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!


Anonymous said...

Loved Casey tonight! Btw Danny Gokey was on the show this season during the semis I think?

Anonymous said...

The whole scene was enough to make me vomit. Horrible.

Jen Aronoff said...

Ah, you're right, Gokey did make an appearance earlier in the season - that escaped me as I wrote the post above last night. Still, for her to drop in a Gokey reference based off that encounter alone - funny stuff.

Anonymous said...

First lesson - the contestants should not be able to do any song that has previously been performed in the two seasons prior (at least). It is always going to draw comparisons. This week it showed (in my opinion) just how awful Big Mike is. Compared to Cook's version two years ago it was like nails on a chalkboard.

Second lesson - if David Cook did it, don't do it. Don't even think about doing it because noone and I mean noone can cover a song the way he can. Jumpin' Jack Flash being the most recent performance (on iTunes by the way). Every song Cook does, is either better or as good as the original like Billie Jean, Hello, I Don't Want to Miss a Thing...there is a reason he had 11 top 100 songs when he was on because his covers were amazing (check out the 2010 Guinness Book of World Records).

Third lesson - If you don't have the musical ability to change up the song to make it your own, then don't change it or ask someone to help you.