We are now less than a month away from the season ten finale of American Idol, and this week the six remaining contestants tackle the songbook of prolific singer/songwriter Carole King. With such a tightly defined catalogue to choose from, this theme presents significant challenges for the country and rock stylings of Scotty McCreery and James Durbin.
This week, in order to ensure Fox can squeeze in as many commercial breaks as possible, each contestant is performing both solo and as part of one of three duets. That sound you hear is not the house band tuning up – it is the ker-ching of cash registers in the network’s advertising sales department. In between all the revenue generation, let’s see how the contestants got on, shall we? (I haven’t bothered scoring the duets – as a rule, it’s all I can do to sit through them without hitting fast-forward.)
Song choice: 3/5. A change of pace for our sole remaining diva to wrap his tonsils around – more up-tempo without being fast – but perhaps not the most novel, exciting or familiar choice he could have made.
Performance: 2/5. I have to admit that my critique of Jacob’s performance is somewhat compromised by the distraction of his wardrobe ensemble, consisting as it does of a plaid check jacket, yellow shirt and purple bow tie combination straight out of the Pee-Wee Herman style guide. Maybe that’s part of his plan? And if that doesn’t work, he throws in his best Captain Camp™ dance moves and even a bit of scat. As for his vocal, er, he drifted a bit flat and even a bit sharp on occasion, and there wasn’t really much about it that we haven’t seen him do better several times before. Meh.
We all knew you could sing. It’s just about time you shook your tail feathers.
Song choice: 4/5. Probably best known in its Barbra Streisand version, this is a good choice for Lauren. It’s a poppy enough song to which her contemporary country stylings can be easily introduced, and there is just enough to challenge and stretch her voice without it being too much of a struggle.
Performance: 3/5. Sure enough, there is plenty of country twang to the arrangement here. There is a lot to admire here – Lauren shows plenty of control, power and tone, and she is growing in confidence with every week – but her performance also feels a bit safe, a bit too far from the cutting edge, almost as if she is phoning it in slightly. Good, but nowhere near great.
What I did love is you came up there with a vengeance. Continue to go hard for it.
Casey Abrams & Haley Reinhart: I Feel The Earth Move
From King’s iconic Tapestry album, I am always reminded of the 1989 cover of the song by Martika, former star of the long-running TV show Kids Incorporated (see below). She is probably better remembered for her US number one Toy Soldiers, which was later sampled by Eminem in Like Toy Soldiers. And before this turns into a musical version of Six Degrees of Separation, let’s just say that this duet by Mr and Mrs Growl was nowhere near as horrible as I feared it was going to be. In fact, Haley’s part was really quite good.
Scotty McCreery: You’ve Got a Friend
Song choice: 4/5. I’ve been crying out for Scotty to take at least half a step out of his country comfort zone for weeks, and after some harsh criticism from the judges last week this theme forces his hand. No one’s expecting him to start performing Iron Maiden songs, so his choice here of one of King’s best-known and most plaintive songs is an excellent one. It has been performed once on Idol before, by Brooke White back in season seven. (She wasn’t very good.)
Performance: 4/5. The start of this is brilliant – quiet, intimate and with a simple acoustic intro, and Scotty manages to put his familiar country stamp on it while staying reasonably true to the original. He builds nicely as the song progresses and uses his upper register more than in the previous seven weeks combined. It is a strong reminder that he is capable of showing some versatility even if he rarely chooses to stray far from his country heartland. His best performance in several weeks – arguably his best of the entire finals run. With this change-up securely delivered, he can now justifiably ride back into his country lane all the way to the finale.
For me the strength for you is always in the story-telling, and you told that story beautifully.
Song choice: 5/5. Faced with a problematic theme, rocker James tackles the issue head on by selecting this Shirelles classic. It’s a brilliant choice, conjuring up images of iconic performances by season four runner-up Bo Bice and season seven winner David Cook.
Performance: 5/5. My only criticism of this performance is the lighting director’s continued insistence on dramatically back-lighting James in a way that emphasises his Wayne Rooney-like ears. Seriously, it’s not a good look. Other than that, it is flawless. A brave a cappella opening à la Bice/Cook segues into a rock ballad performance which Jon Bon Jovi would have been proud of. Everything is here: pitch, tone, range, emotion, a hint of power. James has been secure at the top end of the order ever since the finals began, but this week cements his position as the only remaining contestant who can challenge the Lauren/Scotty country hegemony. And that threat is growing by the week. Only Casey can match his willingness to take risks and show off his versatility, and no one has delivered as consistently as he has. And that’s why this performance gets my first ten-out-of-ten mark this season. A genuine ‘moment’.
I thought from the beginning it was magical, totally magical.
Lauren Alaina & Scotty McCreery: Up On the Roof – The Drifters
And so we move on to our second duet of the night. If you hadn’t already worked it out, expect these two to release a radio-friendly country duet once Idol has finished. Just don’t expect it to be a cover of this Drifters classic, which was not unpleasant by any means, but no more than functional at best.
Casey Abrams: That Old Sweet Roll (Hi-De-Ho) – The City
Song choice: 2/5. Yet again, Casey stays true to himself and selects a jazz/blues/big band-style number. It’s a good fit and it is consistent with many of his previous selections, but it is almost wilfully obscure and certain to leave him at odds with large swathes of Idol‘s audience.
Performance: 4/5. I really like this. The song brings out the interesting tone in his voice and he doesn’t overdo the trademark growl. But – and it’s a big but – it isn’t going to win him any more fans, and I can’t help but feel that Casey is an old-fashioned musician who can also sing – and sing very well in the right circumstances – rather than a genuine Idol contender. He is just too far left of centre to succeed in this particular competition.
It’s like the song was written for you. It took me back to New Orleans, my home state.
Of course, New Orleans is a city and Louisiana is the state, but we know what he means. And like New Orleans jazz, people will either love it or hate it, and I fear that too many will fall into the latter camp.
Song choice: 3/5. Although this track is from Tapestry, it is not one of Carole King’s better-known ones. It’s a smooth fit for Haley’s voice, if not exactly the most adventurous one.
Performance: 3/5. The start of this is distinctly wobbly, as she is clearly unnerved by some pre-performance technical glitches, but she soon gets it back and grows stronger as she goes on. In recent weeks, she has tended to overplay her growl and tried to sex up her vocal a bit too much, but this is much more controlled, with plenty of emotional oomph behind it. It’s good, but there are a few moments where I feel she’s not quite on top of the song, so good is all it is.
I heard God in your voice. You nailed it just now.
James Durbin & Jacob Lusk: I’m Into Something Good – Earl-Jean
Oh, sweet Jesus. You can just imagine how this conversation must have gone. Having made the two obvious pairings already James and Jacob – aka the Incompatible Twins™ – drew the short straw and were forced into the world’s least likely duet. Having determined this was destined to be a car crash, and having then been assigned this light but ever so twee number – originally recorded by Earl-Jean McCrea in 1964, but best known as the version released by Herman’s Hermits later that year – the two clearly decided they were going to make the best of a bad lot and at least have some fun performing it. It was indeed a car crash, and the boys did at least look like they were having fun. We didn’t. This was bloody awful.
This was not a bad week by any means – with James producing the stand-out performance of a season which has lacked a genuine ‘moment’ up to this point – but it was also a theme which lacked either the big dramatic ballads or crowd-pleasing foot-stompers, and most of the contestants shied away from taking on the big classics. For me, the top three has been set in stone for several weeks now – Lauren, Scotty, James – and I see no reason to change that view after seeing the top six perform. On merit, I think it is time for Jacob to leave, but although I rated his performance quite highly I fear Casey is going home simply because his throwback jazz/blues comfort zone is too far removed from that of the voting public. Outside the mainstream is a dangerous place to be.
Safe as houses: Lauren, Scotty, James
Bottom three: Jacob, Casey, Haley
Going home: Casey
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Link: American Idol website