Bring out your TV show dead…

Image via deadtvs.com

It’s the modern pop culture equivalent of the gathering up of the dead during the Black Death in the Middle Ages.

Once a year all the major US TV networks gather in New York for what is called “upfront season” to announce which shows have survived the brutal contest for viewers’  eyeballs, which new shows will gather at the starting line for the new Fall (Autumn) TV season, and which have faded into oblivion. Or more precisely in the case of the latter programs, which of them, stumbling close to the precipice, will be simply put out of their misery and pushed unsentimentally into the yawning void.

While it is a business as usual for the gathered broadcasting executives, and the assembled journalists and media analysts waiting to hear the list of the dead, and slightly maimed (those shows that are given a reprieve but for a smaller number of episodes; such as Community and 30 Rock this year which garnered orders for 13 episodes apiece), fans are not so sanguine. They spent the weeks leading up to this week quaking in fear, fearful their favourite show will not survive the cull. And then mourning or celebrating depending on what the TV gods in suits decree.

CSI: Miami (image via appshopper.com)

As usual, this year’s “upfront season” had its share of surprises. While shows like CSI: NY and CSI survived, their sister show, CSI: Miami was given the axe despite rating higher than its New York-based counterpart. Similarly both Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice have been granted a stay of execution, despite both sliding in the ratings over the last season. Sometimes there is no discernible rhyme or reason for why some shows go to God and others stumble back out into the bright light of  a clinking cathode tube.

Then of course there are the other cancellations which don’t induce these kinds of mouth-slapping gasps. Among them, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s big bright TV comeback Ringer which met with the executioner’s axe as expected, its ratings insufficient to keep it on screens and Alcatraz which came loaded with an intriguing premise and the imprimatur of the gifted J. J. Abrams but a rather lacklustre execution.

Ringer (image via ringer.maxupdates.tv)

Other shows that were euthanised before they died a natural ratings-deficient death were the Kathy Bates’ dramedy Harry’s Law,  freshman show Awake, which again had a brilliant premise that didn’t translate to an engaging ongoing drama, and Fox’s dinosauric blockbuster, Terra Nova, which promised much but didn’t perform as well as hoped.

Awake (image via screenrant.com)

But while the fans of those shows immediately donned mourning black and took to the ‘net to plot their campaigns to have the shows revived, other fans were dancing in the streets. Among them the aforementioned Community, Cougar Town (which performed a miracle and survived by moving networks from ABC to TBS), Parks and Recreation and Happy Endings, all of which will live to broadcast another another day. They were joined by shows like Big Bang Theory, Once Upon a Time, GleeThe Mentalist, and Castle, who were shoo-ins for renewal and shall bask once more in the adoration of their fans once September rolls around.

Parks and Recreation (image via screenjunkies.com)

And then there were those shows that simply reach the end of their natural lives, a rarity in the cutthroat world of American television. House is shuttling off its mortal coil as is the soapy extravaganza that was Desperate Housewives. By all accounts the latter show has experienced a renewal of creative chutzpah in its final season, recapturing the intrigue and saucy melodrama that made it a must-see in its early days on air.

It means that this mainstay of broadcast for the last eight years will be able to go out which a bang and not a resigned whimper, something that the cancelled shows, all of whom are now consigned to the dustbin of pop culture history and the far flung nether regions of the internet, will never have the chance to emulate.

ABBA: So that’s a “NO!” to reforming is it Bjorn?

So it’s official then. In this short five second sound clip from Bjorn, who was interviewed on Swedish radio mere days ago on 11 May, he makes it very clear that the band will never, ever reform. You can’t get much more definitive than he does, either in the choice of words, or tonally (he sounds exasperated and tired all at once being asked yet again about the subject that all ABBA fans obsess about to one degree or another).

Frankly I never expected them to reform again, so this news is hardly a massive surprise.

And in my heart of hearts I think I would rather they don’t attempt anything of the sort since those sorts of reunions are always fraught. Yes on one very nostalgic level you’re excited that the band you love is back – you get to see them do their thing one more time, and maybe just maybe recapture a little bit of the thrill you felt when you were younger. Go back in time and relive a special moment in your life.

But we all know, deep down, that you can’t go back. Not really. And I think I would prefer to remember ABBA as they were and enjoy the specialness of those memories than attempt to bring something from my past kicking and screaming into the my present.

I have no doubt that all four members have the talent to pull a reunion off if they wanted to, but they seem to sensibly realise there was a time and a place for ABBA as an active band and that that time is not now.

Good call Bjorn… even though the 10 year old insides still wishes it would happen.

Pop culture overload

I saw this tweet the other day in my never ending onrushing stream that is my Twitter feed – blink and you will miss things! Hence my eyes are always open now… yes I need a constant supply of eye drops – and it resonated with me instantly.

It’s exactly how I feel. In one short tweet, @BillHarper crystallised for me the way I feel about the almost overwhelming rush of information, pop culture and otherwise that surges over us on a given day.

On one hand of course I love it. If I didn’t have a passion for music, movies, TV shows, books and theatre, I wouldn’t be writing a blog that talks of nothing else. The blog accurately reflects my ongoing love for all aspects of pop culture, including memes that pop up from nowhere, and yes, god help me, even LOLCats, and submerging myself in the endless torrent of poptastic goodness that the modern internet age has given us is a journey of constant delight and thrills.

Like the excitement of finding a brand new music artist, almost every hour it seems thanks to the countless music blogs I follow, artist tweets, and the Alice in Wonderland musical rabbit hole that is YouTube and iTunes, that wouldn’t have the tools to make their music or distribute it even five years ago as effectively as they can now.

Or coming across a new author, who freed from having to kowtow to publishers (although as an aspiring novelist myself of course I’d bow and scrape till my knees were bleeding raw if it would land me a three book deal) and perhaps never get their luminously beautiful, exquisitely well written novel published, can now get it out to an eager ereader-toting public via Kindle or Smashwords (or their many, many brethren).

Or even reading about your favourite TV show or an upcoming movie you’re excited about seeing, and hearing all these amazing insights from the producers, the actors, and the writers. Once we were just passive consumers, at arm’s length from the makers of the shows we would drop everything to watch but now we can plunge in and interact with these people. The experience is so much richer, deeper, and all encompassing that it ever was before.

But there ironically lies the problem. It sometimes feels that we are drowning in this never ending rush of new and exciting things. It’s almost like there is too much information, too many new musicians vying for our attention, too many new authors writing more words than we will ever have the time to read in one lifetime.

Of course, to complain about this would seem perversely ungrateful.

Gone are the days of waiting for the printed fan club newsletter to arrive with the latest news about your favourite artist – which is what I had to do back in the, ahem, 1970s when I was desperately waiting for word on a new ABBA album – and while some of the special thrill of hearing long awaited news is over, you not only get to read the latest news when it happens but so much more besides. A personal video message from the artist. A trailer on YouTube talking about the project. Pictures. Press releases. You name it, it’s there and we can access almost as soon as someone brings it into being.

But there is a sense that we can’t fully appreciate it all, or savour the delights of what it is we’re reading, listening to, watching. That it all rushes by in such a pellmell rush that we barely acknowledge before it is supplanted before the next pop culture marvel takes its place.

Of course, it is self-inflicted and we are the ones with our hands on the tap and we can stop the endless torrent of new things any time we want. But seriously name me one pop culture junkie that would do that? I certainly wouldn’t.

So no, I am not going complaining about the Aladdin’s Cave of pop culture wonders that opens up to me every time I go online, nor will I step out of it for a moment for fear of missing some rare new talent breathing something spectacular into creation, but sometimes, just sometimes, I wish all the creative people would just take a week long nap, and let Bill Harper and I catch up.

Either that, or extend my lifetime by a factor of about a billion, while slowing down space and time. Yes, that would work…

Sonic Bliss #8: My favourite songs of the week

I am awash in an overflow of wonderful exuberant beautiful music. It’s been a few weeks since the last update and pop music waits for no one, releasing song after stellar song till my iPod threatened to crack open with the virtual strain (it is so melodramatic at times). So to release some of the pressure, and share some of the musical gems I have unearthed, here’s this week’s five top picks from a crowded jostling field of contenders.

SLEEP PARTY PEOPLE: “We Were Drifting on a Sad Song”

 

 

The bunny suits are a dead giveaway. Sleep Party People are one of those wonderful bands that doesn’t play by the usual rules of glamour pop, their faces adorning every last inch of their releases. In fact, it is hard to find a photo of this engagingly idiosyncratic band that doesn’t feature them in bunny masks and hoodies, and frankly, I like it that way. It would be almost like seeing Maris from Frasier, or Wolowitz’s loud-mouthed mum from The Big Bang Theory if they were to remove their face coverings at this point.

And it suits the kind of dreamy, ethereal idiosyncratic pop that they make. The Danish band, which is a side project of Brian Batz, a one man musical prodigy who creates the music in the sanctity of his bedroom makes the kind of pop that defies the ability of the English language, expansive though it is, to adequately describe it.

Suffice to say, it is broad ranging, otherworldly intensely melodic music with haunting voices woven in, over and through it in the most magical way possible. It is the sort of music you would put on at 3 in the morning as you sit in your lounge room savouring the meaning of life. (I have never done this but if I did, this is the music I would play as an accompaniment; as I never intend to test this, you will have to take my word for it).

They are unlike anything you will have heard in a long time, and the perfect way to carry yourself off to somewhere other than the grainy reality of every day life.

 

 

 

ZOWIE: “My Calculator”

 

 

It’s time to get up and dance people! Again.

Zowie,  a New Zealand-based devotee of electro clash, made quite the splash with her releases of the delightfully aggressive songs (yes it is possible to have the two sit comfortably cheek by jowl when you’re as talented as she is), “Smash It” and “Bite Back” which oozed attitude and sass, and an innate danceability that proved hard to resist.

So no one really tried. Admittedly the music wasn’t rocket science, it was highly unlikely the meaning of her lyrics will never be debated by philosophers in learned societies, and you could well argue it’s been done before by the like of Goldfrapp and Peaches, but does it matter when she does it this well? It’s bright shiny pop that is catchy as ebola.

Now Zowie, who goes by the time Zoe Fleury when applying for credit cards at her bank, is back to tempt us onto the dance floor again with this full on pop confection that roars into your head and refuses to disappear. Ever. Again, best not to concentrate too much on the lyrics but when have the really catchy dance songs ever worried too much about that anyway?

Best you simply park your brain in neutral, surrender to the euphoric fun of this driving slice of fuzzy melodic dance floor pop and lose yourself in its swirls, dips and bouncy beats for three and a half blissful minutes.

 

 

MARBLE SOUNDS: “Good Occasions”

 

 

There is a soft sweet beauty to this music that belies the sometimes bittersweet lyrical content of this band’s gorgeously produced music.

Reminding me of bands like Bombay Bicycle Club and Pinback (a band I love and adore after stumbling across them one night on ABC Australia’s late night music program, Rage) but totally their own creation, Marble Sounds, which is helmed by talented Belgian Pieter Van Dessel, has a richness to it than engaged me from the word go.

It is a curious experience listening to this song. On one hand it has a stark stripped back emotional core to it that washes over you like the gentle melancholy of truths realised in the wee small hours of the morning. On the other, there’s an uplifting magnificent sense of hope, a quality in the vocals that acknowledges pain but refuses to be bowed by it.

It is a seductive, compelling mix and explains why this band has garnered a following from listeners of intelligent, emotionally articulate pop.

 

 

 ICONA POP: “I Love It”

 

 

You want heart-poundingly powerful beats coupled with the most defiant of break up lyrics and want to dance yourself in the process? Then this song from Sweden’s immensely talented Icona Pop, which is made up of Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo, is your ticket to dancing over the grave of any and all broken relationships littering your past. (Even if you’re well over them; you can likely find some residue of resentment that will allow you to totally tap into the deliciously angry forcefulness of the song.)

It has attitude and then some which is married perfectly to a beat so all consuming and powerful you wonder just what an ex did to incite some hook-laden vitriol? Frankly I don’t care. All I know is that the song, written by the up-and-coming pop prodigy, Charli CXC, sweeps all before it with blinding passion and unstoppable force.

No word yet on when we can expect a full album from the Scandinavian twosome but if this song is any indication of what they’re capable of, then it’s a high likelihood you won’t see much of me when it is released. I will be the one with the headphones super glued to my head listening to this album on repeat. And repeat. And… you get the idea.

 

 

ALANIS MORRISSETTE: “Guardian”

 

 

Alanis Morrissette is no longer the angry spurned woman who breathed such vengeful life into the multi-million selling cultural phenomenon of her debut album Jagged Little Pill, released way back in 1995. She has found lasting love, got married to Mario “MC Soulway” Treadway in 2010, and had a child, all facets of her life that are as far removed from the angry jilted lover she once was as you could hope for.

And while you may think that might make her upcoming new album Havoc and Bright Lights, which is due to drop in August this year, a rather sedate affair, I say think again. Though her focus may have changed and the lyrics of “Guardian” certainly reflect that, the passion that propelled her forward remains as fiercely incandescent as ever.

That is what truly sets this remarkable artist apart from the pack. She may not command the charts like she once did, but I get the feeling that doesn’t unduly trouble her. She is making music that is true to her artistic vision, that possesses all the searing honesty and heartfelt emotional expression she has always evinced, and “Guardian” is as rich a track as she has ever produced.

It is so good in fact that waiting for the album, once again produced by Guy Sigsworth, the producing talent behind Frou Frou and Bjork, will be a long wait indeed.

 

 

So which song held you up by sonic gunpoint and is making you listen to it over and over and … yeah you get the idea?

Review: “Strangeland” – Keane

When Keane burst forth on to the music scene with Hopes and Fears in 2004, they met with almost instant success.

Their brand of melodic piano-drive pop found a ready audience with people drawn to beautiful emotionally-rich pop. Tom Chaplin’s voice captured anguish and heartache so perfectly you imagined he must have experienced more than his fair share of it and poured it drop by painful drop into what sounded like deeply personal songs of love and loss.

People connected profoundly with songs like “Everybody’s Changing” and “Somewhere Only We Know” and were moved deeply by what I still think is one of the loveliest songs I have ever heard from any band period – the indescribably beautiful B-side “Fly To Me”.

Their next album, Under the Iron Sea, kept the momentum going, and the band sailed on, garnered more fans and etched their tales of life’s emotional high and low points on hearts and minds everywhere.

Then came 2008’s experimental Perfect Symmetry which paid homage to the 80s with such passion that you swore the band snapped their backs in their haste to bow to the decade that gave us Duran Duran and Tears For Fears. Nothing wrong with that – many bands have successfully taken the 80s synth-based sound and woven them into their existing sound and met with great success.

Unfortunately while I applaud experimentation as much as the next musically adventurous listener, Keane essentially junked their original sound, rather than adapting it, to make this transition, alienating quite a few fans in the process. It wasn’t a bad album by any stretch and had a number of songs that wove the spirit of the 80s into their fabric and yet retained a sense of being very much the product of a 21st century band. I found it quite listenable but alas, it wasn’t Keane and nor was the hugely inconsistent follow up EP in 2010, Night Train, which frankly was disappointing and added nothing to Keane’s lustre, such as it was at that point.

One thing that can be said about it was that it was a misguided attempt to have one foot in the sound that so defined their early days and the new experimental sound they were pursuing with admirable artistic vigour, even if the resulting music was less than remarkable.

 

 

Thankfully, Keane seem to have largely found their way back from the musical wilderness, all by themselves. Granted Strangeland is not groundbreaking in any respect, and in some ways, merely retreads what they did when they first started, but since when is that crime?

The thing is, it isn’t. But if you believe some music critics, it is a hangable offence. Keane have been accused of sounding “dated and overblown” and having lyrics that read like the pages of self-help manual, which is manifestly unfair. They have simply returned to creating bright shiny emotion-soaked pop with their innate sensibility for crafting hook-laden melodies manifestly intact. Songs like the lead single “Silenced by the Night”, “Starting Line” and “Disconnected” have that unique mix of melancholy and beauty that are the hallmarks of Keane’s sound and are as pure and listenable as anything from their early days.

Deride them if you will for re-inventing the musical wheel but when the wheel is as profoundly musically entrancing and emotionally as deep and rich as this one, you can understand why they came back to what made them so special in the first place.

 

 

Perhaps you can judge a book by its cover after all

The wisdom of that age-old adage remains as true today as the day it leapt into popular use sometime in the early Twentieth Century.

We all readily acknowledge that making a judgement on the worth of anything by external appearances only means that we could well miss out on something precious that could add value to our lives.

However, while we may think that, the truth remains that we are, by and large, visual beings. No matter how much we might believe that something is going to be of benefit, we may be dissuaded from reading it/watching it/experiencing it if the cover leaves a lot to be desired.

That’s why marketers go to so much trouble to make every book look as appealing as they can. They know they need to appeal to us as quickly as they can, especially in today’s snap judgement, time poor world.

So you have to wonder exactly what the marketing departments of the publishing companies who released these gems to a clamouring public were thinking… or not.

(Thanks to Roberto Damante of Sobadsogood for making sure these gems weren’t consigned to the dustbin of history.)


Let the pixels rejoice! “Community” and “Cougartown” both renewed

Cast of Community (image via ewinsidetv.com)

One of the fun games my house mate and I love to play at this time of year – the preceding phrase is laced with so much sarcasm that small puppies and kittens may die if they come too close to it – is whether our favourite US TV shows will make a welcome return to our screens later in the year (after the US summer TV hiatus) or drift off into non-pixelated oblivion.

It is like waiting in a hospital waiting room for a loved one to recover from a serious operation but much, much worse. Of course I am kidding. Or am I? Anyway, there are shows that are shoo-ins for renewal because they’re ratings blockbusters – this season think Suburgatory, New Girl or Once Upon a Time – or are capturing a particular demographic that a TV wants – think Happy Endings which skews young – or simply plug a role in the schedule (which surely is the only reason some of the spin offs of CSI or Law and Order lumber on like ageing dinosaurs with Zimmer frames)…

Cast of Cougar Town (via us magazine.com)

… and then are the shows that are critical darlings because they’re innovative, cleverly written with three dimensional characters but are failing to find an audience for goodness knows that reason. Case in point are two of my favourite shows of the moment, Community and Cougartown, which bristle with creative energy, clever out-of-the-box plots and characters you want to spend time with as often as is humanly possible.

I wish I knew why people don’t flock to these shows in numbers so great that the TV ratings monitors go into Chernobyl-style meltdowns but alas, they don’t. It is galling when shows as stellar as these two suffer while shows like Two Broke Girls, and Two and a Half Men, which rely on pre-digested flagged-in-advance obvious jokes for their “humour” rather letting it come organically from the characters’ interactions, attract recording ratings.

I daresay it would take a doctoral thesis to pull that apart, or an uncensored drunken night at a bar where I would likely say that I really think is the reason, so probably best if we move on to the very good, Snoopy Dance of Joy inducing news that…

Both Community and Cougar Town have been renewed!

Community is back for cut down season of just 13 episodes but frankly I would rather have 13 episodes of inspired madcap hilarity from the quirky students at Greendale Community College than none at all. There is a good chance that if it performs well that NBC could extend the order to a full season but best not to count our deans until they emerge wearing a figure-flattering Carmen Miranda outfit.

It’s still not confirmed if Chevy Chase will return for the fourth season, or for that matter, series creator and show runner Dan Harmon, but the rest of the gang will definitely be there, thank the TV gods!

Joel McHale (image via iamatvjunkie.typepad.com)

Series star, Joel McHale tweeted in response to news:

“Dear #Community fans, You are the best people in the world. We’re renewed for 13 eps. Couldn’t have done it without you.”

To which we say, Joel you’re welcome (although technically living in Australia we had absolutely no impact on the result; even so I shall slap myself on the back and look mighty pleased and self-c0ngratulatory at every opportunity).

The return of Cougar Town was even more in the balance so its ongoing survival is a matter for a bunch of Hail Marys and thanks to any and all watching deities.

Its first three seasons were shown on the US ABC TV network but it’s been obvious to anybody trying to find the show on the schedule that the network’s heart just wasn’t in it. While programming chief Paul Lee maintained he was a fan of the show, his scheduling decisions said otherwise. It’s viewing demographic skews most heavily towards young women but Mr Lee, for reasons known only to him programmed it after the very blokey and hence largely male viewer-skewing new Tim Allen show, Last Man Standing. You can guess how well it did in that graveyard slot.

So news that it has moved across to basic cable channel TBS is to be welcomed. The deal involves production of seasons four and five of the adult-targeted show  as well as the right to repeat screen season one to three. This will likely garner the show a much wider audience which hopefully should keep it around for a while to come.

In honour of both shows I would like to say the news is “Cool Cool Cool” and raise a glass of red wine in a Big Carl-like glass to much welcome news… and the end of nervous nail biting for the foreseeable future.

 

Review: “Zombies Hate Stuff” by Greg Stones

Frankly I am not sure why everyone is worried about this Mayan calendar end of the world thing this year.

I think we have far more to fear from the impending zombie apocalypse.

Or do we? Thanks to Greg Stone, the inspired, uber-talented man behind this amusing book, which also doubles as a handy guide to things zombies don’t like, has in a series of beautifully rendered watercolour drawings given us a handy guide to the things we need to surround ourselves with to ward off the hungry zombie hordes.

Zombies hate... Hippies

For instance did you know zombies hate technology? And unicorns? Hippies? And even Santa. (Santa must hate the zombies right back I guess; how hard would zombies be to shop for? I mean, I can picture Santa in his workshop saying “Let’s see they like fresh human flesh and I… dang I am have none… hmm spinning top maybe?”).

Zombies hate... Unicorns

There is a veritable cornucopia of things you can keep close to you to keep the ravenous undead hordes at bay, and so then like the people who live through an alien invasion or disaster movie simply because they have a dog next to them, you can walk through the zombie apocalypse with impunity.

And on the off chance the zombie apocalypse, like so many end of days scenarios never quite materialises, then at the very least you will have had a good laugh.

But not with a zombie. Odds are they hate laughter too.

Zombies hate... Rowboats

Greg Stones is a talented watercolour artist who discovered sometime around 1998 that it was possible to be an artist and have fun too. Since then he has thrown flying saucers and blue-skinned aliens into his art, and now, of course zombies. You can see more of his art here.

 

 

Road to Eurovision 2012: Week 6

Welcome to another week of barely-controlled Eurovision madness!

The clock is loudly ticking down to Eurovision (with an occasional unexpected key change and the odd pyrotechnic burst from the clock face… oh and is that a Ukrainian grandmother popping out of the time keeping piece on the hour every hour, a limp broken cuckoo in her hand?) and I’m as excited as an Eastern Eurpoean boy band about to step it up a gear in their onstage performance. Yes that excited!

But it’s not just me, my friends. Oh no. You see, people all across Europe have been gathering at a succession of preview parties, some big some small, all, quite naturally fabulous, scattered across Europe, where they get to meet some of the artists performing this year and listen to their songs (for which they will need, if they truly want to enjoy the experience, a decent brand of sound-reducing headphones for every two songs in three).

The parties kicked off on the 21 April when 23 of Eurovision’s class of 2012 fronted up in Amsterdam for the “Eurovision in Concert” event, where 1350 screamed and cheered (and occasionally reached for their ears). It was followed by events in London – a little smaller with just 300 loyal Eurovision disciples throwing glitter to the wind and greeting  seven of this year’s music god and goddesses and even some former entrants, no doubt happy to have more moment in the spotlight – and Israel where fans mets San Marino’s Valentina Monetta and Israel’s entrant, Izabo.

Given the ever diminishing size of these events, I am guessing that the preview party  that followed Israel’s would have featured a former entrant from 1973 and the janitor who cleans the Crystal Hall in Baku?

But I digress. It’s time to review this week’s crop of Eurovision wanna-be stars and sort the spandex clad wheat from the chaff…

 

LATVIA: “Beautiful Song” – Anmary

 

 

I thought for one fleeting moment – OK the entire song – that Anmary might topple over in her clip from the weight of all those tickets on herself. You could never accuse this blond popette of a cringing lack of confidence. From the first awkwardly-paced English lyrics, she is readying herself for a lifetime of camera flash-blinding stardom that she seems to expect will commence nanoseconds after she completes her performance. Why possibly even before it begins!

Lyrics like “When I join this grand parade of winners” and “Beautiful song that everybody hums and everybody loves” indicate that she is expecting them to simply stop the contest once she has enthralled with her musical virtuosity – what do you mean you have doubts about it? You are clearly not a believer in this Latvian singers path to world-crushing popularity! Begone with you! – and hand her the Crystal Microphone immediately. I mean when you’re as beautiful and talented and in possession of, like, every musical gift known to man, why wait for the lesser mortals from other countries to do their pitiable thing?

Unless of course that’s not how it plays out. But shhh don’t try to tell Anmary that! She won’t listen anyway. I suspect she will be too busy to hear you as she practises signing her autograph, giggling and mouthing “Who little old me? Why I’m nobody really!” in the mirror while posing for an invisible paparazzi that she no doubt expects will become tangibly real when she wanders from the Crystal Hall into the surrounding streets of Baku which will, of course, be thronging with her fans in a Beiber-like state of frenzy and longing.

Thankfully her quest for global domination of everyone’s ear worms isn’t without some merit. She has been singing for most of her life, and apparently her mother and father were really as supportive as she makes them out to be in the song. She is generally recognised as a very talented singer which at least means that she doesn’t look completely silly when she makes grand claims about becoming a superstar.

The music thankfully is bouncy, warm and oh-so-hummable which compensates for the laughably fame-grasping lyrics and rather stilted delivery. I suspect that Anmary won’t quite bestride the world stage in the way she imagines since the song lacks that elusive x factor that will carry it over the line.

And of course there’s the problem of getting her enormous bobble head through the teeny-tiny doors of just about concert hall in the world so she can perform…

 

 

ISRAEL: “Time” – Izabo

 

 

This weirdly catchy song is definitive evidence of time travel as far as I’m concerned. Somehow, and I think ripping a great big bell-bottomed hole in the time/space continuum way back to the early 1970s is the only reasonable explanation (who knows what Israel is doing at its secret nuclear research facilities after all), Izabo have managed to compress every quirky moment from the albums of this era into their just under three minutes of pop fun.

Seriously, and I don’t joke about the inherent quirkiness of any Eurovision singer since being absolutely bing-bong bananas is almost a requirement of entry for this contest, the song sounds like an outtake from ABBA’s 1974 Waterloo album, which in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. It may not have been ABBA’s finest achievement as albums go but it was packed full of songs that showed Benny and Bjorn were experimenting, and seeing what worked and what didn’t. While some songs manifestly didn’t, they were still fun to listen to.

Now, this must remain totally secret (you know, just like Kim Kardashian’s sex tape) but one of my favourite ABBA songs is “King Kong Song” from the Waterloo album which Izabo’s “Time” channels so well, along with a fair dash of “Nina Pretty Ballerina”, that it’s like it’s been possessed by the Swedish foursome, all of them struggling to fit inside lead singer, Ram Shev-Tov’s agile frame.

Despite all the odds, and Ram’s insistence on wearing a red cravat in the clip (from which no good will come, mark my words), this song is ridiculously catchy and it’s still ricocheting around my brain like silly string shot out of a big plastic clown cannon. Which  brings me, rather handily I might add, to the lyrics. References to men in playgrounds and an obsession with clowns which appear in the clip roughly every 2.2 nanoseconds (and possibly more) are slightly creepy and don’t do this band, which is insanely popular in their home country thanks to a heady and appealing mix of psychedelic punk, disco and Arab influences, any favours.

But hey, maybe the clowns will stay home when they perform in Baku. And the red cravat. Please let that be left on the coffee table as Ram rushes for the door to catch his plane…

 

 

SLOVENIA: “Verjamem” – Eva Boto

 

 

It has become my mission in my life – yes that suddenly thank you; think of it as a glitter-strewn road to Baku moment – to make sure that Eva Boto makes it to the grand final of Eurovision.

And it’s not because her voice is remarkable, a veritable cornucopia of perfectly-struck notes and octave ranges so infinite and vast they make the towering and vast snow-clad mountains in Lord of the Rings that our heroes had to trek through look like a quarter acre block in the suburbs by comparison. In fact, her voice, while strong and powerful, is like so many before it, beautiful but lacking that certain something that sets it apart from a host of diva-wannabes. In fact her weirdly attired backing singers pack a lot more vocal punch than she does, which frankly should be keeping Eva up at night.

And trust me, as I try to rouse myself from the ballad-induced coma I slipped into while listening to her song, it’s not because the song is the song to triumph over all songs. (One Song to Rule Them All – yes there go the LOTR references again. Sorry I should taken my fantasy-referencing inhibiting medication this morning before I left for work.). It is fact yet another by-the-numbers ballad that is earnest, heartfelt (if your yardstick for “heartfelt” is a cookie cutter Hallmark card written by an ageing housewife in Ohio) and prone to vocal pushes that would knock a pro-footballer backwards. Sweet enough, yes, but hardly impressive, and definitely not memorable.

No, the reason I want Eva Boto to romp into the grand final is that she has wacky nun-like backing singers with crazy crumpled netted hats (I swear they just went to Lincraft, grabbed some tulle remnants and super glued them to their heads) who wail at the drop of a chord. So accomplished are they at the “Kate Bush meets Enya and has an IVF baby that howls in perfect time to the melody” school of singing that they tend to overshadow dear Eva. Oh she tries to counter their blissful New Age warbling with a few vocal cuts and thrusts of her own but it is to no avail. The “aah” is strong with these women and I expect them to go on to great things in the years to come while Eva washes dishes in a nice cafe in Ljubljana where she can sing to stray bluebirds coming in through the window.

No wait. The back up singers would do that better too. Sorry Eva…

 

 

ALBANIA:  “Suus” – Rona Nishliu

 

 

So much anguish dear Rona. So much pain. I kept expecting her to burst into tears on stage and confess what has upset her so to the audience so they engage in a group therapy session on national television.

Alas nothing that exciting happens. We also don’t get a wild-haired Freud impersonator rushing on stage to join her in the hour of musical need and talk her through the sadness that hangs off every note like day old jelly from a bowl. It could be the lack of a couch anywhere on stage which may well be remedied when she performs in Baku.

No, what we get instead from a woman who hands down has the most funky hairstyle of anyone in the competition – they should give out douze points for the most impressive piece of coiffure starting this year; forget the singing, let’s give kudos to those lustrous reggae locks – is an admittedly beautiful but unspectacular song that eventually limps off into the shadows where it dies a  long, slow and vocally painful death.

The one thing Rona, who is a Kosovo-born Albanian national (by decree of the president no less) does have, besides awesomely impressive hair, is a powerful, perfectly modulated voice. She barely puts a foot wrong at any point in this song and for that she should be applauded given the number of singers with  aspirations to Eurovision glory who couldn’t stay on key if you gave them some super glue with which to affix themselves. Rona needs no such such help, and her voice hugs each and every vocal curve with the ardour of a lover.

It’s just a pity that the song is so depressing even emotionally well-adjusted people want to kill themselves after listening to it.

 

 

PORTUGAL: “Vida Minha” – Filipa Sousa

 

 

This lady has manage to bottle the atmosphere of a sultry late night smoke-filled cabaret club, drink it in and channel through her striking voice. Yes, yes I know smoking is not good for you, and frankly if she keeps trying to capture the feel of those nightclubs, she may well end up in an oncology ward, very tired and a spinster since how many men of marriageable age are hanging out in these sorts of clubs that she can marry (if you get my drift and let’s just say you do, shall we?).

But she should keep doing for at least a little while longer because she manages to take the sort of song you wouldn’t notice if it walked past you in high heels and red fishnet stockings and little else (OK you may notice that but you get my point; again let’s just say you do) and make it rich and engaging. Her voice may not be the most technically proficient we’ve seen but it has character which infuses this song with way more memorability than it has any right to on its own.

I am also excited by the fact that this singer, who won, I’m told, the “Grande Noite de Fado in Algarve in 2008, which must have made her parents very proud (no I have no idea what it is but she won it damn it and that should be enough for you I think) has decided to resurrect the lost art of Synchronised Backing Singers. The three men and two women stand in perfect formation behind her singing their hearts out with all the fervour and passion of notaries public, barely breaking a sweat or a smile, daring you to make them step out of line. You would fail at any attempt to do so – fail I tell you! – because their resolve to provide the most exquisitely well formed back up singing formation in the history of Eurovision is unbreakable, and I dare say they are standing there still in the darkened studio while Filipa rests her weary body at home in the bath.

Throw in a stray ballerina in white twirled around by a grimly resolved man in a white tuxedo and you have the sort of stage show that should have them throwing douze points around like confetti at a 1950s wedding.

Failing that, she should just point to the Synchronised Backing Singers. They’re worth douze points all by themselves and Filipa could just stay home and take another nice long bath.

 

 

MALTA: “This is the Night” – Kurt Calleja

 

 

I need to be clear up front. I like a man in a suit. OK scratch that, I love a man in suit. (Rather like Paris Hilton likes being famous, which let’s face it, is a LOT.)

Which of course means that this handsome man, who is resplendent in ties or bow ties pretty much all the time – I imagine him in a bow tie accessorised set of pyjamas…and then of course not in them (but this is a family blog so I shall go no further with that particular line of thought) – has my douze points before he even opens his mouth.

So what a great pleasure it is then that his voice is not a crushing disappointment, the kind of letdown that would have crushed my nascent belief that on Malta all the men are divinely handsome and sing like bearded angels with effervescent snappily-dressed friends who smile a ridiculous amount and break into song and song at the drop of a loose bow tie.

Clearly this is what all men on Malta do and why not? It’s very appealing. What isn’t appealing unless you’re a dairy farmer and want your product consumed by as many people in Europe as possible, is the amount of cheese that Kurt has managed to stuff into this pocket rocket of a pop song. He’s like the musical equivalent of a Pizza Hut employee rushing to meet, no exceed, some sort of imaginary quota for the amount of dairy product shovelled into a piece of Italian-derived food. We’re talking serious amounts of 80s inspired cheesy dance music here, and while the song is catchy, it never moves out of the retro musical dairy cabinet, and frankly I am not sure my heart can take all that cholesterol.

Full marks to Kurt for triumphing and winning the right to represent his country after failed attempts in 2010 and 2011, but frankly if this is the best he can cook up (the food allusions continue apace people!) then maybe a job at Pizza Hut may be the best option.

Unless of course he wants to model suits for me in which case I say “Pizza Hut! Hands off”!

 

 

So what’s your Eurovision poison this week? Near catatonic backup singers or enough cheese to sink a Pizza Hut franchise? Love to hear your thoughts, set to an 80s beat if possible.

Review: “The Five Year Engagement”

This is a romantic comedy that desperately wants you to love it wholeheartedly.

From the quirkiness of the Meet Cute (where boy meets girl) where Violet (Emily Blunt) dressed as Princess Diana at a costumed New Year’s Eve party locks eyes across the room with a pink bunny costume-clad Tom (Jason Segel) to the romantic marriage proposal a year later – all of which takes place within the first 20 minutes of the film – it is a cheery, bright affair liberally laced with witty one liners, and playful zingers.

The rapport between Violet and Tom is sweet without being saccharine, and there is this real sense that they are soul mates who got lucky in love’s lottery and found the love of their life. They are intensely amusingly likeable, as is just about every scene in the first third or so of this partly charming movie and all the the supporting players, who are introduced just as quickly as the main couple – Tom’s best friend and fellow chef, Alex (Chris Pratt), Violet’s sister, Suzie (Alison Brie) and even Tom’s boss, Sally (Lauren Weedman) – are the sort of kooky yet loveable friends every romantic comedy should have.

The big proposal high atop the trendy restaurant Tom works at in San Francisco

The laughs flow quickly – the succession of hilariously inept and inappropriate speeches at their engagement at a gorgeously romantic country B & B are particularly inspired – the sense of romance is real and palpable, and you know, you just know that Tom and Violet are a couple who will lead rich, engaging lives utterly devoted to each other.

It was so wonderful a world to be plunged into in fact that up until the point they leave San Francisco so Violet can complete a post-doctorate psychology degree at a university in Michigan I was hopelessly engaged with this couple and looking forward to the mishaps and hilarious trials and tribulations that will stretch their engagement out far beyond the expected short time frame.

And then, inexplicably, and surprisingly given the calibre of talent involved, all the wheels fall off the movie, it bursts into flame, and sits like a smoking ruin for what feels like an eternity. There are attempts to inject humour into their sojourn in Michigan where Tom, having given up a stellar career as a chef, grows resentful of his fiancee’s obsession with furthering her own career, but they largely fall flat and rely more on slapstick than the clever wordplay and sense of place that powers the first part of the movie.

You see Tom grow a wild man of the woods moustache and beard, dress in baggy woollen jumpers knitted by his new friend Bob, and even take to deer hunting like he’s been doing it all his life. But apart from a stray laugh here and there as the deer he has killed slides off his car, or he tries to clamber over an icy car ending with little to no grace, the laughs are sporadic and forced, and any sense of fun that was there in buckets before evaporates before your eyes.

Violet and Tom, with Alex and Suzie who marry after a brief tumultuous engagement (if only Tom and Violet had followed suit!)

Not only do Tom and Violet cease to be funny but they cease to be even likeable as the story loses it way, concentrating far too much on the couple’s separate groups of friends and co-workers. You lose all sense of them as a couple, which I suppose is partly the point since you are supposed to be getting the idea they are drifting apart as a couple. But so expertly do they drive a wedge between our two once eternal love birds, and so worn down do you become by the interminable time they spend falling out of love, or at least like, that you cease to care.

That’s a remarkable achievement for a movie that had me so invested in the characters at the start. While the movie does rally in the last 2o minutes or so and recaptures the sense of innocent fun and playfulness that so marked its first inspired third – the sequence of scenes which starts with Violet and Suzie speaking in Cookie Monster and Elmo voices to resolve their differences and which leads to a re-proposal in Tom’s gourmet taco van which in turn leads into a charming and funny wedding (at last!) where everything from the minister to the band and clothes is decided on the run is perfect – it is almost too little too late.

By that stage, I had fallen well and truly out of love with this charming couple who should have had me wanting to speak not just five years, but an entire life time with them.