Eurovision 2005 semi-finals preview: Part One.

(Note that these aren’t the same as the previews which I have written for this week’s Time Out magazine. Because that would be cheating.)

1. Austria – Y Asi – Global Kryner.

And straight away, with the very first song of this year’s contest, we strike “only at Eurovision” gold. Forget all of that “Fusion Of Eastern And Western Influences” stuff for a moment – there will be plenty of time for that later – and prepare instead to welcome a brand new musical genre: Cosmopolitan Karawanken Beat. And what’s that? Why, it’s a bold new blend of Cuban music with Alpine folk, of the oompah variety. Yes! You’ll be yodelling as you salsa with this heartwarming tale of cross-cultural love, as performed by a cheerful bunch of beer festival busker types. Check their website for Cosmopolitan Karawanken Beat re-workings of Like A Virgin, Something Stupid and Lady Marmalade, and marvel at the consistency of their trombone player (“well buff” according to strategically placed local sources), loyally parping out the same two notes over and over again.
71 points.

2. Lithuania – Little By Little – Laura & The Lovers.

Smooth, sleek Scandi-pop with a gleaming professional sheen, as put together by a predominantly Swedish team with telling connections to the mighty Alcazar. As for the abilities of Laura herself, I couldn’t have put it better than this quote from one of her songwriters: “The nuances in her voice are like the colours of the rainbow, sparkling with colourful tones and shades.” Blimey! Laura & The Lovers have also quickly endeared themselves to the press corps in Kiev, by handing out free condoms at their first press conference. Apparently there was something of a scrum. Which tells you a lot about the much vaunted “international party atmosphere” of rehearsal week.
80 points.

3. Portugal – Amar – 2B.

Historically one of the weakest countries in the contest (can YOU hum any of their songs from the past few years?), Portugal have made a particular effort to choose a strong song this year, ditching the usual public vote and opting instead to rely on a panel of experts. Consequently, and in stark contrast to its predecessors. Amar has a naggingly insistent and memorable chorus, if nothing else. (“Happy pretty way, happy shiny day, happy place to stay, we can hold it together!“) Oh, OK, let’s be cheap: there is nothing else. Except for an onstage back-flip, apparently. (But if you think that a mere back-flip is going to swing it, then you are sorely mistaken. The stakes are so much higher than that.)
52 points.

4. Moldova – Bunica Bate Toba – Zdob si Zdub.

Remember that squiffy sounding trumpet player from last year’s winning Ukranian entry, who appeared to be playing a different “tune” (if you could call it that) from everybody else? Well, I find myself wondering whether he has jumped over the border to neighbouring Moldova (making its Eurovision debut this year), in order to join up with this bunch of Raggle Taggle Gypsy-oh mentalists. Thrash-folk is the order of the day here, with this barely comprehensible ode to a Rockin’ Grandma who can’t stop a-bangin’ on her big bass drum. (And yes, fear not: the Rockin’ Grandma and her big bass drum WILL be appearing on stage. In a rockin’ chair, appropriately enough.)

This is also notable for what must be Eurovision’s first ever unequivocal drug reference. “Drain a bottle of wine, no need to smoke the leaves, by the end of that show you’ll blow yourself to bits.” Absolutely. Because why bother wasting time with boring old leaves, when you were all clearly OUT OF YOUR BOXES ON ACID WHEN YOU WROTE THE SONG? Love it. A real highlight.
83 points.

5. Latvia – The War is Not Over – Valters & Kaža.

After a rollicking first four songs, the pace slows right down for this gently strummed soft-rocker, performed by a couple of young men who have been playing music together since the age of two. Its closest antecedent is 2000’s winning song for the Olsen Brothers, Fly On The Wings Of Love (before it was turned into a helium-voiced Dance Anthem, that is), and the performers in question are even known in their native country as “the young Olsen Brothers”.

So, will this come as a welcome gimmick-free respite from all the back-flips and banging grannies and arriba-oompah-ing and general arsing around? Not a bit of it! Because Valters & Kaža have pledged to perform the song in sign language, so that everyone can understand its “universal message”. Which would be fine IF THE SONG ACTUALLY MEANT ANYTHING, instead of just being a sequence of random platitudes strung together to no discernible purpose. (There is also a cheap jibe to be made about the hearing-impaired being a natural constituency for Eurovision, but I shall refrain from making it.)
44 points.

6. Monaco – Tout de Moi – Lise Darly.

Having stayed away from the contest for twenty-four consecutive years, Monaco seem to be labouring under the delusion that there will still be a full orchestra in attendance on the night, just as there was in their glory days. (Five top 5 placings in eight years during the 1970s; not bad for such a tiny principality.) However, with the house orchestra having vanished for good after Birmingham 1998, Lise Darly will have instead to rely on pre-recorded playback for this admittedly stirring ballad, whose arrangement – full of pleasing rococo curls and neo-classical flourishes – will have a notably lessened impact as a result. Which is a shame, as – in musical if not in performance terms – this is the most accomplished ballad of the night.
73 points.

7. Israel – Hasheket Shenish’ar (The Silence That Remains) – Shiri Maymon.

…although this lovely effort from Israel, which may suffer by comparison in the draw, does come close to surpassing it. Indeed, Shiri’s impassioned vocal performance clearly outstrips Lise’s, with only a certain old-fashioned staidness of approach letting the song down. However, such admirable class and restraint in the ballad stakes will all be forgotten about in two songs’ time, as… well, you’ll see soon enough. But first, get the amyl out…
72 points.

8. Belarus – Love Me Tonight – Angelica Agurbash.

…as it’s Big Fat Gay Disco Anthem Time! Woo! Tops off! Podiums ahoy! Now, time was when stuff like this would be packing out the Top Five – but times have moved on, as the dismal failure of Xandee’s One Life in 2004 all too clearly demonstrated, and so I fear that Angelica will be struggling for promotion with this one.

I also suspect that 35-year old Angelica (“a woman who never hides her age”) might be a little more sensitive about such matters than her press people would have you believe. Take this quote, for instance. “The most important element of beauty is your inner world. Beauty comes from within. My face is a mirror of my soul. When bad feelings control me, I turn plain, wrinkles appear, the lines on my face become sharper. When I feel this way there’s no make-up in the world that can help me out.” Come on, Western Europe! Never mind all that trendy Make Poverty History nonsense! We need airlifts of top-grade cosmetic treatments to Belarus NOW!
67 points.

9. Netherlands – My Impossible Dream – Glennis Grace.

Lise from Monaco? Shiri from Israel? Over here please. Lovely ballads, both of you – but you may as well pack up and go home now, because here comes The Terminator. Now, with a name like Glennis Grace, you might be expecting some washed-up Dorothy Squires impersonator from what remains of the Northern club circuit. Instead, what you get is a full-on, industrial-strength, Grade A Diva Deluxe, of the Whitney Houston school, with one hell of a set of pipes on her, a precision-tooled “striving through the wind and the rain to MAKE IT ON MY OWN” belter of a song to match, Big Interpretive Arm Movements by the truckload, and a concluding Triumphant Backwards Head Fling to die for. (“Yes! I made it through to the end of the three minutes! My struggle is complete!”) She’s gonna walk this round, or I’m a Belgian.
58 points. (Because, after all that, I don’t actually care for it much.)

10. Iceland – If I Had Your Love – Selma.

Another abiding Eurovision tradition: The Fan Fave That Flops. Happens every year, and mostly to over-ambitious, slightly worthy numbers that score high on “impressive”, but low on “lovable”. And so it is with Selma, who came second in 1999 with a lot of people’s Favourite Eurovision Entry Ever, the admittedly mighty “All Out Of Luck”, and who is now being hailed as this year’s home-coming queen. However, all the leading positions in all the online fan polls in the world still won’t help her on the night, as If I Had Your Love is – whisper it if you dare – actually not all that good. Taking Britney’s Toxic as its starting point, this is all intricate Eastern strings, tightly orchestrated swoops and stabs, and impossibly complex stop-start polyrhythms – but for all of this sound and fury, it never quite knows what it wants to be. Just bloody well stay the same for more than five seconds, can’t you? What is this, Squarepusher?
60 points.

11. Belgium – Le Grand Soir – Nuno Resende.

I received a registered item in the post the other week. Well, not the actual item itself – come on, when does that ever happen? – but one of those dreaded little “while you were out” cards, full of supposedly helpful advice that is actually of no practical use whatsoever. There was, as usual, only one solution: an early morning drive out to the sorting office at the edge of town, through the suburban rush hour traffic, with K muttering and cursing at the wheel.

“This is SO DEPRESSING!”, he wailed. “I HATE having to drive through these bleak estates!”

We spend our lives, as you may have gathered, in something of a city centre/country cottage Luxury Bubble, from which we rarely have cause to emerge.

Twenty minutes later, we found ourselves at the depot. Five minutes after that, I was back in the car for the twenty minute drive back, tearing open the registered package.

“Come on then. What is it?”

I couldn’t speak for laughing.

“You’ll be so – SPLUTTER – glad you – SNORT – made this trip – BWAHAHAHA OMIGOD OMIGOD.”

“I shan’t be amused, you know. But you might as tell me, since we’ve COME ALL THIS WAY.”

“It’s a CD single of the – WHEEZE – Belgian entry for this year’s – GASP – Eurovision Song Contest! Shall I put it on? YES! I’m BLOODY WELL PUTTING IT ON!”

“Mike. I dare say that in other circumstances I might be capable of finding this funny. But this is not the time and this is not the… oh Jesus, it’s even worse than I thought.”

First toilet break of the night, this one. Big overblown soggy ballady thing, which gloops along at a funereal pace. But you’ll have to be quick, though – the next one’s a little cracker.
24 points.

(Many thanks for the CD anyway, Ïan. Sorry it won’t be Brussels 2006, though. Zed, have you heard this?)

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