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. 


Anonymous said...

Once again, the most entertaining column on! Keep up the good work, Jen!