Songcheck 2016: Latvia, Moldova, France

And the battle goes on: Three more songs are ready to get a review, namely those from Latvia, Moldova and France.

Latvia: Justs – “Heartbeat”

Last year Latvian television introduced a new format for their national selection called Supernova. At Eurovision they managed to get a fine 6th place with Aminata Savadogo’s “Love Injected”, ending a long string of miserable results. This year they continued the new format, and the winning song, “Heartbeat”, is once again written by Aminata, but this time performed by the singer Justs Sirmais.

Just like “Love Injected” it is a song that I had to get used to, probably because it is in a genre that I normally don’t really listen to. Thus, I was not overly convinced when I heard it for the first time, but after a few listenings it is beginning to work better for me. I take that as a positive sign, because then it is challenging my ears and moving my musical horizon. And I believe we all need to be challenged sometimes in order not to get stuck.

The production is clearly more central here than the melody is, and the melody lines are, if you listen to them isolated, often somewhat anonymous. More creativity lies in the song’s soundscape. Especially interesting are the different “pling plong” sounds popping up between the melody lines.

The first verse is particularly strong because of the uncertainty and thoughtfulness it contains. A good example is the way the melody and chords end with “I don’t feel the same”: The main key of the song is Aeolic Eb minor, but the line ends with a Db major (the VII step in Eb), a somewhat “open” chord that could potentially lead to Gb major which it doesn’t. A break after this line adds further to the mysticism. It’s a bit like the music stops for a moment and thinks: “should we go on?”, and then decides “yes we should”. There is also an element of melancholy in the melody which is quite heavy and “resigning”, going down much of the time.

After the first verse there is an a-capella chorus with the pling plong sounds and the drum beat at the only “instruments”. I feel there could have been a bit more emphasis on details here, for instance some dynamic variation in the vocals and in the sounds. Another solution could be to keep it 100% a-capella with no instruments at all, and with Justs singing a bit more silently. This first chorus leads to another verse where the music gradually gets louder and more intense. F.e. the singing moves to a higher pitch in the second half with Justs producing a more rough sound in “You’re my desire…”.

The second verse leads to the first “tutti” chorus which is the dynamic culmination of the song. The chorus is not quite as strong as the verse, partly because the instrumentation doesn’t quite contain the same fascinating musical elements. On the other hand, then it works as the “safe ground” part of the song where, as we saw, the other parts more represent uncertainty. However, I think a little more details in the music would be welcome here; the soundscape seems a bit unfinished.

As for the vocals, Justs is clearly a strong singer with a very good voice. It sounds like his force is mostly in rock music, and since “Heartbeat” is in a more electronic universe, his vocals can be heard as a welcome human element. However, I wish he would take some more chances and work a little more with the dynamics in order to live up to the uncertainty of the music. Lyrically it looks like another love song, and I don’t think the words can live up to the music when written. However, I think the music adds some emotion into the words that they would not necessarily have gotten otherwise. A good example is the “resigning” descending melody lines in the verse, f.e. giving a line like “I don’t feel the same” some weight.

“Heartbeat” somehow lacks some of the seductive mysticism that made “Love Injected” a really fascinating experience; partly because Justs doesn’t quite have the vocal charisma that Aminata has, and partly because the chorus in particular is more directed towards a sort of radio sound. The song’s musical measures are perhaps more understated which isn’t necessarily a negative thing (I often appreciate understatedness). In any case it is a solid effort, the form is a bit more interesting here than in many of the other entries due to the a-capella chorus, and it is absolutely one of the more original songs this year. It keeps the listener committed rather than passive. It deserves a good result, and I think it will receive it. 9/12

Moldova: Lidia Isac – “Falling Stars”

Moldova goes europop with this song which contains a production a bit á la Hera Björk’s “Je ne sais quoi” from 2010. The chorus, however, begins with the same melody lines as the Czech song from last year, “Hope Never Dies”, but that is the only thing they have in common, so I don’t think there will be any problems here. None of these two songs are the first ones to contain that progression anyway.

Still, it does say a bit about the level of innovation in “Falling Stars”. For a start, the form is very used this year (verse-bridge-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus-short contrast piece-chorus). There is some variation though: second time the bridge is only half as long (probably a question of keeping the song inside three minutes). The second verse is half as long too. It should of course be noted that a standard form can be very fine if there are interesting things happening in other elements of the song, but is this the case here?

The chorus is very thin both when it comes to melody and chords. The chords begin with yet another standard progression in minor: I-VI-III-VII. The main key is C-Aeolian in that all notes fit into the Aeolian (“clean minor”) scale, and we have functionless chords such as those on the VI and VII steps (Ab and Bb here). So this song is yet another example of modal harmony (the church modes).

As mentioned the melody in the chorus begins with a phrase similar to that of “Hope Never Dies”. After this movement, the line ends in a somewhat awkward way going up again to Bb (on “coming down, coming down”). It also seems a bit unnatural with the phrase coming again in the end of the chorus after a contrasting line (“It will have all…”). It is a very bland and anonymous melody, except perhaps for the connection between the downwards phrase and the mention of falling stars and the sky coming down. The verse, however, is a bit more interesting, among other things because we don’t begin with the tonic (main chord), but instead with the IV step chord (4th step above C: F minor). Also, the melody is a bit more dynamic here, starting with small steps (“Lost in time…”) and then going up (“I try to speak…”).

There is not much interesting to say about the production which is based on elements already heard many times before in Eurovision. There are elements of both Iceland 2010, as mentioned, as well as Germany 2013. I wish they would dare to put a bit more creativity into it, but the question is how much that would eventually help this very unimaginative song.

Lidia Isac is not doing an impressive job as a singer either. She is on the verge of being a bit off-key sometimes, especially in the chorus, but a bigger problem is her English articulation. It is often difficult to understand what she is singing, and I believe it would sound more honest if she were singing in her native language instead. That brings me to the lyrics which you will have to read in order to understand them. Doing so, however, I realize there is not much interesting to get here either. It is cliché on cliché most of the way, and there are also some less fortunate formulations, f.e. “The dark’s around me”: It should be ‘darkness’ in order to make the clause make sense linguistically. Another one is “It will have all turned us to pieces”.

So unfortunately this is a very underwhelming song where there is noting outstanding happening what so ever. It could have been worse though: it hangs together relatively well formally, but that is not always enough. 4/12

France: Amir – “J’ai cherché”

The French song is quite a departure from what I would normally expect from France. On the other hand, the French entries have often been very varied through the years, and they have often been contributing to the diversity of the contest, for instance with African sounds (1990), Arabian sounds (1991), reggae (1992), indie pop (2008), “popera” (2011) or edgy rock (2013). Here they are going more mainstream with a slightly country influenced song and an outspoken pop chorus. Personally I will miss the classic French chanson of which I am a big admirer, as well as some of their more daring choices in the past, but it doesn’t necessarily make “J’ai cherché” a bad effort. Let us now have a look at it.

The arguably most outstanding element of the song is the hookline, the “You-ou-ou-ou-ou” phrase from the chorus. It clearly leads my thoughts to the Swedish 2013 entry “You” performed by Robin Stjernberg. It occurs no less than 17 times; usually that’s a good trick to make a song recognizable, but you may also get a bit tired of it in the end. However, compared to Sweden 2013 it is performed in a considerably more elegant way. The chorus is quite catchy as a whole, and I have already caught myself humming it a couple of times. Still, I think it is a bit overkill to actually begin the song with it; you will have plenty of time to get it on your mind afterwards.

Apart from a short contrast piece after the second chorus, the song is built on one chord progression, and once again it is in the old Dorian mode. Modal harmony is clearly a trend this year. The chords in the progression are Eb minor – Bb minor – Db major – Ab major with Ebm being the tonic. The musical development lies mostly in other parameters such as in the production and in the dynamics. The production gets a country feel from the acoustic guitars, the piano and the bass drum. It makes the sound very fresh and warm. Unfortunately there is an electronic handclap imitating sample on the offbeats – why not use real handclaps instead? On the other hand there are other less acoustic elements such as synthesizer strings in the background in the chorus, making the soundscape very saturated. Sometimes the strings sort of respond to the melody, f.e. after “like the melody of my song”, and we get a bit of “Kontrapunkt”. It also adds some tension to the music.

The melody is rather monotonous, and apart from the “you-ou-ou” phrase it is very much based on the same three notes: Db, Eb and F. It could have been a bit enervating, but fortunately the melodic rhythm is varied: from “speed talk” without pauses á la Twin Twin’s “Moustache” in the first part of the verse to slower lines with more pauses in the rest of the song. The “you-ou-ou” itself is remarkable because it doesn’t contain the main note Eb at all, making it somewhat airy.

I can not really speak for the lyrics yet as I haven’t found an English translation yet. But Amir is performing the song quite well, and he has a fine vocal sound.

Musically we are clearly in mainstream land here, as is the case with most of the other entries this year. It is a shame that so many songs sound very conform (more on that after all songs have been reviewed), but in the discipline of radio pop “J’ai cherché” is still a very solid effort. It has got a pleasant sound and a good drive, and it is catchy. The melody is a bit too monotonous though. The music is also very polished, and some less clean sound elements could have added some welcome spice. Still the song is quite enjoyable for what it is, I get in a good mood listening to it, and it may actually get a very good result. Winning material? 8/12

5 thoughts on “Songcheck 2016: Latvia, Moldova, France”

  1. “because then it is challenging my ears and moving my musical horizon. And I believe we all need to be challenged sometimes in order not to get stuck”
    I love you for these lines. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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