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)

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).

Eurovision Baywatch Interlude.

(Yes, I know: it’s all getting a bit, hmm, what’s the word, leery on Troubled Diva right now, isn’t it? Are we lurching downmarket in pursuit of cheap hits? Or are we alienating our more elevated readership, who are all shaking their heads in sorrow and clicking off in distaste? Well, one can only go with the flow. And this is a story worth telling.)

Sunday afternoon, the day after the Eurovision finals, and four of us decide to take the short train ride out to the coast at Jurmala. Alighting at Majori station in blazing hot sunshine, we discover a long strip of shops and pleasant cafés, thronged with promenading Rigans who have journeyed out for the day. The beach is a short walk away, down a street which is lined with rather fine looking clapboard houses (holiday homes for the urban elite, maybe?) It turns out to be a broad strip of perfect golden sand, stretching out to infinity in either direction, delightfully unspoilt and under-developed, with plenty of room to spread out, flop, and ogle at the scores and scores of absurdly attractive Latvian chaps strolling past.

In fact, this whole Fit Latvian Dude thing is getting quite surreal now, and we have become quite giggly about it. Is this some sort of cleverly staged initiative, launched by the Latvian Tourist Board in order to get the massed ranks of Eurovision queens (half of whom have media connections of some description or other) squealing about the place when they get home? Has every ridiculously handsome young Latvian in the country been recruited to parade around the city in tight clothing, or along the beach in their skimpy little shorts? It’s the only remotely plausible explanation that we can come up with.

Gazing out at the Gulf of Riga, we become aware of some sort of animal in the water, maybe about fifty metres away, where the sea is still quite shallow. As we notice it, so does everyone else around us on the beach. A crowd begins to gather at the water’s edge. The creature is remaining completely still. What is it, anyway? The Latvian Nessie? A sea-lion? An otter? Eventually, we conclude that it must be a beaver, which must have swum too far up the estuary and has now become stranded in the sea. Poor little beaver. It looks at us, and we look at him, and nobody moves.

Suddenly, we realise to our great surprise that a great big fire engine has pulled up on the beach behind us, just a few feet away from the water’s edge. A fire engine on the beach?

Before we know it, two strapping young firemen have jumped out of the vehicle. Oh my God, Latvian firemen!

They have stripped down to their underwear. Oh my God, Latvian fireman in their pants!

Ordering us to stand well back, and with one of them clutching a thick grey blanket, they wade out into the waist-deep water. Oh my God, Latvian firemen in wet pants!

(Meanwhile, just as a little side-show to the main action, their driver is, with much languid stretching – ooooh, it’s just too hot to be wearing this sticky uniform one moment longer – slowly stripping down to the waist. I scarcely know which way to look.)

Very slowly, the two firemen approach the beaver, one on either side, taking great care not to startle it with any sudden movements. Once they are close enough, one fireman quickly throws his blanket on top of the animal, while the other runs forward and scoops it up in his arms, to hearty applause from the crowds.

The pair then jog back up to the beach, and – without even towelling themselves down – jump straight into the cabin of their vehicle. The fireman nearest me is now sitting there, glistening in his damp pants, with a dripping wet beaver on his lap. (Hello Google!) Just before closing the door, he looks straight towards me and smiles a broad, winning smile, revealing perfect white teeth. Delighted by this attention, I beam straight back at him (hmm, must be better at holding my stomach in than I thought) – before realising that standing directly in front of me are three amply bosomed young beauties in bikinis, who are gazing adoringly up at him, hands clasped together in perfect “my hero!” poses. Ah well. Can’t have it all my own way, I suppose.

As the fire engine speeds away, I can’t help feeling that I have just been an extra in a particularly cheesy episode of Baywatch: Beaver Patrol. I can even picture the script meeting:

OK, so we’ll have some sort of cute drowning animal – let’s make it a beaver, OK? And then these firemen dudes show up – and then they strip off, and – whaddya mean, firemen don’t rescue beavers? Look, schmuck, they do on this show!

We trust you have enjoyed this little homo-erotic fantasy interlude. We will now return you to the Seven Stages Of Eurovision without further ado.