Monthly Archives: March 2017

EUROVISION SONG CONTEST 2017: SONG PREVIEW — 2ND SEMIFINAL (PART 1)

The first half of the second semifinal is loaded with fare that could be classified as “Adult Contemporary”, with the exception of dance-pop offerings from two entries from the former Yugoslavia, and one attempt to bring yodeling to the 21st century.

SERBIA:  “In Too Deep” – Tijana Bogićević.  This is a lushly produced elegant pop song with drum-and-bass elements.  It garnered a lot of positive buzz so it is one of those likely to advance in the finals.  This is also the only entry from the former Yugoslavia to feature some ethnic instruments, albeit toned down in the mix to emphasize the song’s modernity.  I also noticed that timber of Tijana’s voice resembles Katy Perry in her more earnest moments in songs like “Firework

AUSTRIA:  “Running on Air” – Nathan Trent. This is a well-sung mellow, acoustic-based breezy pop ditty, one that might recall John Mayer or Jason Mraz.  It is likable and the cutesy charm of Nathan could help make this a finalist.

RUSSIA:  “Flame is Burning” – Julia Samoylova.  In recent years, Russia has been saddled with a “villain” image, that even if they field innocent lambs like the Tolmachevy Sisters and sing about world peace like Polina Gagarina, they are still vulnerably subject to derision by many Eurovision fans.  This issue has spilled to jury sentiment, as exhibited by the low amount of points Sergey Lazarev received from the jury votes last year, even as it dominated the popular vote.  I’m sure the Russian broadcaster spent significant amount of effort thinking about how they can win back the Eurovision fans’ sympathy.  Their solution:  field a disabled lady in a wheelchair to represent them–it’s horrible taste to boo at a disabled person, right?

I also have a more cynical observation about the strategy employed.  This particular lady-in-a-whhelchair also happens to have performed in the disputed territory of Crimea, which is currently verboten by the laws of the host country, Ukraine.  I think this was a deliberate decision to make the host country look bad and they can point out that Ukraine is not abiding by its slogan, “Celebrate Diversity”.  As expected, the Ukrainian government issued a ban for this singer, so her participation in this contest is in jeopardy, and despite the efforts of the EBU to offer a compromise, it is likely Russia will withdraw this year.  I think it’s also a win-win situation for Russia as if this lady couldn’t perform this year, they will field her for next year and that will further bolster more “sympathy” points in their corner.  Based on latest developments, a chief EBU officer has condemned the Ukrainian government’s action and threatened to impose penalties toward’s Ukraine’s future Eurovision participation.  I’m not that surprised what a big mess this has stirred up.

Now, what about the merits of this entry?  Okay, it’s well sung, and the song is sweet and inoffensive, though not my cup of tea.  Julia’s human interest story would resonate with the public, no doubt.  However, there is something about her perma-smile that makes me feel a tad uncomfortable–it reminded me of public sentiment towards the Carpenters when Karen Carpenter was still alive*1.  The difference is that in this song, Julia doesn’;t quite have Karen’s depth.  Julia also answers the unneceasary question of what do you get when you fuse Karen Carpenter and Carly Simon into one person.

*1 At the time, music critics tend to dismiss the brother-and-sister duo for being so relentlessly perky and it took Karen’s tragic death for most of them to reconsider their regard and appreciate the music better.  And they discovered there is gravitas in Karen’s singing that seemed to be hidden in plain sight and reveealed only when listening to them after her death.

I have a feeling the choice of song is actually a bit half-hearted as it definitely doesn’t showcase what Julia can do, especially if you saw her audition in Russia’s version of X-Factor covering Marija Šerifović’s Eurovision 2007-winning song “Molitva [Prayer]“.  It makes for a convincing argument that Russia has really no plans to participate this year and will come up with a stronger song for this lady when she would be fielded in next year’s Eurovision.  Whatever side you take in the Russia-vs-Ukraine argument, one would need to concede, “Well played, Russia.”

Karen Carpenter (L) and Carly Simon (R)

F Y R MACEDONIA:  “Dance Alone” – Jana Burčeska.  When this song was unveiled, I felt I was transported to a dance club in Miami circa 1980s-early 1990s.  It had that echoey synth-laden sound that is termed Hi-NRG.  This sound is characteristic of girl group acts of this era like Exposé, Sweet Sensation, Company B, and the Cover Girls.  It makes me wonder something–were these acts huge in the former Yugoslavia in those days?

Many fans are digging this (including myself) and there is hype it could bring forth this country’s best finish in this contest thus far.  Though I’m bullish, I am reserving my judgment until I hear this song performed live–from her Macedonian Idol videos it seemed she is capable of singing on-key in a variety of genres, but the echoey, glossy production of this tune made me concerned how well it would translate live.  I’m rooting for this to succeed, though.

MALTA:  “Endlessly” – Claudia Faniello.  The singer had proven she can sing this song well live.  The issue is the song is just too ordinary to make an impact.

ROMANIA:  “Yodel It!” – Ilinca & Alex Florea.  It looks like a welcome return for this country after its disqualification last year.  It clearly stands out with its attempt to make yodeling modern.  It so far polarized fans as some are extremely turned off while others loved it to bits–I’m in the latter camp.  But like the duo of Paula Seling and Ovi (who were both jurors in this year’s national selection and chose this act to win) the female singer’s vocal abilities are impressive.  With the wide Romanian diaspora around Europe (rivaling behind Poland), it will most likely garener high points with the popular vote.  Now the question is if juries would be impressed enough with Ilinca’s abilities to also toss points to this act’s favor.

NETHERLANDS:  “Lights and Shadows” – O’G3NE.  This trio is composed of three sisters, the tall blode eldest sister and the brunette twins.  Their main edge is their harmonies, and it is showcased in full with this song, composed by the girls’ father and boyfriend of one of the twin sisters (the jet-black-haired one).  The way these three sisters sing and the way they look is obviously reminiscent of the trio Wilson Phillips–even the title of this entry evokes the title of their less-successful sophomore album back in 1992.  It’s a song of decent quality, but will that be enough for this entry to advance to the finals?

Album cover for Wilson Phillips sophomore album Shadows & Light (1992)

HUNGARY:  “Origo [Origin]” – Joci Pápai.  This is an interesting fusion of folk music fused with modern production (with a rap at that), sung in a combination of Hungarian and Romany (a.k.a. Gypsy) languages.  It’s not for everyone’s tastes, but an expectedly strong presentation featuring a female Romany dancer could boost this entry’s prospects for advancing to the final.  Could it pull off a “Kevdesem“?  It’s possible.

DENMARK:  “Where I Am” – Anja Nissen.  Anja is undeniably a strong singer, and this song is stronger than this country’s previous two offerings to this contest.  Many fans are betting she can reverse the doldrums experienced by this country recently for failing to advance to the finals for the past two years.  But even with its strong merits, advancing to the finals is not guaranteed.  Sure it will get vingt-quatre points from its long-time best friend, Norway, but support from other countries is far from assured.

IRELAND:  “Dying to Try” – Brendan Murray.  He’s older than Isaiah, Blanche, Ilinca, and Bulgarian Bieber (Kristian Kostov), yet his voice and the treacly old-fashioned sentimentality of this song makes one think this is more suited for Junior Eurovision than in the big leagues.  It is touted that this has the imprimatur of music impresario Louis Walsh, but I don’t think this will break the four-year doldrums this country is experiencing.

COMING UP:  2ND HALF of 2ND SEMIFINAL

EUROVISION SONG CONTEST 2017: SONG PREVIEW — 1ST SEMIFINAL (PART 2)

The entries in the second half of the semifinal features a major power bloc that could help ensure their prospects of advancing to the finals by virtue of shared cultural ties and hence giving generous points to each other.  Let’s start with the first bloc member:

GREECE:  “This is Love” – Demy.  After the debacle that was “Utopian Land”Greece is poised to recover its fortunes with this ballad-to-techno-dance raveup.  It’s a strong entry, in my reckoning, and its prospects are boosted by the fact that it is likely to receive vingt-quatre points from Cyprus and vingt points from Armenia, and that other countries are also likely to toss points this way.

POLAND:  “Flashlight” – Kasia Moś.  This dramatically sung, classically tinged ballad has been garnering a lot of positive buzz that it’s likely this will advance to the finals.  It’s a given it will garner a lot of points from the televote (especially with the Polish diaspora–expect a lot of points coming especially from the UK public) but unlike her predecessor, she can also gain significant points from the juries, too.

MOLDOVA:  “Hey, Mamma!” – SunStroke Project.  Back in 2010, this band became a sensation because of the gyrating dance moves of the saxophonist, who the interwebs dub “Epic Sax Guy”.  Many fans felt their lowly 22nd place finish in the finals was unjust especially with the entertainment value delivered with this band.  They had been attempting to return to this contest quite a few times since then, but it’s only this time they finally succeeded with this catchy party jam.  Sure the lyrics are grammatically incorrect (“She’ll be back until sunrise”–should be “before sunrise”) and nursery-rhyme-cheesy but I still enjoy this entry immensely and rooting for it to succeed and vindicate its “weak” finish seven years ago.  It’s a given they can deliver a flashy presentation and the wedding reception themed gimmick looks bound to generate more memes after the contest–I bet wedding receptions all across Europe will feature people imitating the choreography delivered by this band during the national finals.  I would love to attend such fun wedding receptions like that.

ICELAND:  “Paper” – Svala.  This is a terrific modern pop song, and Svala proves she can deliver the vocal firepower live.  I also observe the timber of her voice resembles other highly regarded Eurovision entries, who all happened to also be platinum blonde, and they all channel Swedish dance-pop legend Robyn (surnamed Carlsson, not to be confused with Swedish hunk Robin Bengtsson).  She is part of a long line of quality soprano pop vocalists like 2013’s Margaret Berger from Norway, 2011 and 2016’s Poli Genova from Bulgaria, and to a certain extent, 2016’s Nina Kraljić from Croatia.  Someone should put these four ladies together in a concert tour, where they cover each other’s songs and each cover a song from Robyn (everyone knows Robyn has such a quality repertoire).  All of them will do great justice to each other’s work and to Robyn’s material.  Wouldn’t that be a treat?  Now my worry is she might also end up a big upset boot like her predecessor, the woefully underrated “Hear Them Calling” by Greta Salóme as so far the only support I can probably think she will receive is from Finland, Sweden and the UK, and its uncertain other countries will be onboard with her.

CZECH REPUBLIC:  “My Turn” – Martina Bárta.  No one’s really expecting this jazzy ballad to succeed in advancing to the finals like the breakthrough made by Gabriela Gunčíková’s “I Stand” last year.  The syncopated jazzy rhythm of this ballad might be reminded of Hungary’s entry 10 years ago, Magda Ruzsa’s “Unsubstantial Blues”which landed in the Top Ten in the finals, but I doubt the situation that allowed that entry to fare as well as it did is in play this time and well, there is very little vocal fireworks with Martina’s song.  Thematically and musically, it actually reminds me of Daniel Powter‘s 2005 smash hit, “Bad Day”–this song can even serve as an answer to “Bad Day”.  Hmm, considering Daniel’s career isn’t making big waves since then, perhaps he can drop by the Czech Republic and duet with Martina, him doing his hit and her answering with this song.  I consider this a worthwhile underdog.

CYPRUS:  “Gravity” – Hovig.  Hovig is not a Greek name, but rather Armenian–his full name is Hovig Demirjian.  This rhythmic pop number features ethnic elements, and the singer has a handsome charisma.  This looks to be guaranteed vingt-quatre (24) points each from Greece and Armenia, and it’s likely other countries will also toss some points their way.

ARMENIA:  “Fly with Me” – Artsvik.  This is the last entry to be revealed to the public, and it’s also the sole explicitly ethno-pop entry in this year’s contest.  Based on the video, it would promise to feature a striking stage presentation.  It’s not really as catchy as those ethno-pop winners from 2003-2005, but it’s a good listen.  Also bolstering its cause is its close ties to Greece and Cyprus, who are likely to send high points their way–perhaps vingt (20) points from each of them.

SLOVENIA:  “On My Way” – Omar Naber.  He was well regarded during his 2005 Eurovision stint for his strong voice, and that voice is still in great condition here (and he looks practically unchanged from 12 years ago).  The only problem is the ballad is generic and treacly and not a standout, so it’s likely he’ll languish again in the semifinals and not advance.

LATVIA:  “Line” – Triana Park.  Many Eurovision fans are raving about this techno number.  It is indeed a quality number, and this band promises to deliver an energetic performance.  However, I worry and hope they have a cleaner stage setup from their cluttered staging at their national final, and I am also concerned about how lead singer Agnese Rakovska would deliver her vocals live, as she sounded pitchy during the national final.  I think the prospects of this advancing is borderline and not assured, and I have to say, fans of this band should brace themselves for a shock boot if they did not improve from their national finals performance.

Here’s who I think would advance to the final based on my impressions at this point:

SWEDEN, AUSTRALIA, BELGIUM, PORTUGAL, AZERBAIJAN, GREECE, MOLDOVA, POLAND, CYPRUS, ARMENIA

BUBBLING UNDER:  ALBANIA, FINLAND, ICELAND, LATVIA

COMING UP:  1ST HALF of 2ND SEMIFINAL

EUROVISION SONG CONTEST 2017: SONG PREVIEW — 1ST SEMIFINAL (PART 1)

Before, I post my song preview articles for the Eurovision Song Contest about a week before the week-long contest was underway.  But my enthusiasm at monitoring the announcement of the entries made me decide that this time I’ll do it differently moving forward:  I’ll be discussing the merits of the songs and its prospects at this juncture, then as rehearsals begins in earnest in May, I’ll then post impressions based on live rehearsals and buzz on their presentations of any significant changes in my regard for these entries.

After the superb hosting by Sweden for last year’s contest, most fans and observers feel Ukraine faces a very tall order coming up to that standard.  News about issues in the preparation of the event by the national broadcaster does not bode well, and the early announcement of entries that are regarded as uninspired or unremarkable also made people fretful of a disastrous contest ahead.   Controversy over Ukrainian policy after Russia’s entry was announced made things more tense–more on that when I discuss the second semifinal.  However, Russia aside, the announcement of more uptempo entries later on stoked the Eurovision fever again, and many fans at this point felt based on song quality this year’s batch may actually be stronger than last year overall (especially in country-by-country comparisons made by several Eurovision fans over YouTube) and perhaps that would make this contest worthwhile after all.

I have these observations about how the contest is looking so far:

*Just like last year, it potentially could have equaled the record number of entries set in 2008 and 2011.  Though Bosnia & Herzegovina withdrew due to both financial concerns and frustrations over its perfect finals record being broken (it ranked 11th in the first semifinal), we saw the welcome returns of Portugal and Romania.   However the possible withdrawal of Russia due to Ukrainian government policy may again prevent the record from being tied, just like the last-minute disqualification of Romania last year.

*On top of parallelisms with last year, it also has parallels with the year 2009, when the contest was held in Russia.  That year, one country deliberately got itself disqualified due to conflicts with the host country, and interestingly one of the signers from that act is present in this year’s contest.

*Ukraine is renowned for its formidable females who competed in this contest.  However it seems they wanted to steer away from celebrating the diva-hood as they chose to have an all-male hosting team, and they selected an all-male rock band to represent them this year.  Will the reassertion of testosterone pay off?  Remember that Andrey Danilko was the only male who fared well (2nd in fact) in 2007, but he did it under his drag persona, Verka Serduchka.

*Also steering away from tradition are the entries from former Yugoslavia.  Normally we would be hearing ethnic-styled entries from this region, but this time it seems they are offering music with ethnic elements either reduced (like in the case of Serbia) or totally absent (the other four entries).  I have a feeling these countries want to prove they can offer modern, contemporary offerings.  Also, none of the entries are sung in languages native to those countries (I technically would’ve said all would be performed in English, but Croatia‘s entry is bilingual and the second language is not Croatian but Italian).

*There is no “joke” or “troll” act this year, though there are some campy entries to behold, like the modern yodeling from Romania, the endearing wedding reception motif from Moldova, and the pure campy disco stylings from Montenegro.  Some might also consider the dancing gorilla from Italy, but that entry is way elevated above camp and verging into high art.

Before I proceed to discuss the 43 entries, I would like to discuss one entry from a previous champion who could have made major impact if it was chosen to qualify:

“Statements” – Loreen.  The Eurovision champion who actually made a major impact in the European charts back in 2012 decided to enter Melodifestivalen this year with this topical song–very relevant with the populist/far-right political wave that is going on right now in this world.  It’s a sentiment that is clearly important to Loreen, as she is the daughter of Moroccan immigrants.  It’s not meant to make waves in the international hit parade, but it is a terrifically relevant and beautiful work of art.  Despite Loreen’s star power, it only made as far as the Andra Chansen (second chance) round.  Swedes were perhaps weary that this is very much like Jamala‘s winning entry “1944” last year and decided to veer away from such topical content that they favored less “political” offerings.  Anyway, the sting of Loreen’s “loss” is lessened as Sweden selected a very worthy entry.

The first half of the semifinal feature two entries that are regarded as heavy-hitters and possible winners, a campy disco number, and a heavy slew of ballads.  Without further ado let us begin with…

SWEDEN:  “I Can’t Go On” – Robin Bengtsson.  In last year’s Melodifestivalen, I so adored Robin’s entry, “Constellation Prize”.  For me, this entry and several others were far superior than the eventual winner,  Frans’ “If I Were Sorry“.  Though for most fans, this entry pales behind “Consteallation Prize”, it is still a welcome treat that Robin earned his vindication and is now the representative for powerhouse Sweden in this contest.  What made this entry win was the superb presentation, with Robin delivering Justin Timberlake swagger and near-pitch-perfect vocals while dancing on a treadmill.  His swaggerific posse of backup dancers also help enhance the appeal of this funky number.  Now the dilemma is this–how will they adjust to the more stringent six-person rule imposed by the EBU?   You see, the Melodifestivalen presentation allows for a total of eight people performing either onstage or backstage–in this case, besides Robin, he is accompanied by four backup dancers and three backup singers, and the backup singers are unseen. Obviously the song needs backup vocalists, but it’s either he needs to let go of his entire swaggerific posse and audition for fellows with the ability to dance, swagger, and sing at the same time (not an easy feat and could be a very tall order), or scale down his presentation by featuring only two of his dancing posse (to maintain the three backup singers).  I’m quite interested to see in which direction this may go.  Whatever the case I’m rooting for this to give Belgium and Italy a run for their money.

GEORGIA:  “Keep the Faith” – Tamara Gachechiladze.  Interesting note:  this singer was part of the “troll” act Stephane and 3G, who were chosen by the Georgian broadcaster to represent the country with “We Don’t Wanna Put In” back in 2009, but was disqualified as its lyrics obviously were referencing the Russian leader Vladimir Putin.  Now, with a more earnest ballad (but with those distinctively curly locks), Tamara went solo and will foresee no problems representing her country with a socially-conscious song.  She is undoubtedly a terrific singer, but I have quibbles when the message is hammered out too explicitly like in this song.  But then again, it worked for blind singer Diana Gurtskaya back in 2008.  I suppose it will now depend if she’ll get enough jury points to then advance to the finals.

AUSTRALIA:  “Don’t Come Easy” – Isaiah.  Surname Firebrace, his surname reflects his half-Aborigine heritage.  He was the winner of the last edition of his country’s X-Factor.  He has a terrific singing voice, reminiscent of Sam Smith.  The ballad is also well-produced and classy.  However, the ballad is also below the very high standard set by Guy Sebastian’s “Tonight Again and Dami Im’s “Sound of Silence” (which almost won it all last year) so I feel though this will easily advance to the finals, equaling the Top Five showing of his predecessors is an uphill battle.  His facial features also gave me uncomfortable memories of polarizing American Idol Season 6 finalist Sanjaya Malakar who couldn’t seem to deliver the promise of his strong audition–but then again based on all accounts of his X-Factor stint Isaiah’s a more consistently strong vocalist (which is why he won) so that is his saving grace.

Sanjaya Malakar circa 2007 (image sourced from Crushable.com)

ALBANIA:  “World”- Lindita.  Surname of the singer is Halimi.  Originally performed in its national final in Albanian as “Botë” (which also means the same thing as its English title), just like in previous years they have decided to convert the original lyrics into English.  Unlike last year when it was felt that the song’s impact got diminished in the process, the English conversion seems to be deemed not as damaging as in previous forays.  It is noted that it is also not necessarily faithful to the original Albanian lyrics, as the original Albanian lyrics seem to be more of a personal scale while the new English lyrics seem to talk about the world at large.  Anyway, no-one can deny the power of Lindita’s pipes, but will it be enough for Albania to advance?

BELGIUM:  “City Lights” – Blanche.  Blanche (born Elle Delveaux) possesses a distinctive smoky alto that has a quirkiness that evokes another young superstar singer, Lorde.  Her song could almost be classified as a ballad (and I speculate it was originally written as a stark, bleak one) but it was jazzed up with interesting electronica flourishes.  The way all of these created such a rich, moody, and modern piece made several fans (including myself) rave and consider it as one of the big favorites to win.  I feel that the coveted Marcel Bezençon composer’s award is a tossup between this song and Italy’s entry.  And lately this country is stepping up in its stage presentations, which helped propel Loïc Nottet to 4th place in 2015 and Laura Tesoro to 10th in 2016, so expect something memorable for Blanche, too.  I have a feeling this will become a jury darling, like Finland and Portugal.

MONTENEGRO:  “Space” – Slavko Kalezić.  This disco entry polarized Eurovision fans–there are many who expressed their active dislike of this number, but there are others who enjoy the campiness of it all–I’m in the latter camp.  It’s a fun, entertaining number, and we need something like this since Bosnian singer Deen‘s equally campy “In the Disco” 13 years ago.  The fan reactions toward this entry reminds me of the polarizing reception Todrick Hall had when he was a semifinalist in the 9th season of American Idol  Then, Todrick’s inventive arrangements turned many viewers off though many respect his skills and talents.  The tides have turned when he became a YouTube star and he started to be more prudent with his musical arrangements and he’s now regarded as more beloved than polarizing.  I see a similar scenario happening to this guy, if not in this contest, but somewhere along the line as he continues to forge forward with his career.

FINLAND:  “Blackbird” – Norma John.  Norma John is not a single singer but a male-female duo.  I’m not that into the ballads this year, but this is one of the few exceptions–yes, it’s a sad, bleak, depressing ballad, but its classical styling has integrity and beauty.  The song does stick to me, and I have a feeling juries would feel the same way too.

AZERBAIJAN:  “Skeletons” – Dihaj.  When I first listened to the song, I first thought the chorus went “I’m a skeletons” so I’m quite irritated that it seems to be glaringly grammatically wrong.  But reading the lyrics online, I learned it’s actually “Have my skeletons” so after getting over the original misheard lyrics, I’m starting to like this song.  Dihaj’s voice reminds me of Cranberries‘ lead singer Dolores O’Riordan and it looks like unlike last year’s entry, she will sing consistently well.  And since this country is a powerhouse in this contest, expect a strong showing for this song.

PORTUGAL:  “Amor pelos dois [Love for both]” – Salvador Sobral.  This orchestral ballad seems more suited to Eurovision 1957 instead of 2017.  And his scruffy, unkempt look in the national final turned me off a bit as he looks like a homeless hobo.  But his voice conveys such deeply felt heartache that there are several fans rallying to this entry’s corner, even hyping it as a possible front-runner and possibly delivering this country’s best ever finish in this contest.  I’m not necessarily buying into the hype at this point, but I’m slowly starting to appreciate this number more and more and connecting with the song.  It looks like it’s going to be a big jury darling like Finland, though we wonder if there will be enough points from the televoted for this to advance.  I also have to note automatic finals qualifiers Spain and Italy are present to vote in this group, so its cause may be bolstered by their votes.

COMING UP:  2ND HALF of 1ST SEMIFINAL