Songcheck 2016: FYR Macedonia, San Marino, Estonia

The songchecks have been on a hiatus for the last few weeks as I had other things to catch up on. But we are rapidly approaching the actual contest, and so the last songs have to get a review before we go into the Eurovision week. Today we are ready to look at the songs from F.Y.R. Macedonia, San Marino and Estonia.

F.Y.R Macedonia: Kaliopi – “Dona”

The first song comes from from Macedonia, or F.Y.R. Macedonia, or FYROM, or whatever – a dear child has many names. Since 2007 the country has only been in the Eurovision final once, namely in 2012 when the singer Kaliopi performed the song “Crno i belo”. Perhaps that is why she has been internally selected to represent her country again.

Her song, “Dona”, represents a genre which – oddly enough – is almost absent this year, namely the ballad. It contains a very classic build-up: a silent verse, then a short bridge leading up to a powerful chorus. At last there is a soft outro with some finalizing keyboard chords. The dynamics are strong and effectful, and the compositions seems very accomplished with the chorus standing as an effective hook that makes the song immediately recognizable: “Dona Dona Dona Dona….”.

The actual chords and melody notes are not exactly innovative, so much of the expression lies in the vocal performance, and the song is very much built up around it. Kaliopi is performing the song with a lot of intensity and dramaturgy, from almost whispering/talking in the verse to “giving it all” in the chorus. One will notice her often “sleepy” or trailing phrasings, f.e. in the title phrase. There is perhaps a bit too much pathos in it for my personal taste, especially in her heavy vibrato, but it sounds authentic, and she clearly knows exactly what she is doing. She is probably the most professional vocalist in the entire edition. As for the lyrics, I can only speak of an English translation, and there they seem a bit anonymous to me. In any case, she should have credits for keeping them in Macedonian. We have far too few non-English songs.

A not entirely successful side of the entry, however, is the production. In the verse it is very discreet, fitting the feeling of the composition very well, containing some floating keyboard chords and a few percussion elements now and then. But when we come to the chorus, the production sounds rather demo’ish. Especially the underlying distorted guitar doesn’t really fit. It is sort of falling behind two chairs: Either they should make it more detailed, or else they should simplify it: Some days ago I heard a performance where she just sang to a piano, and it worked much better – maybe because it let Kaliopi’s singing vocals stand for itself.

“Dona” is not a flawless entry, but it seems honest, and it is very well performed vocally. It is also slightly better than “Crno i belo” from 2012. Moreover, Kaliopi has some authenticity that is missing with most of the other Eurovision singers. The song ought to reach the final, so fingers crossed. Because of the less fortunate production I can “only” give it 8/12.

San Marino: Serhat – “I Didn’t Know”

For the past four years, the Eurovision entry from San Marino has been written by the German Eurovision legend Ralph Siegel – with mixed success it should be stated, both result-wise and in terms of song quality. Particularly “legendary” is the performance by Valentina Monetta in 2012 with “The Social Network Song”. This time Ralph Siegel has had nothing to do with the Sanmarine entry, for the first time since 2011; instead the small broadcaster SMRTV chose the Turkish singer Serhat. His song “I Didn’t Know” is written by Olcayto Ahmet Tuğsuz and Nektarios Tyrakis.

The song was originally released in a slow, laid back version built around Serhat’s deep Leonard Cohen-type voice. I will have to admit that it was very hard for me not to laugh, especially because of his rather comic English pronunciation. However, the song itself was actually very fine with a nice, melancholic feeling that suited his voice very well, but apparently it was very unpopular among Eurovision fans. So what to do: make a disco version of it! This really sounds like an insane idea, but here it is, and I am supposed to say something meaningful about it now.

Let’s start with the composition: The harmony is all in minor, and the melody is – apart from being in a very deep pitch – characterized by a lot of sequencing, especially in the chorus where the same melodic phrase is sequenced stepwise down: “I didn’t know…”, “I didn’t know…”, “I didn’t know…”, creating a heavy, resigning feeling. Combined with Serhat’s deep and uncompressed singing, it has sadness written all over it. Had the actual song been performed by Leonard Cohen himself – in the original version, that is – it would have been received as an authentic, artistic and heartfelt song. Even if the lyrics are pretty banal, f.e. with clichéd lines like “Our life has just begun”, they can still sound honest when performed well. But the problem here is, that Serhat is trying too much to sound like Mr. Cohen, and as a consequence it is a bit hard to really take it seriously. Though his voice is equally deep, it will never be the same anyway, especially not in the light of his odd English accent. Had he been singing the song in Turkish, it would have sounded much more authentic and unique.

Then there is this new 1970’s disco arrangement of the song which, at least on paper, seems like an almost grotesque mix of two completely different worlds. On one hand we have happy dance music with very little depth, and on the other hand we have the dark, melancholic music that is the original song. I find it a little difficult to decide what to think of the combination. At one moment I will be listening to it from the point of view of the original song, and here the disco orchestration seems like a senseless destruction of the authenticity that the composition originally contained. The next moment I will be listening to it from the point of view of the disco arrangement; doing so, things actually turn out more positively, with the melancholic composition adding a tragic twist to the otherwise superficial disco music. I have always been a fan of ambivalence and ambiguity, so in that sense the new version stands in a positive light. Still, the combination of dance music and Serhat’s extremely deep singing does not in any way seem natural, no matter what point of view I am listening from.

To sum it up: It’s a fine melancholic composition, but performed by someone who is unsuccessfully trying to be someone else, and put into the frame of an orchestration that makes the whole package seem either like a senseless slaughtering of a modest, laid back song, or like a welcome dark twist of a superficial pop genre. I cannot decide, and so I end in the middle: 6/12

Estonia: Jüri Pootsmann – “Play”

Estonia has had quite a few respectable results since they changed the format for their pre-selection in 2009: A 6th place in 2009 with “Rändajad” and in 2012 with “Kuula”, and a 7th place last year with “Goodbye to Yesterday”. They have often gone for something a bit alternative. Last year it worked, whereas the mystic “Siren” from 2010 failed to qualify for the final, sadly. So they are not guaranteed a good result, and the question is how their entry will be anticipated this year.

The song, which is in A minor, begins with some dark piano chords in the first verse, accompanied by some soft legato strings, leading my thoughts back to the Armenian song from 2014, “Not Alone”. But in the bridge we face an instrumentation more á la the apparently still very popular “retro” genre, for instance in the Motown like style of drumming (which has been heard again and again and again since Amy Winehouse’s breakthrough in 2007), and in brass section which is counterpointing the melody. The production is generally very detailed with many layers, and the more times you listen to the songs, the more instruments you will notice. It contains a lot of warmth. Especially charming is the damped piano sound in the bridge and the chorus, the brass in the chorus, and the sneaking strings in the verse.

The warm production is counterpointed by the composition which, as mentioned, is in minor and as such contains a more melancholic touch. The melody is well balanced: In the verse the 2nd and 4th lines successfully contains reduplication “I turn to you, I turn to you”, and in the chorus it culminates in the 4th and 8th lines: “falling, we’re falling into” and “stronger much stronger with you”. There is a nice interplay between words an music in the line “to find out if it’s love”, where the word “love” falls on an uncertain note (a B, the one just above the bass note A), underlining the fact that we don’t know if it is love. Apart from that, the musical content does not so much lie in the melody and the chords, but more in the dynamic structure, and in the previously mentioned instrumentation. There is, however, a small fine detail in the chords towards the end: In the last chorus there is an unexpected chord on “I didn’t know what to do“, namely an F#dim. It contains a lot of tension, in that it will normally lead to a G minor (which it doesn’t do here), and so it adds a bit of dramatics to the music.

Jüri Pootsmann is not entirely convincing as a singer. In the verse and bridge the melody is obviously very deep for his voice. Especially in the bridge, where he is singing with more power than in the verse, his deep notes are a bit uncertain. There are also a couple of less confident notes in the chorus, but in general the uncertainty is not big enough to affect the overall impression negatively. The least successful element of the song, on the other hand, is the lyrics. They are often somewhat clumsy with lines such as “and be that as it may” or “to find out if it’s love that we’re falling into”: the way the word “into” falls in the melody, with emphasis on the second syllable rather than the first, makes the listener think of the line as “falling in two“.

However, despite such flaws, the song is still very pleasant and charming. It may not be overly original, but it sounds very accomplished, containing a lot of intensity, energy and nerve. Moreover the musicians are playing very well. Add to that the wonderfully detailed production (the damped piano, the brass instruments, a discreet electric guitar, the strings in the verse etc.), and you get one of the best entries in this year’s contest. 9/12

One thought on “Songcheck 2016: FYR Macedonia, San Marino, Estonia”

  1. I missed your songckecks because they are a rare lighthouse of sense and objectivity (you always reflect your own subjectivity) standing in the sea of uninformed madness most ESC comments constitute. And voilà, Macedonia, which is constantly hated and berated on most fan blogs, is ranked among the best efforts this year, exactly where it belongs. And San Marino got the first fair review I’ve read. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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