Sunday, June 11, 2017

Break time....

In case you're wondering why there have been no posts lately, I'm on a bit of a break from blogland! There is a lot going on at the moment and I've just been too busy lately. All being well, the blog should return on or around 25th June, along with some of those overdue blog posts!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Eurovision 2017 Semi-Final 2: Predictions

So, I got 7 out of 10 on Tuesday and let's just say I didn't take Finland's non-qualification well.  There are some songs which, for whatever reason, you just have a feeling that they're not qualifying.  I didn't have that feeling with "Blackbird".  Not only did I think it would qualify but I genuinely felt that this song would get a top 10 placing on Saturday night.  Instead, we just wonder what might have been.

I will review the first semi-final in more detail in the next few weeks but I wanted say that - apart from the non-qualifications of Finland, Latvia and Iceland - there were other disappointments throughout the evening.  The vocal shortcomings of many of the artists, for one.  And despite "Celebrate Diversity" we had three male interchangeable identikit robot-hosts.  Now we all know that Petra is a very tough act to follow, but were these three the best that Ukraine can do?  Having said that though, at least Timur is quite nice to look at *shallow alert*.

So let's have a look at tonight's semi-final 2 and the songs I think will qualify.

SERBIA: "In Too Deep" - Tijana Bogićević.

This song has never had any impact on me from day one.  It goes down the very same musical road of "Walk on Water" - enough said.  I've liked a few of Serbia's songs in recent years but this is just far too anonymous.

PREDICTION: Non-qualifier. 

AUSTRIA: "Running On Air" - Nathan Trent.

One of this year's most likeable and charming participants, with a sweet and likeable song, and cute staging to match.  Austria is maintaining its very strong resurgent phase at ESC and it looks like it will continue this year.  I worry of course about the 2nd-placed draw of doom, but hopefully it will work to his advantage after that anonymous opener.

PREDICTION: Qualifier.

FYR MACEDONIA: "Dance Alone" - Jana Burceska.

In its studio version, this is one of the songs I've played quite a lot this year.  It's just a straightforward upbeat pop song, and there are never too many of those at ESC these days.  However, rehearsal footage indicates a rather trashy and tacky presentation which may put off many of the juries and televoters.

PREDICTION: Non-qualifier.

MALTA: "Breathlessly" - Claudia Faniello.

As old-school 90s ESC ballad as you're likely to get this year.  She has a very strong voice and has tried so hard for years and years to represent Malta so I'm happy for her that she's finally made it to ESC.  However I think this will just get lost and won't appeal to those who like a more contemprary ESC song.

PREDICTION: Non-qualifier.

ROMANIA: "Yodel It" - Ilinca feat. Alex Florea.

I mentioned in one of my previous posts that although I didn't hate any of this year's songs, there was one which I really wouldn't want to win.  This is it.  I know it's a controversial opinion as this is hugely popular in the fandom, but I just find it intensely irritating.  Ilinca's yodelling talent can't be disputed but the whole mix of rap and yodelling just screams clip-show fodder for the next 20 years. Yes, it's a fun song, and boy oh boy do we need more fun in an often very po-faced line-up of songs, but this is just not to my taste.

PREDICTION: Qualifier.  

NETHERLANDS: "Lights and Shadows" - O'G3NE.

Good old Oh-Gee-Three-Knee haven't been so popular with the fandom since this song was chosen. The song isn't as good as it should be, and yes they are certainly far better than the song.  I've seen lots of clips on YouTube and their vocal harmonies are never anything less than tremendous.  This is one of 2017's most underrated entries and although I still have reservations about the song, their vocal talent should be enough to get them to the final.

PREDICTION: Qualifier. 

HUNGARY: "Origo" - Joci Papai.

Again I never really made a connection with this song during national finals season but credit to it for being (a) in a native language and (b) a break from the norm.  Since the beginning of this decade Hungary have qualified to the final every year so this will probably continue that record.

PREDICTION: Qualifier. 

DENMARK: "Where I Am" - Anja Nissen.

On a fashion note I think we're all relieved that she's wearing the red dress rather than the Bebi Dol-inspired combo she wore in the rehearsals.  This song still leaves me cold and I am genuinely unsure of how this will do.  Yes she can sing, but it all turns into an outbreak of big singing, and that didn't bode well for Albania or Georgia in semi-final 1. If this had been in semi-final 1 it wouldn't have made it, but in the weaker semi-final 2 who knows?    However the non-qualification record of the past couple of years doesn't bode well.

PREDICTION: Non-qualifier. 

IRELAND: "Dying To Try" - Brendan Murray

Dying to try to remember that this song is not called Trying to Die, but Dying to Try.  Whatever it's called it's just a soggy old boyband album track which you just press the skip button on.  Young and cute will only take you so far, and in a semi-final where he'll be up against the vocally superior Kristian, then Brendan is likely to lose out in the battle for the cute-young-boy vote.

PREDICTION: Non-qualifier. 

SAN MARINO: "Spirit of the Night" - Valentina Monetta & Jimmie Wilson.

No doubt Valentina is a Eurovision legend within the fandom, but that means nothing to a casual fan or a jury member with no prior ESC knowledge.  This is another Ralph Siegel effort and is a tribute to the 70s disco sound, with a bit of "One Night Only" thrown in.  They are good singers, yes, but outwith the fandom I can't really see it having much wide appeal.

PREDICTION: Non-qualifier. 

CROATIA: "My Friend" - Jacques Houdek.  

I remember this guy from the Croatian national final a few years ago, singing "Break A Leg".  He was beaten by Darja Kinzer, the song eventually became "Celebrate" and failed to qualify for the final in 2011.  Jacques might have the last laugh though as this is a completely bonkers, original and memorable concept which will be enough to get him to the final.  Jacques is duetting with himself as opera singer and r'n'b singer.  He has an impressive voice but the song for me is pretty hideous.

PREDICTION: Qualifier.  

NORWAY: "Grab The Moment" - JOWST.

I might have been underwhelmed by this year's MGP final in Norway but this was an immediately likeable winner.  It's modern, but in a good way.  It's catchy and well-sung, and very accessible.  I have been a bit concerned about the controversy around the vocal samples and hope that this doesn't eventually lead to taped backing vocals being allowed - that would ruin ESC, the same way it has ruined Melodifestivalen.

PREDICTION: Qualifier. 

SWITZERLAND: "Apollo" - Timebelle. 

Ah, Switzerland.  Eurovision's first ever winners - and eternal underachievers ever since.  This is just one of the emptiest songs for me this year.  The singer's yellow dress is hurtling towards the Barbara Dex award whilst the chorus ("I'll follow you Apollo") is just plain stupid.

PREDICTION: Non-qualifier. 

BELARUS: "Story of My Life" - Naviband. 

Belarus' first ever entry in its national language, sung by a very appealing duo who spread joy in every performance they give.  I would love to see this qualify but I'm worried as the country's qualification rate is not good, and the hey-heys can be a bit irritating after a while.

PREDICTION: Non-qualifier. 

BULGARIA: "Beautiful Mess" - Kristian Kostov. 

Kristian is only 17 but he has a vocal quality beyond his years, and he's also been one of the more high profile artists on the pre-party circuit.  After Poli's success this year it's very clear that Bulgaria are becoming a force to be reckoned with at ESC.  Kristian performs this song very well - but my main problem is with the song itself.  It's just too dull for my tastes and is in the same Sam Smith-ballad category as the Aussie entry. It's one of the main contenders but lacks that something special to make it truly great.  He is better than the song.

PREDICTION: Qualifier.

LITHUANIA: "Rain of Revolution" - Fusedmarc. 

This song was this year's winner of Europe's most interminable national finals process.  And at the end of it, the general view was...."is that it???".  Along with Poland, Lithuania always has a strong diaspora vote - but on the other hand, "Attention" didn't qualify, and that was better than this.   This has no redeeming features for me and I can't see it having any voting appeal, so that would normally make a non-qualifier.  However: it's Lithuania, so expect qualification even in the most impossible circumstances. Yeah yeah!

PREDICTION: Qualifier.

ESTONIA: "Verona" - Koit Toome and Laura. 

Is it too old-fashioned?  Will the viewers get their interpretation of lost love?  Will Koit and Laura find that chemistry?  We will know this evening.  I would just like to say that for me this is one of the more memorable songs this year, I remembered it after one hearing.  Eurovision is a very different contest nowadays though, but in a semi-final of many below-par songs, this stands out as one of tonight's best.

PREDICTION: Qualifier.

ISRAEL: "I Feel Alive" - IMRI.  

Another song which has underwhelmed me from the beginning, and I spent weeks and weeks getting this mixed up with the Cypriot entry even though they don't sound like each other (but because two good-looking guys!).  If Cyprus qualified, then so can this. It's an upbeat and lively ending to a rather unexciting semi-final line-up.

PREDICTION: Qualifier. 

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Eurovision 2017: Semi-Final 1 preview and predictions

In just under 2 hours, the first semi-final of the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest kicks off in Kyiv, Ukraine.  So here, as ever, are my foolish predictions about who will qualify for the final and who won't.

SWEDEN - "I Can't Go On" - Robin Bengtsson

I didn't agree with this song winning Melodifestivalen.  Yes, it's a very slick and well-executed pop song but it's completely joyless.  But it's slick, and it's Sweden, where polished, confident and professional come as standard.  The swear word in the original version was unnecessary; the "ok" hand-signal is intensely annoying.  The only redeeming feature for me is that I think the polo-necks have been replaced by shirts.  I like polo-necks, but for me, shirts are better.

PREDICTION: Qualifier. 

GEORGIA - "Keep The Faith" - Tamara Gachechiladze

Georgia is definitely not on my mind this year.  They are so inconsistent with their ESC entries but the law of averages should mean that we get a decent entry from them next year.  I've always had a soft spot for Georgia since "We Don't Wanna Put In" ;)

It's this year's great lost Bond theme - there's always one - and the first outbreak of "big singing" this evening.

PREDICTION: Non-qualifier.

AUSTRALIA - "Don't Come Easy" - Isaiah Firebrace

I heard an interview with their Head of Delegation on the ESC Insight podcast and I was very impressed with his vision and ambition for Australia in Eurovision and eventually an Asiavision which has its own set of problems.  Australia established very quickly that they "get" Eurovision. After Guy and Dami, this is a minor setback but more to do with the song than the artist.  Isaiah is clearly a talented young man, this is well-staged if a little egotistical with all the faces in the background (which has become an unwelcome trend for me at ESC this year if I'm honest).  The main problem I have with this is that it sounds like a Sam Smith song.  Enough said.  Although Isaiah delivers it well enough I guess.

PREDICTION: Qualifier.

ALBANIA - "World" - Lindita

To really understand how I feel about this song, you have to know that I am a devotee of the Albanian Festivali i Këngës (FiK), which is an annual Christmas tradition in our little world of FiK fanatics. That contest also selects Albania's ESC entry.  If Lindita had gone to ESC 2015 with "S'të Fal" she would completely have ripped up the competition and got Albania's best result since "Suus".  But she didn't.  She came back to FiK with this song, which disappointed me.  Yes she can sing, and she can sing big long notes too.  But this song is just a bit too much on the shouty side, and the staging of it doesn't really make any sense either.  In my parallel universe Lynx would be up on that ESC stage tonight :)

PREDICTION: Non-Qualifier. 

BELGIUM - "City Lights" - Blanche. 

This has been a fan favourite from day one, continuing that trend (of the RTBF-years anyway) of Belgium upping its game and becoming serious contenders, winners in waiting.  No-one really rated Laura's song last year either and she did very well indeed.  This song is working that Lana del Rey sound, a feeling of emptiness and isolation.  It is very contemporary and I can see it doing very well although there have been some concerns over nervous rehearsal performances by this young singer (she is only 17 years old) and I hope that she has received a good level of care and support from the people around her, to help her overcome any nerves and cope with the biggest performance of her life.

PREDICTION: Qualifier.

MONTENEGRO - "Space" - Slavko Kalezić

Just let me take a moment here, a moment of completely irrational thought.  "Space" has been one of my most-played songs this year.  I love this song in its studio version.  It's packed with innuendo, the whole package is camper than the proverbial row of tents and as a middle-aged straight woman I'm probably a long way off from his target demographic but what the hell, I love him.  Just watch out for that swinging plait......aargh!  Too late!

When it comes to the live version, there is one major problem.  He can't sing for toffee and this will suffer the same fate as that other great-in-studio, car-crash-live camp dance banger fave of mine from 2009, "Dance With Me" by Zoli Adok.

PREDICTION: Non-qualifier. 

FINLAND - "Blackbird" - Norma John

I said it all in my previous post, but just to reiterate, I love this.

PREDICTION: Qualifier.

AZERBAIJAN - "Skeletons" - Dihaj

I've never been able to get too enthusiastic about this very modern, abstract mid-tempo ballad but credit to Azerbaijan for at least trying something a bit more edgy/leftfield this time round.  However it may just go up in my expectations for the crazy staging.  Put a man with a horse's head on top of a stepladder and now we can talk about this.

PREDICTION: Qualifier. 

PORTUGAL - "Amar Pelos Dois" - Salvador Sobral.

If there's any justice this will be the winner of semi-final 1 :)

PREDICTION: Qualifier.

GREECE - "This Is Love" - Demy

This is a rather sterile pop song from the team behind "You Are The Only One".  She seems quite a likeable performer but there have been vocal issues (either from Demy or her backing singers) during rehearsals so I really can't predict how this will go tonight. After some thought I decided that it will very narrowly miss out on qualification, losing out to Moldova.  Although (covering my back here!) it could go either way.

PREDICTION: Non-qualifier (borderline with Moldova)

POLAND - "Flashlight" - Kasia Moś

It's hard to review a Polish song without mentioning the "D" word who strongly mobilise when it comes to the televoting.  So it feels like they have an automatic pass to the final.  Kasia is a strong singer, so that should also ensure jury points.  She is probably better than this rather drab ballad which should automatically be disqualified for that /desire/higher/walking the wire rhyme.

PREDICTION: (an undeserving) Qualifier. 

MOLDOVA - "Hey Mamma" - Sunstroke Project

And now it's time for some fun at Eurovision.  OK so we don't want a load of throwaway novelty songs but it's nice to have a bit of light relief among all the serious songs and ballads, even if they are songs you love.  Sunstroke Project are slick, professional and they look as if they are enjoying themselves. And they have Epic Sax Guy.  This is not much of a song though, but they could be a shock qualifier thanks to the fun factor - however it may just be too lightweight when voting time comes round. So I have it qualifying by a thread in 10th place.

PREDICTION: Qualifier (borderline with Greece). 

ICELAND - "Paper" - Svala

I have desperately wanted Iceland to win ESC for years, but these days I'd settle for qualification to the final.  This is strong, and she is a strong performer.  But it is coming across as a little too cold and clinical, and in a field which also includes other cool electro songs I worry that this is going to get lost.  I would love to be wrong though.

PREDICTION: Non-qualifier.

CZECH REPUBLIC - "My Turn" - Martina Barta

One of the few absolute certainties for non-qualification tonight.  Again, another instance where the performer is better than the song.  Sorry but this is probably tonight's toilet break :(

PREDICTION: Non-qualifier. 

CYPRUS - "Gravity" - Hovig

I really wanted to love this - it's a G:son song, and Hovig is a good looking guy.  However, I can't get excited about this song at all and it has never grown on me.  I just can't see it qualifying in this cut-throat semi-final.

PREDICTION: Non-qualifier. 

ARMENIA - "Fly With Me" - Artsvik

Ethnic and mystical.  Armenia, more than any other country in the modern Eurovision, know how to absolutely elevate a song which doesn't sound like much in the studio version, and turn it into a strong Eurovision entry.  They "get" the vision-part.  So it was last year, when the performance and staging of Iveta's song blew everyone away.  This isn't quite up there, but Artsvik is a strong singer although my problem with this song is that it lacks a definitive hook.

PREDICTION: Qualifier. 

SLOVENIA - "On My Way" - Omar Naber

At the time of the Slovenian national final I thought this might have an outside chance of qualification, despite the criticism that it was too "old fashioned".  But the same was said for Michal's song last year and how well that did.  But aah, there is no "Slovenian diaspora", then they went and revamped the song, ruining anything which was good about it.  Since that Slovenian final I discovered a very unpleasant fact about Mr Naber - he served a prison sentence for sexually assaulting a young woman in a nightclub.  He may have "done the time" but for that reason his presence just taints this contest and I can't bear the sight of him.

PREDICTION: Non-qualifier. 

LATVIA - "Line" - Triana Park

We end the first semi-final with the entry from one of my absolute favourite ESC countries, from a band who are completely true to themselves.  Yes, "Line" is repetitive, but it is also a welcome break from the heavy/arty/abstract ballads and the sterile pop songs. And when that rave-breakdown comes in after the second chorus, it's a euphoric moment like no other.  This brings a very welcome change of musical style and like Georgia last year, it's needed in the final.

PREDICTION: Qualifier.  

It's usually the second semi-final is traditionally the strong one, however tonight's semi-final has been a very tough one to call.  We'll see after tonight just how many of my predictions are right.

So have a great night everyone and enjoy the show!

Eurovision 2017: My favourites

In my last post I mentioned three spectacular songs in this year's contest.  Two of them are in semi-final 1, one of them is in the final.  Have you guessed yet?  OK then, here's the answer.....

"Occidentali's Karma" - Francesco Gabbani (Italy)

It's a very unusual feeling, having this year's favourite as my favourite too.  The first time I heard "Occidentali's Karma" was when it won Sanremo and I immediately loved it.  That doesn't usually happen with me, and songs, and it takes a special song to appeal to me on first listen.  This was an explosion of joy, a catchy and appealing song fronted by a likeable and charismatic performer.  One man.....and his gorilla.  Of course those who haven't bothered to read up about the meaning behind the lyrics will just think that this is a novelty song with a dancing gorilla gimmick.  But we know differently, don't we, friends!

I like this song so much that I even bothered to learn all the Italian lyrics and can sing along with it. Then of course there is the dance routine, so simple that everyone can do it.  There is a lovely little moment towards the end of the national final performance where Francesco and Mr Gorilla are out of sync on the dance routine, but it doesn't matter.  Francesco wrote this song and in his performance he completely makes that connection with the viewers.  He is an absolute showman and clearly conveys that he is enjoying every moment of this.

This is probably my favourite Eurovision entry of the past 20 years.  Not since "Minn Hinsti Dans" in 1997 have I loved a song so much.  "Occidentali's Karma" still sounds as fresh as it did when I first heard it on that Saturday night in February, and has stood up to repeated listening.  As Simon Cowell used to say in the days when I watched X Factor, it has "the likeability factor".  This song would be a very worthy winner for so many reasons: a catchy uptempo song in a foreign language, from a country which has mainly provided a consistently high quality of entries since its return to the contest in 2011.  Italian music is still loved across the continent.  And it would finally give Italy the chance to atone for that 1991 contest...!!! (maybe????)

My second favourite song is.....

"Amar Pelos Dois" - Salvador Sobral (Portugal)

I missed the Portuguese national final so didn't hear the winning song until the next day.  The first time I heard this song, I began to cry, such was its emotional impact on me.  Again, it takes a lot for a song to move me in this way on first listen.  And then I read the lyrics translation and just sobbed again.  Salvador's performance was unique, honest and completely true to himself, on a song written by his sister Luisa.  This is a timeless song - that's "timeless" and not "dated" by the way.  I played this song to faithful travelling companion (not an ESC fan) at the weekend and he said that it sounded like a classic old jazz song.  Something from the Great Portuguese Songbook!

People often refer to Salvador as "Salvadorable" and that is so true.  He is such a sweet, gentle and unique performer, and when you know what you know about his health difficulties then you just want him to succeed even more.  If "Occidentali's Karma" doesn't win, I wouldn't object to this song winning, and finally giving Portugal its long, long, long awaited first ESC win.

My third favourite song is....

"Blackbird" - Norma John (Finland)

My thoughts on this song have not changed since the Finnish final.  I loved it then and I love it now. What really surprised me during the lead-up to this year's contest was that it tended to be forgotten about, and wasn't really rated in fan polls/rankings.  That was until the rehearsals of course, when the duo of Leena and Lasse gave exceptional performances and suddenly many fans who had previously overlooked the song were talking about it.  What "Blackbird" has in common with my other two favourites is its emotional impact.  I am not a ballad fan as you know, but will make an exception for those songs which move me in different ways.  I have "something in my eye" when I listen to the Portuguese song.  When I listen to this dark song, "Blackbird", there is just this chilling feeling of loss and sadness, yet of anger and strength too.  I don't know if that's really the right way to describe it but they're the best words I can use right now.  This is Finland's best ESC entry in years.

Now, where did I put my notes on the deep emotional impact of the lyrics and performance of "Do It For Your Lover"?........OK then, maybe not.  In my next post I'll be attempting to predict which songs are going to qualify from tonight's semi-final.

Eurovision 2017: an overview

Just an explanation before I go on - I have still to post my Melodifestivalen 2017 reviews but as these are rather extensive and my time is consumed by both Eurovision and upcoming holiday preparations, I've decided to leave these until nearer the end of this month.

Although I haven't been blogging or tweeting very much over recent months - due to lack of time/health reasons - I have extensively followed the lead-up to the contest over the past 5 months, through national final season to the pre-parties and finally to the rehearsals, watching every video clip, downloading and listening to lots of podcasts etc.  As ever at this time of year I want to thank all of you who put so much work into bringing ESC season alive, particularly for those of us whose Eurovision experience is confined to watching the contest on TV in the living room :)  I'll be watching both semi-finals but this year, due to what I can only describe as a scheduling conflict, I will be on holiday and "off the grid" on the night of the final.  Call me a bad fan, but it was unavoidable as I could only go on this particular date. Anyway,  I haven't missed an ESC final since 1997 and we know what happened then!

In my "Eurovision Memories" post published on this blog in 2012, I wrote:

"That was a pretty significant night for me, as it would be the first time since the early 1970s that I hadn't been at home on the evening of the contest due to a prior engagement. On the way home by taxi, the driver had the radio news on, and I heard the announcement that the UK had won Eurovision. My first thought was, for goodness sake, I really must be drunk!!  Did they just say what I thought they said?"

I haven't written much about this year's ESC on the blog or on Twitter so I thought I'd take the opportunity to give you a little overview of my feelings about the contest this year.  As national finals season progressed, I was beginning to feel that this was going to be another one of those "meh" years, dominated by ballads and songs lacking memorable melodies.  As I say every year, I'm an old-school ESC fan who still puts "the song" above all else.  If a song moves me in any way - whether it makes me happy, or sad, or just makes me want to dance, as long as it makes that crucial connection, then that's enough for me.

However, I have also moved with the times and accept that the modern-day ESC is as much about the Euro-"vision" and the importance of costumes/staging/camera angles/choreography; at their best, these can make or break a song's chances. Nevertheless, I've watched all the rehearsal footage and nothing has changed my mind.  I still love the same songs and although there are others which I'm not so keen on, I wouldn't go as far as to say that I hate any of the songs (ok then, maybe there is one, which is quite popular but which I would detest the idea of it winning.  More on that in a later post) because the bar has been raised so high over recent years and every artist and their delegations put so much work in delivering the best possible performance they can.


One of the very nice aspects of social media, which has transformed the Eurovision Song Contest beyond recognition over the past few years has been the way that the contest has brought all of us together in the fan family.  Over the past 2 or 3 years however I have also noticed the artists developing a strong camaraderie with each other, thanks to the many pre-parties and also on Twitter. This may be a contest, but we now see a lot of love, friendship and respect between the contestants, not to mention artists covering each other's songs or duetting with each other on YouTube videos. Honourable mentions to Spain's Manel Navarro and Austria's Nathan Trent.  Probably the most bizarre clip is Switzerland's Timebelle doing a mash-up of this year's ESC entries to the backing of Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You".  Proof, if any was needed, of the more "contemporary" nature of ESC songs.  Although try telling that to the UK media who still think the contest is stuck in the 1970s/80s....!

Forget the politics and the dark clouds - ESC should be celebrated as a competition like no other, a happy place and a genuine escape from the increasingly dark world around us.  Although from the minute Ukraine won the 2016 contest with a song about historical events with an undercurrent relevant to more recent history, politics have never been far from the surface.

Flame extinguished

Rewind to that crazy Sunday evening of 12th March, when within the space of a couple of hours we digested the news that Valentina Monetta was representing San Marino for her fourth time, and then we all headed off to Russia's Channel One to suffer our way through their news show - the things we do for Eurovision! - and eventually, at the end of the show, we got to see the Russian entry: a pleasant female singer Yulia Samoylova, singing a simple and rather saccharine song, "Flame Is Burning".  In a year where the contest's theme/tagline was "Celebrate Diversity", the Russian singer happened to be in a wheelchair.  So far, so good for Russia, although by the end of the song, my thoughts were...."is that it?"  Over the past couple of years, Russia have been winners in waiting, yet on hearing this song I just felt that they weren't even making an effort.  They were "phoning it in" this time round.  Just what was on their mind?

Of course we would eventually find out what was on their mind.  This was a classic exercise in manipulation: no-one would dare to criticise a singer in a wheelchair with a "nice" little song. But since Russia annexed Ukraine in 2014, Ukraine introduced a law banning any performers who have performed in Crimea.  You would need to be completely off the scale of naivety to think that Russia had accidentally chosen a performer who'd played in Crimea.  They knew what they were doing here. When Channel One eventually announced in April that they would not broadcast the contest and therefore withdrew, it brought a very troubled few weeks of Eurovision season to an end.  So Yulia was effectively collateral damage - an artist and song which was never really a contender, sacrificed in an exhausting political stand-off.  But that wasn't the end of it: Yulia will perform in Crimea while the ESC semi-final is going on.  So it would appear that she wasn't such an innocent victim after all.

"Blame B****t"

As usual, the mainstream UK media will go down that same old road.  The excuses are being prepared even as we speak, for why the UK entry will not do well this year.  "Blame Brexit" they will say, in the same way that the Iraq war was blamed for Jemini's nil points in 2003, rather than their car-crash vocal "performance" and cringeworthy stagecraft.  The UK this year is represented by Lucie Jones (above), with "Never Give Up On You" which was co-written by 2013 winner Emmelie de Forest. Although I'm not a particular fan of the song in its current form (I'd have preferred a dance-banger version, but that's just me) you can't argue that this is probably the best package of song and singer we've put together since 2009.  At that time I described Jade Ewen's "It's My Time" as "a pile of mince" but what a well-performed pile of mince it turned out to be.  The BBC really made an effort, and it proved that the more effort you put in will bring rewards.  What we would give for 5th place now.

Former X Factor contestant Lucie has gone on to establish herself as an actress and experienced musical theatre performer.  This experience will serve her well on Saturday night and I have every confidence that she will do nothing less than her very best.  She has been vocally flawless during the rehearsals and the pre-party season. For once the BBC have also made an effort with the staging - Lucie is standing inside a mirrored shell-like shape with the backdrop of a shower of golden firework-style lights.  Whatever the result on Saturday, we can be proud of Lucie, who seems genuinely thrilled to be participating in Eurovision.

This year's line-up of songs is a very strange one - for all the "meh" songs which either leave me cold or don't trigger any emotion in me at all - there is a spectacular trilogy of songs which are among the best Eurovision entries in years, so ESC 2017 may end up being a vintage year after all!  In my next post I'll tell you all about my three favourite songs this year.

Notes from National Finals: Supernova, Latvia 26.02,2017

It's always one of my favourite annual national final processes, and 2017 was no different.  By this point, many of the national finals or internal selections were pretty underwhelming. Saturday nights were congested with heats, semi-finals and finals, so Sunday night brought pleasant relief from all that congestion with the heats, semi-finals and finals of "Supernova", the contest to choose Latvia's Eurovision entry.  In 2015 and 2016 this proved to be a very successful format, thanks to two consecutive entries written by Aminata Savadogo, both of which ensured qualification to the ESC final.

The great thing about Supernova is the diverse and often left-field selection of songs mixed in with the more mainstream entries.  But above all, Supernova has one thing which sets it above and beyond all the national song selections....

Yes, the legend that is the Riga Beaver was back again to entertain us over the weeks during the ad breaks, to the enjoyment of the fandom, the slightly amused confusion of the studio audience and the bemusement and dismissiveness of the professional jury.

Talking of the jury, I thought I would take the completely gratuitous opportunity to post a screenshot of guest judge Intars Busulis in a cardigan.  You know how much I love men in knitwear :)))

OK enough of the gratuitous shallowness and let's get to the music!

As I said earlier, there was a lot of musical diversity over the semi-finals, from the creepy "One By One" by UP, to the "if at first you don't succeed" serial Supernova entrant Markus Riva (below)

Unfortunately he suffered from what I call "the Melodifestivalen law of diminishing returns" where recurring contestants return with weaker songs.  "Dynamite" was a case in point.  Compared to the great "Take Me Down", this was just dire.  This time round he didn't even make the semi-final, never mind the final.

Another Latvian national final contestant from the past returned this year.  Linda Leen's "Who Is In Charge", (above) which made it as far as the semi-final, had bizarre staging and a very unusual musical arrangement. It was a complete mess, to say the least.  Yet something strange happened.  This song surprisingly grew on me and I ended up playing it rather a lot after Supernova ended.  I still can't understand why I got into this song as it is jarring and screechy and all the things I hate, but there you go.  Music still has the power to surprise.

This year's Supernova took that most modern approach, including Spotify streams in the voting. Now you know I'm not a fan of streaming but it just shows how forward-thinking Latvia is.  However, like all voting systems, streaming and YouTube views can be skewed, let's just say.  There were suspicions surrounding unusually large Spotify streams for a certain artist this year for example; however, he wasn't disqualified.

On 26.02.2017, four songs competed in the Supernova final.

1.  "Your Breath" - Santa Danelevica.

The kind of dull contemporary ballad which now pollutes national finals all over Europe - and sometimes even makes it as far as ESC.  Throwing in a drum & bass backdrop "Walk On Water"-style is just a lazy box-ticking "let's make this contemporary" exercise.  I didn't think this was worth a place in the final.

2.  "I'm In Love With You" - The Ludvig.

The Ludvig took the minimalist approach with a song which really didn't have much depth beyond, well, "I'm in love with you".  I can understand its appeal I suppose - a young male singer-songwriter would get votes from young fans as well as old, and it ended up as runner-up.  But after a couple of years where Latvian entries to ESC have had some depth and artistic quality, we expect more.  If this had won Supernova, it would have got completely lost in Kyiv.

3. "All I Know" - My Radiant You.

Yes, that's the artists formerly known as My Radiant U, who also have some Supernova history of their own.  I never thought for a minute that this would win Supernova but I was delighted to see it reach the final.  It came 3rd.  Of course the verses are, um, "inspired" by "Dancing In The Dark" but I don't mind. This was, and is, such an uplifting, catchy and feelgood song which I have continued to listen to long after the contest and it will certainly take up a spot in my year-end chart.  It's just a good pop song, that's all.   And finally....

4.  "Line" - Triana Park.

Even before the final I thought that this would be the best choice for Latvia's Eurovision entry this year, as it is yet another representation of Latvia's uniqueness in the contest. So I was delighted when it won, a resounding win too, well-ahead of The Ludvig even with his high Spotify total. 

I wasn't too familiar with Triana Park's music so I checked out some more of their songs and came to the conclusion that they are staying true to themselves and not compromising their style for Eurovision.  Agnese Rakovska is a compelling frontwoman with her own amazing style.  As for "Line", well yes it is a bit too repetitive, but then again people will remember it; my favourite part of the song is that mid-song breakdown after the second chorus, when Agnese brings the moves and the song just explodes into a euphoric rave classic.

So that was Supernova for another year.  I hope LTV use the same format again next year, as it's one of the most unmissable Eurovision national final formats every year.  And as for our furry friend, he certainly didn't disappoint this year, with everything from his rapping and crazy dancing to his incredible improvisation.  Our lives are all the more enriched in the knowledge of how to make an elephant mask out of a cardboard box.  So thank you so much Riga Beaver.  Hope we see you again in 2018!

Notes from National Finals: EMA, Slovenia - 25.02.2017

I've looked in on EMA over the past couple of years with mixed success - I enjoyed the 2015 final but it was virtually impossible to follow last year's final due to my poor internet connection.  (I guess that national finals season 2016 was one of the main factors in my decision to finally get fibre broadband over last summer).

There were big changes in EMA this year - the contest was staged in a much larger venue than the usual TV studio, and with a huge leap in the production values and visual impact.  This clearly shows a lot of ambition on RTVSLO's part, and it became one of my favourite national finals of 2017. The visuals were clearly influenced by Melodifestivalen though: from the 2014 'painting postcards' to the same font for song titles and the announcement of the songs and artists, Melfest-style.

This year's two semi-finals/heats took place over two nights, Friday 17.02.2017 and Saturday 18.02.2017, where 8 songs competed each night for 4 places in the final.  What impressed me straight off about this year's EMA was the variety and diverse musical style of the songs on offer: everything from rock to ska to experimental opera to Latin-pop to EDM to ethno-pop to traditional ballads.

Swedish-based Maja Keuc, under her new artist-name of Amaya, was in the original line-up but pulled out of the contest beforehand, as this didn't fit in with her new career path.  Hmm, strange one - I wonder if there were other factors behind this decision?

I think the right songs made it to the final, although Tosca Beat's adventurous left-field opera number "Free World" which failed to qualify from heat 1, could have added an interesting dimension to the final.

The 2nd heat fought for my attention on one of the very busy "Super Saturdays" when I was watching one of the Eesti Laul heats at the same time.

I quickly concluded that ESC season was rapidly turning into a zoo, what with Francesco Gabbani's gorilla, Riga Beaver, Kerli's live chicken over in Eesti Laul, and EMA pandas.  Or United Pandaz, to be exact,  who accompanied Arsello and Alex Volasko on the "Don't You Worry Child"-influenced "Heart To Heart".   Or should that be Don't You Worry Panda!  It was a lively show but missed out on a place in the final.  Unlike the following songs....

1. "Ne Panike" - Sell Out.

I really liked this on first listen in its heat.  Very inspired by "4 Real" by Athena, Turkey's 2004 ESC entry which is one of my all-time favourite ESC songs.

Sell Out were dressed in matching black shirts and white patterned braces. The song, in Slovenian (extra points from me for native language!) was a feelgood catchy number with a brassy riff.  We even got a bit of the mannequin challenge when the song stops in the middle. (Is that still a thing?) This song didn't get a lot of love from ESC fandom so I was probably in a very small minority here - mainly because it was a very welcome change from a lot of the generic mush which polluted many of the national finals this year.

2. "Flower In The Snow" - Nuška Drašček.

There was also room in EMA for the more traditional ballads.  Nuška was dressed in one of these big fussy creations which you only ever seem to see in ESC, with massive bat-earrings to match.

This came across like a James Bond-style, dramatic ballad, and on first hearing in its heat I thought it was ok, however I didn't like it as much second time round.  Although she sang well, in terms of an ESC entry it did not really have any distinguishing musical characteristics.

Ad break time.  Just before the ads there was an on-screen ident of Lake Bled.  The desktop wallpaper on my laptop is a picture of Lake Bled by the way.  It's so beautiful and I'd love to go there some day.  Ljubljana is also one of my outstanding holiday ambitions.  But back to EMA....

3. "Open Fire" - Tim Kores. 

He seemed a bit of a character in his postcard. Oh, I remembered this one - it owed rather a lot to "Heroes" a bit in the staging.  I quite liked the song although he's not much of a singer and it all ended up a bit half baked. Love love peace peace - and a woman playing drums with burning fake cymbals. The song has an 80s uptempo pop-rock feel but that's ok with me.  It's nowhere near a 2017 ESC contender though.

4. "Fse" - Nika Zorjan. 

First of the evening's tributes to Dinah Nah's hair colour and the first of the final songs co-written by Maraaya.  "Fse" was like a Slovenian language companion-piece to "Here For You".  No sign of the air violinist though!

Nika came across as a likeable performer and she does well, although the chorus needed more oomph to live up to the song's promise.

Ad break time again.  Mercator, Hofer (which has the Aldi logo), Spar, and Mercator again! The Slovenians sure love their supermarkets.

After a Sanremo-style random interview with some Ukrainian woman (?) it was time for the next song.

5. "Wild Ride" - King Foo.  

I don't have much to say about this.  It was a rock-influenced song fronted by Slovenia's foremost Anastacia tribute act, and that's about it really.

6. "On My Way" - Omar Naber.

Yes, that Omar Naber, who represented Slovenia the last time Ukraine hosted ESC so there was a little deja-vu vibe going on here.  The song had quite an emotional pull for me (I was going through a bit of a low time during national finals season this year) and his vocals were strong but controlled, and the song has a big finish.  However, his edgy look did not match the rather middle-of-the-road song.

7. "Heart of Gold" - BQL.

One of the big pre-contest favourites and foregone-conclusion winner was "Heart of Gold", another Maraaya composition, sung by the young male duo BQL, pronounced 'be cool' (groan....!).  The best way I can describe this song is 'acoustic reggaeton' with a flavour of the current popular style of Chainsmokers-style 'minimalist dance' and unusually a more contemporary song than you would expect in the traditionally more conservative Slovenian national selection.  I can understand its appeal but for me the staging didn't work when the two singers were apart, and it only really made sense when they are together on stage.  The vocals could have been a bit better too.

8. "Zažarim" - Raiven.

Pink hair #2 from Raiven, competing in her second consecutive EMA.  She brought her harp too. This was all very mystical and 'potential ESC entry' and also quite Aminata-influenced.  The verses reminded me of "Bring Me To Life".  If this was selected for Slovenia it would probably get lost among the other female midtempo ballads already chosen, and the lights effect on her catsuit would just be yet another been there done that gimmick.

Last year's Slovenian representative ManuElla returned for the interval act, this time lip-synching her new song "Salvation", a decent enough country pop number with the added potential for a wardrobe malfunction.(!)

Another blast from a more distant past: Toni Cetinski with a piano-version of his 1994 Croatian entry "Nek Ti Bude Ljubav Sva" and a new uptempo pop-rock song "Laku Noc" .  What's really annoyed me about this year's EMA was the use of fake cheering/applause which is a very unwelcome trend! I find this kind of thing really offputting and unnecessary and it became more and more annoying as the night went on.

The third special guest was none other than ESC defending champ Jamala, singing what else but "1944" a song which still delivers massive chills, even if it's not to everyone's taste.

More ads for sausages and Mercator cars etc but I'm getting a bit bored with Bosch dishwashers now. But sausages again!  Enjoy - it's from Europe!

After the jury vote Omar was in the lead and then the televote results are announced Melfest-style. BQL topped the televote as expected, but not for the first time in this or in recent years, we were in a situation where the winning song was not a unanimous choice.  Despite the pre-contest momentum and expectation that BQL would win EMA, it was Omar Naber who would be going to Kyiv, representing Slovenia with "On My Way" which very quickly became one of the least popular songs among the fandom and written off as 'dated' and 'old-fashioned'.  For those of us who still saw some redeeming features in a well-sung dated and old-fashioned song, it was then revamped to its complete detriment.  The only way I can see this qualifying is a "Colo(u)r of Your Life"-style vote, although I think it's reasonable to attribute much of that song's success to diaspora voting, which Slovenia doesn't really have.  So I may be wrong, but it looks as if Omar will be on his way....back to Slovenia after the semi-final.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The London Diaries: 17.03.2017 - 19.03.2017

In March 2016, faithful travelling companion and myself threw in a little extra holiday where we took a quick city break to the UK's capital, took in a football match and did some sightseeing.  We had such a great time then that we planned another trip one year later, and so we repeated the experience in March 2017 which was another great success.  All being well, this could become an annual event! So here is a brief summary of our London weekend from 5 weeks ago.

Friday 17.03.2017

Once again we are based in the Marylebone area of London, a very busy but pleasant and upmarket area, with good connections to the rest of the city from Baker Street Tube station.

As we don't arrive until teatime on Friday, there's just enough time for dinner and drinks and we end the evening at our "local", The Globe on Marylebone Road which is a good place to hang out and has a friendly atmosphere. A very busy day ahead tomorrow though!

Saturday 18.03.2017

After breakfast, this morning's activity involves a quick trip on the Tube to the St John's Wood area for a couple of sights - Abbey Road and Lord's Cricket Ground.

Abbey Road, and the studios located there, have gone into the history of music thanks to the cover of The Beatles' Abbey Road album, where the Fab Four crossed that iconic zebra crossing.  

48 years on from that cover shot - the Beatles phenomenon is still alive and well.   For some reason, I thought Abbey Road was in a secluded area with not much traffic.  How wrong could I be!  Abbey Road is a 'real' street/zebra crossing with a lot of traffic and so you can never really be sure if the traffic is going to stop to let you get that crucial 'Beatles' shot.....anyway needless to say there are many Beatles fans from all over the world making the crossing.  We notice that no-one's emulating Paul, crossing the road barefoot though...!

Of course Abbey Road is the home of the famous Abbey Road Studios which is another pilgrimage spot for Beatles fans.  I liked this Beatles-themed sign on one of the adjoining walls....

Ah yes, the wall.  I am far too well-behaved and don't write anything, but lots of other fans have done, over the years:

Of course Abbey Road Studios is not just a historical landmark but it remains a working recording studio behind the doors of that unassuming building below.

Whilst in the St John's Wood area, faithful travelling companion suggests that we check out Lord's Cricket Ground, known as the "home of cricket".  Although neither of us are cricket fans, it's a good good idea anyway to stop by, seeing as we are in the vicinity.  The ground is closed though, so we just get some outside shots.

Actually, that might be another good idea for the bucket list: to learn the rules of cricket...!

The main feature of our Saturday afternoon is an entirely different sport, as we make a return visit to see our adopted London football team, Fulham FC at the Craven Cottage stadium on the banks of the Thames.  After "Coffee at the Cottage" we take our seats in the Johnny Haynes Stand for the match against Wolves.

The weather in London on this March weekend has been mainly dry but dull and very windy, although bear in mind that we live in Scotland where a day without rain is a win, so I guess it's not all bad. It's a lot cooler than this time last year though, and this location down by the Thames becomes quite chilly to the point that my scarf and gloves were very welcome!  This from someone who feels the heat most of the time, so it must be really cold!

Hopes are high.  After all, Fulham have been doing reasonably well this season, with a decent unbeaten run and the possibility at that time of making it to the top 6 of the English Championship, guaranteeing a shot at the Premiership play-offs and all being well, the possibility of a place in the lucrative Premiership.

OK all good so far....but football is such an unpredictable game so we could not take anything for granted.  Wolves completely close down their defence and prevent any Fulham attack, whilst trying to snatch a goal on the break - so it was no surprise that Wolves go a goal up after 34 minutes and consolidate their lead just after the half-time break.  Fulham bring on Denis Odoi and this is an inspired substitution as he scores a goal shortly afterwards. However, Wolves continued to frustrate Fulham and score another goal, effectively killing off the game in the 72nd minute.

Despite another loss for Fulham, we enjoy our experience very much and plan to return to Craven Cottage in the future because we really need to see Fulham win!  Yes, if all is well, a 2018 visit will be on the cards.....

EDIT 23.04.2017: in the 5 weeks since our trip to London, Fulham's luck has changed for the better and they have enjoyed an excellent run of results.  Today the club is in 6th place in the Championship and are on course for the Premiership play-offs.  So you never know, on our 2018 trip to the Cottage we could be watching Fulham against some Premiership opposition.  Come on Fulham!  Let's do this!

But back to March 2017....

After an epic journey from Putney Bridge to Baker Street via a long stopover wait at Edgware Road, we make it back to the hotel to get ready for our night out.  Last year we were in London on Melodifestivalen final night, but at least I didn't have that distraction this time round.

This evening's main event is dinner at a very nice and friendly local Indian restaurant in Marylebone (a different one from the one we visited in 2016, but equally as good) and then some late night drinks at The Globe. 

Sunday 19.03.2017

With an evening flight home from Stansted, we decide to do some sightseeing before lunch.  Last year we took a (very long) sightseeing bus tour.  This year, we take the Tube to Westminster and exit just across from Big Ben.

The street is absolutely packed with locals and tourists enjoying a rather dull, cloudy and slightly drizzly late morning down by the Thames.

At that point, little do we know that just a few days later, the very same area would be the scene of London's worst terrorist attack since 07.07.2005.  Watching the TV coverage after the attacks, it particularly hits home so much harder when you have actually been there, whether as a local on the daily commute or as a tourist. Unfortunately we live in times when such events can happen anywhere at any time, What has struck me on our two trips to London in 2016 and 2017 is just how much an international, cosmopolitan and open city it is - and that was proved by the way that the city responded to the attack on Wednesday 22.03.2017.  I found this very interesting article which completely articulates my feelings on the subject.

Our initial plan was to take a boat trip on the Thames, but there is a change of plan due to time considerations so we have a brief walk along the embankment where we check out some of the sights including the London Eye....

 ...and New Scotland Yard...

...and then it's time to head back into the city centre via Horse Guards Parade...

...passing through Whitehall and then onto a mobbed Trafalgar Square which awaits the arrival of the annual St Patrick's Day Parade.  There's a great buzz in the air and we watch some of the floats pass by before briefly exploring the 'Theatreland' area.  We promise that when we return to London, we really should stay for longer and do more 'touristy' stuff including a stage show/musical.   Time is getting on, however, and so we head back to Baker Street for a late lunch followed by a final return to the hotel to retrieve our luggage and then onwards to the airport on the Stansted Express train which is always a very pleasant and scenic journey through the marshy landscapes.

It turns out to be a rather unpleasant end to our weekend thanks to a flight delay and other transport traumas though, but I guess that these are just a typical occupational hazard of travel these days: we also had a flight delay travelling to London so in the immortal words of Steps the travelling was "better best forgotten" but flight dramas excluded, we have really enjoyed London which has belatedly become one of our favourite city destinations.  Until the next time!

The Square-Eyed Couch Potato: March-April 2017

Television, like other branches of the media, has the power to change lives.  Yet in times of fake news and fake reality, it's hard to find a programme which can have such a genuine impact if you are experiencing what those on screen are experiencing, and if it spurs you on to do something about it. "MIND OVER MARATHON" (BBC1)  is a very different kind of reality show, in which a diverse group of people who experience a range of mental health concerns are brought together to train for the 2017 London Marathon.  The first episode this week was an absolute emotional rollercoaster and I was in floods of tears by the end of it.  These people have experienced so much pain in their lives as it is, without the stresses and strains of taking on this massive challenge, so they all absolutely deserve our support.  Although I'm no royalist by any means, I'm very impressed by the way that Prince William, the Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry have focused on the importance of mental health issues.  Hopefully this will raise the profile of an issue which for so long has been something that previously was something you just didn't talk about.  And how did this show affect me?  Well, I don't quite have the fitness to run a marathon but it inspired me to exercise again after a long period where I have struggled with my own mental health.  Regardless of how they all do in the London Marathon, everyone in this series is a hero in my eyes :)

The premise of "HARRY HILL'S ALIEN FUN CAPSULE" (ITV) was pretty flimsy: it's like a Room 101 for nonsense, trying to prevent an alien invasion!  Harry has spent the past couple of years trying (and failing IMHO) to recreate the magic and madness of the irreplaceable TV Burp - most recently the misfiring "Tea Time" on Sky 1.  So I was a bit nervous about this new show (which has just come to the end of its first series) particularly as it resembled the dreaded comedy panel game show format which turns up everywhere these days.  However, there was a significant difference here as Harry was very much in charge and the changing weekly celeb panel often provided the fuel for his surreal wit.

I know this series wasn't to everyone's taste, but I thought this was the closest he has come to emulating the successful Burp formula.  "Local news roundup" could have come straight out of Burp, whilst going even further back in Harry's TV career, Stouffer the Cat even made a recent appearance. It was a long time coming, but finally, shout it from the rooftops, Harry Hill is back on form.  Give us more series ITV!!

"THIS IS US" (Channel 4) is a shamelessly sentimental American family drama series which in its first season has gathered lots of critical acclaim and award nominations in the USA, and did well enough in the ratings to be recommissioned for two further series.  Channel 4 had bought a successful show, so it should have been put in a prime-time slot, shouldn't it?  But then that would interfere with that particular channel's house-improvement/shock-doc/One Born Every Minute/Gogglebox schedule.  So instead it was stuck in a 10.30pm/11.00pm ratings graveyard.  Which is a shame really, even if this show was often as irritating as it was heartwarming, moving and emotional.

This show reminded me in a lot of ways of that other successful American TV family drama of the late 80s: Thirtysomething.  So I guess I wasn't too surprised to see Ken Olin's name among the "This Is Us" production credits - as a 'twentysomething' I had a major crush on Ken who played Michael Steadman in that show.

It's rare these days to see simple family dramas on TV, where the schedules are packed with complex cop shows, fantasy sagas or superheroes.  Perhaps UK TV channels struggle with this drama format - Channel 5 only screened the first two series of the now-ended wonderful US drama "Parenthood", which would make you laugh, make you cry, irritate you and inspire you all in the space of one episode.

But back to the time-hopping "This Is Us".  I had assumed that by the end of the first series we would find out the reason why Jack was no longer with us in the present day; wrong!  I guess that's for the two series which lie the meantime, the final episode, almost exclusively focused on Jack and Rebecca, suggested that they may have not always been the "perfect couple".  There are more stories to be told about the Pearson family: I only hope that we get to see the next series here in the UK and the same fate does not befall "This Is Us" as what happened to "Parenthood".

I have always been a fan of Peter Kay's work: I consider him to be the natural successor to Billy Connolly, such is the high standard of observational comedy which he delivers, and I still consider "Phoenix Nights" to be the finest TV comedy show of the 21st century, although I felt that at certain times over recent years he's become a bit too big for his boots  So when "PETER KAY'S CAR SHARE" (BBC1) initially appeared on our screens 2 years ago, I was rather disappointed and didn't last beyond the first episode.  When I found out that a second series was due to be screened, I decided to give the first series another chance.  I was very wrong 2 years ago - because this is actually one of the funniest TV series of recent years.  Series 2 continues in the same hilarious vein, with the 'will they-won't they' aspect of the car sharing pair, John and Kayleigh, (a brilliant and believable partnership played by Peter Kay and Sian Gibson) and I guarantee that you will not see a funnier half hour on TV this year than the episode which in Friends-speak would be known as "the one with the monkey"....

"MANIC STREET PREACHERS: ESCAPE FROM HISTORY" (Sky Arts) was a great documentary which covered the period from Richey's disappearance, through the writing and recording of the album which brought them to mainstream success.  That of course was the brilliant "Everything Must Go" which remains one of my favourite albums of the 90s, and one of the most significant of that glorious and most underrated decade.  This documentary was made with the full co-operation of the band (above) and the other key players involved.

I always enjoy these occasional Timeshift documentaries on BBC4 which explore aspects of recent history.  "DIAL B FOR BRITAIN: THE STORY OF THE LANDLINE" took a look back through the history of the telephone in this country.  Now there are many people out there who could not imagine that a time existed before the mobile phone.

For those of us who remember our own phone-related stories, this certainly jogged a few memories from the 70s onwards.  At that time, it was only the better-off people who had a phone, before the changing technology allowed more of us to have a phone in our homes.  This documentary also mentioned party lines - we didn't have one, but I know a few people who did. We didn't get a phone until the late 70s, and when we finally got one, it looked like the one pictured above.  Talking of phones, my uncle (mum's brother) worked as a telephone engineer. I remember nicknaming him "Buzby" after the cartoon bird who appeared in the TV ad from the 70s, also featured in this documentary, who encouraged everyone to "make someone happy with a phone call".  Something which wasn't mentioned in this documentary, but which became an essential aspect of phone ownership in the late 70s/early 80s (and the bane of my mum's life when it came to the phone bill!) was Dial-A-Disc, where you phoned up a number to listen to the latest chart hits.  The Spotify of its day, you might say!

I haven't watched much TV lately - haven't really been in the mood - so yet again the backlog is growing :( The highly acclaimed series 3 of "Broadchurch" has now ended and I haven't seen any of it, whilst I also need to catch up with the long-awaited new series of "Prison Break" which was a massive fave of mine back in the early days of this blog.

As the next few weeks are going to be very busy, with the combination of the run-up to Eurovision and preparations for our forthcoming holiday, there won't be a Square-Eyed edition in May, but I'm planning a special catch-up edition over the summer.  

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Notes from National Finals - Germany: Unser Song, 09.02.2017

Over recent years, Germany has tried everything from internal selections to multi-artist national finals.  In the case of the latter, there have been some quality artists and songs, but in recent years they fell foul of the "curse of the underdog".  The situation wasn't helped either by the shock refusal of Andreas Kummert to compete 2 years ago, or by Jamie-Lee's very individual (but misunderstood) styling.

In 2017, there was a change to Germany's selection process, and not for the better either.  Five unknown singers would compete in a series of rounds, whittling down along the way to find the best fit of song and singer to represent Germany in Kyiv.

Cologne is the venue and once again, Barbara Schoneberger (pictured above in the opening number) is the hostess with the mostest.  She is a big personality with a great sense of humour, and it could be said that she would need to have a great sense of humour to wear that skirt :O

There's a panel of judges this year, featuring schlager star Florian Silbereisen, popular singer-songwriter Tim Bendzko, and the one and only Lena Meyer-Landrut, Germany's last ESC winner in 2010.

The first round features all five of this year's lambs to the slaughter contestants, when they will sing a cover version each and then there will be an elimination round, leaving three singers.

Round 1: The Cover Versions

"Folsom Prison Blues" - Helene Nissen. 

An interesting choice here for a cover version.  However, as a recent convert to Johnny Cash's music (thank you faithful travelling companion!!), I am paying especially close attention to how she performs this.  Helene is young and cute and wears big Harry Potter glasses.  She reminds me of those student buskers which you'll find in any city on any Saturday afternoon.  She is just too "shouty" on this song, This performance bizarrely reminds me of the late Lena Zavaroni, a child star discovered in the 70s on "Opportunity Knocks" (the 'Got Talent' of its day), who used to belt out songs which were far too grown-up for her.

"Love on Top" - Yosefin Buohler.

Next up is Swedish-German Yosefin who performs a lightweight and somewhat "cabaret" cover of the Beyonce song with the multiple key changes.  It's a mistake for her to cover such a big song requiring a spectacular vocal.  What has become of the musical variety which characterised German national finals over recent years? I am just despairing at this year's final already.

It's also a shame though that regardless of what you think of the contestants, that two of them won't get the chance to sing even one of the two songs in the running.  This is an extremely flawed format for a national final.  A far better idea would have been for just one straightforward final of 5 artists singing the 2 competing songs each; this covers-round is just an irrelevance.

"Dancing On My Own" - Felicia Lu Kürbiß.

Of all the songs in all the world....why, really, would anyone choose this dismal cover-of-a-cover?  If such a thing of an international court of crimes against music existed, then Calum Scott's cover version of Robyn's classic song - which topped my 2016 hate chart on this blog - would be first in the queue to be tried.  Felicia does the best she can, but she seems to be modelling herself a bit too much on Lena.

"You Know My Name" - Axel Maximilian Feige.

I'm not so sure about the manbun - it's not the best look is it?  This song was originally performed by Chris Cornell and was the theme to the James Bond film Casino Royale.  It's perfect for Axel's gritty rock voice and, although many of the notes fall short to begin with, he eventually gets there. Although he is no Chris Cornell, Axel admittedly does have a good voice but I'm not feeling much charisma here.  Maybe it's nerves, I don't know....

"When We Were Young" - Isabella Levina Lueen.

It becomes clear very quickly that Levina is the favourite as she is cheered throughout her very decent, tuneful cover of the Adele song which is a safe choice here.

After the votes are counted, it's time for two of the singers to be eliminated.  We say goodbye to Yosefin (unsurprisingly) and Felicia - I'd like to think she was punished for that terrible song choice (!), but I thought she would sneak a qualification place over Helene.  Oh well, there you go!

This final is already at a very cringeworthy stage.  I'm even getting the feeling that Barbara is not usually her sparky self, and this feels like a contractual obligation.

Round 2:  "Wildfire" (Marit Larsen/Tofer Brown/Greg Holden)

I think what's annoying me about this whole national final shenanigans is that there is no room in it for German-language music.  Now I can understand sending a song to ESC in English (although I wish that, even for one year, that all countries would submit an entry in their native language.  Not gonna happen though, is it?) The covers round would have been a good chance for the singers to express themselves in their own language, but that was a missed opportunity.

So I had hoped that if we couldn't hear anything in the German language, then it would have been good at least to have German involvement on the songwriting side.  As it turns out, neither of the two songs in contention are written by German songwriters and are "bought in" co-writes.  This is one aspect of the modern ESC which I really struggle to deal with.  It would be nice if a country was represented by a song even co-written by a native of that country, but it's just another aspect of that generic, globalised mish-mash which ESC has become, and I feel that the contest has lost something special as a result.

"Wildfire" - Helene.

So, the cute young shouty-busking-student is growing in confidence after that surprise qualification to the ESC songs round.  Her take on "Wildfire" is an upbeat country-flavoured song in the style of Amy Macdonald. The performance is lively enough but her vocals suffer as a result.

"Wildfire" - Axel.

This song seems to suit his rough, gritty voice.  Unfortunately it loses the momentum thanks to the low-key staging and there is not much in the way of "performance" as he just sits on a stool.  The lyrics of the song may say "run through the wildfire", well Axel, never mind running - getting off the chair would be a start!  Axel looks as if he'd rather be anywhere else and he's not "selling" the song at all.  He is not bringing the charisma or the confidence which will make all the difference in being chosen as this year's German representative.

By the way there is a simultaneous English language commentary running through this long final which is very beneficial for us non-German speakers.  It happens that Tim Bendzko (below left), who is injecting a lot of honesty into his comments, isn't too delighted with Axel sitting down either.

"Wildfire" - Levina.

Visually, Levina puts me in mind of a mix of Emma Marrone and Lena Meyer-Landrut.  There is cheering throughout her interpretation of the song which she turns into a mid-tempo ballad.  Unlike Axel, Levina knows how to work the camera, she is very confident and is coming across like the winner of "Unser Song" already.

Time for a musical interlude - something finally in German!  Tim Bendzko performs "Leichtsinn" and I have decided that is way better than any other songs we've heard in this cringeworthy, lengthy and interminable final.

Elimination time again.  Helene leaves the competition, and Axel and Levina are the only ones still in contention.  They will now perform the second prospective ESC entry.

Round 3: "Perfect Life" (Lindy Robbins, Lindsey Ray, Dave Bassett)

Lindy Robbins has written quite a few hit songs over recent years including Jason Derulo's "Want To Want Me" and "Skyscraper" which was covered by X Factor winner Sam Bailey.

Like "Wildfire" this song isn't all that spectacular either and you just wonder, is this really the best that Germany can do?  Can we tempt Stefan Raab out of retirement??

"Perfect Life" - Axel.

He sings this well, but I just wish that he showed more personality in his performance as it just looks as if he can't be arsed.  He's got a distinctive voice and I think he could make a good recording artist if he gets the right material.  But he's not winning this competition.  He performs this song as a mid-tempo ballad with little James Bond-style musical flourishes.

"Perfect Life" - Levina.

All together now... "I am titaaaaaniiiiiuuuum!"

This version of the song has a lawsuit-worthy intro as it is clearly inspired by the David Guetta/Sia track - although many have also pointed out the "Every Breath You Take" guitar riff which has been ripped off by many other artists over the last 30 years.  The artists tonight are performing with a live band which is one very positive aspect of an otherwise unremarkable final.  I presume that the recorded version of Levina's take on this song will have more of a dance beat?  Whatever, it goes big in the hall and the audience are clapping along from the beginning.

So now it's another round of voting, to decide who's done the best version of each song.  In an unsurprising result, it's Levina versus Levina: the voters have decided that she sung the best versions of both songs and so it's on to the final round, where she will sing each song again.  No wonder she's probably got a sore throat by now!

By the way, did I say how rubbish this format is?  They're singing the same songs over and over again .It reminds me of the old Andra Chansen format which was thankfully dropped.  Anyway, no matter how many times they sing "Wildfire" and "Perfect Life" I still struggle to remember them.  In the end, the voters choose "Perfect Life", probably because it's got that Titanium recognition factor.

The epic final finishes almost 3 hours after it started,so congratulations if you lasted for the duration. Germany really needs to rethink the way it chooses its Eurovision entries. This is not the best format, that's for sure.

So just how well will Germany do in this year's Eurovision Song Contest?  Levina seems a confident performer and sings well enough, but at this point, the whole package just isn't special enough to get Germany over to the left-hand side of the scoreboard.