Recap of 2021 Semifinal Two

We have our 26 Eurovision Song Contest finalists, and it’s hard to believe that two years of preparation have come down to this already. As with Tuesday’s results, I generally can’t fault any act that was eliminated from contention last night. No one deserved to go home early, but sometimes competing in Eurovision is a losing game.

I can’t ignore how COVID-19 reared its ugly head this week. Duncan Laurence has been denied a victory lap after contracting the coronavirus. Even more devastatingly, poor Jóhann Sigurður from Gagnamagnið tested positive on Wednesday. In solidarity with their comrade, Daði and the rest of the band decided to withdraw from performing. Footage from their second rehearsal was used instead. It’s a testament to their gumption and work effort that their performance was still amazing.

Also, leave it to Gagnamagnið to figure out how to make a circular keyboard work in ways that Ovi couldn’t.

It’s always tough for me to tell what is going to resonate with juries and televoters. For example, I can’t quite grok how a strong vocal from Albania’s Anxhela Peristeri and Pedro Tatanka from Portugal’s The Black Mamba made an impression, but a strong vocal from Austria’s Vincent Bueno didn’t. If I’m being nit-picky, Vincent’s performance was a bit too stage-theatrical, but given how effective and gut-wrenching his vocal and his staging was, it seems churlish to pick nits. I thought he deserved better.

Maybe it’s as simple as going fifth in the running order and Gjon’s Tears going second to last with an even bigger, more emotional performance. I definitely got Loreen vibes from Gjon’s Tears: a powerful vocal and some dance moves that were true to the artist while still fitting the tone of the song. I still think Switzerland is in the mix for the win.

I was expecting good things from The Black Mamba, even though I wasn’t sure if a song influenced by American Southern rock ballads was going to appeal to anyone in Europe. I was really happy to see that it did.

But I have to admit I didn’t see Anxhela’s performance coming, even though I witnessed her be a complete powerhouse during Festivali i Këngës. Albania’s staging is straightforward, with good use of lighting, fog, and graphics. It all served Anxhela’s performance quite effectively, letting her be the most compelling part of the presentation.

“Growing Up Is Getting Old” didn’t have as much of an impact on me as I thought it would. Something about a singer sitting on the stage (or the prop, in this case) always seems to mute a performance, even when it’s thematically appropriate. Fortunately, Victoria getting up and singing the final lines a cappella was enough to get me all teary-eyed.

Moving on to the bangers: Was there anything more surreal than Flo Rida appearing on stage with Senhit? He’s not the first American to compete in the Song Contest and he’s not the first world famous American to perform at Eurovision. And yet his appearance in “Adrenalina” was still a sight to behold. He only arrived this week and he fit into the production perfectly. I also loved the shots of him hanging with the Sammarinese delegation throughout the rest of the evening. I think he might be hooked on this.

I was disappointed we didn’t get reaction shots of Flo Rida after Hurricane performed, though. For some reason, I’d love to get his thoughts on “Loco Loco.” Hurricane’s energy was appropriately overwhelming. They were moving constantly, dancing from one end of the giant stage to the other. They were a blast, and it wouldn’t have been a Saturday night without them.

The only artists to match Hurricane’s intensity were Blind Channel. The Finnish band could have gone overboard trying to get the room worked up. But they were able to walk the fine line of giving a concert performance and giving a Eurovision performance without looking like they were trying too hard. Painting their middle fingers red was a nice touch.

I really enjoyed Greece’s green screen-heavy staging, although I do get the criticism I’ve heard about it. The dancers don’t completely disappear properly and the visual of Stefania walking up invisible stairs to float in the middle of the skyline is a little weird. Even though working through the staging made her a bit stiff, I was still impressed with how well Stefenia commanded attention. Her place in the Final was well deserved.

Not so with Moldova. “Sugar” is a good song, so I’m not surprised Natalia Gordienko qualified. But her performance was really breathy as she pretended to be Marilyn Monroe in front of an old Microsoft Windows screensaver. While her long note to end the song was impressive, it also came out of nowhere, was a wee bit flat, and was clearly a gimmick to get attention. It was all so calculated that it lacked any personality.

Surprisingly, the other vocal that didn’t quite work for me was from Uku Suviste. He’s been so solid every time I’ve heard him sing. For some reason, his vocal was got lost in the backing tracking. I couldn’t tell if it was a sound mix issue, nerves, or both, but the performance didn’t really come together.

I had bad feelings about both Tornike Kipiani’s and Samanta Tīna’s chances of qualifying for the Final even before they took to the stage. I love how uncompromising the two are as artists and I love how their songs are unique in their own ways. But they also seemed a bit too inaccessible unless you really bought into their visions.

Visions of pure 1980s revivalism also died on Thursday night when both Fyr & Flamme and Rafał were eliminated from the competition. I had warmed to Fyr & Flamme since Dansk Melodi Grand Prix, especially after watching singer Jesper Groth on Stormester, the Danish version of Taskmaster. (Yes, I got that geeky.) I had also warmed to Rafał just by seeing his goofy charm in interviews and stray bits about his enjoyment of being in Rotterdam. The stagings for both “Øve os på hinanden” and “The Ride” were fun, if a bit hokey. I’m kind of bummed that both Denmark and Poland are out.

But I think I’ll miss Benny Cristo most of all. I love “omaga,” but I think his performance betrayed some nerves. He wasn’t able to fully display his charm and charisma, and he was out of breath at the end. Once Moldova was announced as a qualifier, I knew that his time in Rotterdam was almost up. Fortunately, I have his whole back catalog to dive back into, because he’s really good. I wish everyone voting in Eurovision had seen it too.

Albania’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

Happy New Year, Eurovision friends! I think we’re all glad to see the back end of 2020. Even though we’re not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination, things like a new national final season at least makes 2021 feel like a fresh start.

Of course, the healing process began for me in late December, when Albania held its annual Festivali i Këngës competition. Due to COVID-19-related restrictions, the show was held outside and had no audience or live orchestra. Despite that weirdness, it still felt good to have some sort of normalcy returning to life and adds a little bit of hope to the coming year.

This year’s Festivali i Këngës winner is Anxhela Peristeri, who kicked off her music career in 2001 by competing in the 40th Festivali i Këngës with “Vetëm ty të kam.” She has also participated in three editions of the Kënga Magjike competition, winning the whole shebang in 2017 with “E Çmëndur.” Both “E Çmëndur” and “Karma” were written by composer Kledi Bahiti and lyricist by Olti Curri.

“Karma” has a big dramatic opening, complete with a rocking guitar flourish. That intensity quickly dissipates, and it settles in as a pretty, but dull power ballad. The drum beats that kick in during the second verse at least add an interesting texture, although they don’t really propel the song anywhere. Anxhela is a strong vocalist and brings a goodly amount of drama as “Karma” comes to an end. That’s not enough to make it memorable to me, though.

Despite my complaints, I still feel good having our first competitive song since 2019 out there, and I am already getting excited for what’s coming next.

Albania’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

As always, the Eurovision Lemurs kicked off the holiday season with Festivali i Këngës. The 58th edition was a compelling event in part due to Albania’s continued recovery from the deadly earthquake on November 26. A touching dance routine during the Festivali final paid tribute to the earthquake’s victims.

Even if the mood in Albania is somber, the 2019 final was one of the more entertaining Festivalis we’ve watched. The 12 songs on offer were generally quite good, and guest performances by “Fuego” sensation Eleni Foureira and Italian pop star Giusy Ferreri kept the show moving.

At the end of the night, the jury (which included Sweden head of delegation and Song Contest producer Christer Björkman and Eurovision songwriting mainstay Dimitris Kontopoulos) gave Arilena Ara’s “Shaj” the win.

Arilena Ara won the second edition of Albania’s X Factor and followed up that win with the hit single “Aeroplan.” This was the start of her professional relationship with songwriter Darko Dimitrov, who has co-written a number of her other songs, including “Shaj.” Dimitrov also co-wrote last year’s actual winner of the actual jury vote, “Proud.”

Ara has already announced that she will perform the song in English at the Song Contest. So insert the usual caveats about writing up Albania’s Eurovision entries right after Festivali.

As it stands right now, “Shaj” is a gripping ballad that earned the enthusiastic crowd response that it received. It’s full of haunting melodies that Ara can sell for all they are worth and has enough theatricality that it should practically stage itself.

My only problem with the song is that I have trouble sleeping when it gets stuck in my head. It’s not an insult to describe a song that is trying to win a music competition as an earworm. But I am concerned for my own sanity if “Shaj” is echoing around my brain from now until the next Eurovision entry is unveiled.

Albania’s Eurovision 2019 Entry

Eurovision season is back! Let’s get ourselves psyched up with the first selected entry!

It’s about Albanians who were displaced during the war in Kosovo…

Okay, so let’s get ourselves contemplatively subdued with Jonida Maliqi with “Ktheju tokës.”

Jonida made her Festivali i Këngës at age 13 and has since competed nine times. She was the host of Festivali in 2010, the host of Dancing with the Stars Albania in 2014 and one of the coaches on The Voice of Albania in 2016. Her song was written by composer and violinist Eriona Rushiti.

So Albania picked its Eurovision entry on December 22 and we’re writing about it almost a month later. We haven’t been busy, we just haven’t been excited. “Ktheju tokës” combines traditional and modern music in a way that sounds a lot like other folk-influenced ballads that have competed at Eurovision. This could be the Albanian entry from 2006 for all we would know.

Both Jonida and Eriona have said they are working on a Eurovision staging, which points up the drawback to reviewing entries shortly after they are selected. There is always the chance a country’s delegation will rework their song ahead of the Song Contest. That said, our suspicion is that the version of “Ktheju tokës” that we will see in Tel Aviv won’t be that different from the version in Tirana. Given the song’s melodies and lyrical content, we can’t see Albania pulling a Toppers and turning this into a dance anthem.

We’re prepared to eat those words, of course, but for now, we’re already lining up for the next selection at the Eurovision buffet. January 26 can’t come fast enough.

Albania’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

There is always a point during the Eurovision doldrums where we wonder if we’re going to stick with this whole Song Contest blogging thing. There are days where it feels like work, especially when we have to write about songs we neither love nor hate, and the EBU has killed the Eurovision website by no longer hosting the national finals, and they’re still bloody geoblocking the performance videos on YouTube because they hate Americans and… wait, it’s time for Festivali i Këngës?

FIRE UP WORDPRESS.

Eugent Bushpepa won this year’s edition of Festivali i Këngës with his song “Mall.” He got his start as a house singer on a Top Channel talk show and won best male vocalist at Top Fest in 2008 and 2011. He performed a duet, S’jam baladë, with Rovena Dio at Festivali 47, where they finished an unremarkable 12th.

“Mall” starts off with a rousing string riff a bit like Rufus Wainwright’s “Beautiful Child” or Filter’s “Take a Picture.” Those opening moments are full of promise. Eugent sounds like Geddy Lee banging out a hair metal ballad. We mean that in a good way. His phrasing is beautiful and makes us both wish we could speak Albanian. We are happy to hear Eugent is going to keep “Mall” in Albanian, even if that does makes it look like Albania is noting that a non-English song won Eurovision last year.

Running currently at 4:30, “Mall” will need to be cut back significantly to conform to Eurovision’s 3:00 limit. Right now, you feel every second of that length. Success for Albania will be made or lost in the editing room, managing the tricky balance of setting the mood, letting Eugent’s voice soar, and getting to the damn point already.

Now, we just count down the days until the other national finals kick off. (Yes, we know Lithuania’s Eurovizijos series has started, but if the participants can’t be bothered with it, why should we?)

Albania’s Eurovision 2017 Entry

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, everyone: Eurovision is back! As usual, Albania brings us its good tidings for the season with its annual Festivali i Këngës competition. Lindita Halimi won this year’s edition with “Botë.”

Halimi was born in Kosovo and moved to the United States in 2013. She first competed at Festivali i Këngës in 2015 with “S’të fal,” finishing third. She won Albania’s Top Fest in 2009 and she also finished in the top 10 of Ethet (the Albanian version of Pop Idol) in 2007. Earlier this year, she appeared in the final season of American Idol, but did not make it to the top 24.

Her song “Botë” was written by Gerald “Big Basta” Xhari and Klodian Qafoku, both veteran songwriters who have participated in past Festivalis. Qafoku co-wrote Albania’s 2006 Eurovision Song Contest entry “Zjarr e ftohtë.”

Neither of us have been fond of the past three Albanian Eurovision entries, so we both think “Botë” is a delightful return to form. It’s as if all involved thought that “Feel the Passion” would have worked better with the arrangement for “Identitet.” “Botë” is not without its flaws: once it peaks, it gets a bit repetitive. But each additional instrumental flourish that gets thrown in propels it to a lavish finale.

The song as presented at Festivali brings a lot of grandeur, helped no doubt by the live orchestra and back-up singers. If you wanted to gather evidence that Eurovision lacks something without the live orchestra, here is your exhibit A. We’re hoping that Halimi and the Albanian delegation can replicate the drama within the constraints of the Eurovision rules.

We also hope they keep the song in Albanian. It just works.

Updated 12/26/2016: Per wiwiblogs, Halimi has tweeted that she will sing “Botë” at least partially in English. Sigh.

Eurovision 2016 Round-Up: Ides of March Edition

Beware the Ides of March, but beware the Eurovision Song Contest entries from San Marino more.

San Marino: Serhat – “I Didn’t Know”

For those of us who first came to Eurovision for the campiness, the past decade has been relatively slim pickings. Sure, you sometimes get a countertenor on a plinth or an Albanian Gumby impersonator, but most countries are increasingly taking this seriously. Fortunately, San Marino and Serhat have teamed up to offer us a slice of old school hokum that has transported us to a magical land where that strap-on monocle is an actual thing that people actually wear. We want to vacation in Manfred T. Mugler’s artistic vision. With any luck, the staging of this least self-aware miracle will live up to the amazing video. San Marino, don’t fuck this up.

UPDATED 03/21/2016: They fucked this up. Since we posted this review, San Marino decided to use the disco remix of “I Didn’t Know” as their Eurovision entry. Sadly, the original video has been scrubbed from the Eurovision YouTube playlist. Why do you got to stick it to the Manfred, San Marino?

Continue reading “Eurovision 2016 Round-Up: Ides of March Edition”

Albania’s Eurovision 2016 Entry

The state of Iowa has a law that requires its caucus to be held first during the election season. The Republican and Democratic parties traditionally penalize states that try to move their primaries or caucuses ahead of the Hawkeye State.

Now I’m not saying that Albania and the European Broadcasting Union should adopt similar laws and sanctions, but I do feel like all is right in the world when Albania is first out of the gate when the Eurovision Song Contest season begins.

So here is our first Eurovision 2016 entry. Eneda Tarifa won the 54th Festivali i Këngës with “Përrallë.”

Jen has imposed a moratorium on the phrase “so-and-so is no stranger to” on our website, so I will merely point out that Eneda has participated in two previous Festivalis (2002, where she finished 13th, and 2007, where she finished 10th). She also won the Albanian music competition show Top Fest in 2010.

“Përrallë” was written by Olsa Toqi, who is also not unfamiliar with Festivali participation: her song “S’muj” was performed by Marsela Çibukaj in last year’s contest and finished 5th.

Eneda has control and poise, which bodes well for her performance in Stockholm. Her smoky lower register – a fan of the Marlboros mayhap? – draws in the listener during the first verse, but she can also wail when needed. This isn’t an easy song to sing and she makes it look easy. Shpëtim Saraçi’s arrangement of “Përrallë” offers a fine example of what would have happened if Mr. Mister wrote a Bond theme. All in all, not a bad way to kick of the Eurovision season.

I don’t expect Albania to make too many changes before May, although they are rumored to be switching to English. If they do, they may want to avoid a literal translation: “Përrallë” translates to English as “Fairytale.” Not only does it seem a poor fit with the mood of the song, I don’t think they will want to invite any direct comparisons to a previous winner.

Albania’s Eurovision 2015 Entry, Take Two

Elhaida Dani won the 53rd annual Festivali i Këngës back in December 2014. However, the song that she performed, “Diell,” was withdrawn by one of its writers in February. The Albanian delegation enlisted Kosovo music producers Zzap & Chriss to come up with a new song for Europe. Here is “I’m Alive”:

I am happy that Albania got away from a bland, old-fashioned ballad and went for something more contemporary. “I’m Alive” starts off sounding like a lost track by Les Nubians, which I like. And it has a lot of nice orchestral touches, such as the swirling strings as the song builds and a sweet drum fill at the 2:27 mark when Elhaida starts to bring the song home.

But it has no real chorus. What passes for the chorus sounds like an extended bridge. The short, simple drum beat ratchets up the tension as Elhaida sings, “I am alive cos you are my life,” but that tension is never released. It just jumps right back to the verse without resolving in a satisfactory way.

“I’m Alive” suits Elhaida’s voice much better than “Diell” did. However, I noticed during her Festivali performance that she can get a bit shouty when going for the big notes. The final third of “I’m Alive” gives her room to belt and I worry that if she oversells it, this could get messy.

Albania’s Eurovision 2015 Entry

UPDATED 24 FEBRUARY 2015: Elhaida Dani announced that “Diell” has been withdrawn as Albania’s Eurovision entry by its songwriters, Viola Trebicka and Sokol Marsi. She didn’t give an explanation of why the song was withdrawn, but Albania has recruited Kosovo Albanian songwriters Zzap & Chriss to write a new song, “I’m Alive.” To be honest, we’re pretty happy to hear this because, as you can read below, we thought “Diell” was pretty dreadful.

Elhaida Dani won the 53rd annual Festivali i Këngës and will represent Albania at Eurovision in May with “Diell.” Short review: pageant ballad.

Longer review: “Diell” is a Celine Dion-type ballad being sung by someone who is not Celine Dion. I don’t want to judge it too harshly, since Albania often re-stages its entries between selection and presentation at the Grand Prix. But I really hope they rethink the arrangement, which just clings to “Diell” like cobwebs on Miss Havisham’s wedding cake.

Also, I’m kind of bored with the guitar solos. Four of the last five Albanian entries had guitar solos, and only “Identitet” really called for one. You got three minutes to make an impression, so don’t waste precious seconds noodling on the guitar. Unless it shoots sparks. Obviously.

I wasn’t particularly impressed with Dani’s performance at the time of Festivali i Këngës and the more I listen to it, the less impressed I am. There is a difference between singing a big note and shouting a big note, and Dani errs on the side of shouting. (Granted, she won’t have to sing over a live string section in Vienna.)

“Diell” is a safe choice for Albania. Maybe it will get them into the Final, but it’s a mid-table entry at best.