Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Good things come in top threes

Taylor, Taylor, Taylor! Can I get a woo-clap? Actually, scratch that. After watching Tuesday's "American Idol" top three, the whole night deserves major props - and a great big "It's about time!" In Katharine McPhee's "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," we got this season's carefully staged, much-anticipated Moment. And in Taylor Hicks' "You Are So Beautiful" and "Try A Little Tenderness," we got the gray-haired wonder singing exactly the right songs - and nailing them in a style so spot-on, even his ever-increasing "Soul patrol!" shout-outs couldn't ruin them.

The night featured songs chosen by the judges, the contestants themselves and longtime music mogul Clive Davis, currently the head of BMG North America, who selected the first round o' music. Wearing what appeared to be a blue suede shirt, he sat in an armchair near a fireplace and discussed the picks with the three remaining finalists, looking very grandfatherly and dispensing advice to match.

Clive wanted to show that Elliott could pull off a rock song, so he chose Journey's "Open Arms." Because it was kind of a break from the R&B-flavored norm, this was actually my favorite Elliott performance of the night. But the judges gave it a lukewarm reception, possibly because as decent as it was, it didn't exactly take the expansive power ballad to a higher level. Compare it with Clay Aiken's soaring version on Season Two, for instance, and there's no contest. For Elliott, the rest of the night continued along pretty much the same familiar path, with competent, friendly performances of Paula's so-so choice, Bobby Caldwell's "What You Won't Do For Love," and his own selection, a jaunty, brassy arrangement of Ray Charles' "I Believe To My Soul." It was good, but it was all a little bland - which, come to think of it, pretty much sums up my feelings about Elliott.

Going into last week's show, Elliott was the odds-on favorite to leave - yet he sailed into the top three after spot-on performances that made it clear he was the hungriest performer on the stage. He was in survival mode, and he went out and attacked his songs in a way that made it apparent he simply wanted it more. Though he was still perfectly competent this week, he lacked that urgency, perhaps because he was riding higher after last week's success. Under such circumstances, the stage can just swallow Elliott, rendering him a sort of "white boy goes R&B" like Justin Timberlake - without the personality. That's not to take away from his accomplishments, or his potential, though. As Simon said Tuesday night, "Elliott, your songs are not going to carry you through next week," Simon said. "That's the problem. However, you are a great guy. You are a great singer. And whatever happens, you will make your mum very proud for what you've achieved in this competition."

Clive saddled Katharine, meanwhile, with the misfortune of having to sing R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly," one of the most overdone songs in "Idol" history. (Under the Ironclad Rule of "Idol," apparently, it must be performed at least once per season, in all of its inspirational, bombastic, middle-school-assembly glory.) "I'm looking for you to soar on it," Davis told her. "Oh, I'm looking forward to soaring," she said hoarsely. Sure enough, she tackled it with aplomb, improvising over the melody and hitting only a few stray notes while wearing a lovely green dress. After Randy criticized her for song choice - which made no sense, as Davis chose the song - she shot him an off-putting, very "What, you criticized me?" look, but recovered once Simon said he felt Randy was being unfair. Indeed, I didn't really notice it before tonight, but Katharine just can't seem to ever satisfy Randy, who always finds a bone to pick, sometimes for things totally outside Kat's control.

Katharine seemed a lot more pleased when Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced Simon wanted her to sing "Somewhere Over The Rainbow." "Oh gosh, what a great song!" she exclaimed. Sure enough, it was, bringing the show quite possibly its first, and only, true "Moment" of the season, along the lines of Clay's "Solitaire" or Fantasia's "Summertime." Of course, this is what Simon wanted. (He even said so.) All the clues were there, and a neon sign couldn't have been more obvious: Kat seated on the stage beneath a spotlight, singing a capella before spare acoustic accompaniment kicked in. But it more than worked - it was beautiful. Inconsistent as she's been, Katharine has a tremendous, sophisticated voice, and it's at its best - as the judges correctly noted - when she reigns in her over-the-top tendencies and just sings. Her spunky final song, "I Ain't Got Nothing But The Blues," was inevitably less moving than "Rainbow," as the judges duly noted, and it was sung with the perma-smile that comes from having a voice coach for a mother. But it, too, showed off her range and allowed her to be more relaxed on stage than she's seemed in weeks past.

And then there was Taylor, who pretty much guaranteed we'll be seeing him next week by...being ridiculously entertaining and having his best night of the entire season. Great timing? You bet. Despite, or perhaps because of, the overall awesomeness of Bruce Springsteen - Boss, hurrah for letting "Idol" use one of your songs, by the way! - Taylor's performance of Clive's choice, "Dancing in the Dark," was probably his weakest of the night. That's probably not as much his fault as it is, it's hard to compare to Springsteen. And no, dancing with Paula definitely did not help the situation. Taylor's judges' choice announcement didn't start too promisingly, either, as Alabama Gov. Bob Riley read a fax from Randy Jackson: "Yo, Governor Riley, you are an official member of the dawg pound..." Nooooo! Not the dawg pound again!

But things got a lot better fast, as Riley announced Taylor's song was Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful." If I hadn't had a laptop on my, well, lap, I would have leapt up and jumped for joy. If any "Idol" contestant ever was born to sing that song, and indeed, sing anything by Cocker, it was Taylor. All season I fervently hoped he'd tackle the Cocker catalog - and once he finally did, the results were pretty darn awesome. Gone was Goofy Taylor. In his place was Serious Singer Taylor, wearing a gray suit and savoring a fine arrangement of a classic song. It was even enough to make Simon smile and blush - a sure, and rare, sign of success. And Taylor's own choice, Otis Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness," was just as appropriate, proving a funky, lively, altogether perfect ending to the show. "I'm doing it for the soul patrol," he noted beforehand, and afterward he was beaming ecstatically.

So where does that leave things? By this point in the season, it's not about booting off the worst contestant. No one remaining is even close to bad. Instead, it's about keeping around the people who entertain and interest you the most. Despite my proclamation last week that I'd prefer Elliott leave sooner rather than later - which led to a whole lot o' angry emails and comments, plus a few nasty personal attacks, from Elliott fans across the Web - I was still open to the possibility that the E-Train might once again come through and win me over. But if anything, this week solidified why we should be seeing Kat and Taylor in the finals. Feel free to disagree, though - after all, that's part of what makes "Idol" water-cooler debating so interesting.

Blond and blonder: Roseanne was in the audience Tuesday...with hair blonder than Ryan Seacrest's. Why, why? But hey, at least they didn't bring her onstage to sing.

Elliott, thy name is confidence! Or, overconfidence? Displaying his characteristic humility - and a little something else, Elliott told Davis, "I'm just thankful for the opportunity to meet you in person, and just to be in your presence is an honor, and I'm really looking forward to working on some projects with you in the very near future."

Way to hold on to that feeeeeeeling: After Elliott performed Journey's "Open Arms," Randy, who once played bass in Journey, proclaimed Journey "one of the greatest bands ever!" (That's just a coincidence, I'm sure. ;-) Then again, it is hard to knock the group behind "Don't Stop Believin'"...

Corniness, thy name is, of course, Taylor: No! Taylor did not just make a shooting motion while singing the "Dancing in the Dark" lyric "This gun's for hire." Oh, but he did.

"Too Much Information," with your host, Paula "Wear More Clothes" Abdul! "I wish I would have known, I would have gotten double-stick tape," Paula said after Taylor led her up on the "runway" for some dancing during "Dancing in the Dark." "Because that was a little nerve-wracking." For us, too, Paula, for us, too.

Can she say "funky white boy" one more time? "I think Elliott is full of love," Paula said, explaining why she chose for him to sing "What You Won't Do For Love." "Each week in this whole entire season, that's what he's about. And I've always said he's the funkiest, most soulful white boy. Because the funky white boy who has soul and rhythm can get into this song."


Anonymous said...

Great, insightful comments as always. Even if I don't always see eye to eye with you on the performances, you always point out something I didn't notice the first time or have an interesting spin on it.

Maggpi said...

I don't "get" Elliot. I really don't. Yeah, he's got some talent and he seems really sweet, but I don't like the vibratto in his voice. I swear some weeks he's sounded like a goat. I'm very happy he's made it to the Final Three just because he has worked hard and honestly, in the second song he did last night, he sounded very good. But I could not listen to him for very long. If I heard him on the radio, I would probably listen to about half a song, unless he sang like he did on the first half of the second song. Then I'd leave the whole song on, maybe.

I like Katherine. I really do. She's just a bit over-confident and over-ego'd, but in the studios, they'd tone it down and I think she'll be just fine whether she wins or not.

I love Taylor. I have his "Under the Radar" CD and play it quite a bit. He sings from the heart and you can just FEEL it.

Anonymous said...

I agree about Elliot's vibrato. There are certain vowels where it's appropriate and he sounds good, but he uses it all the time, and it's those times where it's irritating and makes him sound like an amateur.