Eurovision 2004 preview: the semi-finals, 2nd half.

12. Lithuania – What happened to your love – Linas & Simona
I can’t help but feel that this is trying too hard to be too many things at once, as the straightforward old-fashioned pop of the song itself is mixed up with all manner of Latin brass flourishes, oh-so-modern “scratching” effects (it’ll never catch on), r&b-style vocal trills (which just don’t sound right when mixed with Baltic accents), and clattering percussion (clattering percussion breakdowns are now rivalling “operatic” vocal styles as this year’s Big Thing). The overall result is rather fiddly and confused, like an over-ambitious piece of “fusion cuisine” in a mid-market brasserie with ideas above its station. 47 points.

13. Albania – The image of you – Anjeza Shahini
Now, this is more like it. Bearing all the signs of having been assembled by skilful, experienced professionals who have done this sort of thing a good few times before, The image of you builds most effectively – from its gentle ballad-style intro through to its genuinely uplifting chorus, complete with gospel-style choral backing. Just as you think that the chorus might be in danger of outstaying its welcome (how exactly are they going to fill the last minute?), the song shifts into what you assume must be its mid-section breakdown. The mood drops and builds back up; the gospel element becomes more pronounced; the choir become more animated; the already high-pitched Anjeza lets rip with the really high notes; and then – now, this is the clever bit – having saved all the best bits till last, the song ends there and then, without need of a final chorus. To do well in Eurovision, you’ve got to wow us in the last minute, and this is where the Albanians truly succeed. 77 points.

14. Cyprus – Stronger every minute – Lisa Andreas
After God knows how many uptempo numbers in a row, this stately, timeless orchestral ballad – of the sort that gets all the “bring back the orchestra” diehards of a certain age squealing with glee – is well placed in the draw, offering a refreshing change of mood. Some lovely touches in the orchestration serve to lift the song above the pedestrian, and Lisa carries the tune ably enough – despite an oddly squeaky voice that might have benefited from a bit of “bottom”, as it were. The whole thing threatens to splutter to an early halt at around the two minute mark, with a rather conclusive sounding “please stay” mid-section, before gathering its skirts up again and making a spirited dash for the finishing line. Not really My Kind Of Thing, but I doff my cap respectfully to its craft. 64 points.

15. FYR Macedonia – Life – Tose Proeski
In a word: overwrought. Despite some skirling Eastern strings on the chorus, (and if this moves Wogan to trot out his “whiff of the souk” quip ONE MORE TIME, I’ll… I’ll… I’ll… well, I don’t know WHAT I’ll do, but it WON’T BE PRETTY) and an awful lot of sweaty heaving and straining on the part of Mr. Proeski (I’m seeing throbbing veins on temples here), it doesn’t really add up to an awful lot at the end of the day, does it? Meanwhile, the tortuously self-analytical lyrics (“roaming through my old emotions, I find new feelings of misery“) could have been lifted straight from a particularly angst-ridden teen-goth Livejournal entry. 42 points.

16. Slovenia – Stay forever – Platin
Plod, plod, plod. You know, it’s at times like these that my whole commitment to Eurovision is called into question. Yeesh, is that the time? Have we really got six more songs to go? Still? The best I can say for Stay Forever is that it makes an ideal toilet break. Don’t all rush at once! 5 points.

17. Estonia – Tii – Neiokõsõ
Now, this is where we sort the sheep from the goats. If your acquaintance with the ESC is strictly limited to giggling with your mates in front of the telly once a year, then you’ll find plenty to scorn in Estonia’s throaty, choric, minor-key “ethnic” offering (and hark, is that the sweet sound of yodelling which I hear once again?). If, however, you have demonstrated a long-term commitment towards the contest, spread over many years of diligent, thankless effort, then the likes of Tii will cause you no difficulties. If you liked Finland’s Aava from 6 years ago, or maybe the Belgian runner-up from last year, then this will probably be right up your street. Why, even as I type, I can see the flaxen-haired maidens running through the pine forests in their diaphanous muslin frocks. (Which is possibly the main problem with this entry: it sounds less like a song, and more like an interval act.) 62 points.

18. Croatia – You are the only one – Ivan Mikulic
Cripes, the booze is really pouring through me tonight, haha. Can’t imagine what’s the matter with me. Er, shall I uncork another bottle on my way back? No, it’s no problem at all – leave it to me. I SAID LEAVE IT TO ME. In a word: piss-poor. 8 points.

19. Denmark – Shame on you – Tomas Thordarson
OK, let’s run through the check list.
Clattering thwackity-thwack percussion? Check.
Discreet touches of flamenco guitar, to capture that Mediterranean vote? Check.
Key change? All present and correct, SAH.
Operatic yodelling? Sorry, we ran out of funding for operatic yodelling, but we’ve made up for it by rhyming “FYE-ya” and “diz-EYE-ya” in the chorus; would that be an acceptable substitute?
Oh, it would, it would! Denmark, I kiss you! 55 points.

20. Serbia & Montenegro – Lane moje – Zeljko Joksimovic
Sorry, but what is it with all the clattering percussion this year? Has everybody been forced to listen to the Pet Shop Boys’ Se A Vida E before putting pen to paper, or what?

(Which gives rise to another thought: the days of the in-house orchestra may be long gone, but couldn’t we all have a whip-round and hire those lesbian drummers instead? Because, with this year’s selection, they’d have a field day. What were they called? She-boom, wasn’t it? Yes – them. Get them on a plane to Istanbul this instant.)

Anyway, the clattering percussion on Lane moje is of the more muted kind, complementing rather than smothering the mood – which is all chest-beating Balkan butchness, pan-pipes of the forest, skirling gypsy violins, the works. I’ve developed a real soft spot for this sort of stuff over the years, and this is a fine addition to the canon. 67 points.

21. Bosnia-Herzegovina – In the disco – Deen
The riff from Hot Stuff meets the bassline from The Chase, as Deen indulges in a veritable homage to Giorgio Moroder. Listening to his vocal performance, words like “fey” and “lisping” spring inexorably into mind and lodge themselves there, no matter how hard I try to dismiss them as the residue of some long-buried internalised homophobia. (But come on, she’s GOT to be in The Gays, right? I’ve seen the photos.) So, can we – dare we? – expect another Paul Oskar moment here? (Iceland, 1997, leather kecks, couch, S&M girlies, fond of stroking himself.) A nice try at over-the-top campery, but – like Paul Oskar’s offering, in fact – there’s a certain thinness at the heart of In The Disco which ultimately works against it. And, really, Donna Summer should sue. 63 points.Nearly there, kids!

22. Netherlands – Without you – Re-union
A-ha! Like Rollo & King at Copenhagen in 2001, Re-union come out of nowhere with a simple, good-natured breath of fresh air, which compares most favourably with all the laboured twittering/tubthumping/thwackity-thwacking of the last few songs. Easy guitar strumming, a touch of piano, pleasant harmonies and a memorable soaring falsetto in the chorus are all that are needed to make this a dead cert for qualification. The fire/desire rhyme (this year’s third, and counting) is merely the icing on the cake. In a word: breezy. 70 points.

Mike’s Semi-Final Top 5:
1. Belarus: My Galileo (or, as the artists themselves pronounce it: Magga Lee Lay Low) (93)
2. Ukraine: Wild dances (89)
3. Albania: The image of you (77)
4. Finland: Takes 2 to tango (75)
5. Netherlands: Without you (70)

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Thrill to my tulips.

Come tiptoe with me
Through the PDMG.
So much beauty to see
For you and for me.

Spring bulbs are in bloom
Dispelling all gloom.
The tulips so gay
Chase all troubles away.

Take my hand as we walk
Twixt stem, leaf and stalk.
Cottage gardens in Spring
Are the loveliest thing!

Continue reading “Thrill to my tulips.”

Window Into My World: The Troubled Diva Pointlessly Detailed Journal Theme Week. (5)

And so, on the Friday, after four virus-stricken days of what I can only assume was some sort of divine punishment for attempting to bore the arses off my readers, I finally showed up for work. It was then that I realised that this had been the first week in over six months where being off sick wouldn’t have caused huge deadline problems. What an impressively organised immune system I must have.

I leave the office at 16:00, and head straight for the railway station, where I hook up with K. A pleasant journey ensues, down in the “quiet zone” at the far end of the train (it’s always worth making the extra journey down to the end of Platform 5). Arriving at St. Pancras station, we are surprised to find ourselves in a brand new building which has been attached to the end of the original Victorian structure (now closed). All this unexpected newness is most disorientating. We jump into a taxi and head off for the newly opened Malmaison hotel in Farringdon (on Charterhouse Square, near Smithfield market). Yes, it’s another of those dreaded “boutique hotels”– but, well, look: we had recently stayed in the Birmingham Malmaison and enjoyed it a lot, and our “free bed in Brixton” mates were away for the weekend, and K had found a special weekend deal, and, and, and… So OK, we never learn. But please allow us our materialistic delusions; for they bring us great happiness. Nirvana through shallowness, remember?

Anyway, the hotel is suitably well-appointed (all low-lit clear surfaces in regulation dark brown), the staff are charming (at the reception desk, a sewing kit is procured within seconds) and the room is delightful (ooh, jasmine and geranium body wash!). We unpack and head straight out again, reaching the Royal Festival Hall in good time. Out of the office at four; sipping a G&T at the RFH by ten past seven. This is all going so smoothly! We should do this more often!

The support act is a guitarist and singer from Cadiz called Javier Ruibal, who performs with a second guitarist and a young percussionist. Together, they deliver a stunning set – full of energy, spirit and skill, and far in excess of anything which we might have imagined from a support act.

Another G&T later, and we are back in our seats (fifth row, dead centre, level with the stage) for Omara Portuondo, the 73-year old Cuban singer who achieved global recognition on the strength of the Buena Vista Social Club project. With the death last year of both Ruben Gonzales and Compay Segundo, only two of the film’s big names are still with us (the other being the incomparable Ibrahim Ferrer); we had therefore booked seats as soon as we found out about them, keen to experience at least one of the remaining performers while there was still a chance.

As Omara is helped onto the stage from the wings, her physical frailty is immediately evident. The moment that she reaches centre stage, spotlights upon her, all traces of that frailty disappear. The moment that she opens her mouth for the first song, both K and I burst into tears.

(Honestly, what are we like? A generation ago, we might just as easily have been swooning over Shirley Bassey or Dorothy Squires. “Shiz a fookin STAR, intshi? Shiz built erself up from NOOTHING, and NOOTHING can take that away from er now; NOOTHING!“)

Omara and her fifteen(?) piece Cuban band (containing such great musicians as the nattily togged Papa Oviedo, master of the “tres” guitar) proceed to thrill and delight us for the next hour and three quarters. During some of the better known dance numbers, various members of the audience spontaneously leap out of their seats and start dancing in front of the stage – prompting K to hiss in my ear: “They’ve obviously all been to their salsa classes on Friday nights, then.” As indeed they probably have; but oh, how wonderful it must be to be able to dance with the skill that the best of them are displaying. (My own skill levels begin with sweaty pogoing, end with hands-in-the-air raving, and are probably best confined to wedding discos and dodgy podiums in provincial gay clubs on school nights.)

During one of the massed dancing sessions, a member of the audience hands Omara a large bouquet of cut flowers. With all the excitable glee of a slightly gawky teenager, she waves the bouquet above her head, showing it off to the rest of us like a trophy, the years visibly slipping away. (Indeed, she waves it around so vigorously that she manages to knock her microphone off its stand, sending it tumbling to the floor.) Throughout the show, her effusive character adds a pleasing degree of mild chaos to the proceedings. At the end of some of her livelier numbers, after the band have finished playing, she will keep the chorus going, acapella style – then bringing the rest of us in, singing and clapping along, building us up in volume – then turning and motioning to her band to join in for a spontaneous reprise. At the end of the show, we can see her at the edge of the stage, almost in the wings, refusing to leave until she can bring the band back on for two more numbers. We see her remonstrating with officials, pleading, insisting, refusing to take no for an answer, and finally getting her own way. A world class act. Music just doesn’t get better than this.

After the show, I pick up a text from David. He’s at the Two Brewers (a gay pub in Clapham with a dancefloor and a late licence) and we’re welcome to join him there. I put the suggestion to K; he is not keen. “Going to the Two Brewers after Omara Portuondo would be like finishing a gourmet meal with a Cornetto“, he declares, not inaccurately. Instead, we head back to the hotel bar for a couple of quiet beers (and, in my case, a nice Cuban cigar; well, it only seems fitting). Tomorrow is Art Day; we need clear heads and a reasonably early start.

Eurovision 2004 preview: the semi-finals, 1st half.

This year – to the ecstatic delight of some, and the horrified disbelief of others – Eurovision graduates into a two-day event, with a semi-final on Wednesday May 12 and a final on Saturday May 15. In the semi-final, 22 songs will compete for 10 places in the final, where they will join 14 songs from last year’s most successful countries (plus the four countries which always stump up the most dosh generously provide a large proportion of the funding for the event, thus guaranteeing themselves a place).

With no less than 36 (woo!) songs taking part in this year, I am splitting my preview into three sections – starting with the first 11 songs in next Wednesday’s semi-final. This will be shown live on BBC3, complete with tele-voting, but without the drama of the scoreboard; the ten qualifying songs will simply be announced at the end of the contest, in no particular order.

1. Finland – Takes 2 to tango – Jari Sillanpää
Tonight on Stars In Their Eyes: Michael Ball is… Marc Almond! Singing tango! With just the merest hint of Mamma Mia! Ludicrous but oddly likeable, like all the best Eurovision is supposed to be. Bonus points for the key-change. 75 points.

2. Belarus – My Galileo – Aleksandra & Konstantin
Utterly, utterly demented – and yet, quite, quite brilliant – this comes on like a kind of Eurodisco barndance, with folksy “ethnic” touches, a flute player who appears to be listening to a completely different song altogether, and – best of all! – yodelling. Oh joy! With quite the most eccentric vocal performance of this, or indeed of any other Eurovision, this could either sweep the board or flop completely. One of my personal favourites. 93 points.

3. Switzerland – Celebrate – Piero Esteriore & the MusicStars
Achieving the rare distinction of running out of ideas within the first 15 seconds, not even two (count ’em!) key changes can save this truly pitiful attempt at clap-along jollity. Look, even could have written a better song than this. Seriously. So simplistic that it makes Jemini’s Cry Baby look like Stairway To Heaven by comparison. 7 points.

4. Latvia – Dziesma par laimi – Fomins & Kleins
The normally dependable Latvia have served up a right clunker this year, with a stridently yowling mid-paced rocker that will appeal to almost no-one. No flow, darlings. Deeply unattractive. 12 points.

5. Israel – Le’ha’amin – David D’or
Ooh, is that what they call a counter-tenor? I’m that ignorant. “Operatic” seems to be one of this year’s big Eurovision trends, and our David certainly has an impressive set of chops, soaring away above his cheesy James Last-style backing singers into ever higher flights of fancy. Unfortunately, we’re firmly in “peace anthem” territory here – possibly my least favourite Eurovision category of all – but a suitably sincere performance may yet win the day, and banish memories of all that “light a candle” nonsense from a couple of years back. Bonus points for the key-change. Are you spotting a pattern yet? 54 points.

6. Andorra – Jugarem a estimar-nos – Marta Roure
Spirited melodic pop which tries hard (and I have to say that I love the way that Marta rolls her Rs), but ends up sounding merely strained and unmemorable. Destined to be lost in the rush. 23 points.

7. Portugal – Foi Magia – Sofia
Do you remember when they wheeled Margaret Thatcher out during the 1997 leadership election for the Conservative party? “Hague. Hague. William Hague. I like William Hague. That’s Hague. Shall I spell it for you?” Well, a similar tactic is deployed here by Portugal, who doggedly repeat the song’s title (pronounced “foy ma-ZHEE-ya”) all the way through their allotted three minutes. “Foi Magia. That’s Foi Magia. Vote for Foi Magia. Remember that name now: it’s Foi Magia. And here’s another quick reminder: Foi Magia. Would you like me to write it down for you?31 points. (Parting thought: why does Portugal NEVER submit any fado?)

8. Malta – On again…off again – Julie & Ludwig
So, like, what is it with all this operatic stuff this year? Who deemed this was hip? Did I miss a meeting? Malta have historically specialised in a kind of fresh-faced naivety that straddles the line between “charming” and “twee”, and this is no exception: pretty melodic pop, with a groovy dinner-dance backbeat and some frankly hilarious vocalising from our lovely, smiling duo. The middle section – where our Julie completely goes off on one with some smashing operatic arpeggios – is destined to be featured in “ironic” video-clip montages for the rest of recorded time. Luvvit! 65 points (including bonus points for the key-change).

9. Monaco – Notre planète – Maryon
Suffering from being the fourth song in a row with the same shuffling Eurodisco backbeat, this is also not helped by Maryon’s rather insipid vocal delivery; when given a chance to show off with some freestyle soaring in the middle section, she blows it badly, merely warbling away ineffectually until the key change (bonus points!) kicks in. However, the song is partially redeemed by some rather lovely pizzicato counterpoint flourishes, which distract one’s attention quite effectively from the essential slightness of the song itself. 50 points.

10. Greece – Shake it – Sakis Rouvas
Ooh, Sakis, you’re such a Romeo; you can pluck my bouzouki any time! With an unabashed cheesiness that is more over-ripe Roquefort than understated Feta, Shake It undoes all of its hard work with a moronic, repetitive turkey of a chorus – after which, not even a rousing percussion breakdown can save it. (And where, pray, is the key change after the percussion breakdown? If ever a tune was crying out for a key change, then this was it. Haven’t you read the rules?) However, I am awarding extra special bonus points for being the first of this year’s entries to rhyme “fire” (FYE-ya!) with “desire” (diz-EYE-ya!). 51 points.

11. Ukraine – Wild dances – Ruslana
Yes! Yes! Yes! This is why we love Eurovision so much. Vying with its neighbours in Belarus in the Totally F***ing Bonkers stakes, this is an almost impossibly exciting piece of rousing Cossack dervishry, fronted by a belter of a singer who comes on like Shakira on uppers. I can see her now, twirling her fringed gypsy skirt in the glow of the campfire, as all around her do that cross-armed squatting dance that plays such havoc with the joints. Total entertainment! 89 points, including a bonus for the impressively inept trumpet player (we had one like him in the school band).

Comment of the week…

…came from Alan of Oddverse, in the comments box attached to this post. Because I would hate for any of you to have missed it, I am reproducing it here.

Seven o’clock… Spend an hour tapping away on the laptop, chronicling minutae of existence. K vainly tries to distract me with text messages. “Nkd bloke in street doing push-ups. Snail not dead yet.”, but I tap on undeterred. The sun is setting, a glorious blood-orange glow is cast on the wall behind me, dappled through the gently waving leaves of the ancient ash tree that stands guarding the back wall of the garden. Surely there can be no greater bliss than this – a man, a laptop, and somewhere, a boyfriend torturing snails in an effort to get attention…

(On learning of this comment, K smirked broadly – indeed, almost triumphantly – from ear to ear, as I started frantically searching the cottage for hidden webcams.)

Window Into My World: The Troubled Diva Pointlessly Detailed Journal Theme Week. (4)

My mother arrives in the early evening, bearing belated birthday presents: a picture book of 1960s fashions, and photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s stunning The Earth from the Air. I explain that I have spent the day on sick leave, lolling about on the sofa and feeling sorry for myself. “Being a typical man, in other words“, is her brisk retort. A resolutely practical, unsentimental woman, she has little patience for weakness.

The three of us smarten ourselves up a bit and head for World Service. This is our third choice of restaurant; the weather is no longer suitable for sitting outside at the Martin’s Arms at Colston Bassett, and – to our great surprise – Harts is fully booked, even on a Monday. My concerns that World Service might be a shade too Urban Flash for my mother are swiftly confirmed; with no more than a couple of wry, under-stated remarks, accompanied by her instantly recognisable “I don’t think much of this but I’m far too polite to say so” expression, she scythes through its pretensions in minutes.

She is quite right, of course; this is a place which strains all too visibly to achieve a “fine dining experience”, without ever quite hitting the mark which it has rather self-consciously set for itself. It is a place where the staff feel the need to introduce the butter, for crying out loud:

Let me tell you about today’s butter; it’s from Normandy, and we’ve seasoned it with a little natural sea salt, to bring out the flavour.” Puh-leeze, Louise.

Still, for all that, the food is pretty damned good – my smoked salmon ravioli slips down a treat, as does my beautifully smooth pan-fried calves liver and my scrummy “trio of chocolate”. By the end of the evening, the alcohol (1 gin & tonic, 1 kir, 1 glass of white, 2 glasses of red) has, as ever, provided temporary relief for my flu symptoms. In fact, I am so restored that I even suggest skipping the taxi and walking home instead.

Tuesday morning finds me in a considerably deteriorated state of health. After K leaves for his meeting at around 9:45, I finally heave myself out of bed and stagger downstairs to keep my mother company. We spend the morning drinking tea, flicking through the papers, and chatting amiably.

Mother explains that she has started writing a detailed set of memoirs about her childhood and adolescence: drafted in longhand, and then laboriously typed up on an electric typewriter. I suggest that she might benefit from a word processor; she only registers polite, tangential interest, claiming that her spending priorities currently lie elsewhere. Knowing that it will get neither of us anywhere, I decide to avoid the standard Tech-savvy Son Browbeats Tech-phobic Parent stand-off. Instead, I ask when I might be able to read the memoir (expecting it to be intended for purely private purposes), and am told that I may read it any time I like. I am intrigued; while doubting that there will be much in the way of emotional revelation, I can safely anticipate a wealth of accurate and well-researched factual detail (one of my mother’s strongest suits).

I ask why the memoir stops at the age of seventeen. (Mother married less than two years later, and gave birth to me less than two years after that.)

I suppose that after 17, it became an altogether very… different sort of life“, I prod, smiling conspiratorially. We both know what my father was like.

You could say that.” The smile is returned. We are on the borders of well-established territory here. No more needs to be said.

Taking a different direction, I prod further. “So, I guess that’s where boyfriends came into the picture?

Actually, before your father came along, there weren’t really any other boyfriends.” The smile has fractionally tightened.

Oh. I hadn’t realised that.” I make a conscious attempt to confine both my surprise and my sympathy to within acceptable proportions. Emotional demonstrativeness has never been our particular modus operandi. Such matters may safely be alluded to – but to express them would be fearfully bad form.

After mother leaves, I return to bed – and spend the rest of the day, and the day after that, and the day after that, languishing in the sort of pointless, unproductive, ill-tempered tedium which, were it to be described in detail, would strain the patience of even my most devoted readers.