Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Shania night impresses, a touch

With a discernible personality, brain and serious musical ability, Shania Twain is pretty much the complete package as a pop star. So, yeah, it was a fairly foregone conclusion that no one in this year's American Idol top six could live up to that standard, at least not yet, as they took a shot at an evening devoted to her songs. But oh, did they try - which is not a description that could have accurately applied to all performances in the show's previous weeks, I have to say (here's talking to you, Casey James).

The country-pop queen herself provided the mentoring. And, just as with her excellent stint as a guest judge at the Chicago auditions earlier this season, she proved refreshingly real (and goofy, and Canadian - that accent, eh?) - especially for someone who's spent a better part of the last decade living in quasi-seclusion in Switzerland. But, she's reemerging now, with plans for a show on Oprah's new TV network and, one must hope, a new album, eventually. "I feel responsible - they're all singing my songs!" she joked before the singing got underway. "I just didn't know what to expect from guys singing my songs," she cracked a few minutes later. "I was so disappointed I didn't hear 'Man! I Feel Like A Woman.'" Ha! Anyway, Siobhan and Crystal definitely tackled songs that only women could really pull off, but, more on that later.

Though Seacrest tried to imbue the proceedings with suspense at the top of the hour, intoning, "These six lives have been changed forever, but only one can take the title," I couldn't help but think, "And it's probably going to be Crystal!" (Even after tonight's semi-stumble.) And, dear me, he reminds us that we're only a month away from the finale? What an underwhelming season. But let us look on the bright side: At least, mercifully, Tim Urban is gone. Did we miss him? Hell to the no, people, hell to the no. To take a cue from Shania herself, man, I feel like - a beer? An ice cream sundae? A respite? On with the rundown:

Lee "We think he smiled": Shania, who first met Lee at his audition, advises him to slow down his guitar-strumming to let "You're Still The One" breathe, and start more slowly - which is sage counsel, because dude has a tendency to just barrel into a tune and soon after begin yelling the lyrics. Despite some seriously wonky notes at the beginning, this was a perfect choice - a really good song that holds up outside of Shania singing it, although NO, Randy, not "one of the greatest songs ever written." Lee uses it to showcase some sensitivity and a radio-ready sound, and possibly some smiling, although the judges couldn't reach a verdict on that front. "You were pulling some kinda weird faces," Simon observed. This also marked the first, but alas not the last, time that Ellen attempted to make a Shania Twain train-themed joke (get it, Twain, train) happen. 

"Big Mike" (and, btw, can Seacrest stop calling him this already? It's quite obvious that he's a large man, and it's not like there's some other Mike in the finals we're trying to distinguish him from): Segueing into this performance, Seacrest promotes the upcoming Idol tour by noting that "Big Mike" will be there - which, to be honest, for me for you, dawg, is not really going to make me want to attend, because I'm afraid I am kind of over Mike. "It Only Hurts When I Cry" was, I think, a strong enough choice of song, and Shania advises him to connect emotionally and not take for granted that his skilled voice alone will be enough. Though the judges think he achieved that, with both Ellen and Simon likening the rendition to Luther Vandross, he didn't seem to bring much to it, to me. As usual, his singing is technically fine, but he doesn't convince me overall. Simon picked up on that vibe a bit, too, noting: "I thought the performance was a little bit wet, as if you were in a musical acting out the words." He may be in danger again tomorrow, I suspect. 

Casey "taps into his inner crooner, next": In introduction, Casey says that he watched his previous performances and realized he didn't give anything new last week - and will therefore try to be different this week, after some frustratingly ordinary performances and his wake-up call appearance in the bottom two. Happily, he totally succeeds, although I don't quite understand how he didn't pick up on that sooner. "I think I'm more excited about this performance than I've been about any performance," he said. "It's a singing song." (YES, a singing song, in a SINGING COMPETITION. Maybe he can pick another one next week!) He chose "Don't," he said, "because it's amazingly beautiful," and indeed he makes it so, sitting behind the judges' table, playing only acoustic rhythm guitar and placing some much-needed focus on vocals. In every way, it's more than he's given in any previous week, except perhaps during Lennon/McCartney week's "Jealous Guy": More dynamics, more range, more emotion. Shania is enthused, the judges label it his best performance and Simon advises him to go give Shania a kiss, which he does. "We've got ourselves a competition!" proclaims Seacrest, in full-on hype man mode.

Crystal "takes on a Shania anthem": Well, kind of. I suspect Crystal would have kicked the stuffing out of "Man! I Feel Like A Woman," "I'm Gonna Getcha Good" or even "Forever and For Always," but instead she opts for an earlier Shania track - "No One Needs to Know." For a song with that title, though, she did a pretty good job sharing with millions of viewers the exact sentiment behind her choice: "Really, this song is a message to my boyfriend," she said. "I'm just dropping hints here or there. He'll man up one of these days." Translation, per Beyonce: Put a ring on it!
The laid-back, breezy, acoustic-inflected tune was probably her least savvy song selection of the season. The result was a lighter side of Crystal than we've seen, but a performance that did not surpass or transcend the original and was far from her best. Though certainly it's fine to, well, sound country on country night, there just wasn't much to dig into vocally, so instead she was left with some mumbly lyrical passages, trying to tell a story, and what Randy called "a Nickel Creek-style arrangement." The judges didn't exactly lavish praise upon her, but after weeks of Tim Urban, it's important to look at things on a relative basis: After weeks of excellence, she's earned a mulligan - past standouts, too, have had off weeks - is entitled to show a different side and ought to remain safe. If not, well, that'll show the judges for "saving Big Mike."
 "It's kind of impossible for you not to be good," Kara says, but Simon comes right out: "Shocker - we don't like Crystal this week," he says, likening her to a bad singer at a coffeehouse and citing what he viewed as a lack of conviction - despite her stated connection to the lyrical content. "Lack of conviction? I don't think so, he's right there," she says, pointing to - yes - her boyfriend, who is a bit bashful and wearing a Crystal Bowersox-themed t-shirt. She then defends herself using the patented "I had fun" technique and by saying, "It's not as big as the other performances, but bigger isn't always better." She then proceeds to turn red, blushing. 

"Seventeen-year-old Aaron Kelly": "You Got A Way" "suits him beautifully," Shania says. Well, yes: If any theme suited him, it'd be country-pop, which means this week delivers typical Aaron - a big ol' adult contemporary love ballad way outside his pay grade, featuring words like "dreams" and "believe." Per usual, his softer notes waver somewhat, but he then proceeds to compensate with a big finish. During the song, I was confused about who he was directing it to, but he makes that clear afterwards: It's for his mom, which made his decision to excise a reference to making love even wiser than it already seemed. The judges, for their part, were enthusiastic; "Tonight, you were like a different artist," Simon says, in the wake of several stumbling weeks. He calls the performance sincere, believable and the kind of record Aaron should make. Maybe, but it would never be the kind of record I'd willingly listen to.

Siobhan "takes on the record that was Shania's first number-one country hit, actually": That'd be "Any Man of Mine," and wow, is it a sassy mess, as indeed Siobhan herself often appears to be. On the plus side, it's the most energetic performance of the night, with the coolest arrangement, a kind of rockin' fiddle to-do. Shania says that the song is all about attitude, and the Glassblower provides that, too, starting the performance with promise, and an above-the-head, arm-wavin' hand clap. Quickly, though - at least to my ears - the song accelerates and Siobhan loses the plot a bit, semi-rushing through lyrics and losing her breath as she walks up and down the stage. Then, careeningly, she manages to rebottle lightning at the end, closing with a very un-Shania-like Siobhan Scream (TM). While not exactly what the song required, it did after several dreary weeks serve to remind people of Siobhan's appeal in the first place. The judges, hilariously, loved it. "Guess who's baaaack?" Kara said. "Siobhan!" Simon, more perceptively, liked it even though he isn't normally fond of country (which, to me, makes it even funnier that he was trying to get Katie Stevens to pursue the genre), but thought the end might have been a bit much: "It was almost as if you were giving birth up there." And with that, the night's labor was over.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

When inspiration strikes...out

For a theme intended to provide cheer, encouragement and that one last push we viewers all need to proceed on to greatness (and open our wallets for the "Idol Gives Back" telethon), American Idol's "Songs of Inspiration" night sure has a dispiritingly low musical success rate - ranking right up there with disco on the "Induces Grimaces" list, and inspiring more dread ("Not "I Believe I Can Fly" again!") than anything else. Sure enough, this year's version did little to damage that well-earned reputation.

Perhaps that's because, nine seasons in, the show has yet to fully comprehend that "inspiration" doesn't have to be so obvious - and that, in fact, it resides more in a powerful piece of art, well-executed, than in maudlin, cheesy, manufactured "uplift." But, sigh, I suppose that especially at this point, it'd be far too much to expect the Idol powers that be to hew to that standard in shaping a show. Situated in the "Idol" universe, then, it's up to individual contestants to determine their fates and pick the songs that say more than "A big diva first belted me out in the early 1990s!" Unsurprisingly, tonight demonstrated that that task is beyond the grasp of most of this year's remaining finalists, leaving a ratio that, while not 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, was probably more like "70 percent exasperation, and 30 percent Crystal and Lee."

Because the return of (yay!) "Glee" has forced "AI" into an hourlong time slot, tonight at least moved at a brisk clip, with none of that silly "Let us now introduce the judges by having them triumphantly walk down the stairs!" business. Alicia Keys served as a kind, wise mentor, providing a sprinkling of constructive comments (though, with the tight time frame, who knows if more fell to the cutting room floor), and for 50% more inspiration, Captain Sully of "Miracle on the Hudson" fame was in the audience, too, looking as upright and professional as ever, even in retirement. But enough of this prologue, and to the heart of the matter: Did the results inspire? Inspire people, that is, to do something other than turn off your TV and/or avoid watching "Idol Gives Back" tomorrow night (er, count me in the latter camp, by the way)? Read on:

Casey, "Don't Stop," Fleetwood Mac: Alicia Keys encourages Casey to connect with the song - familiar advice for this dude, by now, I've got to say - and says, "You don't want them to say, 'I love that song,' you want them to say, 'I love him.'" Well, I continue to like him, but love it still ain't after another consistent-but-not-very-memorable outing. Once more, the smiling Texan is in decent voice and fits in some decent guitar licks, but he doesn't use enough of the range he's shown ample signs of possessing, nor does he do much to the song. The result is about 50 percent bar cover band and 50 percent compelling, which works out to a big "So what?" That remains enough to cut it for now, but won't be all that much longer, one has to think. The judges, too, say they want more, and something special.
That being said: It completely rubbed me the wrong way to hear Simon criticize Casey's song choice, and that of at least one more later contestant (Mike), and possibly others, when he apparently picked it from a list the show's producers themselves provided. If you want contestants to sing better songs, perhaps offer better choices? Of course, as the next man up demonstrated, contestants don't have to be constrained by those predictable suggestions...

Lee, "The Boxer," Simon & Garfunkel: Dude deserves major points for an unorthodox song choice, which he says he heard in his parents' collection growing up. "Honestly, that song inspired me," Lee notes, in the midst of a fairly articulate explanation of his selection. (I know, right, a legitimate rationale for singing something? Where did THAT come from this season?!) Though he doesn't fully follow Keys' advice to not lose sight of what the song is about, under-enunciating the verses while devoting full power to the "la la" chorus, his voice again makes an impression, and the overall sense is that of a contestant who puts some thought into his choices. Ellen, I believe, calls it the best of night, which is kind of ridiculous and a slap in Casey's face, to boot, given that it's only the second performance; Simon agrees while acknowledging the silliness of that comparison, calling the rendition sincere and emotional.

Tim, "Better Days," Goo Goo Dolls: It took much longer than it should have for me to identify this song, so weak is Tim's voice compared to that of the Goos' Johnny Rzeznik. But then, Rzeznik sings with the kind of grit that conveys "I've lived enough to know what I'm singing about." In Tim's hands, the instrumentation remains relatively the same, but the words are pretty empty - more in tune than perhaps we would have expected weeks ago, and with a strong-enough finish, but still. Though I appreciate that he's now at least trying, the "A For Effort" train should have left the station long ago. "It just kinda laid there and sounded ok," lamented Randy, after slapping the "karaoke" label on the performance. Ellen, whose sense of food-related metaphor Tim apparently inspires like no other, compares him to a soup of the day - a soup that, this week, she didn't much like. (Last week it was tequila, so, uh, anyway...)

Aaron Kelly, "I Believe I Can Fly," by R. Kelly, no relation, as far as we know: Oh, of course this is a song Aaron has been singing since he was five years old - that is, for two-thirds of his brief and not-yet-adult life. He is 100 percent that kid belting it out at the school assembly while the rest of his classmates sit there, shooting glances. But wait! We later learn from Aaron that he indeed DID perform it at a school assembly, a preschool graduation ceremony. (Egads, nothing like THAT to make a person feel old!) Even so, why would he pick this song? He says he loves it, and we've learned by now that Aaron does not fear cliches, but does that lack of fear extend to Death Wish territory? At this point, an "emotional ballad" is Standard Operating Aaron - strong enough, a little bleaty at points, with big notes toward the end - but it all adds up to a big shrug of the shoulders. I mean, WHO wants to listen to that - one time, let alone again? Not Simon, if he'd heard it on the radio without knowing who Aaron was, he says. He also notes that knowing Aaron brought something to it, but there was far too much wrong here to withstand. Capt. Sully also has to endure this (although, who knows, maybe the theme resonates), probably stewing "Believe? Please, I KNOW I can fly!" the whole time. 

Siobhan, "When You Believe," Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston: What do you get when an AI contestant tackles not one, but TWO singers the Idol judges always warn people not to touch (well, except during Mariah week, thankyouverymuch David Cook)? "When Divas Collide," starring a little-known pretender to the throne! But seriously, I'm still trying to determine what led Siobhan to pick perhaps the only song that features the exalted Mariah and Whitney together (and to wear that butterfly-covered dress, but, another subject there). Yes, technically, there wasn't much to argue with: She was in tune, using proper dynamics, with excellent vocal control and soft, sustained notes. But why? The judges wondered, too, with Kara (!) delivering the most perceptive feedback: Based on Siobhan's responses of late, she says, "I kinda feel like I'd want to hang out with you more than I'd want to buy your record, because I still don't know who you are." Siobhan, in what's becoming a habit, replies that she picked the song because she liked it ("The meaning of it is why I'm here now"), is glad to have chance to be there to sing it and didn't want to be scared off by who had first done it. But picking a song only because you like it is not enough in this context; you can also do that in your shower, but this is for an audience, to whom you're trying to convey a sense of who you are and what you want to be. That, on the other hand, didn't convey anything other than Very Good Local Talent Show Entrant. Where did Fierce Siobhan go, or did we just imagine her?

Mike, "Hero," Chad Kroeger (Nickelback lead singer) and Josey Scott (Saliva lead singer): Get ready to roll your eyes, because Seacrest introduces Mike by dropping this bit of trivia: In the years leading up to his AI stint, Mike compiled a playbook of about 200 songs he'd pick from if he ever made the show. And now, he has chosen a song from that book! Alas, it is a song involving Nickelback, so let's hope he really makes it his own; Alicia credits him for going outside his comfort zone, while Mike says, "I really want this song to take flight." (Couldn't he ask Sully for tips?) The performance reminded me of the things I like most and least about him, with the welcome presence of his guitar and vocals that are, as usual, pretty on-point, but also a strange sense of bombast and self-confidence that verges on inflated self-regard, and a song choice that doesn't ultimately seem to say a whole lot. "That didn't quite gel for me," Simon says. 

Crystal, "People Get Ready," Curtis Mayfield/The Impressions: This civil rights-era anthem has already been covered repeatedly by numerous notables (U2, Eva Cassidy, even Keys herself) - and yet Crystal not only picked the song anyway, but, impressively, made none of that matter. The song choice in and of itself is to her credit and signals the higher level on which she's operating. She picked the song, she said, because she's grateful for everything in her life right now, and indeed her father was in the studio audience for the first time all season.
She followed through on that potential in her performance, using it to say something, musically and emotionally. Wearing a long black dress far fancier than her usual attire and using her mic stand from back home in Ohio, she performed for the first time sans instrument, and began a capella. Once the backup singers and fairly unhip arrangement chimed in, I wished she'd stayed that way, but she nonetheless delivered deeply felt vocals, tearing up at the end. Or, per Simon. "THAT was inspirational." And, as anyone with ears could tell, miles above anything that preceded it.
Added moment of Trademark Crystal Levity: When she reached for Seacrest's hanky and found it was taped together, prompting a shrug and a single, bemused word, "Hollywood."

Bonus song-selection guidance courtesy of this recap's special guest stars, my parents, who've been in town visiting and also took in last night's show:
My dad, on potential "inspirational" song choices: "An obvious one would be that one Bette Midler song."
Me, skeptically: "'Wind Beneath My Wings'?"
My dad: "Yeah, that one."
Me: "That'd be the one I wouldn't choose."

My mom, sitting on couch during a commercial break, beginning to sing: "When you walk through a storm..." Other lyrics follow.
Me: "Who sang that?"
My mom: "We sang it in Glee Club in high school."
(Further research indicates that, in fact, it's Rodgers & Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone," from "Carousel," a song covered by many more groups and singers than just my mom's high school glee club.)

Which contestant will Idol give back? Please, let it be Aaron, for committing the cardinal sin of "I Believe I Can Fly," although I'd be completely content with Tim leaving, too.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Elvis night brings a hunk o' burning...what?

Book me a room at the Earache Hotel and send up a peanut butter-and-banana sandwich, stat, because I'm checking in to recover from a very strange night of "American Idol." In some ways, this one left me feeling much like a compass at the South Pole - spinning around confusedly ("All Shook Up", eh?), wondering which way was north: Ryan Seacrest was weirdly off! Tim Urban was genuinely kind of decent! And Adam Lambert was there, except not as a contestant, but as a mentor, the first former contestant to ever do so, because - as Seacrest indicated in one of the world's lamest segues ever - "Elvis was a great performer! And, speaking of great performers, here's one of the best we've ever had on our show! Why him? Why now? Well, coincidentally, he's also trying to promote his album, do a bit of image repair and give his career a boost after that seriously off-putting American Music Awards fiasco in November! Give it up for Adam Lambert!"

Then again, Lambert's presence also proved that some things haven't changed: The season eight runner-up remains remarkably articulate, self-effacing and accurate in his musical judgment, and he didn't hesitate to employ all of those traits in advising this season's crop of finalists. Frankly, most of them sorely needed the advice while tackling a theme that last appeared in season five. I must confess that, bizarrely, the only performance from that night I can remember without looking it up was Taylor Hicks singing "In The Ghetto." (Which, incidentally and fittingly, this season's corniest contestant - Mike Lynche, who, like Hicks, is also not without skills - performed tonight.)  

Anyway, our remaining nine traveled to Las Vegas - where only half of them would even be old enough to drink, sigh - to tour an Elvis attraction and meet with Adam, whose hairstyle, at the very least, also paid some type of homage to the King. On one hand, it halfway bothered me that the show hadn't brought on somebody who'd actually claimed the "AI" title (which is, ostensibly, still the goal, right?) Kelly, Carrie or David Cook, anyone? Or that cool guy whose name the show's producers seem to have forgotten - you know, him, that guy from last year, Kris something? On the other hand, I am perfectly ok with any excuse to bring back the Lambert, flimsy as said excuse may be. Especially because, as usual, he was wise and correct. Take, for instance, this advice to the finalists: "I just told 'em they had to wake up a bit," he said. Oh, Adam, there you go, summing up the whole season so far.

With the cast of "Glee," most notably Sue Sylvester and Mr. Schue's fedora (oh, with him underneath it) sitting conspicuously behind the judges, the proceedings got underway, with Seacrest in his customary role as ringmaster. (By the way, did you KNOW that Glee was coming up next? If not, I have 20 helpful promos I can show you!) But whoa, was the man not a little harsh, a little amped up, a little intensely something tonight? I mean, maybe he was just overly caffeinated and enthused about the return of "Glee," but, holy awkward banter alert, the show wasn't yet five minutes old when he spluttered to Lambert - clearly in thrall to his special, secret glam powers - "My tongue is not nearly as talented as yours." The agony! To say nothing of his unusually aggressive "Whassups!", high fives and other gestures directed at the audience, his emphatically wrapping up a statement in front of an old lady in an aisle seat by emphatically proclaiming "That would SUCK!" and, sweet mother, the joke he cracked about - wait for it - his departed co-host Brian Dunkleman, a man whose name I'm not sure has been uttered on the show since he got the boot in the wake of season one. "Idol Gives Back," you see, is next week, and after mentioning that the star-studded portion of the entertainment would be broadcast from the Pasadena Civic Center, across town from the "AI" studios, Seacrest cracked, "I can announced that Brian Dunkleman will host that portion of the show." I sort of gasped, because he went there, and then laughed harder than I had all night - but seriously, the audience didn't seem to know what to do, prompting a sort of stunned silence, which Seacrest fairly rapidly recovered from by saying, "No, Queen Latifah will do that." 

Extreme awkwardness aside, I think we can probably all agree that the rapid pace of the show represented about a 100 percent improvement over last week - although I surely can't be the only one wondering, "If we had nine contestants both this week and last, how come this week was half an hour shorter?" Oh, right, just another reason to be grateful for the return of "Glee." Anyway, to the performances!

Crystal "Broken Record In The Best Way Possible" Bowersox: Unsurprisingly, Adam loved Crystal, because she's talented, true to herself and can flat-out wail. That, interestingly, makes her the most like Adam of any of this year's contestants - not in looks or sound, obviously, but in that she's self-assured without being arrogant, and comfortable with herself and her musical identity without becoming complacent. Wielding a sparkly electric guitar and some very cool patterned pants I'm still attempting to figure out, she began her version of "Saved" with a tempo perched precariously on the edge of "too fast." Thank goodness, then, for the breakdown, which came about halfway through and gave her the chance to finish powerfully and soulfully, albeit with a few wobbly notes. "Thank you" (no, not "Thank you very much"), she said, finishing to huge applause. Randy compares her to Bonnie Raitt, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he's ripping off Kara's comment from last week, both Ellen and Randy preface their comments by saying they're going to sound like a broken record (um, how is that different from the norm?) and finally Kara offers specific praise, something she actually continues to provide all evening. Simon says she avoided being karaoke, something he presciently fears other contestants won't handle as skillfully. Ergo, Bower Power continues in full effect. But why the sad look when Seacrest is sending you out?

Andrew "I'm Basically Asking To Be Sent Home" Garcia: "What happens when Andrew rocks Elvis?" Seacrest asks, leading into the break. What happened was, he picked an uber-predictable song that's inextricably associated with Elvis - "Hound Dog" - and sang it with no guitar and basically no twist save for a sort-of jazzy arrangement. The result just served to emphasize that Andrew's middling vocals are far from Elvis-level, and came off as just kind of "Why?", unnecessary and lacking urgency. Ellen liked it, but Simon concluded, "I think all of your coolness has been sucked out of you." His stumbling interview with Seacrest, meanwhile, made clear how much more skilled at such things Adam is, among others. And Lambert, meanwhile, was unsparing in his remarks, while also getting in a possibly inadvertent dig at Andrew's early, perhaps only shining moment: "He just left me wanting more," Lambert said. "It was boring. I was bored. I'm going to be totally honest. I know I can be straight up with you." Straight up, did you say? Oh, nevermind. Andrew roared into this season with the promise of - and seemingly wanting to be - the Creative Song Rearranger guy, but weeks of competition have exposed his shortcomings. Adam or David Cook, he most definitely is not. 

Tim "Yeah, Seacrest called me 'Turban'" Urban: Having toned down the perma-smiles in favor of an earnest, "I'm actually trying" vibe, Tim embarked on "Can't Help Falling In Love" with a tender, honest tone and pleasant guitar picking. In rehearsal, Adam praised him and sure enough, not even grading on (much of) a curve, his performance turned out fine, with a spare, acoustic-flavored arrangement. Tim, crucially, realized that he's never going to sing like Elvis (Andrew, take note), so he instead aimed for capturing the emotion of the song, working within the confines of his limited range, sitting, strumming, and even trying a little falsetto. Based on his cumulative record, the dude probably deserves to go home, but not on that based on that performance alone. 

Lee "I'm A Happy Guy" DeWyze: Adam, astutely, notes that Lee doesn't have much facial expression going on during his performances, and advises him to work on it as he plays "A Little Less Conversation" with acoustic guitar, in the style of Incubus' "Drive." Though I'm not sure that it showed up all that much in the performance, Lee's confidence is surely growing, and he's increasingly at ease with on-stage banner. Though his vocals were a bit shouty and the tempo of the song a little too even for my taste, the rough-hewn tone of his voice continues to deliver, even if he isn't hitting every note precisely - and the arrangement was creditably modern and original. Afterwards, the judges offer praise that seemed slightly disproportionate to a performance that, while perfectly fine, wasn't exactly "Mad World": "Another great, amazing performance" (Randy), "You're engaging with the audience more" (Ellen), "An intensity I haven't seen from you" (Kara). Still, Simon was correct in saying it worked; Lee, endearingly, said, "Talking to Adam helped a lot."

Aaron "I Prefer to Drink Cider" Kelly: Dr. Lambert prescribed self-confidence for the young patient taking on "Blue Suede Shoes." But it clearly did not show in Aaron's pre-performance clip, in which he said, "I don't know that the song fits me. It's probably wrong in every possible way." This turned out to be the result of lyric about drinking liquor, which, yes, surely does not fit Aaron, but he sold himself a little short. Though like all of his performances, this one suffered from a lack of depth and connection, it was at least uptempo, and therefore a refreshing change from the samey ballads he's reached for almost every other week. It really only caught on when he entered a bluesy half-time section toward the end, though, and I question where he can realistically go from here. To that point, I suspect his Blue Suede Shoes might walk out the door tomorrow.

Siobhan "Winner of the Puffy Hair Contest" Magnus: "What happened when Siobhan and Lambert came face to face?" Seacrest teased. Um, the world exploded? Wait, no: The meeting was in fact awfully sweet. "I just wanted to say, it's great to meet you," The Glassblower told Adam, acknowledging the comparison between the two of them that some people had drawn, and noting that she was honored by it. He graciously complimented her, and also advised that she head in a less sleepy direction - which, indeed, was her problem last week. At first I thought "Suspicious Minds" was a fantastic choice - that is, until I heard the slow, retro arrangement kick in. I didn't think there was much way for her to recover until she headed into the breakdown, which I apparently liked much more than the judges - because it was a better, less tentative fit for her voice and gave her more to tear into. Frankly, I was surprised she was able to recover as much as she did.
If more girls were left, I'd say she might be in danger; because she's one of three remaining, I suspect she's probably safe, but she needs to recover the energy she brought to the stage early on (tonight, it looked like it had retreated to the edges of her white suit jacket, which featured scattered lightning bolts). Semi-hilariously, that plus a shortish white skirt nonetheless constituted a toned-down ensemble for her, and she also acquitted herself charmingly while telling Seacrest she did a report on Elvis in the sixth grade - crediting her parents, who, she says, raised her to have good taste - and admired his rags-to-riches tale. Also, regarding her retort to the judges? It struck me as a little bit of a cop-out, if an honest one: She said she isn't just one kind of singer and can't even label herself, and therefore, the judges shouldn't try to do so. Yet "label" and "musical identity" are not one and the same, and you need something to hang your hat on, as Adam's run and those of other successful Idols have demonstrated.

Mike "Don't Make Me Stop Doing Cartoonish Pre-Song Karate Chops" Lynche: "In The Ghetto" was a good if not particularly stunning choice for the big man the judges saved last week, and he sang it well - slowly, sensitively, with an acoustic sense. Even so, I'm wondering if he can win any more converts at this point - unlike with the other performances, this didn't give much to chew on either way, and I suspect that's what sent him to the bottom last week. The judges cut short their comments , saying they were running out of time, but couldn't they have just solved that by running one less "Glee" promo? Oh dear.

Katie "The Life Experience Driving My Performances Comes From 'AI'" Stevens: The 17-year-old says she has channeled her feelings about the judges' tug-of-war regarding her "identity" into this tune, "Baby, What Do You Want Me To Do?" Ha! Frankly, I think her black-and-blue outfit - see, she's tough! - could have used about 50 percent less chains per square inch, but, that aside, it was a smart, sassy-enough choice. Katie doesn't have a ton of natural stage presence or movement, but this was perhaps the most I've liked her singing. Ellen, inappropriately, calls it "A very horny song," (meaning, she says, "A lot of horns in it"), while Simon found it loud and a bit annoying. "Look, they liked it, so it doesn't matter what I think, right?" he says, gesturing to the other judges. Ha, nine seasons in, he clearly knows that's not how things work.

Casey "Even My Tempos Are Consistent" James: Adam recommends that "Fabio" vary his dynamics and create more of a narrative arc in his performance of "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" - which is excellent advice Casey then isn't exactly able to put into action. I suspect that's because the blues-tinged rock number was in Casey's wheelhouse, comfort zone, whatever you want to call it, which lapsed him back into his old self, instead of pushing beyond the norm, as he did last week. The song didn't really build anywhere, maintained a steady, driving tempo and then ended. That said, Casey did look looser and more confident on stage. Ellen praised his consistency, but Kara (rightfully) said that it fell short of brilliance, and she expects more. Simon notes that though the singing was fine, it was otherwise completely forgettable and a missed opportunity, particularly given how the theme meshed with Casey's style.

What's next? Forget about "Glee - out!" - it could be Aaron and Andrew leaving instead, although I'd consider returning about two-thirds of the night's performances to sender, so to speak. 

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

"AI" meets the Beatles, and modest expectations

Maybe it's just because it's much harder to complain about song selection on a night when "American Idol" contestants had the unparalleled John Lennon-Paul McCartney songbook to choose from - but not one of this year's top nine turned in a truly embarrassing performance on the latest "AI," despite a crop of finalists that has proven uneven at best.

Our show of shows last traveled to Beatles Land two years ago, during the early weeks of season seven - and while the more recent installment didn't contain a performance as memorable as, say, David Cook's "Eleanor Rigby," it also spared us any assaults on the senses a la Kristy Lee Cook's "Eight Days A Week." Though in one respect it seemed a little strange to venture back to that well so relatively soon, better John, Paul, Ringo and George than, say, another stab at Disco Week (then again, it's early, so we may yet see that too, shudder to think). Besides, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better-loved, more enduring collection of songs. Not only are Beatles tunes still meaningful and fresh after 40 years, but they largely lend themselves to adaptation, because their power resides in their melodies, not just on how John or Paul originally sang them (though, obviously, that helps).

Accordingly, even most of this year's occasionally-oblivious remaining finalists seemed appreciative of the theme and the embarrassment of songwriting riches at their disposal, receiving a jolly encouragement video from Sir Paul himself (mercifully, we did not have to watch him "mentor" Tim Urban). As Seacrest attempted once more to fill two hours of time, Randy said he expected big highs and big lows. But alas - and perhaps unsurprisingly - the Dawg was not correct: The evening delivered more of a pleasant enough medium, with a few standouts and plenty of praise for mediocrity thrown in long the way (calling halfway decent performers "artists" and whatnot). Unfortunately, I was also reminded that the prematurely dispatched Didi Benami, forced out of her bizarre lapse into torch-song mode, probably would have done the catalog more justice than some of the other surviving contestants, as would Lilly Scott - who in fact already did, with her endearingly quirky "Fixing A Hole" in the semifinal round. Still, if we didn't have that, we at least got to watch the top nine describe each other, which led to:

Aaron: His fellow Idols compared him to Star Wars sage Yoda, which was, um, interesting, but sedate, his take on "The Long and Winding Road" was. Like his choice last week, "Ain't No Sunshine," the 17-year-old again picked a song that required the sort of world-weariness he'd have a hard time conveying - I mean, really, what's a long and winding road to him? Though his vaguely country-twang tone was mostly intact, he waned a bit on the non-glory notes. "It felt like a long and winding song," Ellen said, while Aaron seemed on the brink of tears when Simon had the temerity to ask him why he picked that song. It was a legitimate question, and one he struggled to answer. On this front, Tim Urban outmaneuvered him; he could have easily picked a more teen-appropriate, jaunty track from the early Beatles years, but instead went with what Kara likened to "the same performance" he's been giving for weeks. Oh yeah, and he also used the word "journey" at least twice to describe his singing career thus far, such as it is. Oh, RealityTVSpeak, how quickly young'uns adopt you as their native language!

Katie: Getting the Teenage Portion of the evening out of the way, the Connecticut high-schooler continued her quest toward Maximum Annoyance, responding to a Seacrest question by saying that five guys have asked her to prom - boo-hoo - and she'll pick one to go with based on who's voted for her the most. Oh dear. She then states that she has chosen "Let It Be" because she's familiar with it, and she appreciates its message. Wearing a fluorescent pink dress and some questionable jewelry, she delivers relatively solid vocals, more in tune than in previous weeks, with help from an understated, non-cheesy backing arrangement. It's one of her better performances, but she did seem to be striving somewhat for a Big Moment that I'm not sure she has the emotional heft to pull off. Simon, for his part, considered it less robotic than previous weeks.

Andrew: Despite Simon knocking him as "boring" last week, Andrew's comrades in Idoldom described him as goofy, and he is indeed shown joking around. While far from a vocal revelation - his range is still rather limited - his acoustic-flavored "Can't Buy Me Love" was also a bit breezier and more energetic-in-a-good-way than the judges, particularly Simon (who described it as wedding-band-like) gave him credit for. The arrangement was a little too sped-up for my tastes, but the funk-influenced breakdown - I heard slap bass! - helped make up for that, at least in part. 

Mike: Who, we learn, performed around Florida with his family as a boy, as part of a group called (really?!) "the Lynche Mob." Er, so, yeah. He takes on "Eleanor Rigby" with a whole string section onstage alongside him and turns it into an R&B jam of sorts - yep, it definitely won't be confused with David Cook's rendition. Though it wasn't particularly restrained, restraint isn't usually one of Mike's strong suits, and frankly, especially this season, it's good to see someone reaching and trying. Or, per Randy: "I'm not sure all of that worked, but the parts that did work were great." Simon felt it was too over-the-top and like a musical in a bad way, which Randy, in typically incoherent fashion, then tried to turn into a compliment by linking it to the popularity of "Glee." Also, Kara, for future reference, "commercial" is not necessarily the same thing as "relevant." (Hey, also, in the wake of the NCAA tournament, fun (or not-fun?) fact about Kara: She's a Duke graduate.)

Crystal: Her Ohio hometown has put up a sign reading "Home of Crystal Bowersox." The "AI" producers might want to consider doing the same on their studio doors - because MamaSox (as even her fellow contestants call her! "She's a mothering type of person," quoth Siobhan) again displayed an exceedingly excellent level of craftsmanship in her "Come Together." (And, for the record, was back to boots and jeans, after her foray into high heels last week.) Last performed on the show by season eight champ Kris Allen, the song itself was perhaps not the most inspired choice Crystal could have made, or her best performance - she would have brought more emotion to other songs, I think - but she certainly achieved the fun groove she was aiming for, and her effortlessly creative phrasing is undeniable. Simon praised her for, essentially, being self-aware and articulate, while Kara liked her "slinky, sexy, playful" Bonnie Raitt vibe. For reasons unknown, she also incorporated a didgeridoo player into her song, then joyfully draped her arm around him during the judges' feedback. 

Tim: In the introduction package, the other contestants made fun of Tim's constant smiling: If teeth could actually sparkle, Siobhan noted, Tim's would. So, shockingly, he says he is going to sing a "fun Lennon-McCartney song" that will "put a smile on people's face, that I could sing with a smile." But for once, at least, this led to Tim and the audience "having fun" simultaneously. Tim's buoyancy worked in his favor as he performed "All My Loving" with an electric guitar: Wisely choosing from the early Beatles area, he picked a song he understood, and one that had a straightforward chipperness that suited him. Nor was his vocal even close to his previous lows. As "Idol" performances go, it doesn't exactly change the game, "Sgt. Pepper"-style, but it was far above average for a contestant who probably should have been booted weeks ago. Randy also grasped this, saying that because Tim is in his own category, he'll judge based on whether it was "a good Tim performance." That, ladies and gentlemen, is a burn - and one Tim politely absorbed. Simon, meanwhile, was kinder, calling the performance good, period, and noting that he was proud of the way Tim has handled himself amid the critical barrage.

Casey: After weeks of pleasant but largely unmemorable trips to the stage, Casey made a bid for something more with his version of John Lennon's solo track "Jealous Guy" - which, no lie, sounded to me like "Jello Sky" the first time Casey said it. Performing with an acoustic guitar let Casey focus more on his vocals and emotional connection, and both benefited from the extra attention. A non-hokey arrangement of an unexpected song, with cello accompaniment, added further ambiance, helping Casey truly meld with the music for arguably the first time in weeks, if ever in the season. Simon calls it the best of night because of the leap Casey took, which was kind of unfair to Crystal's consistency, but nonetheless, it was much better for him personally and certainly his best so far.

Siobhan: Dressed like the love child of Miss Havisham and Fred Astaire, with what looked like some white Dr. Martens boots thrown in, Siobhan says she chose "Across the Universe" because she connected with its meaning and didn't want the changes in her life to spoil her rapport with her family. I respect that; it was clear the song touched her. But "Across the Universe" is a sleepy song as it is, with little vocal range, and she arguably made it even drowsier, using a samey arrangement and performing seated. The effect was a bit like a high school talent show floating in space. Though better than her disastrous R&B week outing, this one never shifted into drive; I hope The Glassblower isn't fading, but if she survives this she'd do well to recapture some of her earlier mojo with a more energetic choice. Though I'm unsure if Wings songs were eligible, she would have totally ripped "Live and Let Die," and, returning to the Beatles, would have done a number on "A Day in the Life," too. Or, she could have told more of a story, at least, with something like "She's Leaving Home." 

Lee: So he's doing a serviceable rendition of "Hey Jude" with an acoustic guitar when - wait, what? - a bagpiper in full regalia (bushy black hat, plaid kilt) comes strolling down the stairs behind him. At that point, I fully expected someone to jump out and exclaim, "Dude, you got punked!" Except no one did. Instead, the bagpiper kept descending, then walked up behind Lee and moved over to his side, playing along with the conclusion of the song while looking more than a little uncomfortable and sheepish. At the end, the bagpiper looked like he couldn't get out of there soon enough, but the judges, also in disbelief, called him back toward center stage. Simon, confused, asked Lee where the idea came from, and Lee confirmed that it was 100 percent his doing - with a smile that hints at his growing confidence (and, I don't know, a desire to one-up Crystal at the Random Wind Instrument game?). The panel agrees, rightly, that the pipes did not add much to the song except weirdness. Also, completely unrelated to the song - but beyond pointing out the surprise-to-probably-no-one fact that Lee lacks self-confidence in his performances, Lee's introduction package also wittily showcased his bromance with Andrew. This prompted Crystal to crack - as a clip of the guys high-fiving played within a heart-shaped camera frame - "I'm so glad that those two can be together and get married and have lots of little Danny Gokey babies." And she said she didn't watch the show before!  

Extremely important viewing note: At long last, next week we will not have to witness Seacrest try to fill two hours of time - it appears the show will be an hour and a half long. Perhaps more importantly, that also makes way for the (long-delayed! much-awaited!) return of (!!!) Glee. Bring it on!