Thoughts On American Idol: Top 8

April 4, 2012

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

Theme: Contestants sing songs from the 1980s, when most of them weren’t even alive.

Mentors: Jimmy Iovine, Gwen Stefani, and Tony Kanal, who does not sound like I expected him to sound.

Here are the Top 8 performers and 3 trio medleys in order of appearance on the show

1. DeAndre Brackensick – “I Like It” I have to hand it to DeAndre for sticking to his R&B pop strong suit and picking something that may not be so familiar (at least to me.) In my opinion DeAndre tried a little too hard early on to milk the crowd and it hurt his overall vocal projection. He was pretty thin-sounding the whole song. That said, he really used the full extent of his range and didn’t hide in falsetto land the whole time. It resulted in something that was way more engaging then what he’s turned out these past few weeks. Also props for stretching out his voice over something other than some crummy ballad.

2. Elise Testone – “I Want To Know What Love Is” Gaaahhhh. Kathy and I have this song in Singstar 80s. No matter how one performs with this song it feels like it goes on forever (and I said the same thing when it came on The Voice.) That said, Elise has some really good wail runs early on, way earlier than most singers do with this song. It establishes high expectations and she makes them. Even when the backup singers come in Elise does a great job of making her voice sound distinct without being too loud or overbearing. It was a great vocal performance. She also showed decent emotion, though I wish she would use more of a power stance to match the big sound of the music. Still, even though there are much better Foreigner songs out there (“Hot Blooded,” “Cold As Ice,” and “Jukebox Hero” come to mind”), Elise did a pretty fine job here. (Also, thank you for not singing “Hallelujah.”)

3. Duet: Colton and Skylar – “Islands In The Stream” Vocally both Skylar and Colton are fairly on point, though their forced camera-hamming drains most of the chemistry from this duet. It picks up for each of their solo moments and when they actually try to face each other for the harmonizing. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that throughout the song Skylar was trying to get away from Colton so he wouldn’t cramp her style with his dumpy posturing. She looks a little flustered accordingly. Otherwise she’s totally in her comfort zone and delivers as expected.

4. Phillip Phillips – “That’s All” I wanted this song and it’s bitter, exasperated vibes to match Phillip’s blues-rock tendencies. Tonally it was a good match. The mostly stripped-down arrangement served Phillip well as he rocked out. He had the emotions down pat, but there were a few times when I heard his voice overstraining. He may have been going for a big cathartic moment, but to me it came across as out of breath. I also agree with Randy and Tony’s advice to let up off the guitar a little. It’s one step closer to ditching the guitar entirely. This wasn’t as good as Phillip’s performance last week, but it was still ok.

5. Duet: Hollie and DeAndre – “I’m So Excited” The only bad things I have to say about this performance was that DeAndre and Hollie didn’t harmonize very well together and the choreography was a little entry-level show choir (though that last point may have been due to Hollie’s heels.) Individually they both cleaned up on the song, especially Hollie. I repeat she should totally do more of this upbeat action. It combines fun music with her naturally powerful voice. Meanwhile, DeAndre didn’t contribute as much to the harmonizing. He needed to provide a lower range to complement Hollie’s high belting, and that isn’t quite his style. Nonetheless, this was pretty damn good for these two.

6. Josh Ledet – “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” Why does he get the choir to sing the opening for him? That feels like cheating to me. Otherwise Josh blasts out power notes and super high runs left and right. I wish he’d try to straight-up sing the song more. No bones about it, Josh has the biggest bag of vocal tricks among the current contestants, but this performance still felt a little too indulgent for me. It wasn’t as indulgent and it was way, way more melodic than his performance last week, but it still felt like he leaned on the choir the way DeAndre has leaned on his falsetto in the past.

7. Jessica Sanchez – “How Will I Know?” Alright! Jessica tries to repeat her success with Whitney Houston’s music, though she smartly goes for more dance-oriented material to show her range. She had a few flat moments early on, but she recovers and still gets in a few cannon shots, especially towards the end. Her use of the stage and he playing off of the backup singers really worked with the song’s lovesick tone. As was the case with her other good performance, she made connections with the material right down to her hand gestures and facial features. It felt like really good karaoke, the kind where the singer has a “This is my JAM!” vibe and connects on all the notes, only cranked up 1000%. Rock on.

8. Duet: Elise and Phillip – “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” Musically this is pretty good. Both Elise and Phillip are playing to their vocal strengths and sound like natural fits for this duet. Elise has great held notes while Phillip has some nice ad libbed wails. They harmonize with each other really well too. Outside of the singing, I got a bit of wish fulfillment when Phillip had to sing without his guitar. The poor guy raised his shoulders so much he resembled a turtle cowering into his shell or an Igor-type henchman to Elise’s alpha supervillain, who just commanded that stage.

9. Hollie Cavanagh – “Flashdance (What A Feeling)” First, props for going big and picking a fun, empowering song. The opening had a slow, soft, ballady feel that let the old Hollie get a few notes in before the pep kicked in. At the start Hollie sounded like she was just trying to keep up. Her singing was way too quiet and she had more than a few off-key moments. She got her groove when made her way to the judges’ table and began to project confidence. By the time she made her way behind them for the big crescendo note followed by the spin move, she had saved the rest of the song. From then on she had energy and vocal power, but most of all she overcame that pageant stigma. It remains to be seen whether it will be enough to take her to the next level.

10. Duet: Jessica and Josh – “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me” This is a good match. Jessica and Josh are probably the two most powerful singers in the competition and they manage to keep pace with each other in their solos, the harmonies, and their interplay off each other. From Josh’s hot stepping and high notes to Jessica’s joyful waving and power shouts, this just felt right. They also both looked really happy to be singing with each other. Nothing felt forced or contrived. I would love to see more of this goodness from these two.

11. Colton Dixon – “Time After Time” Colton has a few things going for him in this performance. One, he’s more on-key vocally than he has been all season. Two, he does try to put his own spin on things (and super-props for acknowledging that it came from Quiet Drive’s version – I like when performers acknowledge their sources.) He still comes across as fairly plodding in the pacing of the song. He also still has a few whiny moments. I’d like to see him do something with more punch. If Hollie can do it, this guy should be able to.

12. Skylar Laine – “Wind Beneath My Wings” Aw man! “9 to 5” would have been so much more fun to listen to and to watch. Instead we get this stale, pageanty garbage that I almost thought I was going to escape this week. To Skylar’s credit, she doesn’t have a bad vocal moment the whole song. She had great projection, control, and some fabulous runs. It’s just a shame she had to waste that talent on this stupid song.

And what would I have sung? Most of the pretenders have gone off the show already so I can’t coast on my belt-free karaoke staples anymore. I should sing something catchy and fun, is in a low key to match my range, and allows for some gradually building held notes. After some consulting with Kathy, I settled on Tears For Fears’s “Shout.” It has a great hook right at the open, features some challenging verses, and has a great cathartic theme. I wouldn’t mess with the arrangement too much, unless the producers could convince Tomoyasu Hotei to clear “Battle Without Honor Or Humanity” so I could recreate the big and brassy Blackstone and Atari mashup from the Hanzo Steel EP. If not, I would play it straight.

My Top 3 Performers
1. Jessica Sanchez
2. Hollie Cavanagh (Welcome to the top half!)
3. Phillip Phillips (Beating out Skylar by song choice)

My Bottom 3 Performers
1. Elise Testone (Worse than DeAndre by song choice)
2. Josh Ledet
3. Colton Dixon

This was actually a pretty good episode. Most of the contestants played to their strengths and no one really choked vocally. Some of the song choices still kind of sucked, but some of these contestants really showed improvement (notably Hollie and DeAndre.) The contestants also really clicked on the duets as well. Way to put on a show, Idol!


One comment

  1. I was a little bit bored by tonight’s performances. Not that the singers – by and large – weren’t good, but because the music’s so dated. Like you said, most of the contestants weren’t even alive when this music came out, so how can they possibly tune into it and give competent performances?

    It feels a little bit like Idol’s the old, comfortable pair of slippers compared to The Voice’s swish exciting new running shoes. They really need to give a contemporary spin to their contestants if they want Idol to remain relevant.

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