A Swede who lives in Finland and who is lost in Euroland - the wonderful world of Eurovision
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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Melodifestivalen 2014 - Tobson Top 32

Melodifestivalen isn't over - we don't have a winner yet - but as we have heard all the songs in the running, I think this is the right moment to go them through properly and write the reviews I never wrote for the respective semi finals.

In general, this has been quite a strong year song-wise. Surely a lot better than the sad collection of songs we had in 2013, but also quite a lot like last year's eurovision final from Malmö: overall good standard with few really bad ones but the real top classics being absent as well.

What has been lacking this year - and I think most viewers would agree with me - is a functioning television show with an easily understandable red thread that would make it easy for the people at home to follow the action and feel involved. The show must compliment the entries and that has not been achieved this time.

This is my own personal ranking and it is in no way a prediction of what the outcome will be like in the big final. I'll get back to that. Sooner or later.

32. I.D.A - Fight Me If You Dare
It's a sad coincidence that the only song not written by professional songwriters is also the weakest one, but it also shows how important experience is. Loud but with no charm.
Grade: 1/5

31. AMMOTRACK - Raise Your Hands
I can honestly say hard rock is hardly my favourite genre, but when I have it in Eurovision I prefer the real thing - a real rock song in a really heavy arrangement. This re-write of Mika's Grace Kelly spiced up with guitars thus fails to impress.
Grade: 1/5

30. ELLINORE HOLMER - En himmelsk sång
There were several of these fragile and starry-eyed female ballads this year. If there was one too many, this is the surplus one. Cute but mawkish. I hope it at least means something to Ellinore herself.
Grade: 1/5

29. STATE OF DRAMA - All We Are
I quite liked these guys last year and on a first listening this song felt OK too. OK but also lukewarm, colourless and unimportant. Sounds like a million other songs, most of them better.
Grade: 1/5

28. THE REFRESHMENTS - Hallelujah
The band should have kudos for doing their thing - they are good at what they do and are loved by their audience. And rightly so. I just can't see why SVT keeps insisting on including this type of entry year after year. One rock/rockabilly song every seven years or so would do nicely, thanks.
Grade: 2/5

27. SYLVESTER SCHLEGEL - Bygdens son
Sylvester is better than this and so is the song, really. But this kind of epic storytelling with lots of words in the verses and very little in terms of a chorus feels most mal placé in a contest like this.
Grade: 2/5

26. JANET LEON - Hollow
Another fairly good song that gives the impression of possibly being chosen to fill a void in a certain musical category. Janet had problems coming through the screens last year and the situation remains the same. OK voice but no connection.
Grade: 2/5

25. ELISA LINDSTRÖM - Casanova
A hopelessly outdated piece of dance orchestra-meets-schlager princess that might have felt hot in the mid-80's. But like a Swedish Sieneke, Elisa makes the song work at least a bit. And once it starts spinning in your head, you won't get rid of it.
Grade: 2/5

Perhaps my heart is made of stone but despite the emotional lyrics, this song touches me very little. Linus has a good voice and does his best, but would have deserved something better to work with.
Grade: 2/5

23. CAJSASTINA ÅKERSTRÖM - En enkel sång
Simple and likeable, well performed by lovely CajsaStina, but far too polished and forgettable to stand out in this crowd.
Grade: 2/5

22. MANDA - Glow
Sweet girliepop that would have needed a more powerful performance to stand a chance. Could have been a good Katy Perry album track in a parallel universe.
Grade: 2/5

21. YOHIO - To The End
Last year, he had an intriguing image but not enough of a song. This year he toned down the visual aspect of himself and entered a song that arguably is better but bears a lot less of his personality. An incomprehensible move.
Grade: 2/5

20. MAHAN MOIN - Aleo
At first I was so sorry that Mahan Moin didn't have a great song, as I really liked her. After a few (but far too many) listenings the song becomes more clear and graspable, but by then you are already voted off the show.
Grade: 2/5

19. LITTLE GREAT THINGS - Set Yourself Free
There are a bit too many words in these lyrics as well, but at least the guitars are loud enough and the song has sufficiently sharp edges to be a decent rock entry. Great energy.
Grade: 2/5

18. MARTIN STENMARCK - När änglarna går hem
A suggestive start with interesting and intriguing verses slowly grows into a big grey piece of arena rock in the chorus. What a disappointment. Could have been so much more than it is, but Martin sells it well.
Grade: 2/5

The best rock entry of year (but still dangerously close to being schlager in disguise). Melodic chorus, some growling, and a handsome vocalist in a straitjacket. Not bad.
Grade: 3/5

Despite a rather adorable melody line in the chorus, this is dangerously close to falling into the group of "pretty but pointless" entries (see Ellinore Holmer) but Ellen saves it with her presence and personality.
Grade: 3/5

15. SHIRLEY CLAMP - Burning Alive
Shirley does pretty much what Ellen also did - by giving a remarkable vocal performance you save a composition that really would have needed to be stronger or more interesting in itself.
Grade: 3/5

14. DR ALBAN & JESSICA FOLCKER - Around The World
I don't believe in the concept of guilty pleasures - if I like something, I like it regardless if it's appropriate or not - but if I did this would be the biggest one of the season. Dr Alban may not be the sparkling star he once was (if he was, I can't be sure after all these years) but this is instantly catchy and Jessica is a true star.
Grade: 3/5

13. ALCAZAR - Blame It On The Disco
Alcazar are back on the dancefloor they never left. That's nice I guess, but for a band that was once quite avant-garde and experimental in their genre, this is far too nice and safe and expected to satisfy me. I would have wanted more, much more. Disappointed.
Grade: 3/5

The Eurovision Goddess came down from her heaven, she pinned down the cameras with her eyes, filled the room with her presence and sang her heart out. Too bad that the song she was given wasn't strong enough to match her. Good but lacking that last little something.
Grade: 3/5

11. OSCAR ZIA - Yes We Can
A frisky and playful little chorus with a good hook and some good mood, is that all it takes? Not really. The song would have needed to be more developed to stay interesting in its own right for three minutes, but the energetic performance really helps a lot.
Grade: 3/5

It really was about time that Linda would try to mature a bit and this electro stomper is a logical step and the more aggressive relative of "Alla flickor." The problem is that Linda gets too excited - as always - and can hardly contain herself or keep her number together. I can never relax when she is on stage and that distracts from the song in question.
Grade: 3/5

9. EKO - Red
An engaging piece of electronica featuring a surprising little detail ripped from Abba's "Move On", dramatically performed by a fascinating singer I want to see and hear more from. Sadly overlooked by the televoters, but a song that won't wear out anytime soon.
Grade: 3/5

8. J.E.M - Love Trigger
Top marks for the visual presentation - delicious on the Ani Lorak scale - and the award for best camera work. Good energy and a really infectious chorus.
Grade: 3/5

7. ANTON EWALD - Natural
I was far from being an Anton fan boy last year but I was pleasantly surprised this year. A more subtle and less obvious song with a good chorus and a performance more elegant than most dancing boys we have seen in Melodifestivalen lately.
Grade: 3/5

6. PINK PISTOLS - I Am Somebody
The real surprise of the year for me. I was moderately impressed on a first listening but when the pieces fell in place I realised what a gem this is. Original and demanding in a way I wish Alcazar would still be. And what a shame for the rock bands that the guitars with most attitude of the year were presented by a band like this.
Grade: 4/5

5. JOSEF JOHANSSON - Hela natten
The biggest injustice of the year. Josef is like a pop dream with his fine voice, personable style and youthful appearance and the song keeps growing and growing into a very effective and touching climax.
Grade: 4/5

4. PANETOZ - Efter solsken
A real happy pill with five adorable guys dancing in sync (most of the time) to a ridiculously catchy chorus full of sunshine.
Grade: 4/5

Fun, catchy, sexy and hit friendly. Unfortunately killed off by a set of sick notes in the live performance - falsetto is always tricky, isn't it - but the studio version is ace.
Grade: 4/5

Queen Sanna - the Agnetha Fältskog of the new generation - shows yet again that she is able to do almost any kind of song as good as perfectly. Impeccably executed and bursting with (restrained) emotion. Quite possibly this year's winner.
Grade: 4/5

1. ACE WILDER - Busy Doing Nothing
Never in a million years did I expect Sweden to like this as much as I do. A Swedish Yulia Savicheva complimented by dancers who actually contribute a great deal to the performance - many times I find dancers more distracting in all honesty - and a song that would be a pretty ordinary pop ditty if it wasn't for the crazy electronic breakdown that also works as the real handle for the audience to hold on to. Most probably too demanding to be the winner of the final but at least it is my personal #1 of 2014.
Grade: 4/5

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Melodifestivalen: hoping for another surprise

It's time to deal with the last eight songs before we can conclude this season of Melodifestivalen, while I am still recovering from the surprise that Sweden did something completely unexpected and sent Ace Wilder straight into the final last week.

I love surprises, especially when they are good. I wonder if there is any use wishing for more of the same, another surprise on the same scale?

At first glance it doesn't look likely. On paper Alcazar and Anton Ewald should be unbeatable. That's what everyone thought beforehand and that is what everyone on location seems to think, as well as the people who listened to the longer clips. I only saw the minute-long snippets from earlier in the week.

To my own surprise I find myself liking Anton Ewald in a way I never did before. I failed to locate any charm in that kid last year, but his new song has a softness and sensibility I like. He's not the best singer  but he knows how to sell his material in front of a tv camera.

Alcazar, on the other hand. People obviously love them very much and missed them desperately and would probably vote them into the final with any old dismal ditty. Which is pretty much what seems to be about to happen. This is nothing but a tired old rewrite of Stay The Night - too little, too late.

The rest of the world forgot about Alcazar many moons ago and if they were to appear in Copenhagen most people would probably see a slightly ageing disco tribute act rather than the fabulous, sexy group that they were in their heyday. The question is what the televoting Swedes see tonight.

If there was to be a surprise - something to make every jaw in Sweden drop - what would it be?

Linda Bengtzing has a new style, similar but more mature. I really like it, but is she the right person to perform it? I have never felt comfortable with her, it never feels like she's in control of the situation. Will she be able to carry this new material in a good way?

Josef Johansson is an adorable little performer with a song that sounds like it has potential. Will he be able to keep his nerves in place and knock the socks of Sweden?

Tobson predicts: Two big surprises - Ellen and Ace - are perhaps as much as Sweden can digest in one season, but where is the fun in predicting the same as anyone else? This is what I hope for tonight more than what I think.

Anton Ewald and Linda Bengtzing to the final, Alcazar and Josef Johansson to Andra Chansen, while the fifth place will belong to Ammotrack.

Janet, Ellinore and I.D.A: thanks for trying, but it's not going to work.

Good luck Latvia

You know what? I love Latvia. Riga is one of my favourite cities and I never fully came to terms with the fact I missed out the year Eurovision was held there. I'd love for Eurovision to come back there but the Latvians have given me pretty little nourishment for my hopes lately.

This year, I haven't really checked out the Latvian national final at all. I watched the odd clip but have no idea about their line-up or their chances.

I sort of gave up on Latvian finals in 2011, when they had a quirky and catchy little pearl like Daylight but decides to send something as forgettable as Musiqq to Düsseldorf.

So Latvia, you are on your own tonight. Select wisely. I'd love for you to surprise me in a positive direction but I won't believe it until I see it.

D-Family - Daylight (Latvia NF 2011)

Tobson review: Hungary could be a winner

You often hear talk about how difficult it is for various broadcasters to find good and established acts that are willing to take part in Eurovision. Not to mention how beyond impossible it always is to stage a credible national final that includes bigger names.

Then at times there comes a massive success story that completely contradicts all this. The way the BBC managed to breathe life into their national final in the 90's (before losing their way completely). The complete makeover of Melodifestivalen in 2002. The German national finals of 2013 and 2014.

Hungary's A Dal is another one of these incredible successes. Hungary had made a comeback after two years of absence and in most aspects except the final result, it had turned out very well. In 2012, they launched their new national final format and the audiences at home surrendered completely to it.

Now in its third run, A Dal has attracted many interesting names from across the Hungarian music spectre and - not least importantly - it has resulted in a most impressive line-up for the final.

Eight songs, all of which range from good to very good. Every single one of them would be a good eurovision entry. At least five of them would stand a good chance at making top ten or better.

As I haven't been able to sniff up a running order for the final, I have instead ranked the songs in the order I would personally place them tonight.

8. Bogi - We All
In most other national finals, Bogi would have been a real contender with this simple and straightforward pop ditty. There is something about it that becomes a little bit annoying a little bit too soon and facing this kind of competition it should be hard for it to go anywhere tonight.
Grade: 2/5

7. Dénes Pál - Brave New World
A pleasant and well-produced - if possibly slightly generic - light dance track that should be most appreciated by the local radio stations but that lacks a little bit of bite to stand out.
Grade: 3/5

6. New Level Empire - The Last One
A soft rock song that glides into a more electronic landscape makes this an original and enjoyable slice of contemporary music that would benefit from a bit of a climax somewhere.
Grade: 3/5

5. HoneyBeast - A legnagyobb hős
A nicely climaxing song wrapped in a soft folk-pop packaging that for some reason reminds me a bit of NOX (Hungary 2005), and the beautiful Hungarian language compliments the music very well.
Grade: 3/5

4. Depresszió - Czak a zene  
Still quite a far cry from being heavy metal, this is the kind of rock I would like to see more of at Eurovision. Catchy and fun, easy to grasp but still not making musical compromises in order to appeal to a large audience. The best rock song in any national final so far this year.
Grade: 3/5

3. Kállay-Saunders - Running
This seems to be the most likely winner tonight and I wouldn't mind. There is something about the verses and the lyrics - no matter how well intended they are - that doesn't quite hit home, but the chorus sounds like it could be a hit single anywhere.
Grade: 4/5

2. Fool Moon - It Can't Be Over
Not convinced this would be the safest choice if Hungary wants a top placing but I just love this seriously catchy number. So far, a cappella in Eurovision has been really jaunty (Latvia 2006) or unbearably smug (Belgium 2011) and it would be interesting to see how a genuinely good song like this would hit home in Copenhagen. And I have had a soft spot for Gergő Rácz ever since Dublin 1997.
Grade: 4/5

1. Viktor Király - Running Out Of Time
A while ago, I added Olly Murs to my eternal wish list of singers I would like to see at ESC and I don't think we would closer than this in 2014. An irresistibly infectious pop chorus with a flirtatious and fun performer could never be a bad choice. Even if I am not a huge fan of the compulsory rap part, I feel this could be a potential winner come Copenhagen.
Grade: 4/5

Tobson predicts: It seems very likely Kállay-Saunders will be tonight's winner. He has a great chorus and being last year's runner-up might give the voting audiences the feeling it is his turn. Not a bad choice, but I like Viktor Király better and think he would score higher.

Regardless, this could be a grand year for Hungary and with a bit of luck Friderika Bayer could be thrown off throne as the best placed Hungarian entry ever.

Kállay-Saunders - Running (Hungary NF 2014)

Fool Moon - It Can't Be Over (Hungary NF 2014)

Viktor Király - Running Out Of Time (Hungary NF 2014)

Friday, February 21, 2014

Tobson review: Estonia, semi 2

There is no point beating around the bush: my predictions for the first Estonian semi a week ago were a complete fiasco. Not only did Estonia surprise me by voting the perhaps weakest song of the lineup into the final, but also by dropping my second favourite of the semi altogether.

I don't know if it is me or them, I was also silly by not predicting Kõrsikud despite being convinced they would be among the final five.

Anyhow - that was then and this is now. This week we have ten new songs, fighting it out for the five final spots in the final. And I have just a little a clue about what the Estonians will like and vote for as ever. So this could be an exciting night in many ways.

(And what about the interval act? Will we have the same abundance of happy but slightly scary and disturbing clowns singing happy buy disturbing versions of recent Eesti laul entries?)

1. Norman Salumäe - Search
The lead singer of August Hunt - wrongfully rejected by experts and televoters alike last week - also has a solo song in the running. More subdued and less energetic, and perhaps not special enough to stand out.
Grade: 2/5

2. Lauri Pihlap - Lootus
A pleasant slice of Estonian r'n'b by a singer who is no stranger to the eurovision stage, having provided backing vocals for Tanel & Dave in 2001 as well as for Birgit last year. A good song, but it would have needed some kind of drama or climax at some point to be more memorable.
Grade: 2/5

3. Nion - Muud pole vaja
This is precisely the kind of song I want in any national final: an energetic pop song with an electric touch in the arrangement. At the same time it is the kind of song that needs a very strong live performance and given last week - where several of my favourites underperformed - I dare not hope Nion will deliver. But I really wish they will prove me wrong.
Grade: 3/5

4. Maltised - Elu
Gentle, folksy, catchy and enjoyable. It would be a genuine shock if this one didn't make the final cut tonight, and in the final it will certainly eat a lot of the points Kõrsikud would have had otherwise.
Grade: 3/5

5. Sofia Rubina - City Lights
Excellent vocals in a dance track that is perfectly fine but completely lacks any kind of hook or element to make it memorable.
Grade: 2/5

6. MiaMee - Fearful Heart
Another very quiet little song - impeccably sung but a tad too undynamic. This could be the one to put the expert jury in a spin, but it sounds more like an exquisite album track than a single.
Grade: 2/5

7. Traffic - Für Elise
An Estonian equivalent to Train offering an upbeat and original number with a certain country flavour must be in with a chance in the end. Must be a sure qualifier tonight.
Grade: 4/5

8. Maiken - Siin või sealpool maad
Maiken was a backing singer for Ines in 2000 and is back after a few quiet years, possibly singing better than ever. This ballad gives her vocal chords something to work with but is still pretty uncatchy.
Grade: 2/5

9. Sandra Nurmsalu - Kui tuuled pöörduvad
I must admit to never finding "Rändajad" as special or captivating as many other seem to do, but Sandra is an outstanding performer with a presence and radiation few can match. She will probably breathe a lot of life also into this song that possibly promises a bit more than it can finally keep.
Grade: 3/5

10. Brigita Murutar - Laule täis taevakaar
Finally - a surprise. Sounds like an old-fashioned German schlager covered by a country band. The outcome is catchy but odd and could puzzle quite a few people in the audience. Hit or miss, but I think this one will make it into the final. Perhaps not by a big margin, but still.
Grade: 2/5

Tobson predicts: Sandra, Traffic, Maltised, Maiken, Brigita.

I'm sure about the first three, then I am merely guessing. I would gladly see Nion in the final instead of Brigita, and perhaps the jury would prefer MiaMee. And I would never completely discard the chances of Lauri Pihlap either.

Anything could happen. And there could be more clowns.

You can hear the songs on the Eesti laul webpage.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Spain: a strong line-up

On Saturday, Spain will select their entry for Copenhagen in a televised final consisting of five songs, judged by a panel of experts as well as the televoting audiences.

Spain has been a bit erratic - to put things mildly - for the last ten years at Eurovision. The success of using talent show Operación Triunfo as a vehicle to select for the ESC seemingly left RTVE clueless and only one Spanish entry has made top ten since.

Selecting Pastora Soler internally in 2012 and then let the audience decide what song she should sing in Baku turned out to be a good idea but last year the same formula failed big time for ESDM who ended in the very last place in Malmö with "Contigo hasta el final".

In a surprising move - Spanish tv was always full of surprises, but still - it was decided to put on a real national final with several performers and the names in the final line-up are not all bad.

The songs are not bad either. A lot will depend on the live performances and I get the feeling that the Spaniards will select a style rather than a song in the end. All songs are stronger than your average Spanish entry lately but none of them really stands out.

Another big ballad - a not too distant relative to Pastora's "Quédate conmigo", written by the same team - with plenty of room for a big voice. Competent but perhaps a little too expected and a little bit too heard before, especially as a similar formula failed for Georgia last year.
Grade: 3/5

2. LA DAMA - Estrella fugaz
A lightweight but enjoyable attempt in the dance genre with more than a nod at "Euphoria", at least production-wise.
Grade: 3/5 

3. RUTH LORENZO - Dancing In The Rain
The one the eurofans talk about the most, due to Ruth voicing her desire to represent Spain at Eurovision many months ago. The song is an elegant ballad effort, and perhaps the most original song in the line-up albeit not as instant as I would have expected.
Grade: 3/5

4. JORGE GONZÁLEZ - Aunque se acabe el mundo
A more uptempo pop number with a light almost schlager-esque feel to it. Pleasant and inoffensive but perhaps the song that leaves the least of an impression of the lot.
Grade: 2/5

5. RAÚL - Seguir sin ti
The traditional latin male belter of a song would be a safe but predictable choice and would probably run the risk of not being distinct enough to convince a european audience come May. The boy can sing but we all heard this tune before.
Grade: 2/5

Tobson predicts: It seems to be open goal for one of the ladies and even if La Dama was the one that kept ringing in my head after one listening, I think Ruth Lorenzo would be the best choice. Brequette has a good voice but an overly tried formula while La Dama rings too many Euphoria bells for comfort.

Tobson adds: My grades may seem low but either one of the girls could easily improve by giving a strong live performance.

Tobson wonders: Who on earth sequenced this running order? I see they tried to do a ballad-tempo-ballad-tempo-ballad line-up, but why do all the girls sing first and then both boys? I hope this is not what the running order for the big ESC final will be like the day Spain gets to host.

You can listen to the final versions of the songs at the RTVE website.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Ace Wilder shook up Melodifestivalen

Yesterday, I predicted that Ace Wilder and EKO would be bottom two in Melodifestivalen while adding that I'd love to be wrong this time. I got EKO right but boy was I wrong about Ace Wilder.

By some sort of cosmic disorder, Ace Wilder not only made the final five but also stormed head first right into the big final in Solna. This really shuffled the cards, folks.

This just isn't the kind of entry that is supposed to work in Sweden. Ace is a girl with an attitude, who doesn't smile sweetly into the camera. In modern Sweden where gender equality is a big issue, girls with attitude always fail in Melodifestivalen.

Then she comes - a Swedish Julia Savicheva with an updated version of Shir habatlanim and just beats the rest.

That odd and weird chorus is most efficient and eats your way into your conscience, and the mere fact that it made it to the final opens up endless possibilities.

If Ace Wilder would go to Copenhagen, it would be a real statement and a new departure for Sweden trying something they never tried before. How refreshing wouldn't that be?

You go, girl.

Pollapönk for Iceland

Iceland has selected their entry for Copenhagen and pretty much as I predicted the other day, the Icelandic audience went for humour band Pollapönk and their humorous attempt "Enga fordóma".

This song will surely have their fans and it is not bad musically speaking, but I am getting a bit fed up with these very polite and kind-hearted humour entries at Eurovision. I never thought I would miss LT United, but satire is better when it has some bite and some edge.

Pollapönk - Enga fordóma (Iceland 2014)

Well, Iceland sends in what Iceland finds the best. If they are happy, I am happy. But everytime I hear their winning song, this other old song starts playing at the back of my head.

J. Geils Band - Centerfold

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Melodifestivalen: better than bad

Every Wednesday during Melodifestivalen's tour, the press gets a first hearing of the eight songs in the upcoming semi. It's always interesting reading other people's first impressions while waiting for a chance to make up your own mind.

This week, that first reaction didn't contain many traces of happiness. Most people seemed to fully agree that this semi was weaker than weak and outright bad.

Perhaps it's a good thing to lower your own expectations before listening. Last week for instance, I had to hear Sanna's ballad in full to be anywhere near as impressed as all the enthusiastic reviewers on location in Linköping. When I took on the one minute clips on the SVT website I expected the worst but was pleasantly surprised.

It didn't sound awful at all. Better than bad, in any case.

Copyright: SVT, screenshot from svt.se

The third week of Melodifestivalen is often the weaker one. Or at least an opportunity for SVT to dish out some more experimental entries - the audience is hopefully already there and will stay put even if the quality goes down a tiny bit.

I find myself liking some of the more unusual-sounding snippets. I think EKO and Ace Wilder could be good in full versions, and Shirley Clamp's song sounded way more interesting than I thought it would. Too bad that those three are very likely to be the first three to be voted off the show tonight.

Oscar Zia is a packet full of sunshine and Outtrigger will feed the masses hungry for rock, but who will be the one to miss out from Andra Chansen?

Tobson predicts: Oscar and Outtrigger to the final, CajsaStina and State of Drama to Andra Chansen. Dr Alban will be entertaining enough to make it into the top five, but then his comeback probably comes to the halt it seemingly deserves.

I wouldn't mind if I was as wrong as I was with Estonia last night, actually. I would gladly drop State of Drama and Alban and have EKO and Ace Wilder in top five instead. Bring it in, Sweden. Do your worst!

Estonia: Lenna's time to shine?

Ever since being the lead singer of Vanilla Ninja (and representing Switzerland at the 2005 ESC in Kyiv), Lenna Kuurmaa has been one of Estonia's top stars. After going solo, her notoriety has only grown and grown, also in other areas beyond singing.

But she can't keep her paws off Eurovision anyhow. Perhaps Eesti Laul is just the perfect showcase to launch new hit singles, perhaps the girl would just love to get back onto the ESC stage. This year she makes her third solo showing and hopes to better her two second places to date.

Lenna - Rapunzel (Estonia NF 2010)

Her second place in 2010 was a real shocker. She was the big pre-contest favourite, being a sky-high leader in all the polls. She was the one to beat and then suddenly, in the super final, the Estonian public went more unpredictable than ever and opted for sending Malcolm Lincoln to Oslo instead.

In 2012, it was more of a two horse race with Ott Lepland winning in the end. Not a very hard defeat, probably, as Lenna has later said "Kuula" is one of her favourite songs ever.

Lenna - Mina jään (Estonia NF 2012)

I can shake the feeling that Lenna could find herself in second place again this year, this time after Sandra Nurmsalu. Perhaps her song this year is too much of a grower to be a perfect choice for a contest where you need to be reasonably instant. But if Lenna was to go to ESC as a solo singer, it would be all worth it.

Lenna - Supernoova (Estonia NF 2014)

Where is August Hunt?

Estonian semi finals are notoriously difficult to predict and yesterday, I felt sure of only two things: Lenna would make it with ease and so would August Hunt. Little did I know.

After seeing the live performances, I was pretty sure Vöörad would be the one to be left out in favour of Kõrsikud - I know a chaotic mess when I see one and it never looks pretty on television - but Wilhelm qualifying and not August Hunt? My jaw has been hanging between my knees ever since.

I thought they put on such a lively performance of an attractive song, but again - you never know what the Estonians are about to do with their televotes.

August Hunt - Kus on exit? (Estonia NF 2014)

I just hope they will be back with a bang - perhaps already next year? Nothing fills my heart with joy and song quite like the sight of Estonians dancing.

August Hunt - Tantsulõvi (Estonia NF 2014)

Despite being heartbreakingly inaccurate in my predictions last night - I only got two out of five right - I will be back at it next week for the second and last Eesti Laul semi final. Let's hope my favourites fare better then...

Friday, February 14, 2014

Tobson review: Estonia, semi 1

In two semi finals, Estonia will reduce their twenty candidates to ten finalists and the first bunch will do their best to impress the televoters and expert judges tonight.

Ever since the Eesti Laul concept was launched five years ago, the main point of this contest has been to showcase different styles of music and genres rather than to find any typical eurovision entries. You can safely say that the aim has been successful this year.

It has really worked out well internationally as well. All Eesti Laul winners but one have made it to the ESC final, two of them ending in more than honourable sixth places.

As for these songs, I have only heard them and not seen any performances beforehand, so there could be a few surprises coming up tonight.

01. Tanja - Amazing
It is pretty inevitable that a powerful winner will influence entries for years to come. After Abba's victory there were loads of groups consisting of two boys and two girls at the ESC, now there are plenty of songs that wish they were Euphoria. Once you disregard the obvious source of inspiration, this proves to be a catchy number with good vocals. A good opener.
Grade: 3/5

02. The Titles - Flame
This is a nicely produced song that will probably suit many radio stations perfectly. Modern and pleasant but too lacking in dynamics to make an impact in this kind of contest.
Grade: 2/5

03. Wilhelm - Resignal
If you ignore that the lyrics are nothing but a bunch of random words seemingly thrown together without any deeper thought, this is an interesting piece of music that builds up nicely. Personable but probably too demanding.
Grade: 2/5

04. State of Zoe - Solina
Another modern effort, aimed at the dancefloor rather than the radio airplay charts. Heavier, rougher, sharper edges. Good but not charming enough to win through.
Grade: 2/5

05. NimmerSchmidt - Sandra
An intriguing mix of laidback vocals, 80's synthesizer sounds and an amusing saxophone thrown into the mix. Simple but effective pop, easily retainable with a good hook.
Grade: 3/5

06. VÖÖRAD - Maailm on hull
Ridiculously catchy party rap in Estonian over a dance-friendly backing track, completed with a singalong chorus by a female vocalist. Their press pictures suggest this could visually be silly in a good way, and this is probably the dance song to blow the other similar tracks away tonight.
Grade: 3/5

07. Super Hot Cosmos Blues Band - Maybe-Maybe
Another new genre, more country-flavoured than any of the other songs. Another pleasant, radio-friendly effort and yet another good voice. Catchy but ultimately too simple to stay interesting for three minutes.
Grade: 2/5

08. August Hunt - Kus on EXIT?
I was smitten by August Hunt when they took part in Eesti Laul in 2012 and am very happy to see them back. This is another energetic and infectious little number, very true to their own style, and I find myself smitten again.
Grade: 3/5

09. Kõrsikud - Tule ja jää
Also Kõrsikud stay true to style and offer a melodic little song, delivered with very smooth voices. I would have hoped for more of a hook somewhere, but these is an enjoyable entry all the same.
Grade: 3/5

10. Lenna - Supernoova
The former Vanilla Ninja vocalist tried her luck as a soloist for the third time after being runner-up twice. The big question is if this is her time lucky with an elegant and sophisticated soft rock track, reminiscent of some of Ines's best tracks. Tonight's winner.
Grade: 4/5

Tobson predicts: I would perhaps not call this a prediction as Estonians are known for working in mysterious ways and being full of surprises. But the five songs - based on audio versions only - I would select for the final are Tanja, NimmerSchmidt, VÖÖRAD, August Hunt and Lenna.

Chances are that Tanja or VÖÖRAD will be left out in favour of the Kõrsikud. I can live with it. But Lenna must be in, or something is seriously wrong with this contest.

The songs can be heard at the Eesti Laul website, and the show begins at 20:45 CET.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Iceland on the safe side

This Saturday, Iceland will pick the entry that will represent them at Copenhagen and it seems very likely that I will have the same opinion about their song this time around as I had every single year lately.

It will be nice. It will be pleasant. It will be safe.

Which is a sad thing when Iceland is capable of so much good when they are up to a bit of mischief. When they are pushing the limits like Paul Oscar, when they are modern and fabulous like Selma or when they are plain chaotic and leave half the continent upset like Silvia Night.

Maybe it would be time for RÚV to consider an internal selection again? Just once or twice, in order to heat things up a couple of degrees again?

1. F.U.N.K - Þangað til ég dey
It seems Daft Punk's latest - and brilliant - album made a bit of an impact in Iceland, as this song could be a distant Scandinavian cousin to Lose Yourself To Dance. The lads are likeable and the song is catchy enough, but would need more bite and attitude to be a real contender internationally.
Grade: 3/5

2. Ásdís María Viðarsdóttir - Amor
A quirky song with an ambitious arrangement and a personable performer and yet it isn't enough to keep this entry interesting for a full three minutes.
Grade: 2/5

3. Sigríður Eyrún Friðriksdóttir - Lífið kviknar á ný
A lively and ambitious performer and a catchy song with a clever idea, and yet it falls into the same trap as song number 2 - after a strong first minute, my interest declines and I find myself thinking of something else.
Grade: 2/5

4. Gissur Páll Gissurarson - Von
A tenor with a rather lovely but violently unfashionable schlager ballad of a kind you could hear in Eurovision already in the 1960's. Like a tribute to Kenneth McKellar. I have a soft spot for this well-sung little ditty, but is there any point to send it off to Copenhagen?
Grade: 3/5

5. Greta Mjöll Samúelsdóttir - Eftir eitt lag
Another jaunty and quirky little effort by a likeable female performer, but the song in itself should be far too thin to stand a chance.
Grade: 2/5

6. Pollapönk - Enga fordóma
To complete the line-up: a bit of humour. Luckily most of the humour lies in the lyrics and not so much in the performance, and this is pretty catchy in its own little way. Not my dream choice, but wouldn't be a disaster either.
Grade: 2/5

Tobson predicts: You never know anything when Iceland is let loose to select a song, but I would think they are opting for Pollapönk since they stand out a bit from the rest. But so does the tenor, and Gissur could be a surprise winner too.

My choice for Copenhagen would be F.U.N.K as the boys are fun and energetic and you probably could inject quite a lot of life into their little song in good time before the ESC.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Goodbye, Alice Babs

Alice Babs - Sweden's first Eurovision entrant - has left us, aged 90. Being the first representative is a nice title, but if that would be all she is remembered for it would reduce her to far less than she was. Her being part of Eurovision history is more a co-incidence than anything else.

Hildur Alice Nilson was only fifteen years old when she made her first recording. She sang and starred in a number of films promoting jazz music to the local youth, and sweet little Alice was seen by many to be a tool of Satan, sent to seduce young people with this sinful new music.

Things were soon to change. Thanks to her being part of the Swe-Danes and performing on US television with them, Alice Babs came into demand also outside of Sweden and was heavily marketed towards an international audience.

Copyright: Decca / Image from discogs.com

She also sang sacral music with big success and managed to combine that with her love for jazz music when her biggest idol Duke Ellington wrote two of his Sacred Concers especially for her. He later said that when Alice wasn't available to sing, he needed to hire three different singers to fill her range.

Copyright: Telstar / Image from discogs.com

Another famous story about Alice is that she was so pitch perfect that the musicians used to tune their instruments after her. She was an extraordinary musician and very much loved by her audiences in Sweden and beyond.

She was already drifting away from light entertainment music when she was called in to sing Sweden's first entry for Eurovision, but she was a logical choice for a debuting broadcaster, eager to make a good impression in an international song contest.

However, the chosen song had to be slightly modified in order to avoid accusations of plagiarism and Alice refused to sing the original lyrics and demanded new ones. When the composer prohibited the song from being recorded with other lyrics than the one he wrote, Alice decided not to record it at all. "Lilla stjärna" is one of only two Swedish entries never to be recorded by its original performer, and is nothing more than a footnote or a curiosity in her impressive career.

In Hilversum, Alice ended in a honourable fourth place. Due to an error on the scoreboard, failing to register four points for the Italian entry, many Swedish media sources claimed for many years that Alice had ended in third place, beating "Volare" by a margin of one point.

Alice Babs - Lilla stjärna (Sweden 1958)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Belgium: is it Petra's turn?

Sanna Nielsen has tried and tried and maybe this is her time lucky in Sweden. In Belgium, there is a candidate who has tried fewer times but for a longer period of time.

Petra gave it her all and was often best in show. But did Flanders vote for her? Nope.

Petra - Ga door (Belgium NF 1993)

A nifty choreography and ice-cream hairdos? Nah, Belgium preferred to send off a quiet little ballad that not only ended last in Millstreet but also will remain associated with a dubious sense of fashion forever.

Petra - Diep in mijn huid (Belgium NF 1999)

So Petra went all sophisticated and offered a smooth and catchy little pop song with a tasteful change of language in the end. Belgium turned a blind eye to the whole package and sent off a stylish but unspectacular little lullaby instead.

La Sakhra - Wonderland (Belgium NF 2006)

I'm not even going to pay attention to Petra's attempt to bring some life to an outright hopeless entry in the 2000 Walloon final by choreographing and providing backing vocals to a song that obviously would not make many people happy. Six years later, she reinvented herself as La Sakhra and came really close to winning the whole thing. Unfortunately a certain Kate Ryan would stand in her way and go to Athens to defend the Belgian banner (with moderate success).

I was very happy to see Petra back in business this year. In the audition shows where hopeful singers performed old eurovision entries in order to secure a spot in the final, Petra blew the judges away and won her heat.

We haven't heard her song yet, but wouldn't it be nice to finally see this talented woman in a Eurovision final? Her own version of All Kinds Of Everything - suitably dealing with the ordeal of entering over and over without winning - is certainly worthy of a gold star in the margin.

Petra - All Kinds Of Everything

Malta is coming home

I will be honest with you. I haven't seen a Maltese national final for years. I understand that they want to make the biggest showcase possible for local talent, but quantity always seems to overcome quality.

I am convinced the Maltese final would be better if they just selected ten songs but tried their best to find ten really strong ones, instead of filling up the program with too many safe MoR-songs.

So I didn't watch last night when my twitter feed suddenly exploded with (mainly negative) comments about the unexpected winner and what a shame it was that Malta would miss the final in Copenhagen.

Listened to the winner's reprise and thought it sounded a bit messy. Listened again today and was quite positively surprised. I don't know why, but if Australia ever entered Eurovision I wouldn't be surprised if their entry sounded a bit like this.

Organic and lively - perhaps the backing vocals are still a bit messy in parts, but that is fixable - the Maltese entry is likely to stand out from the crowd in Copenhagen. There is personality and hooks and plenty of time to do some serious nip and tuck before the final version should be presented.

I have said it before and it needs to be said again: given the size of Malta, it is impressive how strong and interesting contenders they manage to find in the end. Perhaps Firelight don't have the word winner written on their foreheads but I look forward to seeing how far this will carry come May.

Firelight - Coming Home (Malta 2014)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Sanna is turning into Céline

Alright alright, I couldn't help myself. I had to listen also to the 2'30 clip of Sanna Nielsen's Undo. I just had to hear if it built up so nicely that everyone keeps saying it does.

And yes, it is a good song. I understand it better now. It is still not the knockout I had hoped for, but maybe that last level of fabulous will be added in the live performance.

More than anything, it tells me that this could be the perfect moment for Sanna to reinvent herself as the Céline Dion of Sweden. The verse of Undo echoes of It's All Coming Back To Me Now and the chorus feels like a relative of Loved Me Back To Life.

Old and new Céline rolled into one, performed by lovely likeable Sanna. What could go wrong tonight?

Céline Dion - It's All Coming Back To Me Now

Céline Dion - Loved Me Back To Life

Melodifestivalen gem: Idag är det vår

I don't know about you but many of my personal favourites are songs that clearly should not have won. They are not distinct enough or they are simply not the kind of entry that would attract any substantial amount of points from anywhere.

This very entry is the complete definition of what I mean.

Pastellerna were a local dance orchestra that had scored a number of hits on the Svensktoppen chart and who were pretty much in demand in their own genre. Dance orchestras have always been a popular part of Swedish popular culture, but they peaked in the 70's when even pretty mediocre bands could sell quite a lot of records.

Pastellerna were not mediocre, they were talented and likeable and explained in their own sleeve notes that they didn't consider themselves a typical "dansband" at all. Given the reluctance Swedish television had against this kind of music, it was a small miracle they were selected at all to compete at Melodifestivalen 1978.

They bravely entered the stage as the first of ten candidates, dressed in what could kindly be described as a minor styling disaster, and sang their little song with gusto. Perhaps not all harmonies were exactly in their right places, but it was still a good opener.

Had this won, it would surely have bombed in Paris. Who would have understood this kind of entertainment outside of Scandinavia? Most provincial, not at all international. The Swedes would have been ashamed. The final 6th place seems quite generous in retrospect.

But the provincial interpretation of glamour and showmanship is just what appeals to me here. The group comes across as very sincere, the lyrics are sweet and the song is memorable in its own right.

Three of the members - Peter Wanngren, Kerstin Andeby and Bertil Engh - would team up with the outstanding lyricist Monica Forsberg and appear twice in Melodifestivalen using the group name Ritz.

They would also produce two albums with stories and songs about the Monchhichi dolls that I absolutely adored as a child.

Pastellerna - Idag är det vår (Sweden NF 1978)

Melodifestivalen: one minute is nothing

Last year, I took a really minimalist approach to Melodifestivalen for the first time in years. I didn't listen to any clips in advance and waited to hear the entries for the first time during the live show.

It was nice. It was a bit like in the old days when you waited and waited and were finally - hopefully - rewarded for your patience.

I'm keeping most of it this year. Don't expect any in-depth reviews from me, but I do allow myself to listen to the one-minute clips that appear online every Thursday.

One minute is absolutely nothing. It is impossible to say if a song is working or not after hearing these. It could be the strongest moment out of a weak entry, but a song that builds up to a grand finish will never benefit from this treatment.

This is taken by Leif R Jansson and belongs to Scanpix.

Sanna Nielsen's clip, for instance. I hear a promising melody line and a promising chorus - I know the girl can sing - but one minute is not enough to make me shiver. Martin Stenmarck sounds good and modern but also a bit confusing. Is it possible to get a handle on this song? I can't tell after this clip. It is impossible to predict at this point.

It seems to be pretty hard to predict for the people on location too. The first semi was full of surprises and the live audience survey made after the dress rehearsal was way wrong.

Maybe the Swedish audience just decided to be unpredictable this year. And if that is what we think, then a predictable result would be the biggest surprise of them all.

All theory aside: this week I expect to totally adore Sanna's entry once I hear the full version and I found myself an unexpected personal favourite in Panetoz. I hope there is enough of a song going on in their case to keep it interesting for three minutes.

Tobson predicts: Sanna and Martin to the final, Panetoz and The Refreshments to Andra Chansen. There is a lot of talk about Little Great Things, but I think they will be fifth with JEM - and yet another of those songs that the audience at home fails to connect with - missing out. Manda or Pink Pistols? Not a chance.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Spain 1985: also a big star can fall

As the rehearsals are in full swing for the second semi of Melodifestivalen 2014 in my home region of Östergötland, it seems Sanna Nielsen now fully and completely emerged as the Big Favourite, hotly tipped by most to qualify for the final, win the final and possibly even take the crown in Copenhagen.

Big words, but Sanna is well loved by the Swedes, have an actively televoting fanbase and most people present in Linköping seem convinced she just can't lose.

A little bit like Paloma San Basilio in 1985.

The Spanish diva had conquered the world of latin music through her lead role in the Spanish version of "Evita" and was given a big ballad from the plume of Juan Carlos Calderón who had been a mere heartbeat away from winning the whole contest in 1973 with "Eres tú", a song that went on to become a major hit single all over the world.

Paloma had the passion, the conviction and the perfect song. She couldn't lose.

Until she did. Something must have gotten lost on the way from Scandinavium out to the juries around Europe and once all the votes were cast, Paloma were left with 36 points and a very modest 14th place shared with Turkey.

Not saying the same will happen to Sanna - I believe in her song as well. I'm just saying you have never won until you actually won.

Paloma San Basilio - La fiesta terminó (Spain 1985)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Finland: anybody watching?

This weekend, Sweden's national final started its long run while Finland's selection ended in the big UMK final. Yle pulled out all of their know-how and some of the best tricks in their magic box and presented a really nice show.

Finnish television doesn't do a lot of entertainment and out of everything on offer, the UMK final is state of the art. It looks good and ambitious and contains some really nice interval acts and pre-filmed material. A very nice package. And yet almost nobody is watching.

While Melodifestivalen managed to score an impressive 3 364 000 viewers with a good but not outstanding first semi, only 452 000 tuned in to see Softengine win in Finland.

Copyright: Yle, photo by Tomi Mikola

UMK is a high profile project for Yle. Eurovision is much loved since forever among the Finnish audiences. 452 000 viewers is a disastrous outcome. Disastrous. How do you explain something like this?

For some reason, Yle insists on showing UMK on their second channel. Recent figures show that TV2 is a channel in free fall with generally very poor ratings. The Eurovision selection should be taken onto the first channel at once.

The current format of UMK is not attractive for the viewers. For three weeks, singers and songs are shown without any action taking place what-so-ever. Then there are a further three weeks of heats and semis where very few songs are voted off and where the same songs keep playing and playing without any major drama or excitement.

A selection process needs excitement and all these warm-up shows seem to turn the audience away instead of enthusing them. Yle needs to rethink.

Either you can do what Estonia does. Strip away everything that is surplus. Put the songs in the centre of attention and have two straight-forward semis where the number of songs is efficiently reduced in time for the final.

Or you do what Denmark did. When the semi finals are not good or interesting enough - you scrap them. Denmark went back to a one-night extravaganza and used up their entire budget on making one sensational show for the audience to love.

Given the state of things in Finland, I would suggest the latter. Get 12 songs - try to get a star or two to enter as well - and show them in a sassy, sexy, magnificent live show broadcast on TV1. The UMK final shows it can be done, so do it now.

Correction: The figure I had seen was incorrect - the real rating is 423 000 viewers.