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Review: Rock Band Blitz

September 16, 2012

Image from Harmonix, on whose site there are links to buy the game.

Summary: Harmonix independently publishes a digital download music game, ditches the instrument party for a solo controller setup, and reinvigorates Rock Band for the lean social age.

Ups
• I’m quite happy that Harmonix finally put out a Rock Band game that allowed the use of a controller. After I hit a plateau in Rock Band 3, it became less fun to pull instruments out of my living room closet. Blitz’s exclusive reliance on the controller makes it much more accessible to casual players.
• Despite its simple concept, the game gives you a lot to manage. You have to hit enough notes on 4-5 instruments, switch between them enough times so that the point disparity between them isn’t too great, watch for white notes (to build your overdrive meter for launching power-ups) and purple notes (to trigger other power-ups), and push your accuracy meter to enter Blitz mode (where the game speed seemingly doubles but you get more points for every note you hit.) I enjoyed the complexity.
• Part of the appeal of each new Rock Band game is its song list. For $15, you get 25 songs right out the (virtual) box. Before the game dropped I was looking forward to some of the songs, notably Tears For Fears’ “Shout,” Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” and Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing.” I thought those were fun to play, but I also had some surprisingly good times with Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health (Bang Your Head)” and Avenged Sevenfold’s “So Far Away,’ both songs I had never heard of before this game. Heck, after playing through Foster The People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” I no longer think of them as horrible clunkers. For a $15 digital title, there’s a decent mix of material right from the get-go.
• On top of that, any song that you have on your console’s hard drive gets integrated into Blitz’s gameplay system. If you were regularly buying DLC and/or exported the setlists of the other Rock Band games into Rock Band 3, then you’ll have a lot of fresh levels to play and leaderboards to climb. It’s a great nod to players who invested a lot of time and money into past games, as everything old is new again.
• Free export! When I bought other Rock Band games in the past, export was always an extra $5-$10 on top of the cost of the game. Even if you aren’t feeling the gameplay, Blitz is a mega-cheap track pack at $.60 a song. Enjoy duets of “One Week,” people.
• You can’t fail out! While there is an incentive to play the game well and not just wail on the buttons (though on the guitar solo parts I might as well have been), you can still do ok by mashing when buffered by the right power-ups (gotta love that shockwave!)

Downs
• Remember what I said about the game’s use of the standard controller making it more accessible to casual players? This is counterbalanced by the sheer speed and number of notes coming at you as you play. Each song’s charting in Blitz is based on its expert mode charting in regular Rock Band so if you’re unfamiliar with a song or your hand-eye coordination is a little slow, it can be easy to get discouraged. Toss in all the different stuff you have to be aware of while playing (see my second point in the Ups section) and things can get pretty overwhelming, especially if you’re not in the right mindset for this kind of thing.
• There’s nothing really connecting the levels of gameplay. There is no band onstage, no cutscenes between levels, and no changes in what the highway scenery looks like while playing the game. I liked Rock Band 3’s use of story in its Tour Mode as a means to get me emotionally invested in my band of avatars. Similarly, the acquiring of character customization options through completing goals kept me coming back after I had heard all the songs in the game. The game looks the same each time you play it and there are no human faces on which you can project yourself while you play. It feels a little cold.
• Instead, there’s a big focus on social networking with challenging friends and strangers to “Score Wars” and Facebook integration. While leaderboard rankings were present in Rock Band 3, they weren’t the big prize for playing well (see previous point.) I’ll admit that it was neat to see my run on Stevie Nicks’s “Stand Back” placed in that song’s top 10 (by the time you read this it’s probably ranked #310 or lower), but leaderboard rankings are fleeting and so is the satisfaction I get from placing on them. I also don’t buy into the Facebook integration thing because I’m not sure I want to share that part of me with distant relatives or work colleagues. I recognize that this may be a big thing for some people, but it isn’t for me.
• Sadly, there is no way to play Rock Band 3 songs in Blitz at this time. Frankly, this isn’t that big a deal to me. Kickass as that game’s tracklist was, I did get a little tired of hearing the same songs as I was trying to complete many of the game’s goals. I’d rather have Blitz’s more open-ended goal system that encourages playing of lots of different songs.
Blitz has a lot more value if you already have a bunch of songs on your console’s hard drive. That might be a little discouraging to newcomers who plow through the base 25 songs in a weekend and then want to do something new but might not want to pony up $2 a song.

Conclusion: As I type this the game has been out for almost a month and I still feel the urge to go back to it. It’s a testament to the game design prowess of Harmonix that they can make a game that’s cold and a little cynical and overcome those shortcomings through deceptively complex gameplay, solid musicality, casual-friendly level structure, and a soundtrack that’s fun at the start. Beyond that, I’m just happy this game exists and Harmonix hasn’t totally focused their energies into Dance Central. I’ll be honest, before this title launched I hadn’t played a Rock Band game since 2011, which would have come as a shock to me circa when I launched this site. Then again, the way I felt about Rock Band in 2010 was the same way I felt about Dance Dance Revolution in 2003 – that it would be around forever and that I would love it forever. Nothing lasts forever, and while both series are still alive (though DDR is questionable) my enthusiasm for both series has waned considerably in the wake of other titles and interests. It’s a little unsettling to consider this in an “ashes to ashes” sense. In the meantime I’m glad that there’s a new way to connect with Rock Band and enjoy this fabulous series for a little bit longer. Blitz on!

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State of the Auditorium

September 9, 2012

Image from IceNineJon via Flickr, used under Creative Commons

Hi. It’s been awhile. Since the curtain fell on the last season of American Idol a few changes have happened in my life. I got a new job, which necessitated a move to the new location of the position. So Kathy and I packed our bags and moved from the suburbs of Washington, D.C. to Akron, Ohio. Honestly I am happy to be back in the Midwest. For the first 20+ years of my life I lived in Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana. While I had good experiences in Alabama, Colorado, and Maryland, they just weren’t as much of a match for me. Coming to Ohio feels like I’m coming back to my roots.

Although I am happy have a job and earn income in this age of uncertainty, my job change has increased my work responsibilities to a level that I feel less motivated to write as my “extra-curricular activity.” This is important because we’re coming up on the season premiere of The Voice.

I’ve recapped the past two seasons of The Voice on this blog and I’m just not feeling it this season. Don’t get me wrong, the show has had moments of awesomeness and it’s still a better program than Idol. Last season I was moved to tears after a battle round performance – that’s some kickass singing. I found at least a few contestants to be pretty likeable. And unlike the past season of Idol, I feel like the most talented contestant actually won the show. On the other hand, the show has also had its problems. While it doesn’t have quite the same retro-fetishistic sentimentality as Idol does, its ratio of clunkers to hits is getting closer to Idol’s. Also, while I like the music of most of the coaches (latest example: scoring “Moves Like Jagger” was a coup for Rock Band Blitz, as it’s one of the more challenging and fun songs in the game) as TV personalities I find them to be quite grating. I’m not sure I can take another season of Adam Levine’s douche-y machismo, Blake Shelton’s ham-fisted “eagle-shaped tears” musical conservatism, Christina Aguilera’s tired posturing, and Cee-Lo Green’s combo package of borderline sexual harassment and terrible taste in music. Not to mention it feels wrong when all too often the three male judges are ganging up on the one female judge; especially when she has valid points. Finally, Carson Daly is only entertaining as a host when his wooden façade cracks and we see his frustration with the contestants, coaches, guest performers, and program in general.

Basically, there comes a point in every season where recapping the show isn’t fun or cathartic for me. It starts to feel like a second job. For me, that moment seems like it’s coming sooner rather than later and it’s a bad sign. While I’m proud of what I have written these past few years and I’m pleased that people have read (and hopefully enjoyed) my posts, in truth the writing process doesn’t come easily to me. One reason why I shifted the focus of this site from reviewing songs and albums to recapping musical competition reality shows is that the pace of the TV season and the ephemeral nature of the medium forced me to stick to a schedule and meet deadlines. However, that has also meant pushing myself to come up with something to say about every performance on every episode and a lot of times the words aren’t there for me and I get frustrated.

I want to keep this site going with new posts because writing is the one hobby for me that produces a tangible output. I’m pleased with the results but I find the journey frustrating to the point where I’ve found myself going to bed angry. If I’m going to make this site work for me I will need to change the format of how I write recaps and possibly what I write about entirely. Still, I hope to make this work. You probably won’t see any posts from me this week, but you should see something from me soon.

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Thoughts On American Idol Finale Part 2: The Decision

May 23, 2012

Image edited from the original by Bill McIntyre via Flickr, used under Creative Commons

Two surprisingly talented contestants have duked it out this season, but only one can win! I voted for Jessica. Let’s see if it made a difference. Buckle up!

Here’s most of this show’s padding, the musical performances in order of airing:
1. Top 10 who are out of the running – “Runaway Baby + So You Think You Can Dance Promo Breakdown” So Jermaine Jones really did get the hard boot from the cast. That said, I’m glad they reprised one of the more fun performances from this season. In a sea of bad harmonizing, Josh and Hollie’s voices stood out. The dance breakdown with the abrupt music changes was fun, but jarring. I will be watching So You Think You Can Dance tomorrow.

2. Phillip Phillips + John Fogerty – “Have You Ever Seen The Rain? + Bad Moon Rising” Fogerty has to be 2-3x Phillip’s age, but he is way more lively than the mellowed out finalist. He’s also doing a much better job at hitting the belt notes on “Rain.” Phillip can’t shake that cartoon dog singing style for this song. For the second song, Phillip woke up. He looked much happier to be up onstage and slowly began to match Fogerty’s energy as the performance went on.

3. Josh Ledet + Fantasia Barrino – “Take Me To The Pilot” Josh’s voice is in top form tonight. His vocal runs were cool, casual, and awesome. He should be one of the finalists tonight. I never saw Fantasia’s season 3 Idol run, but I thought her super high signing was unique and on point. This performance was just two talented singers jamming out, and I appreciated the relaxed tone.

4. Idol Ladies + Chaka Khan – “Ain’t Nobody + Through The Fire + I’m Every Woman” Erika and Elise have an ouch of a start, but quickly find the soul hook. Shannon sounds much more competent than I remember her. Skylar kicks ass. Hollie gets in two solid notes and Jessica gets one short ad libbed run before Chaka Khan enters the stage. She starts off buried in the mix, but she kicks out enough power notes to show that she’s doing it live. She had a few rough runs up there too, but she had more enthusiasm than at least a third of the ladies on that stage.

5. Ford Music Video – “I Was Here” At least the gimmicks were cute and silly from video to video. It’s just a shame that Phillip wasn’t in the last third.

6. Rihanna – “Where Have You Been?” This is much catchier than “We Found Love” and the bigger stage production allows for a bigger spectacle than when Ri-Ri performed this song on SNL. It still sounds like the hooks of three songs instead of one fully formed song, but I dig its driving beats and laser pyramid. Its production is emotionally devoid, but on a show like this it’s an oasis.

7. Skylar Laine + Reba McEntire – “Turn On The Radio” This rocks! Skylar and Reba sound tough and triumphant. Skylar has been my favorite country contestant this show has offered in a very long time, and that’s because of her transcendent talent and no-bullshit style. She also has way more chemistry with Reba than Lauren Alaina has during her duet with Carrie Underwood last year. That performance felt combative, whereas this performance felt like a passing of the torch. I had a lot of fun with this one.

8. Jessica Sanchez – “I Will Always Love You” This performance didn’t affect me to the same level that Jessica’s first go at the song did. There wasn’t the same emotional rawness that was there the first time, and maybe replicating that was an impossible task. Jessica’s delivery hit most of the notes but sounded a little flat. I felt like she was trying, but it just couldn’t live up to her earlier run. It’s too bad.

9. Idol Guys + Neil Diamond – “Coming To America + Rosy Child + I’m A Believer + Sweet Caroline” Colton sounds high and nasally. Heejun hits the notes but is digging way too low into his range. DeAndre actually did aim for the low end of his range and sounded good enough that the falsetto payoff was worth it. Jeremy had no memorable moments, but he didn’t choke. Josh’s vocal run 3/4ths in was a nice touch. When Neil Diamond came out for the last song, he got most of the spotlight. He didn’t exert any effort on his vocals, but like Chaka Khan he did it live. I just would have liked it if he didn’t perform like he found out he wasn’t getting paid after the show.

10. “Sing The Phone Book skit” The premise was silly enough, but the takeaway was that Shannon Magrane was a better singer than I ever gave her credit for. Where were these notes and this enthusiasm when she was actually a contestant?

11. Jennifer Lopez ft. Lil Jon, Flo Rida, and Wisin and Yandel – “Going In + Follow The Leader” I’m not a fan of the sequined pajamas that J.Lo is rocking, but “Going In” is moderately catchy. I like the ebb and flow of its bassline. Flo Rida’s bridge was abrupt and workmanlike. Then “Follow The Leader” came on and shit got real. That beat was so slinky and W&Y’s hip house flow sounded so freakin’ cool. Lopez also sounded quite on her game. I might have to seek out more from these guys.

12. Hollie Cavanagh and Jordin Sparks – “You’ll Never Walk Alone” The music is still plodding pageant fodder, but I have to hand it to Hollie for upping her emotional game. She made some subtle changes to her stage moves that she seemed to form more of a connection to the material than she would have earlier in the season. Jordin Sparks knocked her part out like it was nothing. Both ladies sounded spectacular. I just wish it was on a cooler song.

13. Idol Guys – “Robin Gibb Tribute – How Deep Is Your Love + How Can You Mend A Broken Heart + To Love Somebody” The guys (minus Phillip – where the hell has he been?) can actually harmonize together pretty well. Other than a botched falsetto run from DeAndre, they kept the vocal theatrics to a minimum. Jacob did a reprise of “To Love Somebody” and it was minimal, tasteful and classy. Given the limited amount of time the show had to prepare a tribute, I thought this was nice.

14. Jessica Sanchez + Jennifer Holliday – “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” When Holliday whipped out her vocal ion cannon 2/3rds of the way in, all Jessica could so is stand there and shake her head as if to say “yeah I can’t touch that.” It was actually kind of neat, because otherwise these two women matched each other pretty closely for most of the song, right down to the super-growly nightmare belt at the very end. It was like a bombastic guitar battle for singers and it was surprisingly cool.

15. Aerosmith – “Legendary Child + Walk This Way” This new song sounds like a slurry blend of “Walk This Way” and “Sweet Emotion,” two Aerosmith songs that are actually good. This song, not so much. It’s basically a “here’s our crazy life story” that name checks their albums in the lyrics. Joe Perry can still shred like whoa, but really that’s all this performance has going for it. Steven Tyler’s vocals are flat and the harmonizing by Brad Whitford and Tom Hamilton is off-key. Not an Idol-worthy performance, that’s for sure. And then when the band did perform “Walk This Way” Tyler could barely hit the notes. The little jam-out at the end was cool.

16. Jessica and Phillip – “Up Where We Belong” This syrupy ballad is in Jessica’s wheelhouse. She sounds right at home. Phillip kept up with her for most of the song, but he ultimately gave up with a string of flubs on the last chorus. Still, these two crazy kids are nice and I hope they both find some success. Jessica just deserves to win this show more.

The Winner
I think we all saw this coming. I said as much back in Top 24 Week. One low-voiced white guy with an acoustic guitar passes the trophy to another low-voiced white guy with an acoustic guitar, as Phillip Phillips is the season 11 winner. I’m not as mad as I am with last year’s results, as Phillip actually turned in some top-ranking performances this season, but for shit’s sake how much longer is this going to go on? See if I tune in next year, Idol….

Thank you all for reading these recaps. I’m happy to bring this run to an end.

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Thoughts On American Idol Finale Part 1: The Duel

May 22, 2012

Image edited from original by Dimi15 via Flickr, used under Creative Commons

Theme: It’s the freakin’ finals! Low key white guy with an acoustic guitar Phillip Phillips takes on early 90s RnB-pop diva avatar Jessica Sanchez. To pad the show out (at least it’s only an hour,) the two finalists perform three songs a piece.

Round 1: Idol Creator Simon Fuller’s Picks
Round 2: Contestants Pick Their Favorite Performances from This Season
Round 3: Potential Coronation Songs

Here are the Jessica and Phillip’s performances in order of their run on the show.

1. Jessica Sanchez – “I Have Nothing” Those sway hands at the front of the audience are annoying. This performance felt like a slog, even though it was better than when Shannon Magrane did it earlier this season. Jessica had solid breath control but couldn’t quite stick the big notes. Her emoting during the song seemed a little forced until the very end. She has talent that makes her a natural for this kind of music, but I wish people would stop pushing her in this direction. If she had nailed more of the notes, I feel like I would have respected the performance more but I wouldn’t give it a second listen.

2. Phillip Phillips – “Stand By Me” This arrangement sounds different from the shimmying original. It definitely sounds more contemporary, but the downside is that it sounds like a John Mayer throwaway. Phillip’s not doing a whole lot to differentiate himself vocally. He had one of his signature blues wails and it sounded like a disappointed Labrador retriever. Otherwise he stuck to the boring low end of his range. If Jessica’s performance was heavy and stiff, then Phillip’s performance was light and lazy. I didn’t care for either performance.

3. Jason Derulo’s Coke Commercial – “Undefeated” Well, this dance-pop-by-the-numbers performance is still way more fun than Taio Cruz’s inspiration bait-down last season. Derulo also sounded surprisingly good on vocals. I saw him perform on Dancing With The Stars a few years back and he sounded like he was in over his head, so either he brought his A game or was really good at lip synching. He seemed happy to be onstage, and I give him props for that.

4. Jessica Sanchez – “The Prayer” She couldn’t have done one uptempo number to show off her range? I guess not. It’s more dated arrangements, vibrato-coptering, and two colossal note runs. Jessica had much better technical execution this time, but the sheer lack of engagement here made me angry. I want to root for her so badly, but her lack of verve is upsetting.

5. Phillip Phillips – “Movin’ Out” I didn’t care for this performance the first time Phillip did it, but after the past three songs this performance seemed downright bouncy. Phillip still had the drinking bird dance going on and he hadn’t expanded much emotionally. I felt like he took a few more risks with his vocal runs, but for Phillip that’s not saying much. Oh my gosh these two have such little self-awareness because they’re picking some of their most boring performances.

6. Jessica Sanchez – “Change Nothing” While Jessica’s first two performances sounded stale and old, this potential coronation song sounds current and makes good use of her pipes. The arrangement was bombastic and slow, but the instrumentation sounded rich. I can imagine Beyonce or a processed-like-whoa Rihanna releasing this as a ballad. Jessica’s vocal affectations effortlessly rose above the big sound. She definitely made the best of a difficult situation. I respect what Jessica did with the material, but if this came on the radio I would skip it. I agree with the judges that she should have done something with a little more soul. Change more things, Jessica!

7. Phillip Phillips – “Home” This was probably the most lively performance of the night. The drum corps definitely gave it more rhythm, that’s for sure. Instrumentally this sounded somewhere between bland-ass The Script and earnest ol’ Guster circa 1997, while Phillip’s vocal performance sounded like Chris Martin on a bad day. It’s not the worst mix but between the judges’ convulsions of praise and Seacrest’s carnival barker-esque hustle of the audience this is practically a done deal. Grrrr. It’s time to go home, Phillip!

8. Scotty McCreery – “Please Remember Me” Ha ha you thought we were done? As much as I complain about Phillip’s predictable ascendancy, at least this final round isn’t between two young country teens. As for Scotty, his workmanlike vocal is pleasant enough but I’d much rather forget him thank you very much.

And what would I have sung? Looking back on my picks from covering this past season, I think I had the most fun writing up “Blue Monday” from “Songs from the Year You Were Born” week. Plus a few days ago I was rocking the Orgy cover and there was much headbanging! My hybridized performance of this New Order classic would stand out against the ballads and rootsy claptrap from tonight.

Meanwhile what past performances should the contestants have picked? My favorite Jessica performance was probably the bouncy, upbeat “How Will I Know?” It didn’t make me cry like “And I Will Always Love You,” but it would probably better hold itself up to repeat performances. My favorite Phillip performance was definitely “U Got It Bad.” It was both a fun and respectful cover one of my favorite early 2000s slow jams. Those were both such fun performances!

Performance Rankings
1. Jessica Sanchez
2. Phillip Phillips

I’ll concede that the runs Jessica and Phillip have had on this show beat my expectations. Both pretty much played to their types with only a little risk-taking, but they both executed with a surprising level of professionalism that I didn’t see as much in last year’s finalists (especially Scotty.) While I wasn’t wowed by any of their performances tonight, I voted for Jessica because I think she sounds more mature, has the potential to put out music of higher caliber, and would be the first woman and person of color to win the show since Jordin Sparks back in season freakin’ six. Phillip is very good at what he does, but guys like him have been winning for years. Go Jessica! See you for the results show.

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Thoughts On American Idol: Top 3 Results

May 17, 2012

Image from Mike Licht, Notionscapital.com via Flickr, used under Creative Commons

Wow. Next week will be the finale. Will I end up rooting for both contestants or just one? Let’s see!

First, here are the musical performances in order they were on the show.
1. Top 3 – “Got To Get You Into My Life” I thought the group songs were supposed to be for coasting. Based on the quality of singing these three are demonstrating, everyone deserves to be here (if only to perform that song and then get the hell off the stage!)
2. Ford Music Video: Why doesn’t Phillip ever play along? Jessica and Josh should be the final two. That’s all there is to it.
3. Lisa Marie Presley – “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” You know, if it was Elvis night last night this performance would make sense. That said, this doesn’t sound too bad. It has kind of an alt-country, Cowboy Junkies/Nancy Sinatra vibe to it. Presley’s slight low drawl fits the music like a glove. It’s not novel or anything, but for a big loud show like this it was a little refreshing.
4. Adam Lambert – “Never Close Our Eyes” While Lambert wasn’t the last great Idol contestant, he was the last one I liked who made it to the finals. He remains the only Idol alum whose post-show album I have bought. This new song opens like a classic rock song but quickly transforms into a driving dancefloor scorcher. The sound is huge and Lambert’s voice rises to meet it. He had a ton of aid from the backup singers and his stage presence looked a little tired, but fun is fun. Welcome back, dude!

The Loser
The show isn’t doing anything to halt the prediction I made back in Top 24 week, because Josh is out while Phillip and Jessica are in. His performances were up and down the first few weeks of the competition, but towards the end he shored up his vocal chops and delivered the awesome. For the past three weeks he was my number one pick. I just hope that he doesn’t do just retro soul for his album, because he can go so far beyond that if he wants to. Also, while Phillip has been by far the most deserving low key guitar player to compete on the show in years, Jessica is by far the better singer. No other singer on this show has made me cry. Go Jessica!

Finally, rest in peace, Donna Summer. She leaves a legacy of awesome, awesome dance music. Her work with Giorgio Moroder bridged the gap between disco and house. While she made her biggest hits before I was born, I still have memories of her music. I remember in high school getting down to “Bad Girls” in Dance Dance Revolution 2nd Mix. In the first paying DJ gig I had in college, I closed my set with “Last Dance.” “Stamp Your Feet” proved she still had the groove 3 decades into her career, and was one of my inspiration songs my first year out of grad school. She will be remembered as one of the pillars of dance.

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Thoughts On American Idol: Top 3

May 16, 2012

Image edited from original by Gregory Perez via Flickr, used under Creative Commons

Theme: To pad the show out, contestants perform three songs a piece. Plus there are the hometown visits. Can’t they just sing two songs each and let the show be 90 minutes? There better be some entertaining songs tonight!

Round 1: Judges’ picks
Round 2: Contestants’ picks
Round 3: Jimmy Iovine’s picks

Here are the Top 3 performers in order of appearance on the show. Lets see who has the worst taste in music.

1. Josh Ledet – “I’d Rather Be Blind” Randy’s musical conservatism rears its head. He’s right that this retro soul is Josh’s bread and butter. Josh’s vocal runs and stage presence each have some moderate pacing, which fit the slow burning nature of this song. I also give him points for waiting until the end to go off the lyrics and nailing the scat section. My problems? He sounded off for most of the song. The notes weren’t quite there. While Josh held back on indulging his talents, he overcorrected and ended up coasting. I can’t tell who to blame for this performance: Josh for failing to deliver or the judges for picking an old, plodding song.

2. Jessica Sanchez – “My All” Jennifer sends Jessica into mid-90s slow song land. The sparse instrumentation and slow pace of the song forced Jessica to sing well below her power range. She hit the notes fine and seemed to grasp the emotional intimacy of the piece. The big issue was the glaring vibrato that tends to pop up whenever Jessica has to sing in the low end of her range. It was really pronounced tonight, almost to the point of being funny. It was kind of like an Aaron Neville impression. I had a hard time taking this performance seriously.

3. Phillip Phillips – “Beggin’” I initially had to look this song up, but when Phillip sang the first few notes this clicked with me. It turns out that this is a crossover cover a la his rendition of “U Got It Bad.” And like that performance, Phillip had the good sense not to screw it up. He stayed in key while still showing some effort in the form of his blues growl flourishes. He stuck to one spot, but really conveyed the emotion in the song through his vocal contours. Plus that rendition was like a direct rock transposition of a dance track. I think this was the best performance of the first round, but I’m troubled. Why? Because of course the judges hand Phillip the only modern song and the only fun song. Seems a bit like favoritism to me.

4. Josh Ledet – “Imagine” I give the self-described “preacher’s son” props for singing a song that challenges the existence of an afterlife (check the opening lyrics.) Josh sang quite strongly in the performance. I felt like he excelled in the straight-up section and he earned his vocal runs. The arrangement was a little too schmaltzy in my opinion, but it could have been way worse. He could have picked any number of inspiration bait slow songs, but he picked something that actually has some challenging content, at least for this rah-rah show. Good pick, Josh!

5. Jessica Sanchez – “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing” I don’t like this song. There are so many better Aerosmith songs. There are so many better Aerosmith ballads. I don’t like this song. Jessica’s pick of this song basically reminded me of Lauren Alaina’s kiss-ass audition that incorporated this song last year. I don’t like this song. Jessica’s singing was decent for most of the performance, but that last power belt was…ouch. Did I mention that I don’t like this song? Did Hollie Cavanagh leave some lingering pageantism on the stage? Because that performance was infected. Bad pick, Jessica.

6. Phillip Phillips – “Disease” I’m not familiar with this Matchbox 20 song, but I think Phillip does a decent Rob Thomas impression. He’s also had success with this somewhat intimate low-key performance style. This didn’t seem like a very challenging song to do, unlike the other two contestants picks. It was pleasant to listen to and had some decent faux-artsy emotion to it, but just like Josh in Round 1 Phillip kind of coasted here, and the judges called him on it. He’s so going to win and performances like this, while individually good, feel like a tiring march to the end. Good pick, Phillip, but you can do much better!

7. Josh Ledet – “No More Drama” This feels like the only Mary J. song that anyone goes to on shows like this. That said, this performance sounded good. Despite a slow start bobbing up and down the whole song, Josh showed great vocal control. He knew just when to go off like a remote controlled bomb and hit the rafters. When he went on his extended riff 4/5ths of the way in, it felt really legitimate. Also props for good play with the audience. Good pick, Jimmy Iovine!

8. Jessica Sanchez – “I’ll Be There” So many slow songs! Once again Jessica is on the lower end of her range but this time she has none of the choppy vibrato. This time it’s straight-up singing and it’s on! It initially seemed like she was coming on too song and saccharine, but she found her groove. By the end of the song she came across as reassuring and real. It connected with me and made me smile. Good pick, Jimmy Iovine!

9. Phillip Phillips – “We’ve Got Tonight” Phillip is rubbing the heck out of his left thigh. His face scrunches in pain with every moderately high note, which both makes him seem like some tortured soul (OMG emotion!) and Chris Martin at his mopiest. His singing was certainly pleasant, but he looked so uncomfortable out there. I was surprised with some of the notes he was able to hit. I agreed with Jimmy that this was a sweet song, but something felt off with me here.

And what would I have sung? I have no control over what the judges or Iovine would pick for me, but I can pick one song for the contestant round. I was saving this song for country night, but since that didn’t happen I’m singing it now – “Bad Things” by Jace Everett. Most people know the song as the theme to True Blood, but I think it’s catchy, sexy, menacing, and great for my low range. The third chorus builds to what could potentially be a an excellent opportunity for a devil-may-care big note. The song’s lively shuffle pace alone would stand out against all these ballads, that’s for sure.

And if I was a judge, like I pretend to be on this site, what would I have picked for the three contestants?

• Josh Ledet: Josh is at his best when he can kick out the big notes without a lot of effort. He’s also proven to be quite adept with uptempo Stax-y material. As such, I would pick the Mark Ronson/Amy Winehouse version of The Zutons’ “Valerie.” He’d get to build to some great vocal moments, have some great opportunities to work the stage like the showman he is, and even show a little subtlety in his delivery.

• Jessica Sanchez: Jessica has the biggest voice of her competition and she can kick out the dance numbers. She’s pulled off dance pop from past decades, but how would she do with something more recent? She should sing “When Love Takes Over” by David Guetta and Kelly Rowland. Its verses allow for medium-powered singing that doesn’t dip into flat or breathy delivery, either of which are out of her wheelhouse. And those colossal runs on the chorus would hit that audience like the hammer of Thor.

• Phillip Phillips: Phillip’s range is more limited than his competitors, but he can still hit the occasional high note. He should do a straight-up rocker that can match his rootsy vibe. I’d have him sing “I Need To Know” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It would have to be in a lower key, but it would be good to see Phillip really rock out. Plus if he successfully hits the high notes on the chorus’s “if you’re making me WAI-AIT” he would earn way more points with me.

Performance Rankings
1. Josh Ledet (#2 in Round 1, #1 in Round 2, #2 in Round 3)
2. Phillip Phillips (#1 in Round 1, #2 in Round 2, #3 in Round 3)
3. Jessica Sanchez (#3 in Round 1, #3 in Round 2, #1 in Round 3)

This episode felt way too long and no contestant was consistently good. I would like Jessica and Josh to be the final two because they’re the best singers, but I think we all know that’s not likely to happen. Phillip could have done all Lou Bega songs tonight and he would still make it to the final two tomorrow. Tune in tomorrow and hopefully this show will once again prove me wrong!

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Thoughts On American Idol: Top 4 Results

May 10, 2012

Image from Mike Licht, Notionscapital.com via Flickr, used under Creative Commons

Josh and Jessica deserve to stay on. Phillip and Hollie will probably stay on. Will this crazy show prove me wrong?

First, here are the musical performances in order they were on the show.
1. Top 4 – “California Dreamin’” This performance reminded me of the Disney Hall of Presidents. When the lead vocal fell to a contestant, they suddenly became animated and emotionally invested. When they fell to the background they became stiff like an inert animatronic. Based on Josh’s expressions they were probably lip synching in the background.

2. Ford Music Video: The behind the scenes montage was longer than the video itself. Jessica can conjure up plantlife.

3. David Cook – “The Last Song I’ll Write For You” The guy who started the whole “only low key white guys with acoustic guitars win Idol” thing is boring me to tears. The midtempo neo-grunge adult contemporary music sounds really dated. David isn’t even doing anything interesting vocally. If Chris Daughtry performed this song back in season 5, he would have been accused of phoning it in.

4. Jennifer Lopez – “Dance Again” I get the feeling whoever wrote this song was listening to a lot of Moroder-era Donna Summer. I understand the idea, but the execution feels like everyone involved is going through the motions. By the end of the song, J.Lo wasn’t even trying to lip synch (though she can still dance.) The takeaway: when you finally make it, you never have to perform live again. Singing live is for chumps.

Bottom 2
1. Hollie Cavanagh: The Freddy Krueger of Idol (six proper films in the franchise before it went meta, six times in the bottom for Hollie) continues to lurk in the depths of this show’s rankings, ready to eviscerate every contestant slightly less popular than her.

2. Phillip Phillips: Haha made you look. He’s totally going to win. At least Josh and Jessica will make him work for it.

The Loser
Let’s call this episode Freddy’s Dead, because after this round Hollie is finally out of the game! I flung a lot of venom Hollie’s way, but I commend her for lasting this long. She beat out at least a few contestants who I felt were far more talented (cry for Elise and Skylar), despite having a performance style barely beyond pageant contestant. It was a shame because Hollie really could sing. Going forward I think she should try work out the music she likes beyond what she thinks will work in a performance competition. From there she can find the emotional connection that she was lacking in her Idol run. This crazy show did prove me wrong, at least halfway. Two weeks left!

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