Songcheck 2016: Malta (again), Azerbaijan

In this set of songchecks I am going to revisit a country for the first and – hopefully – only time in the 2016 contest. Whether or not we will be treated to that again in future editions, time will show, but it has happened before on several occasions, so the chance is there.

Malta: Ira Losco – “Walk on Water”

Malta has already had a songcheck on ESC Song Reivews. Ira Losco – who has previously represented Malta in 2002 with “7th Wonder” – won the Maltese final with the song “Chameleon”. Apparently she was dissatisfied with it, and since the rules in the Maltese final allow the singer to change the song afterwards, she went for a different one, “Walk on Water”. Whether or not that opportunity is fair is another discussion, my task here is of course to look at what is hopefully the eventual Maltese entry. “Chameleon” got a highly unfavourable review here, so will it change with “Walk on Water”?

A synthetic intro sets the scene with soft synthesizer chords and a high pitched syncopated instrumental riff; it is almost as if we were going to hear a dance song. It never really gets to that, but we are clearly in the synth pop universe once again with no real instruments, and from the chorus and onwards there is an electronic beat underneath (one which sounds a bit like something from the 90-s). Formally there is not much new under the sun either: The verse (“I’ve been fading into grey”) is followed by a pre-chorus (“I’m not perfect”), then a main chorus which is divided in two parts: “I can’t get enough…” and “Feel like I can walk…” respectively. And after the second chorus there is a middle eight (“Ooh ooh ooh, all I wanna do is…”). The second verse is half as long as the first one, and the last chorus is shortened – obviously as a means of keeping the song within three minutes. However, there is one unusual aspect to the form: The verses consist of 12 and 6 bars respectively whereas the other parts contain the more usual 4, 8 or 16.

Harmonically we are once again in the Aeolian minor mode, and the chords are very bland, not moving anywhere. The melody is a bit more dynamic, but even here there’s quite a lot of repetition as the lines are very much moving towards the same note (in this case the V step note). The only slightly memorable part of the melody is the hookline in the first part of the chorus: “I can’t get enough of your love”. With its pentatone character it contains a certain bluesy feel, but unfortunately it is not enough to save the melody; in the rest of the song the blues is “locked away” as the lyrics say.

A modulation (key change) – and I don’t necessarily mean the classic Eurovision one-note-up modulation – would clearly have been a welcome contribution to the song. For instance the pre-chorus and main chorus could potentially have been in another key than the verse; it would have added an element of surprise and given the song some more direction. But there isn’t any modulation, and if there is nothing striking about neither the form (with the exception of the 6 and 12 bar verses), the melody, the harmony nor the production, then there is nothing left of interest in the song, and it seems to be the case here.

That leaves a lot of pressure on Ira Losco who is obviously a very experienced artist, having been in the business for many years. Technically she is performing the song very well, but it simply sounds too clean. She doesn’t really convey any emotion despite some “ornamentations” now and then, f.e. in the way she ends the line “break the fall”, or the “creaking” on the first syllables. But even such ornamentations sound too mechanic to really touch anything.

So the melody is bland and repetitive, the chords aren’t going anywhere, the production is bombastic and synthetic like most of the other songs, and the vocals are clinical and impersonal. Add to that some very clichéd lyrics, and you don’t get an interesting song. There is no emotion, no really outstanding musical aspects, no surprises, nothing. It is all very professional, but it sounds boring and shallow. However, because of the semi-memorable hookline in the beginning of the chorus, we end with one more point than “Chameleon”: 4/12

Azerbaijan: Samra – “Miracle”

We now turn our attention to one of the most successful countries in Eurovision in recent years. Azerbaijan have clearly found the formula by selecting some very professional and competent, though sometimes a bit too streamlined pop songs, usually written by Swedish songwriters. Between 2009 and 2013 the country reached the top five every single year, but in 2014 they only came 22nd (with a song that in my own opinion deserved much better than that). Last year they had more success with Elnur’s “Hour of the Wolf”, but how far will they reach in 2016.

The song which is performed by the singer Samra Rahimli bears the same title as the Romanian 2014 entry, namely “Miracle”. Neither of these songs are the first ones to have that word in the song title (something that could potentially be used as a sign of the song’s level of originality). However, there is considerably more happening in the music here than for instance in the Maltese song.

The form differs from many of this year’s songs by not containing a pre-chorus before the chorus. Nor is there a real middle eight after the second chorus, except for a short section with the chords from the beginning the chorus and Samra singing “Mira mira miracle” a few times. That is not to say that the form is less regular, just that it doesn’t use the same template.

Harmonically the song is in E minor, and the harmony is more dynamic than most of the other synth pop entries this year. The verse is held in the so-called AAB form consisting of two similar parts (AA) and a third part which is different (B). Thus the first two lines are identical: | Em – C | D |. The third line starts like the two fist lines, but contines: | Em – C | D – Am | E/g# – Em/g | Bsus4 – B |. It is as if the two first lines were “false starts” and the third one is completing it. We also see that the third line contains a small flirt with E major, somehow adding a seductive hint of something else in the middle of a minor song. The chord just before the chorus is E major as well. In the chorus the chords begin with A minor and D major which could potentially lead us to the parallel key G major; instead we go back to E minor via the dominant (B major) – perhaps an uncertain sign of hope in the middle of all the sadness?

The melody lines generally flow very naturally throughout the song. In the verse they correspond to the AAB form in the harmony, with two “false starts” (AA) and then a continuing B line; the latter is moving downwards (towards “long ago” in the first verse), emphasizing the resignation in the song. In the chorus we move to a much higher pitch, making the difference between verse and chorus very big. It peaks at the word “heal”. We meet the AAB form once again in the melody here: first two A’s (2x “Gonna take a miracle”, the second one is sequenced a note down to fit the chords), and then a B line doing something different (“Baby I won’t stay…”). It’s a quite strong, dynamic and well proportioned melody that you might yourself humming along to, especially in the chorus – the repeated staccato phrase in the B part of the chorus is particularly effective, and it successfully counterpoints the resigned and soft lines in the verse.

As for the production we are in the synth pop universe once again. The sound in the verse is relatively laid back, containing a feeling that somehow reminds me of Roxette, but in the chorus the instrumental elements are rather noisy and bombastic. It does take away a bit of the emotion otherwise kept in the composition, sadly. Imagine what a more rocky sound and vocal performance could have done to it. I could also wish a bit more from the singer. She is performing the song very well, but something is missing. A bit more roughness in the chorus might suit it, and it sounds like she doesn’t quite personalize the song. There’s not so much to add about the lyrics: it’s another pop text about a broken relationship, and it doesn’t really say anything interesting about that break-up that hasn’t been said a hundred times before. It can be done in a poetic way with much more depth and layers than is the case here.

“Miracle” is in no way musically or lyrically innovative (a rarity in Eurovision), but it contains a lot more musical direction than for instance “Walk on Water”. At the same time it is very clear cut with a good musical balance between the respective parts, especially when it comes to the melody. It is simply a much better written song, and the composition contains much more emotion and passion. The production is indeed very synthetic, and as such it is typical of its time, especially in the chorus. It is probably the weakest side of the song, among other things because it takes its sound towards most of the other songs; thus it misses a bit of its chance of really standing out. Still, it is clearly one of the more sharp songs this year, and it ought to have a chance of reaching a fine result. It is strange that the bookmakers don’t have it higher. 8/12

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