A Swede who lives in Finland and who is lost in Euroland - the wonderful world of Eurovision
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Monday, February 29, 2016

Sweden, Finland, Norway and everyone else: weekend update

I should of course have been blogging my happy little heart out after the Finnish national final where my winner - who I frankly didn't dare fully hope for whatever I may have written beforehand - stormed to the top of the scoreboard despite only placing third in the televote.

The semi final is always a struggle for Finland. It never feels safe. It never feels like we can relax until the blue cross on a white background pops out of an envelope and we can all breathe again. Let's be honest about that.

Out of the nine songs in the running of the UMK final, I am convinced Sandhja has the best chances of making it out of the semi. If she's a borderline qualifier, so be it. Saara Aalto's song and performance were just too messy for an ESC stage and Finland has a long history of getting brutally ignored when sending in beautiful ballads à la Mikael Saari.

Maybe it would have been nicer had the televote winner won the whole thing, but then again. If we learned anything at all last year it is that the televoters are not always right.

I'm confident Sandhja will make us all proud - with a bit of coaching - and whenever I feel in doubt I imagine her backing vocalists dancing behind me, bursting into their trademark "Yeah!".

Sweden had it's final semi. Now we heard all their songs and I can not pretend not to be disappointed by the overall standard. The final will be good with very radio friendly songs, most of which are fairly similar. Not sure that it is how to compose the perfect national final.

Everyone seems to have found a new favourite in Frans - the Swedish equivalent of ByeAlex - and I'm charmed too. But more by the guy than by the song. Hopefully it will grow on me.

Tobson's current top 3 in the final:
1) Ace Wilder / Don't Worry
2) Oscar Zia / Human
3) Robin Bengtsson / Constellation Prize

Honestly - I never listened carefully to the songs in the Norwegian final. I saw the press conference and thought I'd look into it and then I never did. The only song I heard - and loved - was Laika by the Hungry Hearts.

Honestly, part 2. I never thought Laika would win. I love it and it is very dear to me. The studio version is pure gold and even the slightly clunky live version is most likeable. But I never for a second thought Norway would actually select this.

What about the winner, then? It is nice. Pleasant. Well sung. Agnete was lovely already back in the day when she won MGP junior and still have her aura in tact. I am not friends with the tempo change in the chorus as yet but maybe that will be fine too with some more listenings?

As for the other national finals I can conclude that the Swedish schlager is not dead, as many feared it to be. It just moved to Moldova. Not sure it is a winner on an international scale but it is nice enough to possibly take Moldova back to the final. The Slovenian entry is another pleasant effort that is easy to like but perhaps harder to remember.

The real exclamation mark is instead the Latvian entry. Suddenly it is emerging as an early favourite to win the whole shebang in Stockholm in May, it is also a second consecutive triumph for the majestic Aminata who got a well-deserved 6th place in Vienna. Now she is back as a most original and impressive songwriter. Latvia is bound to do well again.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

UMK 2016: a very tight race

It is easy to focus on the wrong things during a set of semi finals. This year's Finnish semis have been weird television to put it bluntly. There has been a lot of disorganised talking, a wild audience that sometimes seemed more or less out of control and - strangest of all - some fifteen minutes of analysis once the results were in and the climax had already passed.

Watching last night's UK final as well as the German equivalent on Thursday I came to realise that Finland still has surprisingly good material to work with. The final lineup is not bad and with a bit a work, several of these entries could work also in an international context.

What we lack is - unfortunately - that one song that would obviously have a chance of winning in Stockholm. Finland is also in its familiar tricky position of singing in the first half of the first semi, surrounded by countries that tend to do well every year. Tonight's task is to find the song that will get Finland out of the semi.

How to make sure that happens is the big topic of discussion. Out of the nine songs at hand at least four feel like hot favourites to win. And in a race as tight as this, there is always the risk of a split vote and a surprise winner emerging from the shadows.

01. Cristal Snow / Love Is Blind
Felt like a real contender at first but was let down by an underwhelming performance. Probably not helped by opening the show, Cristal will probably have to content himself with a more modest placing tonight.
Grade 3/5
Chances: modest

02. Stella Christine / Ain't Got Time For Boys
A laid-back song, pleasantly sung by a girl hiding behind her guitar. Not bad as such but hardly a successful way of getting out of that semi final in Stockholm.
Grade 1/5
Chances: none

03. Annica Milán & Kimmo Blom / Good Enough
A well written but very generic power ballad performed by a duet more preoccupied with looking into their stage prop mirrors the right way than singing with conviction.
Grade 2/5
Chances: modest

04. Eini / Draamaa
If Finland's own one-woman-Baccara can hit the notes a bit better and add a little bit more energy to her performance tonight, this could be the big surprise in the making. In the case that the big favourites split the votes between them and this is the song everyone can like at least a bit, then there could be plenty of draamaa before this show is over.
Grade 3/5
Chances: potential surprise winner

05. Barbe-Q-Barbies / Let Me Out
In what could hardly be described as a surprise move, Mr Lordi stated his support for this rock band to win the UMK final. They wouldn't be a bad pick either. Rock is still a beloved genre in the land of a thousand lakes and an energy pill like this could be what Finland needs.
Grade 3/5
Chances: potential winner

06. Tuuli Okkonen / Don't Wake Me Up
A pleasant ballad - a bit lacking in vocal perfection during the semi - perfectly placed to let the audience calm down a bit before bringing the three top favourites into the game.
Grade 2/5
Chances: none

07. Sandhja / Sing It Away
My personal favourite on the night - gotta love crazy backing vocalists like these - is also the biggest favourite on Spotify. It got streamed more times than any of the other entries so far. I cross my fingers that everyone else will feel as uplifted as I do by this pop gem.
Grade 4/5
Chances: likely winner

08. Saara Aalto / No Fear
This is the make or break-moment for Saara Aalto. Coming after the very relaxed and energetic Sandhja, the risk is enormous that this will feel forced, frantic and calculated. If Saara relaxes, focuses on the vocals and appears to be in control this package could turn out to be unstoppable tonight.
Grade 3/5
Chances: potential winner

09. Mikael Saari / On It Goes
I just can't decided whether this is the perfect place in the running order or the place that will ruin it all for Mikael Saari. He sings wonderfully but what will people ultimately make of the song? Is it irrelevant in a contest like this in 2016 or an oasis after all the pop entries?
Grade 3/5
Chances: likely winner

I believe Finland's best chances of making it to the final in Stockholm are Sandhja and Barbe-Q-Barbies while a more controlled Saara Aalto could be a successful gamble as well. As much as I enjoy Mikael Saari's vocals and presence, I feel the risk of him not qualifying as really big.

Since I feel this final is too close to call, I will just rank the entries after how I think they would do in Stockholm: 1. Sandhja, 2. Barbe-Q-Barbies, 3. Saara Aalto, 4. Mikael Saari, 5. Eini, 6. Cristal Snow, 7. Annica & Kimmo, 8. Tuuli, 9. Stella Christine.

For more info see the official UMK website. Tonight I will also live tweet during the final.

Sweden: Melodifestivalen, semi 4

Is what we witnessed last week really the end? The death of schlager in Melodifestivalen? After Dark ended in last place and my guess is Anna Book would have met a similar fate hadn't she been disqualified prior to the first heat as well.

But the death of schlager? I don't believe it is.

Possibly it is the death of the formulaic schlager. Magnus Carlsson made it to the final last year with a song that felt updated and fresh. Familiar but with a facelift. Recognisable but not the same old thing.

After Dark went wrong by pretending time stood still since La dolce vita came third in 2004 and unless Sweden has had a radical change of mind another schlager veteran is up for a very tough evening this week. While the brave new radio friendly world will keep on winning.

01. Eclipse / Runaways
It seems rock entries don't have the same pressure to develop as the schlager ones. This sounds like almost all rock entries in Melodifestivalen did for the last ten years. Usually it is enough for andra chansen, at least. Not exciting but competent.

02. Dolly Style / Rollercoaster
A complete mismatch of song and performer. What could have been an OK pop song is reduced to a gimmick and a joke as the singing dolls seem truly unable to carry this one at all.

03. Martin Stenmarck / Du tar mig tillbaks
Another type of song that struggled so far this year - a competent and pleasant song that is well performed but that has nothing that reaches out towards the people who vote.

04. Linda Bengtzing / Killer Girl
The mere idea of entering again with a song that sounds like most of your former entries rolled into one is such a dull and uninspired idea that I don't even know where to look. Maybe the final would need a song like this just for variety but it is not going to happen.

05. Frans / If I Were Sorry
The big surprise in the making if Frans goes through the screen like he hit home with the audience at the dress rehearsal. Another breezy radio friendly song of the kind the voters have fully embraced so far this year.

06. Panetoz / Håll om mig hårt
I can't help it but these guys always blow me away with their energy and cheerfulness. Even when their songs are a bit ridiculous I just love them. I think Sweden will do the same and shower them with points a second time around.

07. Molly Sandén / Youniverse
It's a tough job being the big pre-contest favourite. Molly's song is pleasant and pretty but perhaps too much so. If the whole thing comes across as cold and distant then everything is completely open this week.

Tobson predicts:
This feels like another fairly weak semi final. The final is looking good but I had really expected more from the semi lineup. The relative weakness opens up for surprises and very small things can change the whole landscape. But based on the very short snippets released by SVT as well as other people's opinions after the rehearsals, this is how I think things will play out.
Final: Frans and Panetoz
Andra Chansen: Molly and Eclipse
5th: Dolly Style
Out: Martin and Linda

In the afternoon longer clips of the songs will be available on the official Melodifestivalen website.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Finland & Sweden - semi 3 roundup

Finally things heated up for real at this year's melodifestival. Week three delivered no less than three songs I am likely to carry with me for quite some time and another two that are clearly good enough.

Oscar Zia has grown a few sizes as a performer and really had something to say. His performance was the delight of the week and it was a relief when he made it straight to the final. As for Lisa Ajax, her song shrunk a bit instead when I heard it in full. The pretty repetitive chorus reminded me of Eko's "Red" - one of the most underrated entries of recent years - but this one never really took off. No idea what Sweden saw in it.

It was also sad to see Swingfly and - especially - After Dark fail. Sweden's most popular drag act almost won the whole thing twelve years ago but now it seems nothing in the concept is tickling the senses of the audiences anymore. It seems that the traditional train finally left the station and left the old schlager standing on the platform.

Maybe Anna Book should be grateful for getting disqualified instead of having a bad result? And is there reason for Linda Bengtzing to worry?

Tobson's current top 3 in the final:
1) Oscar Zia / Human
2) Ace Wilder / Don't Worry
3) Robin Bengtsson / Constellation Prize

As if by magic, things also got a lot more interesting in the last of three semi finals in Finland as two of the entries managed to push all kinds of buttons and build up enough attitude to come across as credible candidates for victory.

Finland is a country with a soft spot for rock music and Barbe-Q-Barbies provided a refreshingly energetic and slightly aggressive performance, adding that final edge their entry lacked in its studio version.

The real exclamation mark for me was Sandhja and her crazy backing group who managed to propel a good song into something almost ecstatic. The part that comes after the chorus - where the backing vocalists go bananas - is one of those rare moments I miss so often in Finnish entries. The part where you add that little extra bit that makes all the difference.

Sandhja's performance made me so happy I am ready to overlook that the rejected songs were disappointing and the third qualifier was nice but average.

Tobson's current top 3 in the final:
1) Sandhja / Sing It Away
2) Mikael Saari / On It Goes
3) Barbe-Q-Barbies / Let Me Out

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Finland: UMK, semi 3

Normally I would never complain about anyone having ambitions and setting high goals for themselves. Already last year UMK made the decision to make the event more televisual and interesting for the viewers, in some cases even staging live video clips rather than to offer old-school performances.

UMK and Eurovision are tv shows so I understand what they are trying to do, but while last year's edition felt surprising and successful I can't help but feel this year most of the visuals get in the way.

Performing on tv is not easy. It takes a certain kind of knowledge that few Finnish artists possess. Not because they are bad, but because the opportunities to sing on live tv in Finland are few and far between. Often when these performers are thrown into a staging full of choreography and dancers or visual elements the end result is not what anyone would hope for.

Instead of owning their performance, many of the singers seem to disappear behind all the things that are supposed to help them. Sometimes it would be better to just scale things down a bit. When the performers don't feel like an organic part of their own performance, the songs get lost too.

Having said this, I look forward to what tonight's entries - quite a good bunch - will look and sound like.

Lieminen / Pehmeiden arvoiden vaalijat
A radio friendly song with some sort of distant kinship to the likes of Pet Shop Boys. Unfortunately it also makes me think of Sébastien Tellier or even more of Aikuinen of last year's UMK: the kind of song that sounds great on the radio but that is almost impossible to sell to an audience on television.

Tuuli Okkonen / Don't Wake Me Up
A stylish and very "eurovisional" ballad that would probably be a hot favourite had this been a Swiss or Belgian national final a few years ago. A good vocal performance could elevate this one quite a bit, but in the end there is too little progression and not enough of a climax to go all the way.

Gušani Brothers / Poom Poom
The Vengaboys are alive and live in Finland? This is your typical summer hit that could play over and over at all the dance floors in the entire republic. Catchy and easily retainable but it also gets a little flat before three minutes have passed and the video clip suggests that these boys are perhaps not quite ready for the big time just yet.

Barbe-Q-Barbies / Let Me Out
The best rock entry we had in UMK for many years. Very much like "Hard Rock Hallelujah" back in the day this one has a strong pop hook that the viewers can hold on to already on a first listening. The only thing I'd wish for was even more intensity but maybe that will be added in the live performance.

Pietarin Spektaakkeli / Liian kuuma
The refreshing retro sound feels most welcome and almost had me fooled this could be a dark horse. But in the end neither the song nor the main vocalist are strong enough to make a lasting impression.

Sandhja / Sing It Away
One of my early favourites with a clear melody line and a catchy chorus that feels up to date at the same time as it looks back to dance hits of the 1970's as well as the 1990's. If this one gets a tight and focused presentation with a strong vocal delivery it should be bang in the final.

Tobson predicts:
Since I know so little of what to expect from these performances I will just predict the two songs I really hope for - Sandhja and Barbe-Q-Barbies - and then pick a guess that Gušani Brothers will be charming enough to make it to the final after all. But it could just as soon be Tuuli Okkonen too.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Sweden: Melodifestivalen, semi 3

I am going to admit something now. I wouldn't want this to be the case but it is and I am going to spell it out. So far this year, very few songs in Melodifestivalen made any sort of difference to me.

I listened and listened and the vast majority just run me by. In through one ear, out through the other. Many previous years I liked all the songs that came in the very bottom of the ranking, this year nothing really gets to me.

I do have a feeling this could be the week where it turns around a bit for me. The short snippets feel promising this time around.

01. SaRaha / Kizunguzungu
Happy and infectious and exotic in a way that never works in Melodifestivalen. Very pleasant but likely to be instantly forgotten.

02. Swingfly feat Helena Gutarra / You Carved Your Name
The chorus feels a bit weak at first but I really enjoy the sound of this. I was always a big fan of Teddybears STHLM so I expect this to fit me really well.

03. SMILO / Weight of the World
Happy and lightweight dance music that sounds like everything on the radio right now but with really dismal lyrics. Should be shark feed this week.

04. After Dark / Kom ut som en stjärna
A lovely little schlager competently performed by Sweden's top drag act. What is there not to love? Perhaps a little too traditional to really work in the competition but likely to lead a long life after the contest regardless.

05. Lisa Ajax / My Heart Wants Me Dead
The most difficult one to value after 30 seconds. It sounds very promising - and I like Lisa's way of nailing the camera - but can't decide whether the "every day"-hook is going to feel effective or repetitive in the end.

06. Boris René / Put Your Love On Me
A catchy and sexy chorus, bursting full of hooks and clever little ideas. The only problem: it feels like the cameras don't find Boris, or as if they were avoiding him. Otherwise this sounds like a breakthrough in the making.

07. Oscar Zia / Human
A floating and atmospheric song in an 1980's synth-pop-arrangement? I think I can smell a personal favourite coming up. And hopefully a sure qualifier.

Tobson predicts:
This week feels fairly easy. Which could easily mean I am totally clueless and will get nothing right. But here's the guess.
Final: Oscar Zia & Boris René
Andra Chansen: Swingfly & Lisa Ajax
5th: After Dark
Out: SaRaha & SMILO

Some things are difficult to call. If Boris gets lost with the cameras, Swingfly could easily take his place in the final. If Lisa Ajax feels monotonous instead of catchy, she could be fifth instead. As for the two songs that will be out, the question is only who'll be 6th and who'll be 7th...

From 14:00 CET you can hear longer clips at the official Melodifestivalen website.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Finland & Sweden: second semi roundup

The second week of UMK reminded all the viewers that there are good and ambitious artists in Finland who can take to the stage like it was the most natural thing in the world and perform the life out of any old song there is.

Just a shame Robin was just an interval act and not actually taking part. I kept asking myself whether he would or not. What would an established pop starlet have to gain from being in UMK?

At least not being a newcomer in front of the camera seems to help. The thing all three qualifiers had in common was that they had sung on tv before and all managed to communicate some sort of more relaxed attitude towards performing. And that possibly convinced the viewers to vote for them.

Out of the entries in the running, Mikael Saari was miles ahead of the others vocally but had I been in charge I would clean up his act. The dancing and theatrics only detract from the real thing. Give the lad a microphone stand and let him work the cameras instead.

Tobson's current top three in the final:
1) Mikael Saari / On It Goes
2) Saara Aalto / No Fear
3) Eini / Draamaa

In Sweden on the other hand everything seemed to be going just according to plan. The low energy I detected in Gina Dirawi was long gone and her co-host/guest performer Charlotte Perrelli sparkled like there was no tomorrow.

The songs were surprisingly non-sparkling but just like in Finland one stood out by a mile and Isa felt like the natural qualifier. Until she only made it to Andra Chansen beat by a really average dance track and a special effect.

Isa not making it to the final as well as Krista Siegfrids getting left in fifth place in favour of Molly PH's rather bland album track were bad surprises and left a taste of disappointment after the show.

Tobson's current top three in the final:
1) Ace Wilder / Don't Worry
2) Robin Bengtsson / Constellation Prize
3) Wiktoria / Save Me

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Sweden: Melodifestivalen, semi 2

New week, new short clips, new first impressions. Last week, my first impressions weren't exactly spot on when it came down to predicting any sort of result but that had more to do with me not believing in Sweden's ability to embrace a slick quality song. My bad.

This week I ask myself whether there is any point at all in listening to these short clips. Even after a second listening I couldn't hear anything that sounded really interesting. There was nothing that stood out in the way that I would long to hear the full three minutes of these songs.

So I listened a few more times and this is what I make of this week's line-up:

01. David Lindgren / We Are Your Tomorrow
Surprisingly similar in beat to Samir & Viktor's effort last week. I have never been a huge fan of David's entries in the past - I find him a bit too polite to make an impression - but this sounds like a decent chorus at least.

02. Viktor och Natten / 100 %
Viktor is sweet and so is the song in its own little way. This will be three pleasant minutes that not many people will remember by the end of the presentation.

03. Molly Pettersson Hammar / Hunger
Interesting how Molly can display so much personality outside of stage without bringing any of it with her into the song. It sounds slick and radio friendly but also fairly anonymous.

04. Isa / I Will Wait
All I get out of this clip is the feeling that a short snippet is nowhere near enough to do this justice. It needs its build-up, progression and the climax I am really expecting, having read everyone else's reviews.

05. Krista Siegfrids / Faller
Clearly the best energy out of all these clips which is hardly surprising given Krista's track record. Promising but doesn't this sound more like a verse than the chorus it is meant to be?

06. Patrik, Tommy & Uno / Håll mitt hjärta hårt
Three good voices but a pretty lean-sounding clip on the total. Like a Balkan ballad with no flute. And with no bite.

07. Wiktoria / Save Me
Good voice but this chorus sounds like an updated remake of any of the disco hits at any given moment of the late 1970's. Maybe it will unfold tonight but so far I had expected more.

Last week I felt far from blown away after hearing the short snippets and I feel the same way now. My problem last week was that only two of the songs really developed into personal favourites of mine (Ace & Robin). Now I hope that Isa and Krista will knock me out in the end.

Other thoughts: Will Wiktoria's high tech light show make her performance too static? Are the fans of Patrik, Tommy & Uno passionate enough to vote a lot? Will the charm of David Lindgren do the trick again? And will the average viewer even remember that Molly PH failed last year and would deserve some consolation this year?

Tobson predicts:
Final: Isa and Krista
Andra Chansen: David and Wiktoria
5th: Molly
Out: Patrik, Tommy & Uno and Viktor och Natten

After 14:00 CET the longer clips will be available at the official melodifestivalen website.

Finland: UMK, semi 2

The first week of UMK felt a bit chaotic, the second week will miss out on its star presenter who is busy cutting a career for herself in the Swedish final. So what is in store for us viewers this week?

There will be some nerve-wracking moments as we will find out if the better songs in the running will survive their live performances. Will the singers deliver vocally and will the stage presentations work in favour of the songs or against them?

Just like last week, I am unsure what the real running order will be so here are the songs presented in the same order as they come on the official UMK website.

Attention 2 / Ready For The Show
It starts out quite nicely, this little pop number. The verse sounds promising enough but then the chorus is too flat and the song lacks any kind of progress or development. Also neither the video clip nor the UMK press conference would suggest that this Finnish equivalent of Tomalchevy sisters would be ready for the big time.
Grade: 1/5

Cristal Snow / Love Is Blind
When an entry has as obvious an agenda as this one has, it really needs to be genuinely strong in order not to become tiresome preaching. This is a powerful song, slightly marred by some lines that seem to contain too many words. My big worry here is the vocal delivery - not so much Cristal's own but whether the backing singers will be powerful enough. Could easily aspire to a higher grade if everyone delivers on stage.
Grade: 3/5

Annica Milán & Kimmo Blom / Good Enough
A classic pop anthem of a kind that thrived in Melodifestivalen some ten years ago. It could be Pernilla Wahlgren and Jan Johansen performing this. It could be Crosstalk. Not my cup of tea really but good voices could lift it into the final.
Grade: 2/5

Rafaela Truda / Rise Up
Snappy production and a good voice are the good signs here. There is a chorus that is easy to retain and hold on to. The problem is that this entry and performance could rapidly find itself being all over the place. Rafaela will need a lot of authority to keep this together, if she does we could all be in for a surprise.
Grade: 3/5

Ylona / Blazing Fire
Maybe I'm just an old cynic but I have had it with young performers singing passionately about how wonderful it is to stand on stage and sing. I can hardly think of a less interesting subject for a song. Ylona does nothing wrong but it would take a close to superhuman force to set this number ablaze.
Grade: 1/5

Mikael Saari / On It Goes
Three years after his first attempt, Mikael Saari has grown from a boy into a rather adorable young man and has a magnificent voice and presence that I look very much forward to. Unfortunately his new song is trying a bit too hard and lacks some of the originality and freshness of his first entry.
Grade: 3/5

Tobson predicts:
Last week all qualifiers were female. This is the time where the boys strike back. My guess is that Mikael Saari and Cristal Snow are the obvious choices, probably joined by the Milán & Blom duet (even if I would personally would prefer Rafaela Truda).

This week's performers almost compete in different contests, though. If Attention 2 would come across as bubbly and adorable they could suddenly find themselves in the final while it's enough for Mikael Saari to slip on a single critical note to make his chances go out the window.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Austria selects for Stockholm

Tonight Austria will select their entry for Stockholm. Funnily they retain the same selection modus that gave them a big fat zero on home ground last year - the first time in the history of the contest that the host country fails to score.

But then again, everyone can have a bit of bad luck. Last year's Austrian selection was fun to follow. Interesting artists, quite good songs. It is better to evaluate the actual show rather than the ensuing ESC result.

However, few countries have had so much bad luck through Eurovision history as Austria has. When selecting internally, ORF often came up with odd choices that were not in line with what people wanted to vote for. And most of the years they organised national finals, they also failed to pick the best candidate on offer.

Conchita Wurst was the rare bulls eye that broke through to people all over the continent and spoke to large audiences everywhere. Not sure a similar pearl in the making is hiding in tonight's final - I only heard the songs very quickly some time ago so I can't say for sure - but hopefully there will be a good enough winner for Austria to get through to the final and keep the national interest that suddenly seems to be there alive.

Personally I keep my fingers crossed for the lovely Zoë who had an excellent song last year (and should have won then) and who hopefully will get her revenge this time around.

Zoë - Loin d'ici (Austria national final 2016)

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Finland & Sweden: first semi roundup

That was it - in both Finland and Sweden the eurovision season started with a bang last night, and we have our first finalists in both countries. I watched Melodifestivalen live and then UMK delayed and here are my first impressions.

UMK seems to have maintained the ambition to be a more exciting and entertaining tv show it aspired to be last year. At least at first. Unfortunately, after a promising start the show fell apart a bit. Started lacking in tempo. Started lacking in contempt. Hopefully that was just a temporary glitch.

Another thing I was missing in this first semi was the strong determined voice of a producer. Someone who can tell people in advance when their ideas won't work. Mikko Herranen's failed hoverboard stunt must be one of the most cringeworthy moments on Finnish live television ever.

But also someone that could remind inexperienced singers where the cameras are and what they are good for and why you should throw them a look every now and then.

Having said this, the right songs qualified for the final even if all of them have work to do for the final. Saara Aalto must learn how to cool down and not come across as so frantic on tv. Eini needs to hit the notes better and Stella Christine really must get rid of that guitar she's hiding behind. But all in all, a promising start.

Tobson's current top 3 in the final:
1) Saara Aalto / No fear
2) Eini / Draamaa
3) Stella Christine / Ain't Got Time For Boys

Sweden kicked off their celebration year as the modern melodifestival with semi finals on tour turns 15 this year. With Gina Dirawi, Petra Mede and loads of nostalgia, nothing could go wrong here.

Or could it? The show was slick and entertaining - you can tell Edward af Sillén is back in charge - but sometimes it felt like the energy was a bit low. Was I expecting too much or did anyone else sense the same thing?

Also, the big Anna Book disqualification thing took a lot of space in the show. A bit too much, perhaps. Anna got to sing her entry outside of competition and is doing a whole lot better in the charts than she probably would have, had she not been disqualified. Let that be enough of a reward.

The general level of songs was OK but not overwhelming. It doesn't have to be in a first semi, the audience will enjoy themselves anyway. But next week I'd long for a slightly stronger selection.

The two songs that made it straight to Globen were clearly in a league of their own. And yet I thought Robin Bengtsson's entry would be too slick and elegant for Swedish voters. I haven't forgotten the shock non-qualification of Josef Johansson's "Hela natten" two years ago and was very happy to see that the general taste of the general public has improved since.

Ace Wilder is a temple of coolness. Perhaps there isn't much of a traditional chorus in her song, but I love how she makes it work anyway.

The only thing I would have changed? Mimi to Andra Chansen instead of Samir & Viktor. But I won't let that ruin the mood.

Tobson's current top 2 in the final:
1) Ace Wilder / Don't Worry
2) Robin Bengtsson / Constellation Prize

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Spain organised a final - and I say yay

It's been almost a week since the Spanish final was held so maybe my reaction is a bit slow. But I have finally decided that the broadcast was a success and a good step to take.

I have understood that the national broadcaster RTVE is not exactly at the height of its glory right now. Seldom a ratings winner, seen by many as a mouthpiece for local politicians rather than an objective news provider, not seldom getting suspected of having some sort of agenda.

These are not my theories, these are things I picked up from here and there across the social media and other internet hangouts. But maybe they would need some quality flagship programming that could bring in viewers and help rebuild the brand.

Having a popular national final for Eurovision is not a bad weapon at all. And for a first step in that direction, the Spanish final was not bad at all. I'd just like to point out a few ways of making it even better for years to come.

Make it bigger.
In a record industry like the Spanish it couldn't be hard to find ten or twelve entries that were good enough. This way, you can have a more quick-paced show with a more intense tempo and make better use of the broadcast time.

Make it local.
There is loads of songwriting talent in Spain. You really don't need tired rewrites like "Victorious".

Make it better.
Use more time to rehearse. Help the artists out with choreographers and stylists. Try to make every entry look as good on-screen as is only possible. Performing on a top notch tv show with high ratings is something many singers will want to do.

As for the winner, I say it was the only possibility that made sense. "Say Yay!" is a happy, contemporary and catchy track, balancing on the fine line between being infectious and being terribly annoying. Which is not a bad thing if you want to have a hit single.

What it needs now is a complete makeover. It needs better backing vocalists, it needs better styling, it desperately needs a choreographer with an idea of what looks good on television. All of this without removing the strong personality of Barei.

Do this badly and we will be looking at a Spanish version of Ann Sophie. Do it well and we could be looking at a contender, possibly Spain's best chance of success since Beth.

Barei / Say Yay (Spain 2016 - studio version)

Finland: UMK, semi 1

2015 was a really good year for UMK. It really was. There was a huge boost concerning production values and content, the new presenting style and absence of more or less irrelevant "experts made for a much better tv show. The lineup was also an interesting mix of very different kinds of Finnish contemporary music.

Then there was the tiny drawback that the eventual winner represented very little of all this and ended last in its semi final in Vienna. You can't get everything right at once, I suppose.

Another problem is that very few of the songs managed to find commercial success of any kind after the contest. It would be better for a hit contest to actually produce hits, but this year's lineup seems even stronger. Maybe this is the year things turn for the better?

Like last year, it seems Yle won't reveal the running order until the broadcast starts so here are my reviews in the order the songs are presented on the official UMK website.

Saara Aalto / No Fear
Nobody wants this like Saara Aalto does. She really wants to break through and become a star and be loved by the masses. She was the runner-up to Paradise Oskar back in 2011 but this is clearly her best shot to date. Her song is bold and effective and sounds a bit as if Kate Bush had written the soundtrack to Disney's Frozen. Not the most instant song ever but most rewarding and not a bad gamble for Eurovision.
Grade: 4/5

Mikko Herranen / Evil Tone
Some sort of rock ballad. That's how I would describe it. I think. Every time I try to remember what it sounds like, it escapes me. That can never be a good sign.
Grade: 1/5

Stella Christine / Ain't Got Time For Boys
A good voice and a very pleasant style but another song that just isn't strong enough. It sounds good for as long as it goes on and then it fades, but if Stella Christine sings as well live as on the studio recording this could be a surprise in the making.
Grade: 2/5

Eini / Draamaa
Given Eini's omnipresence in Finnish showbiz since the late 1970's - where she landed a big hit with the local version of Baccara's Yes Sir, I Can Boogie - it is surprising this is only her second attempt to make it to the ESC. She found herself a more than decent contemporary pop schlager in a stylish arrangement and while the chorus could have been stronger it would be deeply unfair if she didn't make it into this week's top three.
Grade: 3/5

ClemSO / Thief
This former member of a Nigerian boy band has a very pleasant voice I'd love to hear more of. His entry is well produced but again lacking that final handle or push or surprise needed to stand out.
Grade: 2/5

Pää-Äijät / Samppanjataivas
Song-wise this one has it all: an infectious rhythm, a hit sound and a most effective hook. Personally I have had it up to here with this kind of male performer that is "weird" and "funny" and "crazy" but even I must admit this is a functioning package.
Grade: 3/5

Tobson predicts:
It is always hard predicting when the only thing you have to go on are the studio versions and video clips provided by Yle. Who will be able to pull their performance off once the cameras are on?

Having said this, I think the top trio of this semi final will be Saara Aalto, Eini and Pää-Äijät. Saara can sing, Eini is very experienced and Pää-Äijät's song sounds like a hit single.

However - if ClemSO or Stella Christine manage to burn through the screen and make their songs work, either one could potentially steal Eini's spot in the final. Which would really be a shame.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Sweden: Melodifestivalen, semi 1

A few years ago, I stopped listening to the (almost) full-length clips of the Melodifestivalen entries that appear on the SVT website and content myself with the 30-second snippets presented each Thursday.

It does make it harder to predict, but who said things should be easy in the first place?

Most of the songs this week are about to get eclipsed anyway as one of the entires got disqualified two days prior to the semi. Anna Book's "Himmel för två" had already been published online when entered for the 2014 Moldovan final and was found ineligible to compete now.

All songwriters entering Melodifestivalen must sign a contract where they guarantee that their songs comply with the rules. This team claim they had no idea the song was made official back then and maybe that is true. However, a new rule paragraph stating that no song can be entered into Melodifestivalen if it has been entered to (and rejected from) another country's final could possibly come in handy.

It was in no way a major favourite that was pulled out of the running, but its absence could very well upset the balance between the other songs. Not least since it will be performed on the show and get compared to the others, only having the audience sympathy on its side.

01. Samir & Viktor / Bada nakna
Their entry last year was no big favourite of mine and I don't think this one will be either. Of course it is instant, catchy, easy to grab on to and a hit in the making. To me it just sounds like Basshunter kept evolving in the shadows, waiting for a chance to destroy us all.

02. Pernilla Andersson / Mitt guld
Proper and clean-cut singer/songwriter-material in Swedish. Very pleasant but hardly the song that will have the audience reach for the voting app.

03. Mimi Werner / Ain't No Good
A brave attempt to bring in some country music that wouldn't sound as polished and polite as the genre usually does in MF. The intention is good but this sounded very messy in the short clip.

04. Albin & Mattias / Rik
Sounds like a song that would be a hit on Swedish radio. Unfortunately that is probably its biggest problem: it sounds more like a radio song than something that would grab the viewers during a Saturday night tv show.

05. Anna Book / Himmel för två - Disqualified
A pretty average and very old-fashioned schlager that went from underdog to many people's favourite. Will be performed during the show but not until all other songs were heard.

06. Robin Bengtsson / Constellation Prize
Another stylish, likeable and radio friendly song with a not too distant kinship with Måns Zelmerlöw's recent output. Could suffer badly from coming directly after song 04 with no bouncy schlager in between them.

07. Ace Wilder / Don't Worry
Ace is going for gold with a spectacular stage show and a song that is likely to open up more when you hear it in full. Most likely the hit of the week but it is impossible to tell from this short snippet.

I decided to believe everyone who says Ace Wilder is in a league of her own this week, not least because I adored her entry two years ago. Apart from that - and the sad fact Pernilla is likely to grab that last place - I have no idea how to guess. Nothing really punched me in the face so far, so to speak.

My guess is that the charm of Samir & Viktor will work again and that the unfortunate new running order will make it a whole lot harder for the two radio songs to make an impression.

Tobson predicts:
Final: Ace Wilder and Samir & Viktor
Andra chansen: Mimi Werner and Albin & Mattias
5th: Robin Bengtsson
Out: Pernilla Andersson

During Saturday afternoon, the longer clips will be available at the official SVT website.