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Semi Final 2: Eurovision expert Graham Soult reviews the 2014 contenders

After already casting my eye over this year’s first Semi Final, it’s now time to turn my attention to Semi Final 2 – taking place on Thursday 8 May.

With only 15 participating songs (one less than Semi Final 1), and (arguably) many of this year’s weakest entries, the second Semi Final should, in theory, be easier to call. So, let’s take a look, starting with…

 

1. Firelight – Coming Home (Malta)

From Julie and Ludwig to Olivia Lewis, Malta has been responsible for some of the cheesiest Eurovision entries of all time – a formula that worked well in the days when Eurovision was smaller, but has delivered diminishing returns in recent years.

Happily, after seven consecutive years of poor results, Gianluca Bezzina brought some pride back to Malta in 2013 with ‘Tomorrow’, a sweet, likeable and surprisingly fresh-sounding song that suggested Maltese music lovers had finally discovered the 21st century.

If anything, ‘Coming Home’ is even better than last year’s entry – a hummable country-folk ditty with a universally recognisable message, and that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Mumford and Sons album. It’s a perfect, joyously uplifting opener for the Semi Final, and a song that will surely be appearing in the Final on Saturday.

2. Mei Finegold – Same Heart (Israel)

I wanted Israel to choose ‘Same Heart’ as soon as I heard the three potential entries for Mei Finegold, and happily the Israeli televoters made the right choice – a song that could potentially win this year’s Contest.

The striking-looking Mei yelps, growls and pouts her way through the song, turning what could sound repetitive in the wrong hands into a raw and compelling anthem that builds to a superb high note and key change two-thirds of the way through. If televoters are in the mood for something uptempo among all this year’s balladry – and if Mei can nail all the big notes – this could do very well indeed.

3. Carl Espen – Silent Storm (Norway)

After the energy of the Israeli entry, the Norwegian entry that follows it could hardly be any different. Simple, haunting, and breathtakingly beautiful, it’s easy to see why Carl Espen’s ‘Silent Storm’ is up there as one of the pre-Contest favourites.

As you’d expect, this is a song that divides opinion – one person’s ‘beautiful’ is another’s ‘dreary’ and ‘depressing’ – and there are quite a few variables that could affect the result. For example, while Carl’s casually-dressed, everyman appearance is part of what makes the song feel so authentic and intimate, the live performances I’ve seen to date have felt a bit overwhelmed by the big stage. Equally, if (as expected) both Armenia and Norway make the Final, is there a danger that this year’s big two male-led, stripped-back, introverted entries will end up competing for the same votes? Whatever happens, it seems inconceivable that Norway will miss out on the Final with a song as good as this.

4. The Shin & Mariko – Three Minutes To Earth (Georgia)

Every year’s Eurovision has a WTF moment, and this year’s came when I first listened to the Georgian entry. Teaming jazz-folk band The Shin with vocalist Mariko, ‘Three Minutes To Earth’ is strange, unusual, and bizarrely charming.

Awash with different sounds and instruments, the song’s melody meanders all over the place, while the impressively-haired Mariko shimmies and trills to what sounds like a different song all together. Yet, for all its quirkiness, ‘Three Minutes To Earth’ stands out as an entry that actually embraces and celebrates the musical heritage of the country that it’s representing – a 2014 twist on the woefully underrated ‘Diwanit Bugale’ that represented France back in 1996.

So, while I can’t see the Georgians troubling the Final, all credit to them for having a Eurovision entry that eschews generic pop in favour of something genuinely interesting.

5. Donatan & Cleo – My Słowianie – We Are Slavic (Poland)

After a two-year break, Poland has returned to Eurovision with an entry that has certainly raised a few eyebrows. A tongue-in-cheek celebration of ‘Slavic girls’, the song’s preview video features more close-ups of heaving bosoms than any gay man would want to see in a lifetime.

Teaming producer Donatan with Cleo’s machine-gun-delivery vocals, the song has already been a smash hit in Poland, and there’s no arguing that it’s fun, cheeky and catchy as hell. Will its appeal successfully cross over to a Eurovision audience? In a weakish Semi, it just might.

6. Conchita Wurst – Rise Like A Phoenix (Austria)

With its solitary win coming in 1966, and only three top-five finishes since then, Austria’s record of Eurovision success isn’t the best. With the delightful Conchita Wurst, however, could 2014 be the year that changes?

The preview video suggests that ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ has all the ingredients of a classic Eurovision power ballad: 007-esque orchestration, glam dresses, key changes, high notes, the customary wind machine, and a song that is actually really, really strong. Even better, all the evidence to date suggests that Conchita’s live vocals are well and truly up to the task.

The problem? Conchita has a beard, and some of our European compatriots seem to be getting themselves in a flap about that. There will be many others out there, however, for whom Conchita’s message about being exactly who you want to be strikes a powerful chord.

7. Vilija Matačiūnaitė – Attention (Lithuania)

Famous for his affectionate mangling of foreign names, you almost wish that Sir Terry Wogan was still around as a commentator to have a go at ‘Vilija Matačiūnaitė’.

Having said that, it’s hard to imagine Graham Norton, Sir Terry’s successor as BBC commentator on the Eurovision Final, having a chance to pronounce it either – after all, that that would involve Lithuania actually making the Final this year.

Unfortunately, ‘Attention’ kicks off a clutch of slightly underwhelming entries in the second Semi Final. From the opening strains onwards, ‘Attention’ is frankly a bit of a racket, with the lovely but slightly scary Vilija barking her way through the performance of her self-penned song via some admittedly impressive vocal flourishes.

The Lithuanian entry will certainly grab people’s ‘Attention’, though not, I suspect, for the best of reasons. The country *has* had a good record at Eurovision lately – qualifying on the last three occasions with songs that most people had written off – but I can’t help thinking that ‘Attention’ is more likely to challenge for ‘nul points’ than a place in Saturday’s Final. Never mind – I do live in hope that I might one day like a Lithuanian Eurovision entry… L

8. Softengine – Something Better (Finland)

Since finally winning Eurovision at the 40th attempt in 2007 (with Lordi’s ‘Hard Rock Hallelujah’), Finland has reverted to type with a succession of poor results. So can 2014 bring ‘Something Better’?

There are certainly some positives about this year’s entry – teen-rock band Softengine comprises five good-looking lads, and the song, which is written by two of the band members, is contemporary and credible. The only trouble is that it lacks a killer hook that would prevent it all ending up a bit forgettable.

In a Contest that’s light on both rock and groups this year, the Finnish entry will stand out to some extent, and could sneak through to Saturday. Once there, however, it’s hard to see Finland doing better than another placing in the low teens.

9. Can-Linn (feat. Kasey Smith) – Heartbeat (Ireland)

I should declare an interest here, in that I’m one of the few people who actually bought the album by Wonderland – the short-lived Irish girlband of which Kasey Smith used to be one fifth – back in 2011.

The Wonderland girls could really sing, though their material perhaps suffered from just being a bit too safe and dull – and, as it happens, ‘Heartbeat’ has much the same problem. It does begin well – Kasey’s vocals are great, as always, and lend a sultry and convincing tone to the nicely structured verses. Once the chorus hits, however, ‘Heartbeat’ seems to run out of steam, with a generic and slightly plodding feel that doesn’t live up to the song’s early promise.

For all that, it’s still one of the better and more modern-sounding Irish entries of recent years, but I’m not sure it has the impact and memorability to make much of an impression in Copenhagen.

10. Teo – Cheesecake (Belarus)

Those Russian grannies with their bread ovens have a lot to answer for, as Teo’s ‘Cheesecake’ joins Latvia’s ‘Cake to Bake’ in perpetuating Eurovision’s association with baking.

Where the cake-themed Latvian entry (in Semi Final 1) has a certain charm, the Belarusian song is just a bit silly. Cheeky chappy Teo struts and gurns his way through the song, telling his ex-love that he’s “tired of being your sweet cheesecake.” The lyrics are a touch more complex than you might expect, and Teo is a perfectly good singer, even if the entry does fall into the typical Belarusian trap of teaming English lyrics with a somewhat indecipherable accent.

Belarus has one of the weakest Eurovision records of the ex-USSR countries – only qualifying for the Final on three of the last 10 occasions – and there’s little in ‘Cheesecake’ to suggest a reversal of those fortunes.

11. Tijana Dapčević – To The Sky (F.Y.R. Macedonia)

Watching the first ‘live’ presentation of this year’s Macedonian Eurovision entry back in February it was hard not to be distracted by some of the most comical lip-synching I’d ever seen, where Tijana seemed to be singing along to an all together more interesting song than the one we were listening to.

As for the song, it’s OK – just fairly ordinary and repetitive dance-pop that leaves you in little doubt by the end that it’s called ‘To the Sky’. On the plus side, though, Tijana has a look and stage presence that is hard to ignore, and has proved in subsequent performances that she can just about pull off the actually-live vocal.

However, Macedonia has only managed to qualify for the Final once in the last six attempts (with the superlative Kaliopi), and I can’t see 2014 doing much to improve that record.

12. Sebalter – Hunter of Stars (Switzerland)

Like Macedonia, Switzerland hasn’t had much success in making the Eurovision Final in recent years – only managing it once (in 2011) in the last seven attempts, and then promptly finishing in last place on Saturday’s show anyway.

2014 could, however, be a better year for the Swiss. Leaping around his preview video with a disarming grin, singer Sebalter throws whistling, a violin and a dodgy English accent into ‘Hunter of Stars’ to create a concoction that is quirky, infectious and impossible to dislike. If Seb and his band can convey that sense of joy on stage, the Swiss entry – despite being at 250-1 in the betting – could do a lot better than many people think.

13. Freaky Fortune feat. Riskykidd – Rise Up (Greece)

You know Eurovision’s got trendy when there’s an act that has ‘feat.’ in its name. An even bigger feat is trying to make a success of sending rap to Eurovision, though almost every year there’s one country that decides to follow in the footsteps of Kølig Kaj or Daz Sampson (see Latvia 2013), usually with devastatingly bad results.

Still, if anyone can make rap work it’s Greece, which has never finished below 4th in a Eurovision Semi Final and has only missed the top ten of the Final on one of the last ten occasions. Indeed, ‘Rise Up’ isn’t bad at all, taking a dance beat, Riskykidd’s rap and Nick from Freaky Fortune’s silky vocals and blending them into something that kind of works. It’s not a vintage Greek entry by any means, and not a winner, but it’s surely going to qualify for the Final.

14. Tinkara Kovač – Round And Round (Slovenia)

Slovenia’s preview video shows the lovely Tinkara singing, playing the flute, and staring into the middle distance wearing floaty dresses, with a song that is unusual, atmospheric and really rather catchy. It also manages to blend English and Slovenian lyrics without the clunky end result that sometimes ensues.

The country’s recent Eurovision record – with just two qualifications for Saturday’s Final in ten attempts – is woeful, but the combination of a better-than-usual entry, a good slot in the running order, and relatively weak competition should see Slovenia make it through this time.

15. Paula Seling & Ovi – Miracle (Romania)

After scoring an excellent 3rd place for Romania in 2010, Paula Seling and Ovi are back for another go with ‘Miracle’ – though they may need one to better the result of ‘Playing With Fire’.

Don’t get me wrong – ‘Miracle’ is a great dance track, Paula gets to show off her impressive vocal acrobatics again, and the song will stand out in a Eurovision year that’s a bit lacking in uptempo tunes. It’s just not quite as playful and appealing as their last effort, however, and there are surely no staging gimmicks that can trump the awesomeness of 2010’s double-sided piano.

Still, of all the songs in Semi Final 2, it’s the one that sounds to me most like a winner – and most like a track that would end up being covered by the cast of Glee.

Conclusion

As with Semi Final 1, the first task is to identify those songs that are almost certain to make it through to Saturday. By my reckoning, this includes the following entries, which just happen to be the first three and last one of the night:

  • Malta
  • Israel
  • Norway
  • Romania

Then we need to get rid of the countries that more than likely won’t make it. My guess is that these might be:

  • Georgia
  • Lithuania
  • Belarus
  • Macedonia

That means you have seven songs fighting for six more places. Of those, the ones most likely to qualify, in my view, are:

  • Austria
  • Switzerland
  • Greece
  • Slovenia

That just leaves Poland, Finland and Ireland, so I’ll stick my neck out and suggest that Poland and Finland will go through – because they’re both different to anything else in the Semi Final – while Ireland may not benefit from comparison to the vaguely similar but arguably superior Slovenian entry that comes later.

I’ll be reviewing the five guaranteed Finalists in the next day or two, but in the meantime feel free, as always, to share your own thoughts and predictions below!

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