Wednesday, May 10, 2006

"Idol" all shook up

Elvis Presley changed the course of American music with his rich voice, sex appeal and blend of blues, r&b, country and rock. "American Idol," well, not so much. Fortunately, many of the King's famous songs are so solid they readily lend themselves to adaptation - and on "Idol" Elvis week, some contestants took to the challenge as hungrily as Elvis to a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich. (Yes, worst analogy ever. I'm hungry. Give me a break.)

The final four traveled to Graceland, where they met Priscilla Presley (demeanor: gracious; hair: an odd purply red; face: alas, still looking as plastic-surgified as ever), Lisa Marie Presley, who took them on a wild golf cart ride, and record industry bigshot - and former Sony Music head - Tommy "Way More than Mariah Carey's Ex" Mottola. The Seacrest voice-over mentions he's helped launch Mariah, J-Lo, Destiny's Child and Shakira, but suspiciously neglects to mention his role in mentoring Hall & Oates. Hey, I saw that photo of Oates that flashed briefly on the screen!

Judging from his comments about the contestants, guest coach Mottola wouldn't mind a Chris-Katharine final, with Kat - upon whom he lavished praise - emerging victorious. I wouldn't necessarily mind that outcome, either, except, the final is still a few weeks off, and if Tuesday's total toss-up of a show was any indication, things can still change dramatically. The dilemma - and blessing - at this point is that "Idol" is more about keeping the best around than booting off the not-so-good. Can't we just get rid of Paula instead?

Alas. Chris was listless during most of his final song, "A Little Less Conversation," Taylor split the difference between his serious, soulful side and goofy, wedding-singer persona and Katharine's nerves appeared to get the best of her, as she hastily delivered two off-kilter performances. Which leaves...Elliott, who nailed both of his well-chosen songs with panache. Before this week I was not exactly a fare-paying passenger on "The E Train," and I'm still reluctant to board. In fact, I wouldn't mind if he reached the end of the line this week. But yet, can you really vote off the only guy who got the night right? The guy who, as Simon noted, came out fighting and showing personality? The guy who in many ways just seems to want to win more than anyone else, or is at least more blatantly eager? I'm not so sure, even if based on past voting patterns Elliott should be a goner. But then, if Elliott doesn't get the boot, we'll lose Kat, Chris or Taylor...and I don't really want to part with them, either. Oh, Idol! Why do you vex us so?

Taylor started the whole evening belting "Jailhouse Rock," which he called "completely fitting" because of the "dancing" and "whole nine yards" - phrases that do not really inspire confidence as far as dear, dear Taylor is concerned. Sure enough, he's wearing a ridiculous burgundy striped suit, twirling maniacally around the stage, grabbing the microphone stand and whirling it around. He's obviously really feeling this tune, but performances like this emphasize his dorkiness more than his talent. Taylor, no! Stay strong! Sing some songs that aren't overplayed already! We love you, but, but...and while you're at it, please, enough with the "Soul Patrol" shout-outs. Just. Enough. Already. Anyway, his energetic rendition brings down the house, and Paula, and Randy, but Simon, as usual, injects a dose of reality to the proceedings and labels it "Karaoke with a capital K." Karaoke as done by someone who can actually sing, yeah, but karaoke nonetheless. So imagine my relief when Taylor emerged for Part Deux wearing a comparatively normal black leather blazer, talking about how he's going to "leave the dancin' out of it" while singing "In The Ghetto." Sure enough, it's Taylor at his best. Randy says he's chosen the right song in the right key and should make a record that sounds like that. Simon displays a Cheshire cat grin. "You know what I'm gonna say," he says. "I mean, there is a world apart for me for that first performance, which was just silly, to what Randy just said, which was just absolutely perfect song for you."

Chris, meanwhile, didn't appear to be firing on all cylinders, either. Save for his ridiculous sunglasses - and the calculated, corny way in which he removed them mid-song, right around the line "I would never lie to you" - his take on "Suspicious Minds" was well-sung. But "A Little Less Conversation" was strangely lifeless, and lacked his characteristic intensity - which, admittedly, he can overdo - until the end. And then he finished with what sounded like two hoarse shouts! What? Perhaps he was holding back at the beginning so he could let loose at the end, but that didn't really seem to suit the song's structure.

Into this void stepped Elliott, who threw down the gauntlet with soulful versions of "If I Could Dream" and "Trouble." Last week, Simon advised him it probably wasn't the best idea to sing "I want to go home." This week, his lyrics included "Please let my dream come true." And even if after hearing him sing, "If you're looking for trouble, you've come to the right place. If you're looking for trouble, look right in my face," I'm still not convinced that he's some kind of rebellious wild child who's "evil" and whose "middle name is misery," he managed to succeed with a song choice that on paper might have seemed doomed. And after Seacrest commends his performance, he even said "Thank you, thank you very much." Did he even mean that as an Elvis reference?

Which brings us to Katharine, who sounded laid-back and sublime in practice and clearly wowed Mottola. But he somewhat inadvertently hit the nail on the head when he said, "She's so much better a singer than I've even heard so far on the show." And therein lies the problem. When she's managed to sound as good in performances as she has in practices, she's been unbeatable. But the "Idol" stage seems to turn her into a nervous wreck. Take her first number last night, a clever combo of "All Shook Up" and "Hound Dog." In practice: awesome! On stage: A sped-up, hyperkinetic jumble featuring a few huge notes - and some missed lyrics. And speaking of "on stage," can the powers that be please stop dressing her in items that resemble garbage bags, a la Tuesday's gray shirt? Anyway, you know things are not good when Paula says she had fun watching you have fun and complements how you choreographed the part where you forgot the lyrics. So then you have to hope she'll knock one out of the park in song #2, as she did with last week's "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree." Initially, things look promising. She's singing "Can't Help Falling in Love," a beautiful ballad. She's lit from above, which "Idol" producers apparently like to use as a sign that someone's Big Moment is approaching. Could this be it, finally? For about half a minute, yes. It's lovely. Understated. But then she launches into Celine Dion territory, oversinging with a totally overblown, electric guitar-heavy arrangement. We already know she can sing, so hasn't anyone learned to power of toning it down? Simon's withering words leave her looking totally devastated, but seriously - how do you end up singing that song that way? We know she can do better, but will that be enough to keep her around? Or, for that matter, will another favorite get the boot - say, Chris?

Fashion, Seacrest-style: What was with Seacrest's gray three-piece suit? I half expected him to whip out a monocle at some point. And surely it couldn't have been an homage to Elvis, because that would have been Seacrest in a white, rhinestone-studded jumpsuit. Perish the thought!

The world according to Paula, May 9 edition: Because Paula is just that loopy, here's a guide to some of her sillier comments Tuesday.
After Taylor sings "Jailhouse Rock": "Taylor, you look fantastic, you're as original as ever and you were phenomenal." Three strikes, Paula! For starters, did you see that burgundy suit he was wearing?
After Chris sings "Suspicious Minds": "You forget how great that song is until you hear Chris Daughtry sing it. See ya in the finals!" True, because that "Elvis" guy - maybe you've heard of him? - who also sang it was such a hack!
After Chris sings "A Little Less Conversation," Paula cradles her head in her hands and sports a glazy grin: "There's nothing else I can say. (So true!) I mean, I adore you. (Gee, really?) What I love is that you picked a song that showed a little more personality. That was a lot of fun."

Simon envy, anyone? "Ok, so let's start with Simon," Seacrest says after Simon criticizes Taylor's "Jailhouse Rock," which the crowd loved. "Have you ever lived in the real world?" Then, he goes on to insult Simon for...being rich and successful. All right, then! Nothing like Seacrest's rapier wit, eh?

Whew, now we know! "There's a debate going on with all my fans, and to answer their question, it's boxer briefs," Chris informed Seacrest early in the show. "I'm a little uncomfortable with this conversation here, Chris," Seacrest replied, after taking a few exaggerated steps back.

Wait, didn't he sing his way into the semi-finals months ago? "Taylor, what you have just done is, you have just sung your way into the semi-finals," Simon said after Taylor's "In The Ghetto."

Random post-vacation tidbits: 1) Being on a long car trip gives you perhaps too much time to think, and as I listened to the radio and put my iPod on shuffle, a couple of times my mind wandered to thoughts of awesome songs "Idol" contestants should sing. Yeah, I know, I was kind of ashamed about that, too, but such is the price of liking "Idol." Anyway, what do you think? What gems have this year's Idols failed to unearth?

2) I've heard from a few folks - some kindly, some more along the lines of hate mail - regarding my not-entirely-kind treatment of Kellie Pickler. Admittedly, I should have been more generous in giving her credit for emerging inspirational, and with good cheer, from a very rough upbringing. But based on her performances, it's hard to say she didn't deserve to go.

3) Yep, Paris is gone, but that doesn't worry me. She's such a gifted vocalist that she'll be just fine once she settles on who she is and dispenses with the personality crisis that plagued her "Idol" run. And at age 17, she's got time.


Anonymous said...

I'd be more of a supporter of Elliott if he'd just do ONE song without going off key at some part of it. He's so consistently flat on the high notes that it drives me bonkers. Still, I think he did good performances last night. I think Chris was trying not to have his voice give out again on the second song and that hurt both performances. But I agree: let's vote off Paula instead of one of these performers! And Seacrest next!

Anonymous said...

The problem with Elliott ... his style is niche and won't sell tons of records. And thus, American Idol can't let him win and toss away tons of 'slice-it-off-the-top' profits for Fox.

And really, Taylor won't sell either. Let's face it, his fans love his antics but he is a bar-band quality singer with lots of personality. On a CD he will be a medium dud.

That leaves Katharine (strong voice, mainstream pop, great looks and perky!) and with the right music could sell millions and demand lots of video time on VH1.

And Chris ... who is ready right now and could be a big, big seller. Scary with a big smile and great voice. And his style is soooo mainstream.

Chris vs. Katharine is the ideal Idol ending for Fox.

But I think Katharine gets the boot tonight, so what do I know?