Saturday, 3 December 2016

December Reflections - Light

Well this one is easy, right? Jesus Christ, light of the world.

But not so fast though - what does it mean for a philosophical atheist? Light is just a way for energy to get around. It's just E-fields and B-fields doing what they've been doing since the era of recombination.

Light could also mean enlightenment. Where we work to examine the world, our history and our minds in order to improve the state of all humanity.

Light could mean that we examine dark corners within our psyches and try to tidy up what we find.

Light could mean the flicker of candles and a welcoming hearth.

But really, I think that for all of us earthlings, light means life.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

December Reflections - On The Table

Day 1 - On The Table

On the table and at the table are reminders of how many friendships and happy times I owe to knitting. A shawl knitted by me, designed by a friend, to be worn to a friend's wedding party, worn again at the knit group Christmas party.  The season of celebration and remembrance and hope starts here. 

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Eurovision 2016 Preview: Part 3

Finally, we reach the last part of this epic musical journey. If you are here for graphs, you're in luck. 

If you missed earlier parts, here they are. Semi Final 1 Semi Final 2

The Big 5 + Hosts Sweden

France J'ai cherché - Amir

My long-held and oft-repeated position is that there are two Frances when it comes to submitting a song for Eurovision. Fun France, which sends Moustache and Les Fatal Picards and Sebastian Tellier, is my favourite. Serious France wants to send a worthy chanson every year, and they have finally managed to come to a sort of a compromise. J'ai cherché is both breezy and fun, but also significantly less goofy and off the wall than a lot of the Fun France entries. As such, it should do really well.

Germany Ghosts - Jamie-Lee 

If you just listen to the audio on this, you’ll just be thinking “Crikey moses, there’s a significant amount of ripping off Lana del Rey’s schtick going on here”, but the totally off the wall K-pop fairytale presentation on stage made me not come to that realisation immediately. It’s Eurovision, so immediate impressions count. If everyone is gawping at Jamie-Lee’s knee socks and hair arrangement then they’ll be allowing the familiar music to wash gently over them and they’ll feel comfortable that they already sort of know how the music goes. Then they might pick up the phone. It’s quite a good choice, although obviously I’m still smarting that the German people didn’t pick Avantasia’s totally immaculate Jim Steinman pastiche.

Italy No Degree Of Separation - Francesca Michielin

This is such a lovely song, and Francesca is such a lovely, intense singer. If I were to do a league table of ballads in this year’s contest, this would be coming out near the top. As ballads go, it builds nicely and delicately but lacks the massive power of Australia, Ukraine, or even Estonia. I think it’s quite subtle. How does subtle do at Eurovision? Hmm.

Spain Say Yay - Barei

I love it. I love the original version and the reworked version. I even loved the version in the National Final when she was obviously massively over-excited and blew the vocals. For me, Barei is so charming and so charismatic that I’m even willing to forgive the little trainer dance gimmick. It’s absolutely sunshiney and joyful, and I bet that if they draw the first half for the national final they’ll get put in the uptempo show opener position like Slovenia did last year. They’re working really hard with the promo tour, but I don’t think it’s a winner. I would totally like it to win though.

Sweden If I Were Sorry - Frans

The main thing about this song is how good it is without being your average Melodifestivalen type of song. Like I was saying earlier in Part 1, it’s so resolutely untypical of the big, bright, shiny, Swedish banger that it probably does signify a bit of an upcoming change to the overall sound of the contest. I don’t actually like the song, sadly, I feel like Frans is being a bit of a turd about this breakup. Stop going on about it. Move on, lad.

UK You're Not Alone - Joe and Jake

I mean, it could be worse. They let us have a national final so that we could be deemed responsible for whatever the result was, and in much the same way as has happened around Europe, the contestant who has most recently been involved in a televised talent show won out. You’ve got to imagine that next year the national final season will have realised that there’s a fundamental imbalance in pitting brand new artists against reality TV veterans in a one-shot national final. Anyway, there’s nothing at all offensive or at all ear-catching about this song. That’s worse than Serhat, in a way.

Ok, so I made a table of what the general state of the Eurovision offering is this year. All the categories that made it to the table are measurable, objective quantities apart from the genre, which is always a bit hard to pin down.

The headlines:
  • as far as I can tell the average number of Swedish songwriters per song is 0.44. If the only Swedes in the contest were the 4 representing Sweden, that would be 0.09 per song.
  • Semi Final 1 has an average BPM of 108, Semi Final 2 has an average BPM of 98. Once you take the Big 5 + Sweden into account, the overall average BPM for the whole 43 is 103.
  • Some of the songs I've marked as ballads are faster than some of the 'mid tempo inspirationals' so it's possible that mid tempo inspirationals are sometimes just ballads that I don't like.
  • The proportion of the songs being what I'd call mid tempo inspirationals has grown from 27.5% to 35%. I don't know what this means, but I'm sure it's not good.

Breakdown of the ESC 2016 songs by performer type

Histogram showing ESC 2016 songs in 15 bpm bins. It looks like a lot of songwriters start at about 120 bpm and then it gets faster in production. 

Pie chart showing the language of the lyrics for ESC 2016 songs.

Breakdown of the genres of the ESC 2016, as assigned by the author.

And so there you have it. The Eurovision song contest looks like a woman, alone in the spotlight, supported by two to five hidden backing singers, singing a song that's a bit faster than 120 bpm with an inspirational message about love or hope. 

I hope we love whatever winner we get this year. Let's be honest, it's either going to be Russia (and we'll never hear the end of it) or Sweden (and we'll never hear then end of that either).

Eurovision 2016 Preview: Part 2

Ok, you know the drill. If you missed the Semi Final 1 review, it's here.

Semi Final 2: Thursday 12th May 

Albania Fairytale - Eneda Tarifa

I feel that this arrangement of this potentially epically dramatic song bottles it a bit. There’s a shiver of mystery about it that I’d like to hear more from. There should be more dynamic contrast in it. If you’re sending a song like this, it absolutely cannot bottle it. It should be as striking as possible. Even the tremolo Bond strings in the chorus don’t bring it back up. Ultimately, I keep forgetting about it, even though I quite like it.

Australia The Sound of Silence - Dami Im

Now here’s a song that absolutely does not bottle it. Dami is giving it her all by 20 seconds into the song and somehow manages to crank it up from there onwards. And after the massive chorus, there's some lovely drop outs back to the verse. The percussive whoops are nice, the chorus has a really nice hooky break on ‘beats’ and the echo of ‘silence’ is brilliant. The middle eight is not as strong as it could be (see O Mie for how to do a totally ridiculously brilliant middle eight) but I bloody love it. It lights up the same area of brain that Bleeding Love did and I hope that Australia pull off another good result before they head off to go and do Asiavision (or The Pan-Pacific Grand Prix as all Strictly Ballroom fans will doubtless call it)

Belarus Help You To Fly - Ivan

One of the first big disappointments of the national final season. Seriously Belarus, it’s no good. No amount of threatening to get your arse out and roll around with wolves is rescuing this.

BelgiumWhat's The Pressure - Laura Tesoro

I am really glad that we continue to see one song that follows on the Uptown Funk template, showing the ongoing cultural impact of that ace pop song. This Belgian song is only ok, but at least it moves about and shows some evidence of life. They should be super happy they got a second half draw, because I’d totally have used this as a sacrificial first song to get the semi-final going.

Bulgaria If Love Was A Crime - Poli Genova

You know how I have a name for the specific type of song that does really well at Eurovision these days - the 'mid tempo inspirational' or MTI. Last year I defined this genre as: "[it] usually starts with one ballady verse, follows it up with a big anthemic chorus and is usually about how it would be nice if everyone would be nice. This genre is the very quintessence of Eurovision."
Well, I think that If Love Was A Crime is my favourite MTI because there is effectively a double chorus. The Bulgarian second chorus is really cool, although I’m finding it hard to chant along with it. Also good in this song: the woaaahs and the rave horn and the way she says ‘criminals’. Bloody love it. She also has nice hair. Hope it does suitably well.

Denmark Soldiers of Love - Lighthouse X

This is so BORING. It’s so generic. Somehow all their platitudes about being good people and soldiers for love seem a bit hollow over a very basic boy band implementation of the mid tempo inspirational format.

Macedonia Dona - Kaliopi

Eurovision favourite Kaliopi returns, bringing us an old school power ballad. Nice work, very strong. If you like a traditional power ballad, this is one of those. It's grand.

Georgia Midnight Gold - Nika Kocharov & Young Georgian Lolitaz 

I mean I don’t know. It’s a really good example of what it is, which is the sort of music I listened to a lot 13 years ago. Slightly sleazy, danceable indie rock. I am somewhat confused by it being here, in the wrong decade and arguably in the wrong competition. The second half when the beats and synths kick in is pretty good. It’s a shame it goes back to the first verse after that though, I mean, what? And isn't the song named after a brand of poppers? Nope, I just googled it and it turns out that Midnight Gold is a tanning lotion. That's alright then.

Ireland Sunlight - Nicky Byrne

Come on, Ireland, this is somewhat basic. Another country that has sent all manner of distinctive and fun songs in the past forced into blanditude for fear they won't qualify for the final. At least we're done with the voting system that punishes things that juries might not be comfortable with. Conversely, I might be done with the Mid Tempo Inspirational.

Israel Made of Stars - Hovi Star

I will enjoy this weepy inspirational ballad when I’ve had a couple of wines. Middle 8 is a bit abrupt, I wasn’t expecting that at all. Other than that, I'm afraid I've not got a whole lot to say.

Latvia Heartbeats - Justs

Oh wow, I love the sparse feel of the production of this song. And that big synth bass. The arrangement is open and airy without losing that sense of dancing your broken heart out in a really sweaty club at 3am. Is Aminata (last years contestant, this year's composer) the best thing to ever happen to Latvia in the contest? I bloody love it by the way. Please please please please can we go Riga next year?

Lithuania I've Been Waiting For This Night - Donny Montell

I never understood the fuss over Donny Montell. I still don’t. Throughout the whole byzantine Lithuanian selection process Donny Montell was basically the only choice. It took from January 9th to March 12th to work out that no-one in Lithuania liked any of the other 27 songs better than this one and so this is what we've got. Song’s ok, a bit wet though. I feel like the impact this song achieves is what Ireland were aiming at.

Norway Icebreaker - Agnete

The sleek ravey icebreaker of the verse collides into the huge portentous iceberg of the chorus with an alien grace. You can’t look away. You can’t forget it. I think that must mean it’s good. I know that Norway typically doesn't change the staging, but I hope they find Agnete a dress as terrifically exciting as the white PVC number that the Berger Queen wore.

PolanColour of Your Life - Michał Szpak

A double disappointment. Disappointing all the diehards by not being Margaret and disappointing all the casuals by being Michael Bolton singing the version of Wrecking Ball from the Miley Cyrus jukebox musical they'll make in 2020. It’s really hard for me to see votes for this based on musical quality rather than national feeling.

Romania Moment of Silence - Ovidiu Anton

Before you get all excited about the We Will Rock You costumes and the chap doing some solo sword dancing, I have to tell you that this is a sort of 'rock pride' song about a really sad disaster at a concert venue. People will point and laugh, but it’s a proper sway along rock ballad, it competently achieves the aims of the song and it's going to be memorable on stage. Solid.

Serbia Goodbye (Shelter) - ZAA 

All the mid tempo inspirationals begin to mush together at this stage. And soon we’ll be sick of those rising Bond chords. At least the performer appears to have a bit of something interesting about her, I'm looking forwards to seeing what they do to present this song.

Slovenia Blue and Red - ManuElla

This song is wanting so hard to be a Taylor Swift song that it hits the same Radio 2 post-country genre that Douwe Bob hit too. Instead of ripping off Shake It Off or Blank Space, she's gone for a solid retread of the really good Taylor Swift song Red. She's even styled to look like Swift. There's nothing wrong with this - the contest is supposed to represent current trends and Swifty is certainly current. Sadly this song is a bit forgettable, because when I mentally reach for this song all I get is 'driving a brand new Maserati down a dead-end street'.

Switzerland Last of Our Kind - Rykka

Even more forgettable than I remembered. Limp. Dreary. Germany are also sending a ‘Like Lana del Rey doing an end credits song for a YA dystopia film’ song, you can’t also send a worse one, even if you picked yours before they did. In fact, Lana del Rey would give it more welly. GIVE IT MORE WELLY.

Ukraine 1944 - Jamala

This year's 'political one'. This time we're thinking about how the Crimean Tatars were expelled from their homeland in 1944. Jamala's grandmother was one of the people forced to leave. This song is gorgeous and sinuous, dignified and beautiful and achingly sad and Jamala's voice is amazing. This is what you can do with our little competition.

Take me straight to Part 3!

Eurovision 2016 Preview: Part 1

It’s that time again!

In fact, I’m actually a bit later than usual getting this out to you because of all of the last minute song revamp and changeover shenanigans.

So below is the big Eurovision review megapost - my single solitary blog post of the year if you don’t count the fact that I contributed twice so far to ESC Insight. I wrote about Eurovision Hipsters and Eurovision Geography, if you can imagine such things.

But on with the show. It’s a bit of a funny year, because I think we’ve reached Peak Safe. There are now so many songs that follow quite a rigid Swedish modern pop or Sia-aping mindset that to just go Swedish is no longer a way of signifying that you’re taking the contest seriously, it now looks a bit ‘will this do?’. The fact that Sweden themselves have decided against sending something that fits into the big, shiny Swedish Dominance mould suggests to me that the era might be over, just like when Ireland ended their streak of 90’s awesome performances with Dawn Martin singing something with a touch of the Lisa Stansfields about it. We’ve also had a rule change which will stop juries punishing outrageousness and risk-taking quite so harshly - I think that in the coming years we’ll see some new theme taking off as the ever-changing contest adapts to a world where pop is simultaneously global and homemade.

As always, if you want to predict the winner, try to imagine each of these songs with a giant burst of golden pyro glitter over the last chorus. You cannot win without the golden pyro moment.

The format for this review is as usual. Semi-finals described in alphabetical order with Youtube playlists accompanying the relevant text sections. New for this year is the numerical analysis section where I’ll go through various aspects of this year’s crops like some sort of statto. There will be graphs.

Semi Final 1 - Tuesday 10th May

Armenia: LoveWave - Iveta Mukuchyan

While I dig a spoken word introduction and I also dig excessive implementation of rave horn, this song takes both to a point that’s deeply silly. I haven’t seen any live footage of her performing this, so the huge whooping chorus might go horribly wrong on the night. I hope it doesn’t - this seems sort of modern without going the Full G:son.

Austria: Loin d'Ici - Zoë

Well isn't this lovely? It's beautiful, it's happy, it's extremely camp, it's totally adorable. I really hope they keep the slightly homemade tumblr princess graphic ideas from the music video for the staging. This song is so lovely and breezy and bright and it hops along, but is it too sweet? I think the slight edge in the middle 8 and outro keeps it from being nothing but spun sugar.

Azerbaijan: Miracle - Samra

It's fair to say that the Azeris aren't going all out to win this year. Every time I hear this song I go, "Who was this again?". Nowhere near as artistically interesting as anything they’ve previously sent, including the porridgey dullsville that won. Also the big chorus note on ‘Miracle’ sounds like she’s straining over the chest voice/head voice break. If it sounds forced in the studio version Lordi knows how it’ll come out on stage.

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Ljubav je - Dalal and Deen feat Ana Rucner and Jala

In all the versions of this song I’ve heard, the vocals somehow too high in the mix. The selection box approach to representing the Bosnian musical culture means that none of the aspects of the song are fully committed to, which is a shame. They’ve also given us verses are extremely dull and contain none of the local flavour from the chorus or the linking pieces. The wonderful yelps in the backing vocals are the only part that I found interesting, although the rap/cello duet did make me sort of wake up. Please reconsider and do a whole song that is just the yelps, the cellist and the rapper.

Croatia: Lighthouse - Nina Kraljić

This song is really pleasant. I rather like her vocal style but ultimately what's going to do for this one is that it is not the most memorable from the field of mid tempo inspirational songs we have this year. I really hope that she uses the incredible 4K footage of Croatian landscapes, starscapes and lightning storms from the video as her backing show, because that video is gorgeous and well worth doing the 'flashing imagery' warning for.

Cyprus: Alter Ego - Minus One

Yeah, they are dressed like a rock band but I hear more synths than guitars. It's also a song by the incredibly prolific Eurovision composer Thomas G:son. Fun, but about 13 years too late to capitalise on the popularity of The Killers. They can’t even really capitalise on the wolf howl thing now that Belarus are doing the whole lupine kit off gambit. I sort of worry if this will even qualify? Maybe it will.

Czech Republic:  I Stand - Gabriela Gunčíková

It takes way too long to get to the stirring second chorus. There is a lovely ominous string arrangement, but not really a lot of opportunity for it to get the full air-grasping, gesticulating, heaving-busomed lady ballad staging treatment. It's quite restrained, really. Does restraint belong at Eurovision? They’d have to make up for the musical restraint by having her perform it in a dress made of live flowers, or up a tree, or in a Faraday cage next to a giant Van der Graaf generator.

Estonia: Play - Jüri Pootsmann

This song is so classy. Well done Stig Rasta. Sadly I don’t think I’ve heard Juri perform it as well as Stig performed last year’s Goodbye To Yesterday with Elina Born and her single tear. That song really went well with lashings of awkward psychosexual chemistry. For me, this song is more like a lost track from the McAlmont & Butler project than a Bond theme as I’ve heard some people suggest. However, will it get lost amongst the bombast? Will people be bothered that yer man Jüri has a certain air of serial killer froideur? Not a potential winner for me, but nice all the same. Tule Eesti!

Finland: Sing It Away - Sandhja 

For me, it’s quite like an Ultra Nate song. Or actually more like a Jess Glynne approximation of an Ultra Nate song. It’s very 90s, but it's like a modern reproduction of a lumberjack shirt in Topshop rather than a vintage River Island slip dress. I love the happy brass and the backing vocals. It’s really singable and at the point it was selected I was just relieved that someone was sending something with a pulse. Loads of ESC fan people don't like it, possibly because it's not Sara Aalto?

Greece: Utopian Land - Argos 

Greek does lend itself to rapping, actually. It’s about time we had some socially conscious rap in this place, especially when it’s got some lovely instrumentation on it, like the lovely fiddle riff in the chorus. I find that this is growing on me, although it’s not going to be a song that I actually choose to listen to because I’m in the mood for some socially conscious Greek rap. I hope this will qualify, I love having Greece in the contest, bringing something different and somewhat angry.

Hungary: Pioneers - Freddie

I cannot abide the bloody whistling. Freddie really wants us sheeple to listen up. “What will we do when there are no more products to sell?” he says, as if he’s the first person in Europe to have thought that maybe hyper-capitalism isn’t a super idea. It used to be really unusual for a mid tempo inspirational song to be sung by a solo male, but this year there are loads of that combination turning up. Is this also Eurovision’s first specifically atheist song?

Iceland: Hear Them Calling - Greta Salóme

Some big questions here. What is this song even about? Why is it a country song? Who's running from what? Who's calling? Why is she dressed like a sexy Ozzy Osbourne? Why is she beating away extremely goth bats in near-darkness while jaunty banjos ring out? Who cares? It’s a solid, unarguable with banger. My husband said this was 'quite good' which, given that he's solidly opposed to the entire contest, is quite the endorsement. Please can we go to Reykjavik next May?

Malta: Walk On Water - Ira Losco

Some more super 90’s sounds. Sadly, after all the fuss they had changing it, this song is somehow really anonymous, even though Ira Losco is obviously a fabulous artist. I hope Ira wears a really smashing frock and absolutely belts it out on the night. Her charisma and performance level could make all the difference here. Also, if you're a Eurovision casual you should know that Malta are the current bosses of Junior Eurovision. Have a listen to Destiny's life-affirming song Not My Soul.

Moldova: Falling Stars - Lidia Isac

In the intensity of National Final season, I really wanted one of three acts to win. 1) The genuinely brilliant folk-dance act Doredos, 2) the politically incorrect fire tuba act or 3) the metal band of medieval re-enactors with a pan-pipe. As you can probably imagine, amongst all that lot I don’t even remember the eventual winning song being in the competition, but goodness me do I remember the fire tuba. This song is possibly a bit too fast to be a mid tempo inspirational, but I think is definitely where its heart lies. It's ok.

Montenegro: The Real Thing - Highway

A riff heavy rock song that does not relate to the rest of the contest in anyway at all. It's basically not interested. Outside the Eurovision contest, it doesn’t even please all the rock fans. When playing it to my metal expert husband he said ‘What is this nu metal shite?’. Which.... yeah. I suppose we have to take rock where we find it in Eurovision. I plan on starting a one person mosh pit when they perform at the London Eurovision party, just to thank them for showing willing, although I won’t be wearing a really gussety leotard like the lady in the video.

Russia: You Are The Only One - Sergey Lazarev

Well, isn’t this a precision tooled pop assault on the senses? It invites you to dance (or does it compel you, or at least strongly imply that dancing is in your best interests?) It’s got nice big ravey keyboards on it and huge strings and also really obvious lyrics and huge explosions and fireballs going off everywhere in the last chorus. It’s the one to beat, obviously. I don’t hate it. The video is probably almost exactly what he’s going to do on the stage, which will look absolutely incredible - the level of image mapping and art direction here makes Måns’s stick man dance partner look like a bit of a limp cop out. The only weak link appears to be that Miss Russia’s mime skills aren’t very strong in the windy leaning bit.

San Marino: I Didn't Know - Serhat

This year’s comedy entry which is possibly making more of a mockery of the contest than Dustin the Turkey or Scooch or the Polish milkmaids or Euro Neuro or whatever could. The use of San Marino as a flag of convenience for someone to fund a vanity entry. The rolling over and giving ‘the fans’ the disco version. The total lack of actual singing. The fact that this is just the same lack of singing as the other version but with the cheap, tinny disco backing. Ugh.

The Netherlands: Slow Down - Douwe Bob

After San Marino, this seems comically well produced and unnecessarily professional. It’s really nice. It won’t have the glowering, simmering tension of The Common Linnets on stage, but it’s nice. Another good performance for the Netherlands? Should qualify for the final at least.

Take me straight to Part 2!