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.