Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Popheaval goes Eurovision: Semi-Final 1

Alright! The Eurovision Song Contest 2014 is just around the corner and it's about time to start making some previews and predictions. Following the country's victory in the previous year, this year's Eurovision Song Contest will be held in Copenhagen, Denmark. I'm currently living in Denmark as well so I was initially thinking of getting tickets to the Grand Final but they were a wee big expensive for my personal budget. I guess I'll just have to go there and find a nice bar with a big screen and a proper sound system instead...

Anyway, let's get down to it - join me as I go through the contestants and review their songs, list my thoughts on them etc. So, without further ado, here's Semi-Final 1!

1. Aram MP3 - Not Alone (Armenia)

Starting off as a simple piano-led ballad, the song quickly starts to build up, increasing in intensity. First come the strings, then the military drums, finally the cinematic brass section... before it's all watered down by an awful dubstep climax. Please, can't they just let the it die already? (Spoiler: no, they can't. This isn't the only dubstep-incorporating entry this year...)

I'm having mixed feelings about the song. It is striking as such and does feature an impressive build-up, but in this context the song is ultimately rather repetitive and the said build-up is actually the only thing going on in the song. And then there's the dubstep, the goddamn inevitable dubstep. Had it been replaced with say, some majestic timpani, it would be much classier and wouldn't sound so desperate in trying to be 'current' and 'modern'. Even that wouldn't of course remove the fact that structurally and melodically speaking the song is still terribly repetitive, his voice is nothing special and in fact, he doesn't really sing that much on it to begin with. A live clip shows that the instrumental gaps frequently leave him just standing about, and the "bad boy in leather jacket singing a sad song" cliché is hardly innovative either. 

This is not to say that the song itself isn't good, but in the end it all comes down to the stage performance which, by the looks of it, might be a let-down for people who were hyping up the song before. (And there was a HUGE hype preceding the song release - seemingly all the comment sections of all the ESC-related videos were filled with people talking about the Armenian song, even before its release. A bit suspicious maybe, considering how relatively absent the Armenian ESC fans have previously been but let's not get into that.) For example, international betting sites used to automatically predict Armenia's victory but apparently the odds have been changing lately. The unlucky position of performing first isn't going to help either. It's pompous and melodically unvarying for my liking but still in the finals for sure.

2. Aarzemnieki - Cake To Bake

Well. This one could be a big hit on a kindergarten field trip but in the Eurovision it's just doomed to fail. The lyrics describe a guy who's discovered Atlantis, helped Sherlock Holmes to solve a crime and travelled in space with a unicorn but whose omnipotence doesn't extend to baking skills and so, he keeps asking for help. Ugh, the 'cutesy' song is so sugar-coated that I feel I'm getting cavities just by listening to it. Someone get this guy a cookbook.

3. Tanja - Amazing (Estonia)

This semi-generic dance number has one giant obstacle on its road to success: it's striking similarity to the winner of 2012, "Euphoria", a bit like Germany last year. The modern choreography unfortunately brings the said song to mind all the more, intentional or not. But whereas "Euphoria" was an actually excellent song, "Amazing" sounds unoriginal, almost a bit dated even, which is hardly helped by the '90s eurodance backing vocals. Uh-oh, 2014 doesn't shape out to be a good Eurovision year for the Baltics.

4. Sanna Nielsen - Undo (Sweden)

Sweden, on the other hand, rarely disappoints. While the chorus could do with some grammatical revision ("Undo my sad" is hardly proper English, although apparently the final version of the lyrics has been changed to "Undo my sad love" instead), Sanna Nielsen's "Undo" is single-handedly one of the best ESC songs this year. The first minute or so is admittedly a little boring and typically ballad-y (and the bit before the first chorus reminds me a lot of Hungary's 2011 entry "What About My Dreams?") but once the song gets off, it features one of the best choruses of the year. Much like her predecessor Robin Stjernberg's song "You", also "Undo" relies heavily on a specific melodic hook ("U-u-u-undo my sad / U-u-u-undo what hurts so bad"). Had Sweden not won just two years ago, "Undo" would be fighting for the victory (well, according to betting sites she is one of the most probable winners nevertheless) but in this situation, Loreen's recent victory might prevent this song from rising to its full potential.

5. Pollapönk - No Prejudice (Iceland)

This one's a peculiar song. Is it a theme song of a British football team? No wait, is it a pop-punk song? Oh, then there's the pop-rock chorus. And eight seconds of funk between two choruses. And then an obligatory sing-along "La-la-la-laa" bridge and... oh dear. What a mishmash of a track. Yes, I get it's a humour song rather than one to be taken seriously. And it does carry a righteous message: "Let's do away with prejudice / Don't discriminate, tolerance is bliss [---] It's not trigonometry / Inside we're the same". It's still a very relevant message - even now, respect for other people's human rights cannot be taken for granted in all of the participating countries. But come on. They could do it better. They play with various musical styles which is nice and all but the different parts don't fit together at all and the song doesn't flow naturally. The band could build a career out of touring in primary schools, performing educational songs to kids but the Eurovision Song Contest is hardly the appropriate forum for these guys.

6. Hersi - One Night's Anger (Albania)

On the contrary, Albania's "One Night's Anger" has one of the best and most natural flows of all the songs this year, progressing beautifully throughout the song. The original Albanian version attracted my interest, and it quickly became one of my favourites. But of course it was translated to English, which took away some of its initial mystical quality. Sometimes artists should feel braver to perform in their own languages - Albania's best final placement to date came with Rona Nishliu's incredible "Suus", sung entirely in Albanian. Also, I'm not overly keen on the new arrangements - the original one was more dramatic and emotional, but here the piano-driven intro has been pointlessly replaced with folk-styled guitars and bells. She also seemed to sing more confidently before - probably due to being able to sing in her own native language.

As I said, structurally this song is brilliant - the excellent bridge, for example, is one of the ESC highlights for me this year - but the new arrangements don't do it justice. The music video features mostly sunny, summery nature landscapes but also an urban, graffiti-covered place, and there should be more of that edginess in the song, like that electronic guitar that kicks in during the bridge. Out with the prettiness, in with the grittiness! It's kind of annoying: it's a good song, but it could be so much better. Anyway, it definitely deserves a spot in the finals and I have a hunch that it could even surprise us all. I don't think a placement in the Top 10 would be an impossibility. But we'll see. In Hersi's own words, "Keep calm and think twice" before skipping this one.

7. Tolmachevy Sisters - Shine (Russia)

Well, here's a country that will be in Top 10 no matter what. This year Russia sends the Tolmachevy Sisters to compete in the Eurovision with a very traditional song. The two actually won the Junior Eurovision Song Contest in 2006 (at the age of nine) but I have a hard time believing they could reprise the feat in the actual Eurovision. The song, though admittedly a nice pop song as such, is nothing new and is a bit of a mediocrity for an Eurovision entry. Also, while the Eurovision Song Contest has actively sought to differentiate itself from international politics, the Ukraine crisis is almost bound to have an impact on this year's voting. Although that still shouldn't prevent the country from getting a traditionally high placement thanks to neighbour voting.

On a different note, while it can be cute when nine-year-old twins are wearing matching outfits, it's mostly creepy when grown-up twins look exactly the same. It's like the twins from The Shining hit puberty, dolled up and stole a backdrop from a J-pop music video. The Shining, Shine... hey, wait a second...

8. Dilara Kazimova - Start a Fire (Azerbaijan)

Kazimova's "Start a Fire" is a beautiful, almost cinematic song that you could imagine listening to in a smoky jazz bar with a glass of whiskey in your hand and a cigarette in the other, looking back at the decisions you've made in life, while a lady in red is crooning the song next to the piano. One of the most stunning entries this year but as usual, the live rendition will decide how it'll perform in the contest. It should be easily in the finals and then, likely in the Top 10, too. Out of the slower numbers this year, "Start a Fire" is a definite highlight.

9. Mariya Yaremchuk - Tick Tock (Ukraine)

"Tick Tock" starts with a mysterious intro with wind chimes and ethnic instruments, but then unfortunately turns into a much more generic pop song. The new version is better than the first one, though. It's nothing that we wouldn't have heard before (with lyrics such as "Tick tock, can you hear me go tick tock / My heart is like a clock, I'm steady like a rock") but I must admit it has grown on me a little. It's a very ordinary ESC pop song that could do with better lyrics and could play with the ethnic feel more, but it delivers - it's simple and instantly catchy. Ukraine might be receiving some sympathy votes due to its recent struggles but I'm sure the song would do well nevertheless. There's not really that many uptempo dancey songs this year.

10. Axel Hirsoux - Mother (Belgium)

The body is a singer's instrument and this guy has a big voice to match his sizable instrument. Hirsoux's voice carries the song confidently. He might look like an overaged momma's boy but sings an affectionate ode to his mother and isn't that something that can be universally related to? The stage performance is simplistic but effective, with the backup dancer playing the role of the singer's mother, reaching for him from the shadows. Hardly winning material but should perform well for sure.

11. Cristina Scarlat - Wild Soul (Moldova)

Yes, the dubstep influences are still well and alive in the realms of Eurovision. Sigh. Surely they know that adding dubstep isn't the only way to 'modernise' or 'urbanise' a song? There are other electronic genres too... However, while the song could do without them, here they aren't quite as tacky as in the Armenian song. I like the darkness and the ominous feel of "Wild Soul" but unfortunately it doesn't go anywhere in the end. A bland bridge and a modulation in the final chorus just doesn't count for a climax. Shame for the wasted potential but it'll most likely make its way to the finals nonetheless.

12. Valentina Monetta - Maybe (Forse) (San Marino)

For those of you who don't know, San Marino is a lilliputian country with a population of 30,000 and apparently, not that many singers among them. 2014 marks the fifth time the microstate participates in the Eurovision Song Contest and the third time (in a row) it will be represented by Valentina Monetta, who originally entered the competition in 2012 with her satirical song "The Social Network Song (OH OH - Uh - OH OH)" (didn't qualify for the final) and then again in 2013 with a more serious effort "Crisalide (Vola)" in 2013 (didn't qualify either). Still eager for another chance and still sticking to parentheses in song titles, she's back hoping that the third time will be the charm. But with a mediocre song like this, it won't. If Europe wants to see any other Sammarinese (I had no idea that's the adjective for San Marino) singers in the Eurovision, perhaps we should just be merciful and let her qualify for once. Unless that would just ignite more determination in her... gosh. You've got to admire her adamancy, though.

13. Suzy - Quero Ser Tua (Portugal)

Yeah no. Once again, Portugal is relying on a traditional Portuguese song and once again, Portugal shall discover that a traditional Portuguese song won't work very well outside the Iberian Peninsula. The singers' voices don't really blend together and the song's nothing out of the ordinary either. I do like the "Wah wah weh, wa weh" part though. But nope, won't qualify.

14. The Common Linnets - Calm After The Storm

Hmm. After having previously sent alt-rock singer Anouk with her gorgeous "Birds", the Netherlands now opt for mellow American-styled country folk. "Calm After The Storm" lives up to its song title and is a relaxing listen but is the Eurovision really the right place for it? Don't get me wrong, I'm all for musical diversity and variation in genres but this is something you'd rather listen to while roadtripping Route 66, in the evening after a long drive. The song itself is good though so I'm sure it'll have its voters.

15. Sergej Ćetković - Moj Svijet (Montenegro)

More mellowness ensues with Montenegro's entry, though this time in a more typical ESC format, complete with ethnic elements and all. Pleasantly soothing music. Having two slower songs back-to-back in the running order won't probably be beneficial for either, though. Even if it makes it to the finals, it's not going to be anywhere near Top 10 but I hope it'll qualify anyway. At its best, the Eurovision is not about the competition or the rivalry, but about co-existing and enjoying all kinds of music. Lovely, Montenegro, and thumbs up for Ćetković for being one of the very few singers this year to sing entirely in their native language.

16. András Kállay-Saunders - Running (Hungary)

Ahh, Hungary has lately become one of the most thrilling Eurovision countries and doesn't disappoint this time either. Kállay-Saunders is responsible for one of the best entries this year and is the one that I'll be rooting for to be the winner. And even if it doesn't win the whole thing it'll be in Top 5 for sure. "Running" is an interesting entry in many ways. First of all, it features D'n'B influences. Now, the genre in question used to be really popular some years ago, but unlike dubstep which replaced it in the mainstream, it's been 'out' for long enough to not sound dated and passé anymore (unlike dubstep). As a result, the song sounds fresh and exciting. Then, its tragic lyrics seem to be dealing with a very serious subject, namely domestic violence, with lines like "Silent cries, every night / This pain don't ever leave her life / Daddy's home, so she tries to hide / She calls her mom, but never a reply". It's pretty touching - it's an exceptionally deep theme to bring to the Eurovision. 

Hopefully it won't scare away the average listener. While it is a gloomy story, it's a terrific song as well and I think it's really bold to use the Eurovision to bring spotlight to such a painful topic. I hope he'll ditch the pointless backup dancers though, his interaction with the piano-playing girl with the teddy bear (portraying the child depicted in the lyrics) is enough and effective as it is. L'Hongrie, douze points.


Sure to qualify:

1. Sweden
2. Hungary
3. Ukraine
4. Russia
5. Armenia
6. Azerbaijan

Will probably qualify:

7. Netherlands
8. Moldova
9. Belgium

Will hopefully qualify:

10. Albania (or Montenegro, but I'd still prefer Albania out of these two)

Phew! Those were my thoughts and impressions. Agree? Disagree? Feel welcome to leave your own comments below!

Top image via DR.

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