Songcheck 2016: Israel, Lithuania, Serbia

And we are finally reaching the end. Here is the last set of songchecks: Israel, Lithuania and Serbia.

Israel: Hovi Star – “Made of Stars”

Hovi Star is yet another former talent show participant of which there are a lot this year. Having been active on the Israeli music scene since approximately 2009 he participated in The Next Star 2015/16 which he won on 3 March. He then got the right to represent his country in Eurovision 2016. The song “Made of Stars” was originally released in a rather different version with some melodic differences, but it got through a revamp later, and this is the final version of the song.

It actually shares quite a few similarities to the Serbian 2007 winner “Molitva”. The most striking one is perhaps the title phrase which contains the same notes (“Mo-lit-va” vs. “Made of stars”). Also the chord progression in the chorus is the same: I-VI-III-VII, except in “Made of stars” the VII chord has its 3rd step in the bass. But it is a very, very overused chord progression in general. And finally the two songs share a similar build up in some respects: we start with relatively few instruments (in “Made of Stars” the dominating instrument here is a piano), and then after the second chorus comes a loud tutti part with the whole orchestra. The difference here is that “Molitva” is growing more dynamically up till the tutti part. Moreover, whereas the tutti part in “Molitva” is basically a new chorus with a key change one note up, in “Made of Stars” it comes inside a middle eight (contrast piece), and there is no key change here.

It should of course be noted that there are several other songs with similar musical features, so I am not in any way speaking of plagiarism. But it is clearly not a particularly original song. The melody lines flow relatively naturally, but like with many other songs this year there is a tendency of emphasizing the same notes over and over again. Especially the 5th step note is very dominating (e.g. on the word “made” in the chorus). It makes the melody a bit boring. There is nothing wrong with the composition from a technical point of view, but if there isn’t anything interesting happening, neither in the melody, the chords nor in the formal build-up, then the song becomes boring overall.

The sound production is all very professional, but it is also unimaginative. Like in the composition there are no unusual elements in it, and it generally sounds too clean and polished. But Hovi Star is adding a bit of personality vocally with some dynamic details. However he tends to sing in a very sugary way, and unfortunately that is not counterpointed in any of the musical elements of the song. Especially not the lyrics which are equally sugary and sentimental, containing clichés like the title phrase.

The song is obviously supposed to be emotional, but it sounds more like fake sentimentality than real emotions, and combined with the cheesy lyrics it becomes very kitsch. And if the emotions aren’t real, and both the composition and the lyrics are unimaginative and clichéd, then you don’t get a good song. It is professionally executed both in terms of composition, production and singing, but it is not enough to make the entry worth listening to. 4/12

Lithuania: Donny Montell – “I’ve Been Waiting For This Night”

Donny Montell is probably better known for his blindfold than for his musical merits. A lot was said about his very literal interpretation of the song “Love is Blind” with which he participated in Eurovision 2012. It’s a shame since he is actually a good singer. Now he is back after having won a – let’s say – somewhat extended national selection, but this time without the blindfold. He has also changed genre, from soul/disco to synth pop (once again). The verse is in F# minor, and the chorus is in its parallel key, A major.

The first thing I noticed is the fact that the verse contains the exact same chord progression as the Israeli song (I-VI-III-VII, here F#m, D, A, E), and one which – as mentioned – has been extremely overused for at least the last 20 years. Another example of the progression is the verse in Dina Garipova’s “What If” (2013) where the melody even contains almost the same nots as here (except in the third line of “I’ve Been Waiting…” where the melody is in a slightly lower pitch). The “ni-ight” and “I-I” endings in the verse here resemble the “if I, if I” endings in “What If”, and in both songs the verse ends with a short break on the VI chord before the chorus.

So I was almost surprised that the chorus didn’t begin with “What if we all…”. Instead we get a short melody phrase which is repeated four consecutive times: 1: “For a thousand years”, 2: “Through a million tears”, 3: “With a hungry heart”, 4: “Every day apart”; it somehow reminds me of a song by the Police or Sting, but I don’t remember which one. It is followed by the title phrase. The chords underneath are another standard progression, this time one in major: I-V-VI-IV, here: A, E, F#, D. It is basically the same progression as in the verse, just starting with the third chord from the the verse.

After the second chorus there is a middle eight with Donny singing some ooh’s. It sounds a lot like the middle eight in Softengine’s “Something Better”, even containing some of the same notes (but not necessarily in the same order). Then there is a third chorus with some vocal improvisation from Donny, and he ends the song a capella with the first line in the first verse.

To sum it up, the composition is extremely unoriginal, and it is almost entirely based of things from old songs, some of which are from Eurovision. There is nothing interesting and outstanding about it whatsoever; not even some melodic or harmonic features to take you somewhere.

If the composition is unoriginal, then the lyrics are no less unoriginal. They are almost entirely consisting of clichés from mainstream love songs: “Here we are together you and I”, “broken heart”, “For a thousand years” (also the title of Slovenia 1999), “a million tears”, “beautiful eyes”, “by your side”, “hungry heart” (also as song by Bruce Springsteen). Continue yourself. Add to that a production that is possibly even more synthetic than most of the other synth pop songs. It gets especially noisy in the chorus. And it is not because there is anything wrong with synth pop, but why do the songs have to sound the same? Especially with such a clichéd song a bit of “humanity” would have been welcome.

Donny Montell is doing a good job as a singer, and you are never worried about his ability to hit the notes properly. A lot of the song’s chances clearly lie with him. But unfortunately, since the song is so faceless, there isn’t really much he can do to add some personality and character to it.

Overall “I’ve Been Waiting For This Night” sounds far too calculated. It is as if the songwriters have wanted to write a real Eurovision song and then taken a handful of elements from other songs and put them together. The result is very, very shallow, and it is completely empty of personality, character or other interesting aspects. The song is simply going nowhere. Like with the Israeli song there is nothing wrong technically, but where that song at least tried to convey some emotions (though unsuccessfully), there are no traces of that here either. Donny Montell deserves better, because he is clearly a good singer, and this song doesn’t really leave anything for him – unlike “Love is Blind” whose funky feeling allowed him to work more with his phrasings. This one is anything but funky, and though there is nothing that sounds bad, it is simply empty. 3/12

Serbia: Sanja Vučić – “Goodbye (Shelter)”

And we are finally getting to it: the last song in this year’s Eurovision to get a song review here. Before 2015 Serbia was one of the very few countries in the contest to always perform their song in their own language. In 2007 they won with the only winning song since 1998 not to contain any words in English at all. Last year, however, the songwriters behind the Serbian entry wrote English lyrics for the Eurovision performance, and this year’s entry, which was internally selected, is entirely in English too. It’s a shame that there are so few songs in national languages – it takes some of the diversity – but let us now have a look at “Goodbye (Shelter)” which is performed by the singer Sanja Vučić.

The main key is the somewhat unusual E flat minor (Ebm). Though there aren’t any wild chord changes or modulations, there is a lot more happening in the harmony here than in many of the other songs. The verse begins with the relatively common progression I-VI-III-V (| Ebm | Cb | Gb | Bbm |), but it is slightly varied the second time: | Ebm | Cb/eb | Gb6/db | Bbm |. And then comes a pre-chorus (“I played a fool”) which contains quite a lot of tension: Instead of making a usual Eb minor cadence with Ab minor (subdominant) and Bb major (dominant) it starts with an Ab major instead. It is tense because the presence of a major subdominant rather than a minor could potentially lead to Eb major in the chorus. Instead it leads back to Eb minor in the chorus. The pre-chorus is clearly the dramatic peak of the song, and it builds a lot of tension up to the main chorus (“Every time I say goodbye…”). The pre-chorus gets even more spiced by the fact that Sanja is singing a Gb note on “I played a fool”, thus producing a Ab7 overall.

The chorus itself is more ordinary harmonically, but it is still effective. There’s a small instrumental intermezzo after the first chorus; the second chorus is followed by a mostly instrumental middle eight flirting with the parallel key Gb major, and then there is a somewhat superfluous Eurovision key change up to E minor in the last chorus. But the whole song ends with an E major chord, so perhaps there is a light at the end of is this rather dramatic song.

The melody itself is a bit anonymous, but it flows naturally, and there are some fine details now and then. A good example is the way the line “Every time I say goodbye” is differentiated the second time: going up between “say” and “goodbye” instead of down. Also the melody works through the strong harmonic structure and not least through Sanja Vučić’s vocal performance. She is arguably one of the best singers this year, and she is performing the song with a lot of intensity. She is successfully mixing a bit of soul and jazz into the song in her vocal phrasings, for instance in her use of vibrato. The role models are obvious (Amy Winehouse in particular – especially on the visual side), but inspiration is allowed. I do however feel that she is overdoing it a bit. For instance I wish for a bit more modesty in the verse; that would also add some more dynamic vocal variation and make the performance in the chorus more effective.

The production is adding to the dynamic development of the song in a good way, for instance by starting with only a piano, introducing strings in the first pre-chorus and drums in the second verse. The changes between short and long notes in the violins works very well too; other fine detains include the backwards recorded instrument in the intro. And it is very liberating to hear real instruments rather than synthetic sounds: violins, piano, bass and drums. It’s a big shame that there is no live orchestra in Eurovision anymore; it would have suited this song perfectly.

The lyrics are not exactly innovative. It is a song about a troubled relationship that has now ended, and it is certainly not the first pop song to contain that topic. But once again it works through the music and especially the way it is performed. Sanja Vučić is putting a lot of expression into the words that they may not have had otherwise.

“Goodbye” is a musical tour de force, and it totally stands out in this context. It contains emotion, dramaturgy, variation, direction and musical tension. Even if the melody and the lyrics aren’t so interesting, the whole package still feels very genuine. Then I can forgive her for singing in English. It is one of the best songs this year, and it deserves a good result. Some flaws (slightly overdone vocals) and a somewhat anonymous melody means that I can “only” give it 9/12.

So that’s it. I have managed to review all the songs competing in Eurovision Song Contest 2016. 44 songs in total have been rated, in that Malta changed song and Romania was disqualified, sadly. It took quite a lot of time, and I have been considerably more generous to some songs than to others, but remember: this is just the way it sounds through my ears.

I will now take a break from ESC Song Reviews, but I will come back some weeks later, writing a more general comment about the musical level of this year’s contest. As for now there is only left for me to say: Thank you for reading, enjoy the shows, and remember to vote!

Good luck to everyone 🙂

2 thoughts on “Songcheck 2016: Israel, Lithuania, Serbia”

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