THE TEL AVIV REVIEWS | Round 1 feat. Albania, Cyprus, Latvia, Montenegro + Serbia
Excuse me for cutting the ribbon on these reviews in the most predictable of ways, but I can’t believe it’s time to do this again. How can we possibly be FOUR WEEKS away from the first semi final of Eurovision 2019? Netta only won in Lisbon like, three months ago, didn’t she?
As it turns out, no, she didn’t. It was almost a YEAR ago. And with this last pre-ESC month bound to fly by faster than Salvador Sobral left the stage after handing the 2018 trophy to the singer of a song with far more fireworks than feelings, I can’t keep you in suspense any longer. It is time to take a long, hard and overly-judgemental look at all 41 (maybe 42 if I can squeeze Ukraine in somewhere) entries for Tel Aviv, in typical Jaz style. That means you’ll need energy, determination and multiple cups of coffee to get through each round of five or so songs. Are you ready for this?
Up first for critique in 2019 (after a Tribute to Ye Olde Eurovision random draw) are Albania, Cyprus, Latvia, Montenegro and Serbia. Let me know what you think of Jonida, Tamta, Carousel, D mol and Nevena’s tracks in the comments, after you’ve checked out my thoughts and scores. And remember: honesty is the best policy around here…
Let the Tel Aviv Reviews begin!
Albania’s Festivali i Këngës is THE national final of the festive season, and back in December it delivered the first Eurovision entry of 2019 direct to our doorsteps. Jonida Maliqi – with her super-cool name, razor-sharp fringe, ultra-white teeth and punch-packing vocals – is off to Tel Aviv with Ktheju Tokës, which is thankfully staying put in Albanian after Eugent Bushpepa did so well in his native tongue last year. It’s been revamped for the better and hasn’t lost its original spirit, but did I like it when it was selected and do I like it now? The answer to both of those questions is yes. This song has more mystery and intrigue than a Dan Brown novel, which is just how I like my Albanian entries. There’s often something about them that sets them apart and is just so…Albanian. Ktheju Tokës is no exception.
Everything about it is interesting: the way Jonida works her way through it with vulnerability and power; the unconventional melody of the verses; the haunting atmosphere and hypnotic beat…I mean, wow. It may not be the most radio-friendly or streamable song of the year, nor is it particularly instant and hooky – but it is original and impactful. I will say that the studio version is kind of strange (it makes Jonida sound like she’s singing slightly out of tune) whereas the live version is the one with all the impact. Here we have a singer who can belt out big notes like nobody’s business, and emotively eyeball a camera at the same time. And you just know she’s going to wear something amazing in Israel, making us forget about the possessed bride look the last Albanian female soloist went for. So for me, that’s a kickass song + a fierce vocalist + stellar styling that we’re in for from Albania.
Having said all of the above, I’m far from convinced that Jonida will sail through to the final. She’s in the second semi, which is the more competitive one – and not just because there are 18 countries competing for qualification as opposed to 17 in the first semi (thanks to Ukraine’s shenanigans). With big hitters and likely top-scorers like the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Sweden and Switzerland also in the Thursday line-up, she has an uphill battle ahead of her. With the right staging and a solid all-round performance though, the hill shouldn’t be too steep to climb (even if she’s wearing stilettos). And there’s no other song remotely like Ktheju Tokës in the entire contest, let alone in her semi – so she’s bound to stand out. I’d love to have Albania in the final again. How about you?
In a line Albania doing what Albania does best: being exotic, mystical and powerful 2018 VS 2019 2019. Us ladies have to stick together! Predicted result SF 8th-12th, GF 15th-19th My score 8 points
Following up Fuego, a Eurovision entry iconic in so many ways, was always going to be a tough task for Cyprus. With thousands of keyboard warriors/amateur music critics (including myself) waiting to drag the island if they didn’t build on their 2018 success, the pressure to do so was higher than Kaliopi’s whistle tone. I feel like they have delivered, but let’s not pretend there’s no ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality at (re)play here. Tamta’s song has been co-written by three of the minds behind Fuego, and it sounds like their brief was ‘Pen another banger with a beat drop and the exact same structure in order to catapult Cyprus into the top 10 again.’ But I’m not saying Fuego was the most original song to ever exist, and I do think Replay is different enough in the realm of pop music, where lots of stuff is similar, to make calling it Fuego 2.0 a bit unfair. I can’t blame Cyprus for finding a bomb formula and sticking to it.
Catchy from the second it starts, slickly produced and perfectly suited to Tamta, Replay ticks all the boxes on the ‘Is This A Banger?’ checklist, right down to the less-ethnic-than-Fuego-but-still-ridiculously-danceable instrumental hook. It’s one of those songs where each part is equally memorable, without a weak link like an anticlimactic chorus. Unfortunately the most memorable moment comes during the first verse, when Tamta apparently says she’s ‘shitting her body tonight’. Call me immature if you must (I am, to be fair) but it’s pretty off-putting and sounds nothing like the actual lyric – ‘them sheets need my body tonight’. I’ve been trying to roll with it and tell myself that Tamta’s so keen on the subject of the song, her bodily functions go haywire at the mere thought of him. Can’t say I’ve ever met a guy who had that effect on me, but that’s not a bad thing.
Misheard lyrics aside, Replay is as flawless as Tamta’s 37-year-old skin which is way more youthful than my 27-year-old skin. No, it isn’t as iconic as Fuego, and Tamta probably won’t hit the Eurovision heights Eleni did. But I’m still impressed. That extends to Cyprus recruiting Sacha Jean Baptiste to create their staging again, a sign that they mean business. Fingers crossed the look and feel of the performance doesn’t clash with Switzerland’s, given that She Got Me is in the same musical category and is also being staged by Baptiste. Neither song needs flashy, gimmicky staging to compensate for musical weaknesses, since there aren’t any – they just need something complementary (why am I suddenly reviewing Switzerland? Save it for later, Jaz). Unless a major screw-up happens somewhere along the way, I can’t see Cyprus finishing outside of the Tel Aviv top 10, though it’s safe to say they won’t be going one better than they did in Lisbon.
In a line Obvious joke, but here’s a song I want to replay, replay, replay, YEAH 2018 VS 2019 2018 Predicted result SF 2nd-4th, GF 5th-8th My score 10 points
Latvia has been sending epic songs to Eurovision for some time now – I’d say consistently since 2015. Yet the last few years have seen them stuck in the semis, even languishing in last place in Triana Park’s case. I’m going to get right to it and say that for me, that run of rad entries has come to a screeching halt, but I expect the DNQ trend to continue. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate That Night. In fact, it’s so innocuous and sweet, like a no-frills vanilla cookie, I don’t know how anyone could hate it…and perhaps that’s the problem. Compared to the other songs in the Latvian national final it’s a masterpiece, and I have no doubt that the country made the best choice based on what was on the buffet table. But I feel like it lacks oomph, coasting along on the same level for three minutes and making me keen for those minutes to tick away so I can listen to something more exciting.
Yes, easy-listening and subdued songs can be exciting, holding your attention and making you want more (I’m thinking of Slovenia’s Sebi specifically). This one, however, doesn’t do anything for yours truly. I don’t mind the melody or the melancholy folksy feel, and vocalist Sabīne suits that vibe for sure. It’s more the missing dynamism + the super repetitive structure of That Night that sucks the life out of me. There’s not a lot to it, and as a result nothing much to reel you in (and when I say ‘you’ I mean ‘me’, because I know there are Eurofans who adore this). I feel like this song is a less bizarre musical version of a Lars von Trier film, and if you’ve ever tried to sit through a Lars von Trier film and lost the will to live, you’ll know I’m not being complimentary.
I know I’m coming across way harsh (to quote Clueless like I do at least twice a day), but where my personal preferences are concerned, Latvia can do a lot better than this. And I honestly think Carousel will struggle to pick up votes in that crazy-competitive second semi final. There are other acoustic-y tracks in the running order, as well as other “introverted” songs that are more captivating (think Austria and Arcade). Then there are the big, bold extroverts that are sure to hoover up votes like an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner (think Sweden, Switzerland and Sergey Lazarev). If Latvia does qualify I think it will be a borderline qualification, and I can’t see them troubling the top 10 or even the left side of the scoreboard. But what do I know? I may have followed Eurovision obsessively for over a decade, but I’m still rubbish at predicting results. Riga 2020 it is!
In a line Nice and nothing more 2018 VS 2019 Definitely 2018 Predicted result SF 10th-14th, GF 17th-21st My score 5 points
There are a few countries that can (sadly) be relied upon to produce surefire non-qualifiers over successes. Montenegro is definitely one, no matter how hard I wish they’d suddenly unveil something sensational like next-door neighbour Serbia does on a regular basis. This year their story started out with a glimmer of hope, for me at least. I’m not saying D mol ever had a chance of making the final, but I did have Heaven down as my guilty pleasure of the year. And as a tribute to S Club 7 with undeniably striking staging, the song kind of worked. I actually enjoyed it. In a nostalgic way, sure, but enjoyment is enjoyment.
But then *insert dramatic Law & Order DUM DUM here* Heaven had a musical makeover that I would describe as an over-accessorisation. Now it’s so unlike the original, sickly-sweet-but-tolerable original version that I feel like I need to judge two different songs. But I will just judge the one with multiple personality disorder that’s actually going to Eurovision – and it is a mess. There’s nothing that hasn’t been thrown at it in the quest for a more competitive edge, but the OTT approach has backfired. The structure is all over the place and impossible to follow; the beat kicking in after the first chorus takes me back to Junior Eurovision circa 2005; the vocal gymnastics are misplaced and desperate; and the synthesisers/miscellaneous other noises in the mix sound like they were dropped in as frequently but randomly as possible by someone doing the Macarena blindfolded. Why, Montenegro, why?!?
To add on to my list of negatives, I can’t see a way for Heaven to be saved by staging. Replicating the NF presentation would look amateurish, especially now LEDs are back in action – and what kind of miracle-working, mind-blowing stage concept could cool down and tidy up such a hot mess anyway? I’m sorry for dragging D mol through the mud (more than I meant to) but I have to be honest. The group themselves are not the main problem, and as a sextet mostly made up of teenagers, they do impress me with their stage presence and camaraderie. They just deserve a better song, because this one will not do anything for them other than send them packing straight after the first semi final.
In a line It was never heavenly, but now it’s hellish 2018 VS 2019 2019, believe it or not Predicted result SF 15th-17th My score 5 points
She’s baaaaaaaack! Nope, that’s not the tagline of a terrifying Carrie sequel, but rather my way of saying hey to Nevena for the third time in (J)ESC history. If you’re not a Junior Eurovision fan, you might not know that she represented Serbia in 2007, finishing 3rd – years before she’d appear at Eurovision as part of Moje 3 and unfortunately fail to qualify (I could write an essay on why that was down to those ridiculous costumes, but I won’t). It seems she fares better when she strikes out on her own, and she’s done that big time in 2019. Not only is she competing in Tel Aviv as a soloist, but she also wrote the music and lyrics of Kruna on her own. What a woman! Let’s breeze past the fact that she’s also an incredible vocalist and drop-dead gorgeous before I end up with the world’s biggest inferiority complex.
Kruna is a dramatic power ballad, one that has had the power amped up even more via a revamp (Montenegro, THIS is how you give a song a good makeover). The music starts out softly and becomes more intense in sync with Nevena’s vocals, and the combo of acoustic/electric guitar work is one of my favourite things about the song. I appreciate that the big statement chorus doesn’t take too long to arrive, because it can be boring waiting for a ballad to go somewhere. And just before it does rock up (so to speak) we get those English lyrics that do double duty: they add interest without seeming like they were shoehorned in just because, and they give us non-Serbian speakers a feel for what the song is about in a very short space of time. Overall, Kruna is the musical equivalent of wearing a floral dress under a studded biker jacket. It’s feminine and classy, but it also has an edge.
Okay, okay, I’ll talk about Nevena’s talents. She’s an amazing singer, and her delivery is passionate and believable. Her ability to sing lullaby-style and the opposite without batting her lashes is impressive, and sure to elevate her jury appeal. And of course, she’s stunning and super telegenic. Is there anything wrong with this package? Well, it doesn’t have the aura of a winner, and while I feel the feelings Nevena is putting out there, others may not. Plus, even I needed a few listens to really get on board, so I can see why the song might not be instant enough to be a vote magnet. Having said that, I do think Nevena has a better shot at making the final now she’s Moje 3 Minus 2. Serbia is competing in that less scary first semi, alongside a lot of uptempo and/or divisive songs – so they’ve got a decent chance to advance as far as I see it. With atmospheric staging and a costume choice less questionable than those 2013 creations (circus hooker chic? I still can’t land on the right label for them) the gate should open wide enough to let them through.
In a line A sophisticated, pitch perfect power ballad 2018 VS 2019 2018, but it’s a close one and kind of hard to compare the two Predicted result SF 7th-13th, GF 14th-19th My score 8 points
That’s all for today, folks! And with the first five countries taken care of, here’s my first mini-ranking for the year:
- Cyprus (10)
- Serbia (8)
- Albania (8)
- Montenegro (5)
- Latvia (5)
Congratulations to Cyprus for winning me over…but how long will Tamta stay on top? Stay tuned for the rest of my reviews to find out. I’ll be including the running ranking at the end of each round so you can see who’s sitting where.
Next time I’ll be putting Australia, Georgia, Hungary, Romania and Switzerland under my (imaginary) musical microscope. But before that, leave me a comment so we can compare notes on Albania, Cyprus, Latvia, Montenegro and Serbia. Who’s your favourite of the five? Is there a winner in there or will Eurovision weekend be Eurovision-free for this bunch? Whatever’s on your mind, I want to know…especially if we happen to agree on something.
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