Monday, 29 August 2011

Eurovision goes country

Those of you who know me will probably know that my two great musical passions are country music and the Eurovision Song Contest. Not two genres that naturally fit well together, I admit, but in this blog entry I'll take a look at nine of the songs that were entered for this year's contest (though didn't get there), which wouldn't necessarily sound out of place on US country radio.

Babel Fish – Depend On Me
Who'd sing it? Rascal Flatts

The first time I heard this song, I was immediately reminded of the group Rascal Flatts. The slightly straining falsetto in the chorus and the sentimental lyrics are very reminiscent of their work, and this song would fit right in on one of their recent albums. I'm not sure they've ever had a stage show that involved looking through the window of a cardboard house though.

Dalma – Song for Him
Who'd sing it? Gretchen Wilson

Dalma puts on the growls a little too much for them to sound authentic, but there's a decent country song at the heart of this – or possibly two or three different country songs. There's a bit of a kiss-off and there's a couple of broken hearts; I'm not so sure about the silliness at the end though – it works well enough as a song without having to be a pastiche.

Evija Sloka – Don't Stop the Dance
Who'd sing it? Pam Tillis

The lyrics are a little questionable, and the accent is all over the place, but there's no mistaking the country influences on this song that never really stood much chance of making it through a Latvian selection. Sloka lists Brad Paisley and Alan Jackson as her dream duet partners.

Hanne Sørvaag – You're Like A Melody
Who'd sing it? Jewel

In 2010, Eurovision fans were comparing Swedish singer Anna Bergendahl and her song 'This Is My Life' to Jewel's earlier work, but nowadays she'd be more likely to record songs like this Norwegian finalist. It's very much at the pop end of pop country, right where Jewel's recent albums have positioned her, and the feelgood similes hold together very well and would fit right in on contemporary country radio.

CH – Gid nid uf
Who'd sing it? Keith Urban (he basically already did!)

Other than being sung in Swiss German, this song sits right in the Keith Urban-school of country music, with pumping beats and a prominent electric guitar line, but it's grounded by the fiddle that runs right through the arrangement. The song's so committed to sounding like Keith Urban that it even steals the entire chorus melody of the Australian's 'I Told You So'.

Yohanna – Nótt
Who'd sing it? Carrie Underwood

It's not really country, but this track would fit right in on a Carrie Underwood album, particularly in its English version, with its considered lyrics and a silky melody that takes off into a crescendo for the last chorus.

Carmel Eckman - Nosa'at el ga'agu'ay
Who'd sing it? Sarah Jarosz

To be honest with you, Israel is more or less the last place where I'd expect to find a song like this. It's a gentle, acoustic ballad, with a lovely strummy guitar and a fiddle break in the middle. Unsurprisingly, it came almost last.

The Lucky Bullets – Fire Below
Who'd sing it? Justin Townes Earle

I was absolutely astounded when I first heard this in the Norwegian preselection, as it sounds so authentically rockabilly – not a hint of the slight 'foreignness' that often blights Eurovision songs that are trying to be very American. I was even more impressed when the Norwegians voted it into third place in the final, and I even got to cheer for it in person!

Pernilla Andersson – Desperados
Who'd sing it? Kathleen Edwards

Perhaps less country and more Americana than some of the songs on this list, 'Desperados' was one step away from making it into the Melodifestivalen final. The gentle chugging beat, the savoured chords and Andersson's velvety voice combine to make this my favourite song of the Eurovision season.

I'm sure many of you will disagree with the singers I've chosen to record these songs, so I invite you to post your suggestions below. And clearly, some of them would need quite a bit of changing and improvement before the singers mentioned would even consider going near them, and they might not take too kindly to being connected to them (sorry Pam Tillis!). But this is Eurovision, I have to take what I can get!

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Discovering Tanya Tucker: a personal Top 10

I recently decided that I knew next to nothing about Tanya Tucker, one of the big female country artists throughout the years, and that it was time to educate myself. So I listened to several of her Greatest Hits albums; like many artists who've had long careers, Tucker has been released by several record labels, all of whom have put out their own collections of her work. So after listening to around 70 of her (supposedly) best recordings, I've chosen ten that were my favourites. It's by no means a comprehensive list, as I don't claim to have listened to all of her extensive catalogue, and I'm certainly no expert! It's just a summary of what I listened to.

And if you'd like to listen along with the list and you have Spotify, click here for a playlist.

#10 – Down To My Last Teardrop

An enjoyable example of pop-country done well, Tucker's character has cried all her tears over her man, and she won't cry anymore. Despite sounding from the title like it might be quite a sad song, it's actually a fun kiss-off number with a catchy melody, a great example of the genre.

#9 – Baby I'm Yours

This song comes from Tucker's sole release for the Arista label, 'Changes', the cover of which features her wearing the ugliest jumper known to man. Tucker sounds surprisingly childlike considering the date on this straightforward song of eternal love, with its simple call-and-response structure, but her performance is emotional and convincing.

#8 – Spring

Released by Columbia in 1975 after Tucker's move to MCA, this song was presumably recorded and not used on a previous album. It has an unusual narrative structure for a three-verse country song, but the optimistic ending works, as does Tucker's interpretation of both the good and bad times.

#7 – Strong Enough To Bend

A simple metaphor, executed simply. The tree in the backyard is never broken by the storm, because its limbs bend with the wind. The same is true of a good relationship, where both parties learn to compromise – an important lesson to be learned, that can be applied in many situations. The minimal arrangement and uncomplicated melody line complement the message well.

#6 – We Don't Have To Do This

The characters in this song would do well to learn from the lessons of 'Strong Enough To Bend'. Both partners are too proud to put aside their differences, even though the narrator agonisingly recognises that she doesn't want the relationship to be over – “Tell me where it's written that we can't change our minds”, she sings. Tucker's performance is exquisite, bringing across the despair and sense of horrible inevitability in the song perfectly.

#5 – What's Your Mama's Name

The painful story of a man who spends thirty years trying to track down his lost love and their child, going to prison for child-grooming and being driven to drink in the process, this song manages to be catchy and sing-along despite the dark subject matter – a frequent theme of much of Tucker's early work.

#4 – Texas (When I Die)

An iconic song that really set the scene for some of the singers who have been popular in recent years, like Gretchen Wilson and Miranda Lambert. This song's just a whole lot of fun to listen, and shows a different side to Tucker's voice to many of the songs on this list.

#3 – Delta Dawn

Tucker's first single, and reflective of the complex material she would tackle during her career, particularly during her younger years. At the age of just 13, Tucker's already found her distinctive, mature voice on this recording and it's incredibly powerful. Perhaps best known to international and younger audiences as the song where Monica's shirt goes see-through at the piano bar in Friends.

#2 – Two Sparrows In a Hurricane

A beautiful song, one that could have just been a standard 'lovers making it against the odds' ditty, but is set apart by an expressive performance and a skilful use of the three-verse structure, juxtaposing and comparing the youth and age of the characters through the near-identical first and third verses. The end-result is something that feels almost quite life-affirming, and always makes me feel happy and content.

#1 – Lizzie and the Rainman

Easily top of my list before I even started putting it together. The characters in this song are so strongly drawn that I even looked up the song to see if it was based on a true story. Tucker's performance is brilliant, with strains of a gospel preacher complemented by the choir behind her, and the arrangement is exquisite. Try listening to it through headphones to hear the sounds of the rain, the violin glissandos and the beating of the drums going around your head that uses the best effects of stereo to make the whole scenario feel real and present. All the elements come together to produce an excellent song.

So, do you agree? If you're a fan of Tanya Tucker, would you have put different songs on this list? And if I've managed to introduce you to her music, would you have ranked them in this way? I'd be interested to see what people think.