Thoughts On American Idol: Top 4

May 9, 2012

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

Theme: To pad the show out, contestants perform two songs: one song from a Californian artist or about California and one song they wish they had written themselves.

Mentor: Jimmy Iovine, but only for the second half. His limited time made his pointers sound less cloying and more relevant.

Here are the Top 4 performers in order of appearance on the show

1. Phillip Phillips – “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” Phillip’s singing sounds like it has a lot more character in it than usual. By that I mean he sounds like a cartoon dog, especially on the chorus. For the most part he stuck in key and actually tried to vocally exert himself, but I think we’ve all seen much better from him. Meh,

2. Hollie Cavanagh – “Faithfully” I think Hollie sounded great on this song. She could have taken a few more vocal risks and aimed for maximum volume, but I think she had a great set of runs that were in consistent with the tune. She has the additional challenge of overcoming my memory of this song being done on The Voice this past season and moving me to tears. This performance wasn’t quite as good and I feel like it was because I didn’t see Hollie perform with her whole body. She wasn’t getting into it as much as she should have. This should have been an outpouring of emotion and Hollie was holding back.

3. Josh Ledet – “You Raise Me Up” I already heard this song this week! It sounded like Josh dropped his voice an octave below his normal range for this rendition. I thought he sounded competent, right down to the escalating high notes at the end, but compared to Chris Mann’s performance he looked nervous and sounded amateurish. Should he have done a few extra runs? I’m not sure. If he took too many liberties he might have come across as overindulgent. On the other hand, this performance felt boring and no amount of hydraulic stagework could save it.

4. Jessica Sanchez – “Steal Away” This is the performance style I like to see from Jessica: freewheeling fun with professional competence. Jessica reached to the depths of her range to make those growls, but they felt relaxed and natural. I could say the same thing for her body language and her crowd interaction. To me this felt like she had the song down pat and just wanted to jam out. I think bringing the band up with her was a good decision as it allowed her to play off their onstage energy. This was the most enjoyable performance of the California round.

5. Phillip and Josh – “This Love” Maroon 5’s music is a good cross section for these two. Phillip has the blues rock chops and Josh has proven that he has the skills to emulate Adam Levine’s R&B vocal style. I think Phillip was right to stay in his comfort zone and sing from his gut, but Josh felt far and away more at home and it showed in his piano climbing and song runs.

6. Jessica and Hollie – “Eternal Flame” The swing gimmick was weird. I felt it imprisoned Jessica and Hollie. With the stage presence variable out of the equation, Hollie took the vocal lead on things. Her poised pageantry let her focus on the singing. Then the dismount happened. Free to work the stage, Jessica got her groove back and sounded way more invested in the material. Frankly this was neither of their best work.

7. Top 4 – “Waiting For A Girl Like You” Jessica sounded like the most natural fit. Josh was either coasting or crashing on the high notes. Phillip was struggling to sing above his range. Hollie stuck most of her lines. And none of the Top 4 could harmonize worth a damn.

8. Phillip Phillips – “Volcano” This is what Phillip’s Dave Matthews tribute should have sounded like. That performance was comfortable, understated, and classy. It had a retro sensibility in all the right ways. Phillip wasn’t perfect vocally, but this plaintive lo-fi tune allowed him to use his weakness as a strength. Also props for going for a song that’s not heard very much on shows like this. Phillip is probably going to win, so he might as well do lots and lots of risky material.

9. Hollie Cavanagh – “I Can’t Make You Love Me” It’s not like I was expecting Hollie to pick “Straight Outta Compton” or “Rainbow In The Dark” as a song she wished she had written. Then again, given how often she’s in the Bottom Group on the results show I can see why she might have picked this song. While she followed Iovine’s advice not to oversing, there was still way too little emotion in the vocal delivery and stage pacing. That performance might have aged her 30 years. By the end of the song she looked like a fallen lounge act singing at some budget Las Vegas casino for people who weren’t able to get into Penn and Teller or any iteration of Cirque du Soleil.

10. Josh Ledet – “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” What’s with going after The Voice’s table scraps, Idol? Juliet Simms fucking mauled that song last week! It’s a good thing that Josh has the vocal abilities and showmanship of a man born to sing James Brown. He had no problem delivering the goods. He had all the affectations of the Hardest Working Man In Show Business and even threw in some cool vocal pyrotechnics on top of that. Josh took some risks in where he held the notes, but on a macro level this felt pretty safe for him. Normally I’d be cool with this, but the shadow of Juliet Simms’s fairly transgressive rendition last week hung over everything. As a result, this wasn’t my favorite performance from Josh.

11. Jessica Sanchez – “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” This was just one run after another set to one of the stiffest, least engaging pieces of music I have heard in awhile. I realize that this song is from a musical and maybe it works better in the greater context of the production. For Idol purposes, this was just one overdone and depressing tune. Jessica is so beyond this song. She doesn’t need to prove it in a hail of difficult runs. Zzzzzz….

And what would I have sung? For the California round I’d get menacing with Metallica’s crossover hit “Enter Sandman.” I’d punch up the drums on the arrangement to sound a little more synthetic, but otherwise I’d want things rocking hard and heavy. Vocally I’d go for the lower end of my range and put some gravel on it to properly channel the Hetfield spirit. For the song I wish I had written, I’d pick “Baby Doll” by N.E.R.D. It’s a deep cut, but I think it’s a great love song that manages to be self-deprecating and dorky without coming off like a joke. The music has a retro shimmy quality to it. As I’ve said in earlier posts, Pharell Williams is a fun singer to emulate and when I was in high school I wanted to be him so bad.

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

Tonight’s episode was ok. I liked about half of the performances and each contestant delivered about half of the time. I wish Jessica didn’t feel the need to adhere to R&B diva traditions so rigidly. I wish Josh didn’t perform so stiffly. I wish Phillip didn’t try to sing above his range. I wish Hollie worked harder at forming an emotional connection with her material. Finally, I wish this show wasn’t featuring songs that The Voice already featured (more than 25% of tonight’s songs.)


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