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Thoughts On American Idol: Top 5

May 2, 2012

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

Theme: To pad the show out, contestants perform two songs: one from the 1960s and one from a British artist. Because there was way too much current music on this show, am I right?

Mentor: Jimmy Iovine and “Little” Steven Van Zandt, who goes back far enough with Iovine that he can bust his chops with impunity. I’d probably tie him with Will.I.Am as the most fun guest mentor to appear on this show.

Here are the Top 5 performers in order of appearance on the show

1. Hollie Cavanagh – “River Deep, Mountain High” If you do a Tina Turner song, you can’t let the backup singers look livelier than you. Even that little shimmy she did halfway into the song looked stiff. Meanwhile her singing, while on key, sounded like she way reading from cue cards. I get the feeling that if she truly got into the song, she would have channeled her inner life force into a big sonic blast like she was a Dragon Ball Z character. Instead she was softballing. I like that she tried to be fun again, but at this level I expect expertise.

2. Phillip Phillps – “The Letter” Well, Phillip seems like he stopped checking out. For better or worse, this was a return to form for him: guitar, growling, and awkward stage moves. From what little I know of the original track, I think Phillip did a good job of fitting it into his bluesy aesthetic. Some of his held notes were pretty solid, though sometimes I felt like he was just messing around. That will sit well with some folks, since he played with the space and got into things, but I wasn’t wowed be it.

3. Skylar Laine – “Fortunate Son” For an antiwar protest song, Skylar sounds way too happy. Unless she was trying to do one of those ironic Chumbawamba-esque deliveries, she completely missed the intent and emotion of the CCR original. She got the Fogerty drawl and the notes down ok, but something else was off. Was her delivery forced? Maybe she got caught in the crossfire between Iovine’s boomer rebel nostalgia and the producers’ rah-rah conservatism (the lyric in the third verse is “I ain’t no military son.”) Still, I feel like she could have pulled a better performance out of a bad situation.

4. Josh and Phillip – “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” Well that was like a head on collision. Phillip’s understated emoting was ok, but his vocal tone was a little too flat. Meanwhile Josh did his solo part straight on and super high. Individually they were both okay, but when they got together it was horrific. They just could not find a middle ground between their ranges and singing styles. I think they should have put on Navy uniforms to get the nudge-nudge-wink-wink vote. Jennifer Lopez could have played Kelly McGillis’s part. Hey, Seacrest said as much.

5. Jessica Sanchez – “Proud Mary” Let’s see if Jess can do Tina Turner better. She definitely got the dance steps better, even if she didn’t remember them until halfway into the intro, but it took her a little while to hit the notes. Up until about halfway into the fast part, she sounded like she was shrinking from the high notes. Eventually she whipped out all the proven singing moves, including that fabulous soul growl, but it may have been too late.

6. Josh Ledet – “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” I think this song was a fairly safe choice for Josh and that his Boyz-II-Men meets BeetleJuice jacket was a bigger risk, but ooh wee that was cool! Josh sung the song straight on for the most part, except with a little more volume and conviction than I would have expected. Then the bridge came in and he turned on the juice! He was doing the melodic James Brown screeching and tight stage moves from his best past performances. That booya hit at the end was icing on the cake.

7. Hollie Cavanagh – “Bleeding Love” On a performance that’s softer than the Leona Lewis original, Hollie keeps things low key and grounded. I think this was actually a good call for her, as her positioning and the arrangement’s slower tempo allowed her to really bite into the lyrics and grasp the lovesick intent. By making a few subtle facial expressions and closing her eyes more, she looked like she was getting into the emotion more. To top things off, she hit what seemed like 99% of the notes and her one big vibrato moment was totally earned. I don’t even like this song and I feel like she did a good job.

8. Phillip Phillips – “Time of the Season” This was a good choice for Phillip. He slowed things down just enough that he could channel the guileless rustic romanticism of Dave Matthews in ways that he couldn’t when he was actually singing Dave Matthews. On the verses Phil was singing quite well, even hitting some of the high notes. Then the chorus came and broke him like a cheap string of love beads. Any attempts at singing here were just painful. Kathy likened it to a teen boy going though puberty onstage.

9. Hollie, Skylar, and Jessica – “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher” This is the best I’ve heard these three perform together. Skylar had her power twang, Jessica had her soul runs, and Hollie jumped between alto and falsetto in ways I have not heard many of these contestants before. They were each able to play to their strengths and jump back to let others have their moments. Bonus points for the super-unified harmonizing. Cooperation leads to success. Way to kick it, ladies!

10. Skylar Laine – “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” That couple on the bench was a gimmick straight out of The Voice. Skylar did well to distance herself from it. She also did well to belt that one out of the park, especially coming right after the trio. She showed off good vocal control matched the tone of the piece. On the downside, she still had a little too much vocal attack from the “Fortunare Son” performance. Still, I think she came off nicely.

11. Jessica Sanchez – “You Are So Beautiful” I think the pageant bug jumped from Hollie to Jessica tonight. Early on she tried to do the downcast emotional thing, but she couldn’t help looking right out at the audience with a look that said “Don’t vote me off.” Plus the Joe Cocker original had the neat juxtaposition of pretty music against a gravelly voice. This performance was just too superficially pretty in sound and presence. We’ve seen Jessica do the melodic gruff thing before. Couldn’t she have done her Ja Rule impression tonight? Zzzzz….

12. Josh Ledet – “To Love Somebody” I thought the Bee Gees were from Australia. I guess not. To Josh’s credit, I cannot imagine this song being sung in the Brothers Gibb’s signature falsettos. It’s a testament to his talent that he can put such a spin on the music he does. Once again he shied away from obnoxious oversinging and went the straight-up emotional route. I could really feel the confidence in the ease he executed his vocal runs. It was consistent with his other good performances, but like Phillip’s performance in Round 1 it didn’t really wow me.

And what would I have sung? For the 60s round I’d do The Rolling Stones’ “Paint, It Black.” I first got into this song when it was used in the credits for Twisted Metal Black. It’s a little heavy handed, but I think it has just enough menace for Idol. I’d start with an ominous ambient into, like in the Skream remix of La Roux’s “In For The Kill.” On top of that I would try to sing plaintively on the high end of my range. For the second verse I’d have bring in a fairly punchy drum track that was faithful to the original and straight up belt over it. And I’d totally go for the end part where Mick Jagger goes crazy in his repetitive wail as the music crescendos. For the British round I’d make a beeline for “Apply Some Pressure” by Maximo Park. It’s a very sweet song and the original version rocks quite hard and fast. Paul Smith’s deceptively simple vocal has quite a few little runs built in, and there are lots of cool harmony moments to have with the backup singers. I’d sing from the original version for the first verse or two and then drop out the music for the start of the second chorus. I’d sing the “What happens when you lose ev-er-y-THING?” acapella for a few notes before bringing in the string section and crazy backbeat from the Mark Ronson version. Then I’d build up to the big “You just start A GAAAAAIIIIIIINNNNNN” belt-off. I’m rocking out tonight.

Performance Rankings
1. Josh Ledet (#1 in Round 1, #2 in Round 2)
2. Hollie Cavanagh (#4 in Round 1, #1 in Round 2)
3. Phillip Phillips (#2 in Round 1, #5 in Round 2)
4. Jessica Sanchez (#3 in Round 1, #4 in Round 2)
5. Skylar Laine (#5 in Round 1, #3 in Round 2)

I was surprised with how this ranking turned out. I expected Josh to end up near the top, but I was not expecting Hollie to end up behind him. I was also surprised when Jessica and Skylar ended up in my bottom 2. I suppose it’s a consequence of the narrowed playing field. I’ll be curious to see how this week’s results shake out.

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