The competition on American Idol continues to heat up. With only five contestants remaining, the gap from worst to first grows ever narrower.
This week’s theme, ‘Songs From Now and Then’, gives our final five two bites at the cherry. First they must perform a contemporary song – a clear opportunity to make a statement about what kind of artist they see themselves as becoming. Then they must take on a classic from “back in the day”, as Ryan Seacrest puts it in about as non-specific a way as it is possible to do.
This gives us a welcome shake-up, with all five ‘now’ selections making their Idol debut. And the classic oldies are such big songs that they have been largely avoided by previous contestants – three have been performed twice before, while the other two are being performed for the first time in a finals run (although one did make an appearance in a semi-final round last year).
So, let’s kick off the weekly recap with a look at the five modern songs.
James Durbin: Closer to the Edge – 30 Seconds to Mars
Song choice: 3/5. I have to say I’m not entirely convinced by James as an out-and-out rocker – I see him more in the softer genre occupied by latter-day Bon Jovi – so this choice of track by alt-rockers 30 Seconds To Mars is an intriguing one. It could confirm my suspicions, or it could prove me wrong and underline the versatility James has shown throughout the competition. Either way, it’s a good up-tempo song with which to kick off the evening.
Performance: 3/5. I certainly cannot fault James’s showmanship and ability to work an audience, but his vocal performance falls below his usual high standards. There aren’t enough natural rough edges in his voice to bring a fairly middle-of-the-road song to life, and in trying to impose himself on the song he seems to fall off a few notes pitch-wise. It’s not bad, but for the most consistent performer in the competition this is probably his worst performance so far. Mediocre.
I think you kicked that song’s ass. You know, the way you worked the audience, you’re ready for Freddie [Mercury], I think.
Jacob Lusk: No Air – Jordin Sparks & Chris Brown
Song choice: 1/5. In his pre-performance video, Jacob states this is the kind of song he would want to release. It’s certainly challenging – stretching in terms of range and duets are always difficult things for a solo performer to pull off convincingly. Personally, I think it’s a big mistake to take any duet on – it’s just asking for trouble.
Performance: 1/5. Oh dear. Two words: bad karaoke. Like the not-dearly departed Barnacle™ (Stefano Langone), Jacob is prone to overly-long phrasing, and it shows as he struggles in places to keep up with the faster, more staccato elements of the song. Possibly because of that, he regularly overshoots and has some painfully sharp moments which just end up as high-pitched screeching. The harmonies with the backing singers are jarring. And his Captain Camp™ dance moves just add to the feeling of total discomfort watching him. It’s a merciful relief when he finishes. Simply terrible.
We’re waiting for you to find a niche. I’m waiting for that certain something that you find that’s you – that’s 100% you – not trying to do other people.
I’d settle for him just singing in tune, personally.
Lauren Alaina: Flat On the Floor – Katrina Elam
Song choice: 4/5. As country songs go – and regular readers will know how much I hate the genre – this is an excellent choice. Contemporary, up-tempo and fun, it is everything we first loved about Lauren from her original audition. Originally recorded by Katrina Elam, there is a link to Idol‘s past here as it has also been covered by season four winner Carrie Underwood.
Performance: 5/5. The arrangement stays fairly faithful to the original, and Lauren stamps her personality all over the song. Although it’s not the rangiest of songs it does require a big, punchy, dynamic voice to carry it off, and she shows off this side of her very well indeed. All the power, tone and rough edges that made her stand out in her first audition are here in abundance, but with a level of control which has often been lacking in the past. Night and day when compared to Jacob’s effort. Very good indeed.
That is the direction for you. I love you showing this fun side, this energetic side. I thought it was amazing.
Scotty McCreery: Gone – Montgomery Gentry
Song choice: 4/5. A welcome change-up from Scotty. Yes, it’s country, but this number by the duo Montgomery Gentry is up-tempo, fun and free of the usual painful my-wife-has-left-me-and-my-horse-has-just-died ballads which Scotty seems to specialise in. A good choice.
Performance: 4/5. Who is this version of Scotty, and why haven’t we seen him before? Compared to his usual style, it is like watching a completely different performer. He works the stage like a pro, stomping around, bringing the audience into it and generally looking like he’s having a party rather than a wake. This is genuinely very good indeed, and it’s a real shame we haven’t seen this more relaxed side of him more often.
Up to now you’ve been like a puritan, but I swear to God I saw you dance with the devil, and that’s a good thing for you. That showed a whole other side of you.
Haley Reinhart: You and I – Lady Gaga
Song choice: 2/5. What an odd selection. Of all the songs to choose, Haley sings a track off the as-yet-unreleased Lady Gaga album. Why choose a song nobody knows? Either Haley is taking a risk too far, or it has the fingerprints of Idol mentor and Interscope boss Jimmy Iovine all over it – a shameless piece of promotion for the forthcoming album by Interscope’s biggest star. I reckon it’s the latter.
Performance: 4/5. Having said that, Haley does a pretty good job with this after a faltering start. Her voice wraps itself nicely around the melody and inhabits the song well, and the final 30 seconds of harmonies are beautifully done. It’s just difficult for an audience to connect with a song they are hearing for the first time. She will need to do better with her second song to close out the show.
I love the way you sounded. I’m just not sure, even though it was a cool idea to do an unreleased Lady Gaga track … you just have to showcase yourself with songs that people are really going to connect to and love.
With the contemporary song round done, it’s into the ‘golden oldies’ portion of the show. The running order is the same as before, and every one of these songs is a bona fide classic in its own right.
James Durbin: Without You – Nilsson
Song choice: 3/5. A brave choice by James, contrasting neatly with his first choice and giving him the chance to turn it down and show us his softer, more emotional side. He has some mighty big footsteps to follow, though – in addition to the Nilsson and Mariah Carey versions (and many others), the song was also performed by Kelly Clarkson all the way back in season one (and, less memorably, Carly Smithson three years ago). Has he bitten off more than he can chew?
Performance: 3/5. A pedestrian opening is followed by a performance oddly lacking in James’s customary intensity. It’s clear from his video clip that the emotion of the song means a lot to him, and during his performance he is visibly choking back tears. But Without You is a song fuelled by devastating heartbreak, and in his attempts to control himself he sounds more like he has just stubbed his toe really hard. The visible emotion allows him to make a real connection with the audience, but his vocal delivery is flat in both senses of the word. One half of me wants to excuse his pitchiness, but the other cannot – instead of harnessing the power of his emotions, James instead allows them to overwhelm him. Overall, this has to count as an off week.
Everyone knows you can sing but you’re not just a guy who can wail up into the stratosphere. You have the heart and soul to back it up. You are a true, true artist.
Jacob Lusk: Love Hurts – The Everly Brothers
Song choice: 3/5. Now this is left-field. Bonus points to Jacob for jumping out of his comfort zone. But I can also see why he chose this particular song as it has a melodramatic quality which plays to his over-the-top gospel tendencies. I fear it is a choice which is better in the concept than in the execution.
Performance: 3/5. Having played down the diva melodrama more successfully in recent weeks, he reverts to type and goes downhill in the second half of this performance. The beginning is strong, starting way up high and then swooping down low to demonstrate the full range of his voice. But there is a big wobble in the middle, and he then tips over onto the wrong side of the line and injects an excess of drama where only a light touch is needed. It’s good technically, but it just feels over-indulgent to me, as if he is over-singing the song just to prove how versatile his voice is. It’s unnecessary, and it spoils the end as it becomes all about him rather than the song.
Everybody heard the little bobble you had in the middle but the truth is you bring out the tricks at the end.
The thing is, you can have too many tricks.
Lauren Alaina: Unchained Melody – The Righteous Brothers
Song choice: 4/5. A great choice – a proper classic that is both widely known and vocally challenging, and one which lends itself to a country arrangement. The song has been performed twice before during the Idol finals: firstly by season two runner-up Clay Aiken (a very good version) and then by Kellie Pickler in season five, with a truly awful country version (see below) which saw her eliminated in sixth place.
Performance: 4/5. This performance showcases both Lauren’s strengths and limitations. It’s a simple arrangement with a basic piano accompaniment which takes its template from the LeAnn Rimes version. The vocal shows off her purity of tone with a smattering of both silky smooth and raspier moments. But the emotional punch isn’t quite there and her lack of confidence shows when she ducks the big high note near the end. With a braver arrangement and a bit more conviction, this could have been wonderful. Instead it’s merely good.
We saw a different side of you tonight. You had your little R&B runs. This girl can sing like a bird. I’m so happy to see this other side of you. Very nicely done – a very tender moment.
Scotty McCreery: Always On My Mind – Brenda Lee
Song choice: 3/5. After his party-time exploits with his first song, it is entirely forgivable that Scotty returns to safe territory for his second choice of the night. Originally recorded by Brenda Lee, this classic is probably best known in its Willie Nelson and Elvis Presley forms, although my personal favourite remains the Pet Shop Boys‘ high-energy electronica version (see below). On the Idol stage, the track has been performed by both Fantasia Barrino and Anoop Desai.
Performance: 3/5. We are back on well-trodden ground with Scotty here, but it’s just a little bit dull. Technically his voice is spot on, but I suspect most people associate the song with an overwhelming sense of world-weeariness, and Scotty just can’t quite make that believable here. Disappointing.
Between that last song you did and this song you showed us what a well-rounded artist you are. You’re so comfortable in your own skin – just a true performer.
Haley Reinhart: House of the Rising Sun – The Animals
Song choice: 5/5. Oh, my word. If ever a classic song was a perfect fit for a contestant, this is it. Saturated in soul and demanding a purity and character of tone which only the strongest of voices could carry off. It’s an enormous risk for Haley – get it wrong and there is nowhere to hide – but it is exactly what she needs if she seriously wants to dislodge one of the long-term favourites and reach the final. Incredibly, this classic has only been sung once before in the live stages of Idol, and even then only in a semi-final round last year by Siobhan Magnus (see below), a stripped-down version with an a cappella opening which still ranks as one of my favourite Idol performances ever.
Performance: 5/5. You wait two months for Idol to deliver a ‘moment’, and then it manages it twice in consecutive weeks. Similar to Magnus’ version, this starts a cappella and has a simple, unfussy arrangement. It showcases all the elements in Haley’s voice which have been at times annoying or overplayed – the semi-yodel in her upper register, her raspy growl, those rich, seductive bluesy tones – but fit this particular song like hand in glove. Haley has been in the bottom three four times so far. Not this week. Like Mary Poppins, this is practically perfect in every way, and receives a deserved standing ovation from the judges.
Every week somebody’s been coming out slaying it like they really want to win this. The award tonight for the best performance of the night goes to Haley. You’ve grown by leaps and bounds on this show. You’re so good now. That was amazing.
Best performance of the night? Best performance of the entire season, more like. Even better than James’ Will You Love Me Tomorrow last week.
Overall, this was an interesting night which included arguably the best (House of the Rising Sun) and worst (No Air) live performances of the entire season. The contemporary round was won easily by the country twins, Lauren and Scotty, while Jacob committed virtual suicide. The classic round saw a series of decent but slightly underwhelming performances from the three boys, a good showing from Lauren and then a show-stopping one from Haley.
Coming into the week, I would have said this round was all about which of Haley and Jacob would be leaving us, and while I think Lauren, Scotty and a sub-par James remain certainties to progress to next week, Haley’s Rising Sun should also be enough to guarantee her safe passage as well. (Indeed, I have a theory which suggests Haley may be doing even better than we think – more on that in tomorrow’s post.) Which, surely, means it’s time to say goodbye to Captain Camp™. Not so much No Air as No Hope.
Safe as houses: James, Lauren, Scotty, Haley
Going home: Jacob
American Idol posts
Auditions: New Jersey, New Orleans, Milwaukee, Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, San Francisco
Hollywood Week: Solo auditions, Group round, Final round
Las Vegas & Green Mile: Las Vegas & Green Mile part 1, Green Mile part 2
Semi-finals: Boys, Girls, Results/wild cards
Top 13: Performances, Results
Top 12: Performances, Results
Top 11: Performances, Results
Top 11 redux: Performances, Results
Top 9: Performances, Results
Top 8: Performances, Results
Top 7: Performances, Results
Top 6: Performances, Results
Link: American Idol website