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Semi Final 1: Eurovision expert Graham Soult reviews the 2014 contenders

As Jessica Garlick would say (in the days when the UK still troubled the top half of the scoreboard), I’ve ‘Come Back’!

Yes, I had so much fun last year, when GEE’s Mette persuaded me out of my Eurovision semi-retirement, that I’ve agreed to do it all over again in 2014, casting my eye over the 37 Eurovision contenders and coming up with some wildly inaccurate predictions of how they’ll perform in Copenhagen.

To be fair, I did flag up last year’s ‘Only Teardrops’ as a potential winner, though it hardly required breathtaking insight on my part – after all, it was the runaway favourite for good reason. This year, however, is a much more complex Eurovision, with more diversity of genres and more really contemporary sounding songs (as well as fewer really embarrassing ones) than I’ve ever seen at a previous Contest.

Despite that, there is no one song that has all the hallmarks of an obvious winner like Alexander Rybak, Loreen or, indeed, Emmelie de Forest, making it a challenging one to call.

So, buckle up, and let’s run through the songs that are vying for Eurovision glory in Denmark, starting with those in Semi Final 1 (taking place on Tuesday 6 May).


1. Aram MP3 – Not Alone (Armenia)

Somewhat unusually, the 2014 Contest kicks off with the song that many people think will win the whole thing – Aram MP3’s ‘Not Alone’.

Starting gently, as a poignant and beautifully orchestrated ballad, the Armenian song morphs into a raging dubstep anthem (I know all about dubstep, honest) in its second half, with Aram throwing every emotion he’s got into the performance. It’s a stunning, refreshingly modern entry, and Armenia’s superb track record at Eurovision – rarely missing the top ten of the Final, even with relatively weak songs – must mean that ‘Not Alone’ is a near certainty to do the same.

Much will depend on Aram’s performance on the night – the live presentation at Eurovision in Concert lacked the dramatic impact of the preview video – and whether the song, though excellent, is accessible enough to the Eurovision audience. My inclination is that this is a top five contender rather than a winner.

2. Aarzemnieki – Cake to Bake (Latvia)

I’ll admit that I suppressed an inner groan when I saw that Latvia’s entry was called ‘Cake to Bake’, assuming it would be a silly entry guaranteed to prop up the bottom of the scoreboard, and that would provide plenty of fodder for a witty review.

Unfortunately, the song is actually rather charming. The members of Aarzemnieki look like they’re having a ball, smiling sweetly as they strum, sway and tap their feet – knowing, I suspect, that their gentle, singalong ditty is slowly, and surprisingly, worming its way into every listener’s head.

Latvia hasn’t come close to qualifying for the Final at the last five attempts, and with bookies’ odds as long as 500-1 you might assume that there’s no chance this time either. Still, ‘Cake to Bake’ worries me – it’s simple, catchy and eminently likeable, and it could yet pull off a surprise.

3. Tanja – Amazing (Estonia)

Estonia notched up an unlikely victory in 2001, a year that had many strong songs but no dead-cert winner prior to the event. With the 2014 looking similarly open, could Estonia do it again?

Coming after the delicate Latvian entry, Tanja is sure to make an impact with her rousing and highly choreographed dance anthem, ‘Amazing’, and it is a strong – if somewhat repetitive – song that is contemporary, radio friendly, and likely to have widespread appeal. The only drawback is that we’ve kind of been here before with ‘Euphoria’, and the poor result for last year’s Loreen-esque German entry from Cascada suggested that the same formula rarely delivers Eurovision success twice. Still, in a year that’s a tad lacking in uptempo tunes, Tanja may well pull in the votes for a song that, if not ‘Amazing’, is still pretty good.

4. Sanna Nielsen – Undo (Sweden)

Sanna was the obvious winner from a below-par Swedish Melodifestivalen this year, and she’s one of the most accomplished performers in this year’s Contest – a very strong singer who certainly knows how to work the camera.

It’s a pity then that ‘Undo’ is such an empty song. It’s all very polished (apart from the much-commented-on ‘undo my sad’ Swenglish), Sanna pours her heart into it, and it builds to a rousing finale via the obligatory key change, but ‘Undo’ is rather like the Eurovision equivalent of a croissant – you enjoy it while you’re consuming it, but then feel hungry immediately afterwards.

The Swedish entry is another one that’s near the top of the betting and fan predictions, but I’m not convinced. Maybe I just like a bit of emotional resonance to go with my big ballads?

5. Pollapönk – No Prejudice (Iceland)

Every Eurovision needs at least one entry where wackily-dressed guys leap around the stage making a noise, and Iceland is doing the honours for us this year.

That said, I do rather like ‘No Prejudice’. The ‘let’s do away with prejudice’ message comes across really strongly now that the song has been translated into English, and its ‘tolerance is bliss’ line will surely resonate given what’s happening elsewhere in Europe at the moment. A refrain of ‘la la las’ never does a Eurovision entry any harm either.

Having qualified for the last six Finals, few expect Iceland to manage it this time. For all the song’s charms, I fear it may indeed get squeezed in a highly competitive Semi Final.

6. Hersi – One Night’s Anger (Albania)

As always, the Albanian entry has undergone a makeover since it was chosen at the Festivali i Këngës selection show back in December, losing its bizarrely dramatic intro and gaining an Albanglish translation.

For all that I might jest, ‘One Night’s Anger’ *is* rather lovely, as Hersi warbles pleasingly over an unusual melody before rocking out all Evanescence-y towards the end. I suspect the song may just be a bit too slight and quirky to make the top ten of the Semi Final, however.

7. Tolmachevy Sisters – Shine (Russia)

Russia has an impressive record at Eurovision, notching up six top-3 finishes since 2000, including Dima Bilan’s victory in 2008. Too many Eurovision appearances from Jedward (plus an ill-fated foray by Slovakia) mean that the Tolmachevy Sisters being twins no longer makes much of an impact, but their song, ‘Shine’, is nice, with tight harmonies and a pleasing chorus.

Beyond that, there’s not much to say, really… it’s neither the best Russian entry there’s ever been nor the worst, but it somehow lacks much impact or memorability. Under the current system, Russia has never failed to reach the Eurovision Final, but you have to wonder whether the combination of a ho-hum song and a possible (but difficult-to-quantify) ‘Putin factor’ may have the Russians miss out this time.

8. Dilara Kazimova – Start a Fire (Azerbaijan)

With a top-five finish in each of the last five Eurovision Finals – including a famous victory in 2011 – Azerbaijan’s prospects can never be dismissed lightly.

Given that many Azeri entries have been big songs with big staging and big productions, it’s refreshing to hear something different this year. Beautifully performed by Dilara, ‘Start a Fire’ is a fragile, jazz-tinged ballad that has all the rawness and emotional impact that Sweden’s ‘Undo’ lacks.

Juries will lap this up, and of all the female ballads in this year’s Contest I suspect that Azerbaijan’s may be the one to watch. Baku’s Crystal Hall, specially built for the 2012 Eurovision, could yet be getting another outing.

9. Maria Yaremchuk – Tick-Tock (Ukraine)

With an OTT presentation and somewhat nonsensical English lyrics, you might be forgiven for thinking that ‘Tick Tock’ was this year’s Belarusian entry. But no – Belarus has indeed chosen a typically ridiculous song (more of which in my Semi Final 2 reviews), but it’s Ukraine that has opted for something rather more throwaway than its usual high standard of entry.

Smouldering Maria gives ‘Tick Tock’ plenty of welly, but it’s all a bit generic and nothing we haven’t heard languishing in the lower reaches of a Eurovision Semi Final before. Just as the aforementioned ‘Putin factor’ may count against Russia, it could also mean – rightly or wrongly – that voters are a little more predisposed than usual towards Ukraine. On the song’s merits alone, however, I wouldn’t have ‘Tick Tock’ counting down the hours to the Eurovision Final.

10. Axel Hirsoux – Mother (Belgium)

I’m a bit torn on this one. There’s no doubt that Axel is a superb vocalist who performs his entry, ‘Mother’, with gusto and real feeling, but it doesn’t prevent me finding the song an utter dirge.

Sounding like a pre-interval number from Notre Dame de Brussels, ‘Mother’ is rousing, heartfelt and ever-so-slightly creepy. We all love our mothers, of course, but do I want to hear a grown man performing an emotional tribute to mothers on the Eurovision stage? Not really.

Terrifyingly, some commentators see this entry as a potential Eurovision winner – no doubt mopping up the care home vote – while others detest it with a passion. While there are some voters who will clearly love this kind of thing, I honestly can’t see there being enough of them to propel Belgium to anywhere near victory.

11. Cristina Scarlat – Wild Soul (Moldova)

Moldova loves a dramatic rock ballad (2007’s ‘Fight’ gave the country one of its best results to date), and Cristina growls her way through this year’s effort, ‘Wild Soul’, with a preview video that’s all black capes, flowing blonde locks, and subdued lighting.

It’s not a bad a song at all, though for all the drama and strong vocals it doesn’t particularly go anywhere. The song’s lack of direction, and the fact that it’s maybe a bit too dark and brooding for some tastes, could see it miss out.

12. Valentina Monetta – Maybe (Forse) (San Marino)

After the fan fervour that greeted Valentina’s comeback with ‘Crisalide’ last year, positive reaction to her third successive entry for San Marino has been surprisingly muted. That’s a shame, because while ‘Maybe’ certainly isn’t the most contemporary song in this year’s Contest, it’s arguably Valentina’s most Eurovision-friendly (and jury-friendly) entry to date.

2013’s ‘Crisalide’ was generally regarded as a strong song that narrowly missed out on a place in the Final due to a strange and somewhat inaccessible performance that featured lots of long camera shots and Valentina hugging an IKEA lamp. Songwise, ‘Maybe’ doesn’t quite have the same immediate impact, but it’s a grower – a pleasing, old-fashioned Euro-ballad, with an unusual and quite complicated melody, that once again allows Valentina to show off her strong vocal range. If the staging is kept simple – with plenty of close-up shots of the lovely Valentina – then 2014 could finally be the year that San Marino squeaks through to Saturday’s show.

13. Suzy – Quero Ser Tua (Portugal)

Thirteen songs in, we finally get one that’s performed in the participating country’s native language.

Unfortunately, few fans or bookies expect much of ‘Quero Ser Tua’, a somewhat lightweight song that sounds like it could be a B-side to Kaoma’s 1989 smash hit ‘Lambada’. Still, for all that the Portuguese entry is cheap and throwaway, it does have an annoyingly catchy hook, and I don’t think it can be dismissed completely. If Eurovision televoters are in the mood for a fun song that they can bop along to on Mediterranean beaches this summer, this could be it – it’s hard to see the expert juries going for ‘Quero Ser Tua’ in a big way, though.

14. The Common Linnets – Calm After The Storm (The Netherlands)

After the silliness of Portugal, the Dutch entry stands out like a glistening jewel. A gentle, country-tinged ballad with more than a hint of Lady Antebellum, ‘Calm After The Storm’ is just lovely – simple, contemporary, and beautifully sung by Ilse DeLange and Waylon.

Some commentators have suggested that the Netherlands song might get lost among the many showier and more obvious entries, but I disagree. It stands out precisely because it is so effortless, so fresh and, well, just so *good* – the same attributes, indeed, that helped Anouk do so well for the Netherlands in last year’s Contest. The juries are almost certainly going to love this song, so it will be the televoters who determine whether or not it’s a contender to win the whole thing.

15. Sergej Ćetković – Moj Svijet (Montenegro)

In five previous attempts, Montenegro has never made it to the Eurovision Final as an independent country – but it would be a travesty if it misses out this time.

Apart from its stunning preview video – the best this year, and a brilliant advert for the Montenegrin tourist board, if nothing else – ‘Moj Svijet’ has much going for it. Remarkably, it’s the only ballad in this year’s Contest not to feature any English lyrics; equally, with Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia not taking part this time, it stands out as 2014’s only lushly-orchestrated Balkan ballad, a formula that has worked well for Montenegro’s neighbours in the past.

Most of all, it’s just a lovely song, building to a dramatic (if slightly abrupt) finish, and performed with absolute ease by the experienced and silken-voiced Sergej. With a great position in the Semi Final draw too, I’ll be amazed if Montenegro’s name isn’t inside one of the ten winning envelopes.

16. Kállay-Saunders – Running (Hungary)

In a Semi Final unusually lacking in male eye candy, Hungary comes to the rescue right at the end with the pleasing András Kállay-Saunders.

More importantly, though, ‘Running’ is a really strong and moving entry. The overall sound is utterly fresh and contemporary, and the meaningful if difficult lyrics – about a child overcoming abuse from her father – completely belie the perception that some people still have of Eurovision as a ‘boom-bang-a-bang-fest’ full of nonsense compositions. András, meanwhile, gets to show off his impressive vocal talents – including a falsetto – to good effect.

Hungary is rightly positioned among the top few contenders in the betting, and it’s entirely conceivable that ‘Running’ could give the country its best result since its 4th-placed debut in 1994.


As always, the hard part is to turn my reviews into a prediction of who will actually qualify for the Final. On the face of it, picking ten from 15 shouldn’t be too hard, but the consistently good standard this year – but with few real stand-outs – makes it quite a challenging call.

Based on my reviews, I think we can say with some certainty that the following entries (listed in performance order) are all more likely than not to qualify:

  • Armenia
  • Azerbaijan
  • Netherlands
  • Montenegro
  • Hungary

After that, there’s one more song that should make it provided the performance is good:

  • Estonia

That leaves nine songs jockeying for four places. Of those, I think we can probably rule out:

  • Iceland (too wacky)
  • Albania (too quirky)
  • Moldova (too meh)

Now we have six songs left and four places, and this is where what I *hope* happens diverges from what I *think* will happen. My prediction is that the remaining four might be:

  • Latvia (which would be good)
  • Sweden (my sad might not be undone, but I could live with it)
  • Russia (because Russia always qualifies)
  • Ukraine (ditto)

…which would mean that Belgium, San Marino and Portugal miss out.

I really hope that San Marino qualifies in place of Russia or Ukraine, however – it’s a country that has few obvious allies, and no neighbours to speak of, but it would be lovely if it was third time lucky for Valentina, with a song that is deserving (if only just) of a place in Saturday’s Final.

Look out for Graham’s reviews of Semi Final 2 – coming soon to Good Evening Europe!

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