The Future Sound Is Here Already

 

For the past 8 years, the sound of Eurovision has been the slick precision of English language Swedish pop. But things are changing. In fact, things have already changed.

Change is a funny old thing. Sometimes it hits you all at once, but.sometimes it creeps up on you without you noticing it. You can even write a whole article proclaiming something to be the future sound of the Eurovision Song Contest in February and have totally missed the real story, unfolding under your nose.

The future sound of the Eurovision Song Contest is already here. It’s already won two successive contests. I’m talking about exquisitely produced, three-dimensional music with a real flavour of its origin. I’m having a real trouble working out what to call it, because it’s not world music, and it’s not ethno-pop (that’s such an othering phrase) so for our purposes just now, I’ll call it the future sound.

The first Future Sound Eurovision winner is Jamala of course. 1944 fits all my criteria. It’s in Jamala’s family language of Crimean Tatar, it was self-composed, it blends traditional instrumentation with neat, futuristic beats and it tells a real story that Jamala is personally involved in. It’s, whisper it, authentic.

And then in 2017, the future sound really takes off. We get 100% qualification for all the songs not in English language, and three of them making the top ten. Bulgaria send a beautiful young man with a song that hovers and lifts off like an emotional spaceship. Armenia’s commitment to sounding really, really Armenian deepens, Belarus send their best ever song which also happens to be the most culturally Belorussian song they’ve ever sent, Azerbaijan turn up with cutting edge experimental pop and a big box of conceptual art, Hungary bring us the astonishingly intense Origo, and of course, Portugal go and win the whole thing by doubling down on their idiosyncratic approach to Eurovision and sending a song which is already becoming a standard and a singer/composer duo that refresh and provoke with their unstarry attitudes.

2017 was the year the future sound took over, and in 2018 we’ll hopefully see a lot of excellent responses to this invisible shift away from the Stockholm hegemony. I’d like to see Estonia, Malta and Iceland sending songs in their own beautiful languages. I’d like to see some Sami representation from at least one of the Nordics. I’d like to see other minority populations representing their countries. Let’s have some Turkish language pop rock from Germany, let’s have a British Asian representing the UK, let’s get Ireland to send something that sounds Irish without going the full fiddle-de-dee.

Let’s let Belgium and the Netherlands get on with it, because they clearly have something good going on, but maybe get them to share their staging person’s card with the French delegation. Let’s have some Big Balkan Ballads back, let’s let Greece sound Greek. Let’s wait and see what Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria have in store for us and let’s hope that Latvia and Lithuania can sort out the messes of their national selection processes. Let’s hope that Russia returns with something that has a bit of authenticity and soul to it. Let’s actually celebrate diversity and get some faces of colour in the artist and songwriter line-up. Let’s celebrate art produced by women like Jamala and Loreen and Luisa Sobral. Let’s not just buy in a G:Son any more.

The contest could also change the way it works to accommodate the special staging requirements of the future sound. I think one of the most important things to have is a reconfigurable performance space that allows small songs by solo performers to feel as intimate as Salvador’s song did on the B-stage in Kyiv, but that also allows performers with a couple of contemporary dancers to have a medium-sized space they could fill. Imagine if it could be expanded out to give a big space for lavish interval acts or an orchestra! I bet you could do it easily and cheaply by having projection curtains that can be dropped down to shape the back of the stage, and I bet it’d look great. A reconfigurable stage doesn’t have to be as wild as the video embedded below, but gosh that’d be nice.

We should also hear as much about the songwriters as we do about the artists. The significant involvement of Luisa Sobral in front of the camera made us all think about Amar Pelos Dois as an artistic statement, rather than as a single product offered to us out of context. Hearing her talk in a press conference about the mechanics of writing the song with no gendered verb endings so that she or her brother or anyone could sing it was really interesting. I want to hear more technical songwriting details, and maybe some more emotional songwriting details too.

Including members of the delegation in the postcards in 2017 was one of my favourite bits – not only did a couple of friends get some brief flashes of screen time, but it brings home to the audience how much of a team effort pop music is. If I get the chance to do some Eurovision 2018 coverage, I think I’ll be chasing interviews with songwriters and choreographers and staging experts as well as the main act. I also don’t want to sound like too much of a ‘real music’ bore either, but I’d like to see some more bands at the Contest – rock bands, folk bands, metal bands, indie bands, and even jazz funk bands if Lithuania insist upon doing that again. The onstage chemistry between people who’ve gigged up and down the continent in a van can’t be faked, and if the future sound requires us to keep things real, then that’s what we need to do.

And if you think I’ve got myself over-excited about patterns that aren’t there? I’ll see you down the front in Lisbon. It’s going to be really, really real. The future sound is here already.

Video

Origo – Joci Pápai

At the time that I wrote my big Eurovision Preview Post, the received wisdom was that including any element of rap, especially native language rap in your Eurovision song was a route to sure non-qualification. Instead, I’m delighted that Joci, Alexandra and Emeses not only comfortably qualified (2nd in the semi!), but finished 8th in the Eurovision Grand Final.

It’s pretty obvious what appealed to me about Origo – the overall sound is cool, but Joci practically vibrates with tension as he pours out the pain of a lifetime of being on the receiving end of anti-Roma prejudice, so the song is in a constant state of edgy energy. Alexandra’s improvised dance tells us the parts of the story that we miss because we don’t understand Hungarian. She loves him, it’s magical, it’s overpowering it’s desperate, it’s agony. Emeses stands over on the satellite stage, playing the insistent violin riff and generally working the crowd into a frenzy. I spoke to Emeses just before the Grand Final – she was so excited to be a part of the performance, and was explaining that she never intended to go so crazy with the crowd around the satellite stage, but that the enthusiasm from the fans at her feet swept her away.

I think the strength of support for Hungary – they received televote points from 33 out of 42 countries and came 8th overall – is additional evidence for my theory that the best performing Eurovision songs no longer necessarily have to sound like ‘Eurovision songs’ and that the public are musically informed and open-minded enough to accept great songs and strong performances in any genre, especially when they tell such a strong story of love and pain.

 

Para ti – Luísa Sobral

We got to see a lot more of the Eurovision winning songwriter than normal in 2017, because not only is Luísa Sobral an excellent songwriter and performer, she’s also a big sister who stepped up to the rehearsal plate for her little brother who wasn’t ready to travel. I’d argue any day of the week that at Eurovision the songwriter should be given just as much prominence as the person interpreting the song on stage, so it’s nice that it worked out this way.

So here’s a bit of love for Luísa. She too survived a reality TV singing competition, and got her first album ‘The Cherry On My Cake’ out in 2011. It’s a very relaxed, accessible retro jazz album and her cooing vocals are delicious. Since then she’s had three more albums out – the most recent being ‘Luísa’ which isn’t available on streaming services, but which you can buy from her webstore. [hint hint] 

She’s touring Portugal over the summer, but maybe if we ask very nicely she’ll come and do some gala performances in various capitals around Europe?

But what I really wanted to show you was her homemade video for Para Ti. Be ready to wipe away a tiny happy tear by the end.

Luisa has a website

 

Video

A Very Listen Outside Eurovision

There’s so much more to say after two amazing weeks of music and friendship in Kyiv, but one of the things that struck me was how ‘listen outsidey’ the show was this year. All our non-English language songs qualifying for the Grand Final, our amazing winners Salvador Sobral and Luisa Sobral (we should start giving more credit to the songwriters!) and the edgy and uniquely Ukrainian interval acts from Ruslana, Jamala and Onuka. I’ll be going into the different aspects of the contest that gave it such a cool new flavour over the coming weeks, which I hope will help us all stave off PED together.

Back to Onuka: the version of VIDLIK performed with the NAONI orchestra prompted a rave in the Press Room on Grand Final night, and it’s been running around in my head ever since.

It’s going to be a great summer of music. Keep Listening Outside.

 

Eurovision 2017: Grand Final Preview + Stats

Find the 1st Semi Final and 2nd Semi Final previews at the links. As before, the Grand Final post will also contain some graphs looking at the overall trends this year.

France: Alma – Requiem

It’s as French as it could possibly be, even with the slightly weird addition of English lyrics in a couple of the choruses. The combination of the politely bump & grind rhythm with dramatic tango strings and Alma’s sexy vocals is superb. This deserves to do really well. I hope the staging includes the two tango dancers, but that might be because I moonlight as a Strictly Come Dancing podcaster in the Eurovision off-season.

Whether or not something this intensely French will win the contest or not is kind of beside the point – the French delegation are mainly interested in building up the contest as a platform that works well with the French pop industry. A win might come one day.

Grab factor: The romance of it all! The tango strings!

Drag factor: I can’t think of anything at all, honestly. It’s insouciant and lovely. Enjoy it!


Germany: Levina – Perfect Life

So the German national final program was a mess. So they made Levina sing about a dozen times over the course of three baffling hours of light entertainment. So they misattributed Robyn’s Dancing On My Own to the sad piano cover man. So what. They’ve ended up with a perfectly serviceable chart pop song with a much discussed tinge of Sia about it. It’ll go down nicely, especially with people who aren’t in the usual Eurovision bubble. I don’t think it’s competing for last place, even though there’s nothing except the false sense of familiarity and Levina’s strong vocal to prompt you to vote for it.

Grab factor: Wait, haven’t I heard this before?

Drag factor: No dynamic variation at all


Italy: Francesco Gabbani – Occidentali’s Karma

Continuing our question ‘What is a novelty hit?’ we examine a wordy, complex song with a double chorus structure about the philosophical drought at the heart of the modern Western condition. Also, there is a good bit with a gorilla.

Immediately after San Remo, this song seemed laughably unassailable. No-one could beat the bloody gorilla. The fact that it works on multiple levels for multiple audiences, and has been considered as an artistic whole makes it really strong. The gorilla provides that call to arms that makes people pick up the phone and vote.

Whether or not the brutal excision of the second verse will affect how it goes down with the people hearing it for the first time, well, we’ll have to wait and see because everyone in ESC fandom seems to have played it to absolute death already. If it’s a winner, it’s an interesting winner. If it’s not our winner, then we’ve got a basically uncallable competition, which is terribly exciting.


Grab factor: There are several jumping on points throughout the song. It won’t have problems getting eyeballs.

Drag factor: Perhaps the ESC version of this song has a less favourable verse to chorus ratio?


Spain: Manel Navarro – Do It For Your Lover

If Ed Sheeran was Spanish and the beach bars he plied his trade in were on the Costas rather than the English Riviera, this is what would be clogging up the UK charts right now.

To be honest, the protracted and undignified shenanigans surrounding the Spanish selection has clouded my judgement of this inoffensive and indistinctly sung ditty. I suspect I’d have been more forgiving of the jury nobbling of the televote if it was a total masterpiece. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s light, summery and will probably sound quite nice on the Saturday night.

Grab factor: You can’t go wrong with a snappy reggae style guitar chord riff.

Drag factor: Does seem like it might be going on for more than 3 minutes.


UK: Lucie Jones – Never Give Up On You

I nearly forgot to review this one. Oops. The UK was given the choice of some blandly positive competent pop songs sung by a variety of singers, the strongest of whom is our Lucie – a West End regular who brings a massive mooing following of Rentheads.

The song, by 2013 Eurovision winner Emmelie de Forest is a lovely heartfelt ballad which has been given the full Sanna Nielsen production treatment. It’s pretty, it’s nice and it’s the kind of song that would do very well with Lucie alone in a pin spot on the satellite stage.

Grab factor: Lucie acts and sings extremely well, this should be eye-catching.

Drag factor: The UK delegation will doubtless come up with something to counteract the general goodness of this.


Ukraine: O.Torvalds – Time

It is very, very odd that O.Torvalds are doing Eurovision. It’s a bit like Biffy Clyro representing the UK or Opeth somehow winning Melodifestivalen. It at least guarantees they won’t be hosting two years running? And it gives us our token rock act, but I’ve still no clear idea how or why it happened.

The staging with the rubble piles, the fire jets and the prosthetic countdown clocks is incredibly striking, but definitely a bit much for a pop audience on a family show. Metal audiences have been enjoying extreme imagery like this for a long time, but it’s really scraping the boundaries of the standards and practices office. At least they were prevented from bringing the even more horrific gunshot version…

Grab factor: You’ll either be grabbed by the sudden appearance of something adjacent to rock music or you’ll be looking for the borders of the latex clock prosthetics.

Drag factor:  If it’s not your thing, there’s nothing for you here.


The Stats

Who is singing at Eurovision? Once more, Eurovision is very much a soloists game. The solo female percentage has actually come down a little from last year, when it was 51% and the solo male percentage has remained basically static. The big difference is our 5 duos, increasing the duo percentage from 2016’s 2% to this year’s 12%.

How fast is Eurovision? Let’s put our 2016 and 2017 tempo histograms next to one another. In 2016 we had a lot of songs that came in above 120 bpm, probably because the winner the previous year was Heroes, which came in at 124 bpm. This year, the tempo has noticeably slowed and we’ve got the majority of our songs sitting at a ballad-friendly 100 bpm. This doesn’t really square with my ‘last years winner’ factor, because 1944 was 120 bpm. Eurovision: there is no pattern.

 

 

 

 

 

What are people singing at Eurovision? They’re singing ballads, they’re singing nice pop songs and they’re singing mid-tempo inspirational radio songs. Would love to see that Folk Pop segment getting a bit bigger!

What language are people singing in at Eurovision? They’re largely singing in English. We’re at 88.4% English language, up from 83.3% last year.

I haven’t calculated the average number of Swedish songwriters per song yet, because I’ve got a life (this year). Last year it was 0.44.

Eurovision 2017 – Semi Final 2 Preview Post

And we’re back for the preview of the 2nd Semi Final of the Eurovision Song Contest 2017. Find the 1st Semi Final here.  I can’t decide if this is the stronger semi or not – there’s certainly some excellent stuff here and some things that I’d be very sad if they didn’t qualify, but with the sudden omission of Russia things are a bit up in the air. But on with the show!

Serbia: Tijana Bogićević – In Too Deep

Every time I hear this come up in the shuffle I go, “Oh! I like this, what is this nice bit of post dancehall?” And then the D’n’B lite chorus kicks in and I go, “Aha. Serbia”.

The verses should have a lot more to do with the chorus – there’s a bit of Frankensteining with visible stitches between the bits going on here – and the incredible middle 8 string/vocal melody needs to come in so much earlier than it does. I’m expecting it to qualify because it’s Serbia, but then I will still keep forgetting about it. Even though I actually like it when it’s on.

Grab factor: The woah-o-woah-o-woah descending line in the middle 8

Drag factor: It takes 1 minute and 50 seconds to get to the good bit


Austria: Nathan Trent – Running On Air

Pleasant, breezy and agreeable. I’m sure that twinkly-eyed Nathan will be able to sell this rather slight song about happiness and self-improvement extremely well on stage, and the bluesy vocal runs in the verses keep it from sagging outside the sway-along chorus. I’m not convinced that it actually means anything, but the combination of an anthemic chorus, a self-improvement message and the lyrics ‘running on air’ make me think that this song could have a second life in an advert for comfortable ladies trainers.

Grab factor: Nathan’s charisma and embellishments on the verse melody.

Drag factor: A bit empty?


Russia:Yulia Samoylova – A Flame Is Burning

Sigh. I mean, I’m tired of talking about whether or not she’ll be able to perform as part of the show, but the song really is insultingly poor. Yulia and Russia could do better and everyone knows it.

Grab factor: The headlines have been full of Russia this, Russia that.

Drag factor: This is an awful song


Macedonia: Jana Burceska – Dance Alone

This is a song that I wouldn’t be disappointed to hear on an album from Gaga or Robyn. It is absolutely stacked with little hooks and musical touches to grab onto your brain and make you love the song from the word go. Let’s get into how they’ve done this.

We start with the chorus melody up front in the intro, followed by the double clap that is the rhythmic signature of the track. Two hooks in the first nine seconds.

Then immediately after that comes the bit to make you dance – the wobbly, syncopated bassline and Jana’s sexy filtered vocal, along with a second synth melody that repeats throughout. 3 more hooks and at 47 seconds, we hit the chorus with a pause and a rising woah that you’re going to hear a lot more of. We already know the chorus melody, so we’re comfortable and ready to sing along and join in with the double clap when prompted. 58 seconds in and we’ve established and repeated all our main themes. This is very good work indeed.

Verse 2 comes in with a link between the lyrics and music, as the brief instrumental section gives the opportunity to illustrate that Jana is ‘letting the pavement be her catwalk’. We’ve been introduced to all the hooks already and we’re just enjoying hearing them again at this point. Then, we repeat that exciting pause/woah moment at 1:37 as we head into the second chorus. Oh, the chorus, we know how that goes, we’re know what to expect. But what’s this? The exciting sonic hair-toss of the ‘I’ll let it go’ bit adds a new part to the chorus and keeps the whole thing surprising and rhythmically exciting.

At 2:10 we drop out for a middle 8 which doesn’t really introduce any new themes, but remxes existing bits and bobs from the track with a sparser dynamic. All we’re doing here is building up tension that we’re going to release with a triumphant last repetition of the chorus, which crashes back in on a rave rocket at 2:26. Then you’ve got nearly 30 seconds of chorus for everyone to enjoy and for Jana to work the crowd in.

So that is why you like this song so much. It’s a masterclass in ultra-catchy pop songwriting and it manages to do it without appearing tacky or desperate. Well done Macedonia, I don’t know how or where this sudden burst of genius happened, but I’m ever so glad it did.


Grab factor: I just spent nearly 400 words explaining that it’s entirely constructed from grab factor

Drag factor: I can just about imagine that some people might be immune to it?


Malta: Claudia Faniello – Breathlessly

Drippy and overwrought, but Claudia brings every single fibre of her being to it. Her delivery is fantastic, and it’s wonderful to see her finally get her chance at the Eurovision stage. I just wish that she had managed to bag a more current song.

Grab factor: Heartstrings being yanked hard.

Drag factor: Frocky ballad that you’re going to forget as soon as the next song starts


Romania: Ilinca & Alex – Yodel it!

Rapping and yodelling. Two great tastes that taste great together. It’s the salted caramel of 2017. It’s like discovering for the first time that fruit cake goes with sharp cheese (try it, and thank me later) or like the discovery of the Irn Bru float. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does.

Everyone knows what yodelling sounds like, so we’re already 100% familiar with the main hook of the track, and the lovely Ilinca yodels absolutely beautifully and with such power. Alex brings a bit of gruff to the party and the whole message about how you should give up your job and yodel is just bizarre enough to work. Structurally, it is totally route one, no deviations from the standard pop template, but if they’d taken risks anywhere else in the song then we wouldn’t be willing to go along with them for the rapping and yodelling.

Also, Alex and Ilinca have an intriguing on-stage chemistry, which makes me think that they’re doing a lot of arguing backstage, but in a way that ends with a kiss rather than storming off and blocking each other on facebook. I do believe that for duos to work at Eurovision, you have to be able to realistically ship it, and Alex and Ilinca pass this test in a way that a certain Estonian duo super do not. But the yodelling might be too much for some.

Grab factor: YODELEIO!

Drag factor: If you don’t like yodelling, this might be a long 3 minutes.


Netherlands: O’G3NE – Lights & Shadows

Sibling harmonies get me every time. Sibling harmonies done well and a song that gives it the full emotive 90’s Disney welly will get me welling up faster than you can say ‘A Whole New World’. It’s incredibly corny, hugely emotionally manipulative and I really enjoy it. Sue me.

It has the chance to go incredibly wrong on the night, but this is offset by the fact that this is a band who’ve been singing together since they could gurgle, have already been through the tests of Junior ESC and the Voice. These ladies are total pros. Provided the staging doesn’t turn out to be a distracting mess, this could potentially tear the roof off.

Grab factor: Magical angelic harmonies!

Drag factor: Cheese overload, I hope you’re not lactose intolerant.


Hungary: Joci Papai – Origo

This is so cool. This is a song for blasting out your car window on a hot evening or playing just as a house party goes up into dancing gear. Once you get into the translated lyrics, you find out that Origo is a story of love, loss and prejudice, which doesn’t end happily but comes from a place of pain and inner strength. Joci Papai also comes from the often persecuted Hungarian Romani community and he’s a great addition to our #celebratediversity party.

I’m honestly not sure what the wider Eurovision public will make of it, because it definitely sounds not-Western and I don’t know how the voters and public are responding to that at the moment. For me, however, it’s a definite plus. More like this please.

Grab factor: That cool violin riff. Joci Papai’s haunting voice.

Drag factor: Some people apparently don’t like a rap breakdown.


Denmark: Anja Nissen – Where I Am

We were always going to get Anja Nissen at Eurovision at some point. But to throw away her shot on this totally generic 90’s R&B thing is very disappointing. There wasn’t a lot of excitement available in the Danish selection, to be honest and they probably went with a competent live TV vocalist by default. Even though it starts out with a promising hook, it never really builds, never really goes anywhere and never even introduces any changes of instrumentation or melody to make the 3 minutes pass pleasantly. Come on Denmark. You can surely do better than this.

Grab factor: That ‘Laying down my armour’ hook

Drag factor: Literally everything else about the song.


Ireland: Brendan Murray – Dying To Try

Ooft, Ireland. Ooft. While the standard boyband template of a 6/8 slowie with a choir for the final chorus works just fine for Louis Walsh and the rest of the X Factor lot to obtain hit singles for reality contest winners, it simply will not do at Eurovision, especially when we suspect that poor Brendan is going to struggle with the big top notes. Thanks to Linda Martin (who probably hasn’t signed an NDA and can therefore say what she likes to journalists) we’ve found out that they’ve engaged Nicoline Refsing to stage this. If she can make this boring song stand a chance of qualifying then she’s truly a genius.

My other problem with this song is that it sounds like a teenage boy trying to persuade an unsure partner into intensifying the physical part of their relationship, even if they don’t really want to. Which is gross.

Grab factor: And he stands UP off the stool

Drag factor: Another solo male ballad in lead boots.

 


 

San Marino: Valentina Monetta & Jimmie Wilson – Spirit of the Night

When will Valentina get her cool, jazzy, classic Amar Pelos Dois? I really hope she does at some point. So, San Marino are bidding to rebrand themselves as the epic disco capital of Europe. This combines many of the things I love the most: boy/girl duets, spoken word verses, unbridled disco joy, bucketloads of handclaps, key changes which clang into place like ancient granite monoliths, ascending vocal runs and a bit where it all drops out except for our heroes.

I really, really want San Marino to get their Q with this. I say it would be good for San Marino, great for Val & Jimmie, excellent for disco and a balm to weary souls around the world. Love love. Peace peace. Disco disco.

Grab factor: The disco beat takes you away!

Drag factor: Somehow there are enough sections and keychanges to stop it dragging.


Croatia: Jaccques Houdek – My Friend

This is deeply, deeply weird. Two different flavours of syrupy self-help messages stirred into an inspirational slow jam. It’s probably a religious song on some level? His friend is Jesus, right?  However, I am glad that Eurovision gives people to chance to experiment like this, even if I don’t get it at all.

The string breakdown is thrilling and gives us one of our few opportunities for a Eurovision Fiddle Moment, but that’s really the best bit of it for me. A curio and something to encourage.

Grab factor: THOSE TWO MEN SINGING A DUET ARE THE SAME MAN!

Drag factor: Jacques is your friend who posts inspirational memes on facebook. #blessed


Norway: JOWST – Grab The Moment

Putting aside the very strange usage of death and drug imagery in the lyrics, this song is pretty great. Actually, let’s not put the death imagery aside – this is NORWAY and they do pop that makes you consider your inevitable mortality better than anyone [Monster, Silent Storm]. The heavily distorted and processed vocal sample post-chorus section will obviously have to be altered for the ESC stage version, but they don’t need to touch the absolutely best bit of the song which is the middle 8 drop with that huge, huge bassline. Whenever that song starts I’m counting down the seconds until we get to that bit.

Combined with cutting edge club style visuals, reasonable screen charisma and some really exciting LED face mask things, I think this is a great effort for Norway. Fingers crossed they get the Q.

Grab factor: It’s audibly modern and will be visually arresting on stage.

Drag factor: The middle 8 keeps it interesting, stops drag setting in.


Switzerland: Timebelle – Apollo

From the same barrel of competent radio-friendly mid tempo pop songs that we selected the UK song, we have Timebelle singing about Apollo. Is it the Apollo of Greek myth or the Apollo of Battlestar Galactica fame? We can hardly tell from the somewhat generic inspirational lyrics.

I find that I have less to say about it every time I hear it. It’s just there and it does all the correct things at the same time – not just the chords and the melody, but also the tiny modulations and pauses and production touchers are all present and correct. I just don’t like it very much compared with any of the others.

Grab factor: Yes, that’s a proper pop chorus. Check.

Drag factor: Where have I heard this one before?



Belarus: NAVI – Гісторыя майго жыцця

I’ve loved this song for months and I’ve been keeping a quiet eye on NAVI since last year. This is the big one for them – a lovely song full of hope and positivity at a tempo that invites bopping to turn into full-on pogoing, with a singalong chorus and the presence of a huge number of Belorussians in the crowd. If they can’t get the Q and a great result on the Saturday, then I don’t know what’s gone wrong with Europe’s ears. It’s going to be wonderful singing those ‘Hey! Hey! Heyayayay!’ refrains along with several thousand excited Belorussians and Ukrainans. The ESC revamp of the song really lifts the last minute by adding some more dynamics, a big jury note and lots of potential for crowd participation.

I just adore NAVI – I’d be willing to have them as houseguests (I bet they’re really lovely and probably help do the washing up) or spend a night down the pub with them setting the world to rights. Very excited for them.

Grab factor: Instant bouncing, intense uptempo joy.

Drag factor: Will you get tired of singing, clapping and pogoing?


Bulgaria: Kristian Kostov – Beautiful Mess

Displaying an emotional maturity far beyond his years, Kristian is singing the kind of big sensitive ballad I can really get behind. It’s got a level of sophistication that you’d expect from the new Eurovision powerhouse that is the Bulgarian delegation but it’s not being too clever-clever. It’s got a central message about love defeating adversity (they will never break us down) and that’s something that we can all get behind.

Kristian himself is such a sweetheart and even though he’s only young he can work the crowd like a fearless pro. I just wish he would keep his eyes open so that he can give the people down the other end of the camera the full benefit of his performance.

Grab factor: Oh lookit the wee boy… woah, he can really sing!

Drag factor: It might be too sensitive for the party-party-party folks?


Lithuania: Fusedmarc – Rains of Revolution

I am so confused by this song. For a start, I absolutely do not recall this participating in the earlier stages of the Lithuanian selection process. I don’t even remember listening to it in the run up to the final. I can’t prove to myself that this song existed before it got selected. It’s the reverse musical Mandela Effect and it absolutely freaks me out.

So the song is a bit of a mess. Synthetic brass parps away distractingly, they’re seemingly short of a whole verse worth of lyrics and the 80s called on a giant suitcase-sized mobile phone because they want their bassline back. It’s got a very confusing rain metaphor and I can’t work out if it’s about relationships, religion or disillusionment with the political system. Greta Zazza should be here and I should be heaping praise upon her song. Instead, this.

Grab factor: The synth brass certainly grabs the ear from the very start.

Drag factor: It starts to drag for me in the ‘yeah yeah yeah’ verse.


Estonia: Koit & Laura – Verona

My favourite song from the Eesti Laul pack won through with an enormous televote, even though the staging made Koit & Laura look like they’d never been formally introduced, let alone had the kind of torrid affair you write a song about. I have since been assured that was just two perfectly friendly Estonians enjoying their own comfortable levels of personal space, and that they’ll sort something a bit different out by May.

The song though: you wouldn’t be shocked to find a carefully coiffed Michael Ball & Elaine Page belting this one out to one another in a Royal Variety show in the 80s. It’s a huge slab of cheese, but in a fantastic way. It’s a passionate boy/girl duet and I love it. And if that makes me wrong then I don’t want to be right.

Grab factor: It’s got hooks in all the right places. If Laura can act her socks off while Koit delivers blue steel, it’ll come absolutely alive.

Drag factor: Maybe there’s not enough variety of dynamic and mood? It gets to full pelt within 45 seconds and doesn’t let up from there.


Israel: Irmi Ziv – I Feel Alive

Another song with an intro that doesn’t seem to go with the chorus, it always takes a bit of catching up for me to realise that this is the same massive party banger that I really enjoy.

I don’t really know what it’s about – is it a song of heartbreak? A song of determination? A celebration of life? Or is it just some words that sound good when placed against a beat and a backing vocal? Never you mind, you over-analytical sorts, just get dancing and enjoy yourselves.


Grab factor: Israeli dancefloor party time!

Drag factor: Not melodically or lyrically interesting enough to remove Golden Boy from everyone’s hearts.


 

My picks from Semi 2: Belarus, Bulgaria, Estonia, Macedonia, Hungary, Romania, San Marino.

Video

Eurovision 2017 – Semi Final 1 Preview Post

And my annual Eurovision Preview post comes to Listen Outside. I’ve been splashing about in the Eurovision stuff since Christmas, and finally we’re getting ready to put on a show! It’s a great selection of songs this year, very few totally duff tracks and some of the best ever songs for some countries.

Come with me, on a journey into sound.

Sweden: Robin Bengtsson – I Can’t Go On

From the opening funky parp of a synth riff to the syncopated post-chorus horn riff, everything about this song is timed to perfection. The stage routine also requires pinpoint accuracy in dancing on the travelators, which looks impressive but adds to the slightly clinical feeling of the song. Even softening the expletive is the kind of thing a tabloid bad boy popstar would do to get headlines, even if they never intended to release the explicit version.

Anyway, this is indisputably a good song. I find it easier to listen to when I’m not looking at the stage show, because Robin is one of those guys who makes my brain say ‘NOPE’. I am confident it’ll do well, because there’s nothing really to dislike about this song. You can even dance to it when you’re not on a travelator.

Grab factor: ‘Did he just say…?’

Drag factor: No dynamic variation on repeated choruses. Clinical.


Georgia: Tamara G – Keep The Faith

If you’re watching the semi finals with an ESC newbie or casual, this is probably the time at which you need to give them their second cocktail. You’re a good host, so you already handed them a beverage before you settled down, but after the opening number (Jamala? Ruslana? A children’s choir? Svetlana Loboda riding a mechanical unicorn through the arena?)  and Sweden, things are going to be a little tough for a while.

So, Georgia have sent a plush and emotional ballad in the faux Bond theme category, sung by the lovely Tamara in a big sparkly frock. The song lightly alludes to how unpleasant people who invade other countries are, which is interesting given that Tamara was a member of the band who are so far the only victims of the ‘No Politics’ rule by trying to get away with “We Don’t Wanna Put In” in 2009, not long after the conflict between, um, Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia. Honestly, the context is much more interesting than the song. But her voice is pretty good.

Grab factor: Them pipes. That soul.

Drag factor: Intensely overwrought.


Australia: Isaiah Firebrace – Don’t Come Easy

Of all the Eurovision nations, I was least expecting a meh from Australia. There’s just nothing for me to get excited about in this. I was just listening to it for three minutes, and I couldn’t remember anything about it. It hasn’t helped that Isaiah hasn’t been able to join the promo circuit, but this isn’t up to Australia’s standard at all. In the mini-league of emotional solo male songs (Portugal, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland, Croatia, Slovenia) it’s neither stunning nor memorably bad.

The biggest crime at Eurovision is being unmemorable. Tucked away here between two similar sounding songs and not having a huge amount of memorable content, I am worried for the Aussies.

Grab factor: It’ll have to be Isaiah’s personal charisma

Drag factor: The leaden tempo


Albania: Lindita – World

I feel like the fact that Albania select their song in Festival I Kengis, at the darkest time of the year around the Winter Solstice means that they’re pre-disposed to go for the darker side of anthemic ballads. The ESC version of World thrills with huge power ballad production touches and Lindita’s voice is superb, but ultimately sounds at least ten years behind the rest of the competition. It’s a really impressive example of the type of song that it is, but the type of song that it is stopped being used as the lead song from high budget action thriller/romances in the nineties.  

Grab factor: Do you like a cinematic, orchestral power ballad? This is one of those.

Drag factor: The duh-duh-duh-dah-dah chorus melody gets repetitive.


Belgium: Blanche – City Lights

An aching cathedral of understated longing, with a blast of Depeche Mode style synth line evoking sodium yellow or mercury white street lights, viewed through the window of a car driven late at night.

Against the huge Amen cadences in the chorus, Blanche’s delicate vocals sound like rose petals fluttering across a busy street. Beautiful, yes, but the kind of beauty that gets lost amidst the noise and frantic activity of a song contest. It’s a song for the radio and your MP3 player rather than the stage, unless there is something absolutely incredible they’re keeping under wraps.

Grab factor: Those chords! Those synths!

Drag factor: Subtlety at Eurovision – a huge risk


Montenegro: Slavko Kalezic – Space

Is this a deep ode to humanity’s infinite smallness compared to the vastness of space or a series of single entendres about shagging?

It’s definitely the latter, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s successful at what it does – Slavko is telling us about the benefits of sensual pleasure and abandoning yourself to dance or passion. The modulation into the chorus goes off like a rocket, and says ‘If you weren’t already on the dancefloor get here right now’. It’s a soundtrack to anonymous 2am kisses on the dancefloor. It’s about joy, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Grab Factor: I have my suit on!

Drag Factor: Are you tired of having fun?


Finland: Norma John – Blackbird

I didn’t get it at first, because I was invested in other songs at UMK and I was at a point in my life where I didn’t want to hear any more sad songs. And this song is very, deeply sad. A Finnish sad song that is as shiveringly dark as the night before the Winter Solstice is very, very sad indeed.

But once you’re past that, yes, it’s gorgeous. If you’re feeling the right way when you hear this, your heart will break in a beautiful way. If not, you might be making a cuppa.

Grab Factor: Leena’s superlative voice

Drag Factor: It’s all down to how you feel.


Azerbaijan: Dihaj – Skeletons

This is a bit different. Dihaj provided stabilising vocals for Samra’s Swedish cast-off Miracle in 2016 and now she’s back and doing her interesting, angular thing at the front of the big stage.

Sonically, it has much more in common with my beloved icy Nordic electropop than anything more typically sourced from the Caucasus. The staging is going to make or break it, because the audience will need to be brought into the world of this strange and alienating song. It is possibly the least appropriate song for the trademark Azeri golden pyro curtain. If they can do it in blue or purple during the ‘drip drop’ middle 8 section, maybe.

Grab factor: Gosh! This is different

Drag factor: Has a chance to be too cold to identify with.


Portugal: Salvador Sobral – Amar Pelos Dois

Simply sublime. Utterly touching and poignant. Appearing out of absolutely nowhere, Portugal find themselves in possession of one of the best and most classic Eurovision songs of any era. A potential standard in the making, a beautiful portrait of bittersweet and enduring love.

I like this a lot. A lot. Salvador’s voice is incredible and he absolutely dedicates himself to music. His sister Luisa’s songwriting appears simple, but is built of beautiful complexities and the jazzy swing of the orchestration will be melting hearts all over Europe.

Grab factor: Intense beauty as a balm to your soul

Drag factor: If you don’t like nice things.


Greece: Demy – This Is Love

This is cheese. A Parthenon-sized slab of organic, artisanally produced feta.  Eurodance ad extremis. From the fragrant fromage of the sad piano led first verse to the daft immensity of the pew-pew lasers that bring on the dancey chorus, to the totally camp orchestral breakdown that evokes the intense, baroque passion of symphonic disco and chorus lyrics that prompted such hearty guffaws on Twitter that they ended up changing them. It’s throwaway nonsense and I love it. Except the last line, which is too twee for words.

Grab factor: REACH FOR THE LASERS!

Drag factor: You’re too busy dancing. You’d let this go on for 7 minutes if you had the choice.


Poland: Kasia Mos – Flashlight

It’s not got the uplifting message and anthemic rush of Color of Your Life, and it’s not really edging that much closer to a jury-friendly modern pop vibe, but it’s maybe going to pick up a few more jury votes. Will the Polish televote stun us again this year?

Songwise, there’s a significant deduction for the fire/higher/desire rhyme. The lyrics are bad, but Color Of Your Life wasn’t more than superficially deep.

I just don’t feel very strongly about this either way.

Grab factor: Um.

Drag factor: Well.


Moldova: Sunstroke Project – Hey Mamma

Consulting my musical thesaurus, I note that Epochal Metallophone Gentleman returns triumphantly to the ESC stage. Sunstroke Project have taken on a few post-dancehall trop house rhythms, strapped them to a really mindblowingly daft hook and produced another infectious and totally inappropriate novelty hit.

(What even is a novelty song? I don’t know the definition, but as with art and smut, I know when I see it)

Ach, but it’s fun. I like things that are fun. Therefore I must like this. QED. Right?

Grab factor:The commentator will tell you to pay attention to this one and then the sax honks will get you.

Drag factor: Maybe we go round the chorus one time too many, but then again, someone enjoys the 10 hour Epic Sax Guy video.


Iceland: Svala – Paper

An electric Pat Benatar power ballad carved out of the living permafrost. As with a lot of the Icelandic tunes, it loses some of the magical assonance and sense of mythic poetry when in English, but what we’ve got is still very epic.

If the legendary Nicoline Refsing could be engaged to ʒusʒ up the staging then we could ensure that we create a visual spectacle to match Svala’s toweringly majestic vocals.The contrasting vocal rhythms in the chorus and the chiming descending synths should give a staging director plenty of drama to work with. It’s magnificent. I would still rather have had Daði singing the totally sweet This Is Love, but Paper is a good alternative.

(I am annoyed with myself for falling back on the cliche of chilly Icelandic synth pop, but seriously, Svala isn’t giving me anywhere else to go.)

Grab factor: The hook is instantly there in the intro, Svala does the rest.

Drag factor: Maybe it goes round the chorus one time too many without changing it up?


Czech Republic: Martina Barta – My Turn

The song is pleasant. Martina’s voice is very pleasant indeed. The message of co-operation and solidarity is beautiful. But it’s subtle, and subtle does not do well at Eurovision.

I really want the Czech Republic to do well but, nope.

Grab factor: There’s a lovely vocal ostinato in the chorus

Drag factor: It’s too…beige


Cyprus: Hovig – Gravity

Hearing that Cyprus would be sending an established solo artist with a G:son joint, I was excited and intrigued. But then I heard the song and went ‘Oh.’

There’s just nothing there. I don’t listen to a lot of UK chart radio, so I’m not familiar with the Rag & Bone Man song that everyone says this is like. (Human, is it?)

Also, that’s not how gravity works. And I am willing to hold a seminar in Kyiv for songwriters and artists who want to use gravitational metaphors correctly in their music.

Grab factor: The G:Son bass hook.

Drag factor: Repetitive as.


Armenia: Artsik – Fly With Me

I think that the true legacy of Jamala’s win with 1944 isn’t necessarily the rise of sad female ballads (that was happening anyway) but it is in fact the increase in the number of cool, stylised, unusual sounding songs with hypermodern production. Fly With Me is one of those. From the incredibly simple but insistent bassline to the combination Armenian trad/modern electro breakdown, this is pinging all the bits of my music hipster brain. Like Lovewave last year, it feels like it lacks a bit of a climax, but I’m sure that the Armenians have plenty of budget for pyro and incredible visuals and the staged version will be special indeed.

It prompts me to dance wherever I am. Wherever I am. The freezer section in the Co-op has never seen such sensual moves.

Grab factor: That 2 and a half note bassline.

Drag factor: No big chorus and lengthy instrumental dance breaks are usually a downside.


Slovenia: Omar Naber – On My Way

Tedious.

Grab factor: None

Drag factor: This lasts for three whole minutes.


Latvia: Triana Park – Line

Behind the pink neon cyberpunk outfits and eyeliner-wearing fit drummers, there’s a cool and well-structured electrodance song. It’s not like a rock song, it’s more like a Robyn song. I love the build up of tension that comes just before the first big dance break and the ecstatic rave catharsis as it hits – well, this is absolutely what the contest needs. Then to go back to a subdued verse and build up again? Dynamically, it’s as good as Euphoria. From the national final performance, I don’t think that Agnes’ vocals the same strength and power as Loreen’s, which is my only worry.

The studio version of Line is a firm fave of mine and I hope that the staged live version does it justice.

Grab factor:Visually arresting, will likely look like it ‘belongs’ amid the ESC branding.

Drag factor: The dynamics mean that drag & repetition is largely avoided.
My favourites: Portugal, Latvia, Armenia, Iceland, Greece, Montenegro.

ESC 2017: A (Pretend) Song For Turkey NOW VOTE!

To recap: we’ve got 8 Turkish and Turkish-connected pop songs that come from the ESC 2017 time window and I can solidly recommend all 8 of them. Now what you have to do is pick your favourite three.

Europe, the World, and beyond: Begin voting!

Which of these fab contenders should be our Faux Turkish Eurovision song?

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ESC 2017: A (Pretend) Song For Turkey

Eurovision National Final season is over, leaving us with a yawning seven week gap that we fill in whatever way we can – meticulously reorganising our spreadsheets, planning our parties and getting ready to visit a Kyiv that may or may not be ready for us. 

For various reasons Turkey aren’t competing in this year’s Song Contest, but I’ve taken it upon myself to have a little bit of fun and imagine what sort of field that Turkey could have put together for a National Final this year.

Here’s the rules: the songs will be announced in this blogpost. You’ve then got until MIDNIGHT GMT (or until I get a good suggestion) on March 15th to submit an idea for the wildcard section in the comments. At midnight, a poll will open for you to vote for your favourite shortlisted song. One viewer, one vote. No heart apps here. Just justice.

On Friday evening we’ll have a 3 song super final with a live YouTube listening party in a chatroom.

THE SONGS

Here’s the YouTube Playlist.

Yeter – Cenk Tasdemir

Fark Et – Ozge Arslan

Yan Benimle – Sila

Buraya Kadar – Kerim

Red Lipstick Murders – Seven Day Sleep

You Got It – Karmen

O La La – Sinan Cecili ft Ece Serkin

Manifesto – Sezen Aksu

It’s also available as a Spotify playlist.

SELECTION METHODOLOGY

Some of the songs are from this week’s Turkish Spotify chart, some of them are from the various Turkish themed ‘Edge of’ playlists that are algorithmically collated from new releases. I listened to a bunch of the songs and picked these ones that had a bit of an interesting hook to them or represented a particular genre. I’m sure that the shortlist could have done with a ballad, but I didn’t find one that really stuck with me. It’s 50% bangers instead.

SEND ME YOUR WILDCARDS at @listenoutsiders or in the comments on this post.

ESC 2017: Iceland’s Songvakeppnin 2017 Grand Final

Ah, Iceland. Things are going very well here. You’ve got a seven song final of which 5 are really rather good. Let’s reprise my preview posts and see who Listen Outside wants to go to Kyiv (it’s obviously Daði, let’s not kid ourselves)

Aron Hannes EmilssonTonight

The first of our two tropical post dancehall songs by young men called Aron. This is as poppy and current as you can imagine and doesn’t overegg the tropical pudding (should that be over-pineapple?). Aron’s official Songvakeppnin photo has him all done up in a turtleneck and jacket like Draco Malfoy going to the Christmas Ball, but I think that doesn’t seem to match with his song. Looking at his stuff on Youtube, I do not think that those are Aron’s normal clothes. Let him wear something he’s comfortable in, give him some cool looking dancers and this could be going to Kyiv. In English. [See, they followed my advice]

Arnar Jónsson & Rakel PálsdóttirAgain

And if you were waiting for the slightly dark love duet, here we go. Iceland does not disappoint us on that front. There’s a violin break, during which I would be tempted to pop Greta on stage, maybe on a hoverboard. In the studio version, both Rakel and Arnar have really lovely voices with superb control over a wide range of dynamics – it’ll be interesting to see how that comes across in the selection shows. I think it won’t win, but if it does, it’ll be because Greta is doing the violin solo on a hoverboard and the lyrics will be in English. [Sadly no Greta on a hoverboard in the semi, but there’s still time]

Aron BrinkHypnotised

The second tropical song by a chap called Aron. The songs are so similar that whichever one of them has the best delivery and stage presence ought to win. Theoretically, that would be this Aron (the slightly prettier one tbh), but the thing is: there’s a touch of Margaret’s affected patois delivery in the English version of this song, something that the other Aron manages to safely avoid. I don’t think I’m totally ok with that.

If we can have this Aron singing the other Aron’s song I could get behind that? Anyway, another strong contender regardless of what I think.

Hildur Kristin SefánsdóttirBammbaramm

I’ve had one of HILDUR’s songs in the queue to go on Listen Outside for ages. Now she’s giving Songvakeppnin a shot, and following in the time honoured Eurovision tradition of using a cunningly international, untranslatable chorus. Well played Hildur! It might be a bit too gentle to force its way into voters’ memories, but I really like it – reminds me of Lykke Li’s first album in its delicate positivity. If this wins the selection, I would go for the English version. I’m at a bit of a loss as to how they’ll stage it? I’m assuming that there’ll be dancers, but I hope that they can avoid making it either too edgy or too cutesy. [I was wrong to worry about the staging, it’s both cutesy and edgy and perfect]

Rúnar Eff RúnarssonMake your way back home

Iceland are particularly good at powerful ballads where big men display their sensitive sides. This is one of those – it builds like 2016’s Sound of Silence and has just enough of both chiming guitars and stuttering synths to please both the Michał Szpak and Sanna Nielsen camps of balladry respectively. I am not as keen on it as I am on some of the other songs, and I would say that it doesn’t really matter if it is in English or Icelandic. It’s a nice listen.

Svala BjörgvinsdóttirPaper

Don’t let this put you off, but this is basically a 21st century Pat Benatar power ballad. If you want a bracing Nordic electro blast then this is it. If you have worn out your 3rd copy of Robyn’s Body Talk then this is for you. If you want to see a grown woman covered in sick tattoos sing the heck out of an ambivalent cybernetic love song then this is your jam. If you like syncopated vocal lines and big mountains made of synths and breathy backing vocals then step this way. Huge potential goosebumps whether it is in Icelandic or English. Top five in Kyiv. (Disclaimer: I also said that about Hear Them Calling)  [I really like this, and Svala looks like she’d be fun]

Daði Freyr PéturssonIs this love?

Another song aimed straight at my heart. This is an ADORABLE song about two introverts skirting the narrow line between failure and success when flirting. Dadi looks like a super sweet long haired nerd who knows his way around a Moog – check out this video from his other project Mixophrygian. Like I say, targeted straight at my heart. I’d hope to stage this with him doing a bit of stage interaction with the backing singer who is playing the part of the girl in the song, and have them both dressed as if they are wallflowers at indie discos. Cardigans, DMs, shy looks from under their respective fringes. If it wins, send it in English, But it won’t win Songvakeppnin. We can’t have nice things like this.

I have no idea if anyone else would like this, but part of the joy of National Final season is that there’s always something for everyone. Especially, there’s always something for me from Iceland.

[Obviously I’m overjoyed that it’s gone down well enough to merit both Eurofan love and that coveted closing spot in the Grand Final. And the staging is something else. Maybe we can have nice things like this?]