's got a great voice," Taylor said. "It's definitely got pop appeal."

"The song started off strong and continued to build," said Maloney. "Quite frankly, I wanted to hear the rest."

And that quick, Ducky & the Vintage from Harrisburg was having a very good day.

The Carousel Kings, a Lancaster band, got mixed signals.

"I want to shit all over this," Storch announced. "But I can't. It's actually pretty good." Maloney disagreed. "I'm exhausted from listening to it," he said. "It's been done. These guys aren't inventing the wheel. ... There's 3,000 songs like this." "As a listener," Urbano added, "I want to be involved, not just shouted at."

There was a lot of shouting over the next hour or so. Although LAUNCH is open to various styles of music, the punk and metal bands reigned supreme on the sound guy's board. Most of the folk- and pop-oriented musicians in the audience left disappointed, their music unheard.

Carly Rose, a girl with a guitar from Huntingtown, Md., was one of the few who broke through the wall of sound, and some judges seemed to enjoy the change of pace.

"Beautiful voice. Cool guitar line," Fitz said. "But I'm hearing the guitar up front and in your face, and your voice is in the background." Mixing and mastering were, in fact, frequent sources of complaint (and occasional praise) from the panel, which weighed in heavily on the technical side of recording.

Rose didn't win over the whole panel, either. "I'm sorry, I was bored the whole time," Storch said. Taylor complained of the "run-on chorus. Too many words."

Another Philadelphia band, With Life in Mind, was soundly chastised, although, Silbaugh joked, "if you had some accordion, it would be a pretty bad-ass polka."

"I'm so tired of being screamed at by bands," Maloney complained. "I get it. There are so many bands that owe Cookie Monster royalties. ... But please, do something new."

"I'd like to say I liked the lyrics," Storch said, "but I couldn't understand a frickin' word." And Urbano added, bluntly, "You need to put more into it, because it's been done. And get a better recording, because that sucked."

The next artist, a fresh-voiced female singer, had a much better response. Unfortunately, Stewartstown vocalist Dana Alexandra wasn't there to hear the panel's enthusiastic praise.

"See?" Silbaugh said. "We got there. ... We got the payoff, and it was sweet." "That's what music's supposed to do," added Douches. "The tonal quality of the voice was great," said Taylor. Even Maloney, who'd been pretty down on the music so far, was upbeat: "In a word, good. Everything was good. ... It engages you right away, and it gets you there."

Collisions, from Gloucester City, N.J., was up next, and the band was on hand to hear the sample compared to a train wreck.

"If you paid for someone to record that for you, go get your money back right now," Storch admonished. "Turn it down," added Douches. "Let the music be musical." Taylor chided the band's musicians for "competing for attention" instead of accompanying the vocalist. "It might have been a great melody," he said. "I might have been. Nobody up here knows."

The panel threw up its hands when Ark of the Covenant, from Stratford, Conn., blasted onto the scene. "Why are you so goddamn mad?" Maloney asked. "Why is everyone so pissed off? I feel like someone just punched me in the ear."

Lancaster's own Adam Taylor received high praise, but with a slice of bias. As brother to panelist Chad Taylor, the judges fell over themselves to be nice ... with one exception. "It was boring," Storch said. "I thought it was a soundtrack to American Pie 13. ... It sounds good. The song's not bad. It just needs some personality. Some balls."

Scare Don't Fear, out of Providence, R.I., got a lukewarm reaction. "If I were to name this band, I would call it 'Mimic'," Silbaugh pronounced. "It's well done, I guess," added Maloney. "But it's boring."

Storch, again aiming for bluntness, said the music sounded "like the soundtrack to a college frat boy rape." Ouch.

The lighter sounds of Shyster were "a nice break from what we've been listening to," Storch said next. "The music was cool," Maloney agreed. "The vocal needs a little work, but you've got a good foundation to build on. ... A little bit of work, a little bit of tweaking, you might have something."

And on it went. Reading about it is probably dull, but watching the process was fascinating. Either way, let's move this along.

"Don't bore us," Silbaugh told Circa Trova.

Talk about a letdown for the Grim Wilderness, from Stevens. "That first part was so good ... and then it was 'Aww. Forget it'," Storch told the band. Added Maloney, "It's like we're getting ready to make love, and you punch me in the balls." Ouch!

Amber Blues had "some good pieces and parts," Silbaugh said. But Fitz complained that the vocals "were completely lost ... and I got a little bored with it."

"The production was good. It was easy to listen to," Maloney told Paradise Movement, from York. "It was easy to fall asleep to," Storch countered. "Sorry."

I Am Averna, from northern Virginia, also drew snores with its lengthy introduction. "I zoned out, to be honest," Fitz said. Taylor also asked for a little more earnestness. "The words that you're saying are so important. If it doesn't sound like you believe them, no one else will."

The Groundbreaking Ceremony, a band from State College that gave little thought to how its name would fare in search engines, got rare praise from Maloney. "If you're going for groupies age 13 to 15, you nailed it," he said. "It was very well executed, for what you were going for."

The next sample was going to be the last, but Lancaster's own Amateur Theory put the panel in the mood for something more. "Seriously? Is this a joke?" Silbaugh asked, an incredulous look on his face. "This is the worst song I have ever heard in my life," Maloney interjected. "It sounded like a science experiment," Silbaugh replied, once the crash and bang had stopped. Taylor, at least, had some advice: "Get a groove. I literally could not tap my foot to that."

The panel insisted they end on a better note, so Rosiere, of Edgewood, Md., got a foot in the door. As one might guess, the panel wasn't impressed with the percussion-driven sound.

"Does the drummer sit right up front?" Storch asked. "It's overcompressed to hell," Douches added. And Maloney wrapped things up by thanking the drummer "for funding this band. He obviously flexed his muscles in the studio."

So, did people hear what they wanted to hear? Probably not. But a lot of bands got some free advice, to make of what they will. For the crowd, it was an entertaining exposure to music in the raw.

Maloney ended things on a positive note. "It takes balls to do this," he said. "Kudos for submitting your music."

by Tom Knapp
7 May 2011

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