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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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Thoughts on The Voice: Season 2 Finale

May 8, 2012

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

…And here we are. It took three months and a drawn out season to get here (hey, success will do that,) but we made it! Last night each of the contestants delivered at least one blammo rendition along with two sleepers and/or mehs. While I ranked Jermaine at the top of the heap, it wasn’t an enthusiastic pick. For last season’s results show, we got 4 performances, one montage, one results ramp-up, and then the coronation. I praised the show for its brevity. Clearly I was in the minority.

Musical Performances

1. Jermaine Paul ft. Jamar Rogers, James Massone, and Pip – “I Want You Back” James’s tenor is just a tad lower than 8 year old MJ’s alto, but he lacks the delivery of the young King of Pop. Pip sounds like a cloying lounge singer. He could take a lesson from Michael Buble in how to be chill. Jamar sings with conviction, but he still sounds WAY TOO SERIOUS. All Jermaine had to do was sing straight up. After a rough start, he delivered on his ability and threw in a few neat scat runs at the end.

2. Flo Rida and Juliet Simms – “Whistle/Wild Ones” Yeesh. That midtempo “Whistle” song sounded like a rip-off of B.O.B.’s “Nothing On You.” Luckily Flo pulled the plug on that trick real quick before starting into “Wild Ones.” Juliet sang Sia’s part on the hook and managed to sound less grating than the original. Unfortunately that was all she had to do. Flo Rida was leaping all over the stage, working the crowd and showing a general enthusiasm that covered any hint of a prerecorded vocal track. Poor Juliet was left with little to do. Couldn’t she have had a verse or an extended hook? As much as I complain, I still thought this was fun.

3. Chris Mann ft. Lindsey Pavao and Katrina Parker – “Bittersweet Symphony” Dammit, Chris! Don’t do the hand wave thing to this song. It’s tonally inappropriate and it makes you look like you’re trying too hard. The people he beat out? Lindsey did some cool vocal shifts halfway into the song that matched the emotion. It reminded me of why she was an appealing performer early on. Meanwhile Katrina was a straight-up better singer. Her naturally poised and understated singing style worked really well for the song’s mix of posh instrumentation and working class fatalism. Chris had the stage presence of a drunk, whiny college student.

4. Hall & Oates, Chris Mann, Jermaine Paul, and Tony Lucca – “Rich Girl” The three male finalists are relegated to backup singers for a song that Adam pulled away from making his team members sing. I don’t know the song, but it sounds pleasant albeit bland. Daryl Hall sang pretty well for a guy who’s been performing since the early 70s. John Oates came off the best with his solid background presence and neato guitar solos.

5. Naia Kete, Kim Yarbrough, Cheesa, and Sera Hill – “Superstition” Kim executed well enough, but I failed to see any enthusiasm. Cheesa had the power belting down pat, but she took awhile to really rock the cool. Rootsy Naia knocked out her part really well and demonstrated that she had versatility. Her coach just stuck her with a bad song. Sera came off the best in her singing and stage moves. She looked really happy to be back onstage and was really getting down! None of these contestants were in the running but the delivered the best performance of the first half of the night.

6. Juliet Simms ft. Erin Willett, RaeLynn, and Jamar Rogers – “With A Little Help From My Friends” Jamar and Erin did R&B runs like nobody’s business. With her soulfully raspy drawl, Juliet had the classic rock angle covered. That left poor RaeLynn with her aggressive twang and overenunciation on every note. She did have a moment with her growl, but Juliet quickly upstaged her. That’s what experience can do.

7. Lady Antebellum – “Wanted You More” I’m still not a fan of the band name. The song itself sounded decent enough. The dual lead singers harmonized pretty well together and played off each other like method actors overdoing it. The individual parts sounded ok as well. I bet a lot of people were digging this performance, but I wasn’t one of them. That’s not the band’s fault. It’s just not my thing.

8. Tony Lucca ft. Jordis Unga – “Go Your Own Way” Oh snap! The TV vets duet! The song started with a descent down a pair of long staircases, which must have been a lot harder for Jordis in those heels. Still, she kept up with Tony and proved to be a solid harmonizer with him. Tony had some fabulous runs in the song, and quite frankly I wish he did sing this earlier in the competition as it might have won me over to his cause. I wish Jordis got more mic time, but it’s not like Lindsey Buckingham let Stevie Nicks have a lot of mic time on the original.

9. Justin Bieber – “Boyfriend” Yeah, the Biebs has the old Justin Timberlake style down pretty well. He straddles that line between hard hip-hop swagger and teen heartthrob tenor without coming off like a total poser (even though he’s from Stratford, Ontario.) The dancer-heavy choreography was in keeping with the teen pop traditions as well. I thought the song was catchy. I mean, it’s not as though JT is around to watch the throne as he’s too busy with acting. Maybe Justin Bieber wants it more.

An Aside
I’m not normally one for network synergy, but NBC has some of the best comedy on network TV, so the Parks and Rec and SNL crossovers were actually kind of funny. First, I loved that Parks and Rec skit. I wouldn’t mind if Nick Offerman replaced Blake in the coach’s chair and mentored contestants as his Ron Swanson character. On the SNL tip, I thought Keenan Thompson’s Cee-Lo impression on the “Voice: Animals” skit was a little weak but I liked his line that Cee-Lo “looked like a villain in a James Bond movie directed by Tyler Perry.”

Much talking and stalling commences, before the show reveals its vote ranking.
4th place: Chris Mann
3rd place: Tony Lucca
2nd place: Juliet Simms
1st place: Jermaine Paul

The Winner
Yay! Jermaine Paul, the most consistently good performer this season, takes the prize! While I was tempted from time to time to dismiss him as a Javier Colon Clone, he was way the hell more intense! He had one, maybe two flubs for his entire run and he knew how to have fun. That performance acumen and sheer talent made him fun to root for, even if he was on Blake Shelton’s team. Plus those little bear growls he was doing when he was hugging his family was endearing. I’d like to think I’d be doing the same thing if I won the show. Seriously, congrats to Jermaine. I hope that he has a successful career of making fun music.

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Thoughts on The Voice: Final Four

May 7, 2012

Image edited from the original by Stuck In Customs via Flickr, used under Creative Commons

Good evening, Voice fans! Tonight is the final performance night! For me, it’s been a roller coaster of a show. My favorites have been changing with every episode. At this point, I’m rooting for two of them. Will either deliver, or will their opponents surprise me once again?

Team Adam: Tony Lucca
Team Blake: Jermaine Paul
Team Cee-Lo: Juliet Simms
Team Xtina: Chris Mann

Each contestant performs three times: one solo, one with their coach, and one coach tribute.

Here are the contestants in order of their appearance on the show.

1. Jermaine Paul – “I Believe I Can Fly” Damn. Of all the R. Kelly songs he could have picked from…. Before he sings a note it’s so much inspiration bait. Anyways, Jermaine kicked out run after run like they were so many motivational talking points, but he overdid it by the end. His vibrato/hold bit at the end was almost comedic. To his credit, he really tapped into the emotional potential of the song about a third of the way in. This could have been a pose-and-belt, but for the most part it wasn’t. He had a solid, humble presence and he almost sold me on the song. If he didn’t indulge himself in the runs quite so much and worked a little harder to connect with the audience, then he might have won me over. Oh well, two performances left.

2. Juliet Simms – “Crazy” Juliet wasn’t crazy enough. She stayed in her range, no complaints there, but there was no risk. She didn’t throw herself into the performance vocally or with her stage presence. She was stiff in her measured pacing around the stage when she could have jumped around the stage or stayed in one spot and gradually built up in menacing intensity. She showed out none of the power growls that have powered her recent success. She displayed no connection to the defiantly solo lyrics. All in all I found the performance underwhelming.

3. Chris Mann with Christina Aguilera – “A Prayer” Chris has to play Andrea Bocelli and Xtina has to play Celine Dion. I’ll say one thing, these two harmonize really well together. Chris’s lower range provides a solid foundation for Christina’s vocal acrobatics. However, poor Chris didn’t get nearly enough opportunities to shine on his own and it’s his ass on the line. Plus I think he was buried in the mix a little bit. Also, I was worried that poor Ms. Aguilera would have a bit of a dress malfunction as the song wore on. I think Chris should have worn a bow tie and a mankini to spread the risk.

4. Tony Lucca – “99 Problems” Tony smartly sang a set of lyrics which if they weren’t his own were at least more relatable to his onstage persona than Jay-Z’s trifecta of hatred for being famous, racial profiling, and revenge violence. If he played it straight he would have come off as insensitive at the very least. And I totally got why he censored himself on the chorus – his family is right there in the audience! I also get why Christina might have called him out on the song choice itself, since anyone familiar with the song knows what goes in that vocal rest. Still, while I found the instrumentation to be solid, I thought that Tony’s vocal performance was underwhelming and short of breath.

5. Chris Mann – “The Voice Within” I figure that Chris picked this song to match Jermaine’s inspiration bait choice, but calculated or not this fell flat for me. Chris’s singing just sounded off-key and ugly against the orchestral backdrop. His onstage persona seemed tonally appropriate, if a bit bland. Towards the bridge things got a bit rocking and Chris cut loose, but before he could take off he went right back to so-so hook. “Not Myself Tonight” would have been a more fun tribute.

6. Juliet Simms and Cee-Lo Green – “Born To Be Wild” Why isn’t Juliet belting? Every good vocal performance I have heard of this song features some vocal effort in the verses and she has shown she has that kind of vocal staying power. She just needs to try! Meanwhile Cee-Lo just kind walked around and stayed in key. When they tried to harmonize with each other, they did runs on different syllables so they ended up with messy results. Juliet and Cee-Lo can wear all the leather and spikes they want, they still sounded complacent. I was really hoping they would kick ass like how Cee-Lo and Vicci Martinez kicked ass on “Love Is A Battlefield” last season.

7. Tony Lucca and Adam Levine – “Yesterday” I think this was a choice for Tony and his “faded idol” back story. Both he and Adam had the matter-of-fact sadness emotional content down pretty well. Vocally they were better together than they were solo (both Tony and Adam flubbed a tad on their solos) but I was actually kind of happy with this performance. It was a good tonal fit with minimal overindulgence and a good balance of emotion and execution.

8. Jermaine Paul – “God Gave Me You” Another inspiration bait coach tribute? Yeesh. I know next to nothing about Blake’s catalog, but given his onstage persona he has to have some songs with more jamming power. Instead this felt plodding even with Jermaine hitting some cool falsetto notes at the end. Personally I think he did the best he could with that song.

9. Chris Mann – “You Raise Me Up” Don’t get me wrong, Josh Groban seems like a good guy. I’m just not a fan of this kind of music, though I’ll concede that a lot of people are. Also, I thought he totally nailed this performance with a level of execution and conviction that rose above mere bait. It looked like he believed in what he was singing. I also like the little teary bit towards the end. Dare I say it, that was one of the night’s better performances. Nice job, dude. Kathy says he has a future in Disney movies and I agree. If Zachary Levi didn’t already do his own singing, Chris could totally be his singing voice.

10. Jermaine Paul and Blake Shelton – “Soul Man” Jermaine and Blake sounded a little light in the mix, but otherwise this was a fun performance. Blake looked a little bit stiff onstage, but really it’s not his ass on the line. If he can make Jermaine look and sound good, then he has done his job. And he did do his job. Jermaine looked confident, cool, and in his element. He got to do some crazy R&B runs, some crowd vamping, and a little call and response with the band. I’d totally watch more of that.

11. Tony Lucca – “Harder To Breathe” Tony has Adam’s high-end vocals down early on, but he fizzles out earlier than I would have liked. He also forgets the lyrics at several points in the second verse, a sin that would have gotten him the boot on another show. When it comes to stage presence I think he was solid, but I wish he would have brought the house band to the forefront so he could have fed off their energy. I think it would have improved his rocker charisma.

12. Juliet Simms – “Freebird” This is what I was waiting to hear all damn night! Juliet was holding back for her first two performances. It turns out that she was saving her sawed-off shotgun of a voice for the song. She had a solid build during the verses, holding back a little but still sounding fuller than her other two numbers. When the big chorus with the monster guitar solo came in, she stepped up and fulfilled her potential. When she nails her lower range runs she can bring me to the verge of tears. I wish she had a more consistent body of performances, but within the boundaries of this song this was well-played.

My Performance Rankings (Based on all three performances. Everything counts, Carson Daly.)
1. Jermaine Paul (#2 in tribute, #1 in duet, #3 in solo)
2. Tony Lucca (#1 in tribute, #2 in duet, #4 in solo)
3. Juliet Simms (#3 in tribute, #4 in duet, #1 in solo)
4. Chris Mann (#4 in tribute, #3 in duet, #2 in solo)

I understand with a final round that I should expect to see a lot more saccharine garbage. Still, it doesn’t change that I’m not into it. Compared to the past few weeks of performances this felt like a bit of a letdown. I thought every contestant brought at least one top-shelf performance, but if they want to be successful artists then they will need to be able to sustain star power for more than three minutes. See you tomorrow for the results show!

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Thoughts On American Idol: Top 5 Results

May 3, 2012

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

While there weren’t a ton of wow moments last night (that and nobody sang any Spice Girls songs during British Night), we still got a solid show. Who will make it to the Top 4?

First, here are the musical performances in order they were on the show.
1. Ford Music Video: Given the number of times she’s been in the bottom three, Hollie should have stayed in that egg cage. Also, Phillip Phillips is too good for this Ford Music Video shit, since he was nowhere to be found.

2. Coldplay – “Paradise” They’re still hawking this song on TV? I’m not into Coldplay, but this song isn’t too bad. That piano track is solid and the rhythm section has some nice bounce to it. Vocally Chris Martin was all over the place. During the verses he stayed in his range, but when he tried anything resembling a vocal run (or a high note) he sounded unprofessional and tired. That mic feedback didn’t held either. Was it just me, or was Chris’s own chorus too high for him to sing?

3. Carrie Underwood – “Blown Away” Underwood’s quiet-loud vocal dynamic probably sounds better on the studio recording of this song. Otherwise I thought this song sounded ok. It had a nice rolling intensity and when it was firing on all cylinders Carrie’s belting sounded great! I’m not sure if she pulled off the “stiff, damaged, and intense” look, though. Her stage presence seemed more uptight than it should have been.

4. Coldplay – “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall” I like that Chris is trying to vamp up the crowd like he’s in The Prodigy, but this just isn’t that kind of music. He looked and sounded tired. While his singing was much better than in their first song, he still sounded bleary and out of breath. Kathy said that he’s getting too for this shit, and I’m inclined to agree.

Bottom 2
1. Hollie Cavanagh: Five times in the bottom. Is she going for a record? For all the defeats she’s suffered, she has the tenacity of a Bowser. Sorry Phillip, but the American Idol title is in another castle.

2. Skylar Laine: Normally Skylar is a power pro, but last night was heavy on attitude and light on commitment. I think those messy performances were reflected in her vote pull.

The Loser
Sometimes a night’s performance can mean everything. For her elimination song, Skylar chose to sing “Gunpowder and Lead,” a song that I don’t recall her doing very well on when she first sang it. Tonight she sang it much, much better. She had better pitch, better emotion, and way more commitment than her original run. If only she kicked something like this out the night before. It’s really too bad, but with talent like that Skylar is going to be ok.

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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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Thoughts on The Voice Top 8: Final Four Reveal

May 1, 2012

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

Ok, we have eight contestants in the semi finals. Six of them gave pretty good performances on Monday night. Plus there’s the return of the judges’ scoring gimmick (because it wouldn’t be The Voice without some kind of crazy gimmick), so we’ll see how this shakes out.

Here are the guest musical performances!
– Dia Frampton and Kid Cudi – “Don’t Kick The Chair” I didn’t know Dia had this kind of catchy indie-sounding dance pop thing in her. She didn’t do much in the way of vocal tricks back in Season 1 and she’s not about to right now, but she sounded really, really good (even if I detected a hint of prerecorded vocal track.) As for her performance, it was like a “Pumped Up Kicks” with, you know, good singing. Even Kid Cudi’s rap verse complemented things. Well done, Dia!

– Vicci Martinez and Cee-Lo Green – “Come Along” While this is more chill than I expected from Vicci, this performance had a classy blues swagger to it. It was like Joan Osborne meets Moby. Vicci and Cee-Lo harmonized really well together. They were also on their best behavior. She didn’t try to punch through every note and he didn’t hog the mic time like he did with the Goodie Mob performance from a few weeks ago.

– Beverly McClellan and Cyndi Lauper – “Money Changes Everything” I’ll concede that I don’t know this Cyndi Lauper song, but Beverly sounds a lot better singing it. Cyndi looked like she was having trouble with her earpiece, and she may have suffered for it. She did recover in time for her big note about 4/5ths, which was decent. Meanwhile Beverly was in the same top form she demonstrated on Season 1, complete with the wide-eyed hammy stage presence.

– Javier Colon – “A Drop In The Ocean” This has to be the most boring performance I have seen tonight. Javier’s only signs of growth and risk taking are ditching his acoustic guitar for a piano. He still failed to engage me with his empty and somewhat depressing singing style. While I respected his Season 1 win, now I’m not so sure. Zzzzzz….

The Final Four

1. Chris Mann (Xtina score 50, voter score 54): I didn’t see that coming. He pulled out ahead on a worship song that’s as old as it gets. The lesson: Never underestimate this show’s lite-pop demographic, which I never knew existed (or thought they all stayed with Idol.)

2. Tony Lucca (Adam score 60, voter score 48): That Adam score took him over the top despite losing the popular vote. I’m chalking this up to producer favoritism since he has that Mickey Mouse Club vengeance story. He’s been improving week to week, but he didn’t perform as well as Katrina did.

3. Jermaine Paul (Blake score 50, voter score 73): Note for note Jermaine has consistently been the best performer on the show this season. He had one flub in top 24 week, but otherwise he’s out on top. He’s been one of the few to balance raw power and genuine emotion on such a professional level. In my opinion, he’s the one to beat.

4. Juliet Sims (Cee-Lo score 60, voter score 61): Yay! We don’t have a four-man final! Juliet definitely gets the trophy for Most Improved. Her performance style was half attitude and half hot air, but she gradually replaced that hot air with melodic snarl. It was definitely enough to knock my predicted Chosen One out of the game. If she brings the soul like she did for the past two weeks, she’s got my vote.

The Losers
– Lindsey Pavao (Xtina score 50, voter score 46): She found her indie groove for her last performance, but it was too late. Weeks of awkward gimmicks and lazy singing obliterated any goodwill she earned in the early rounds.

– Katrina Parker (Adam score 40, voter score 52): Well, she won the popular vote on Team Adam so she can take that consolation. Her performance was catchy, graceful, and pleasant to hear. I guess it wasn’t as desperate.

– Erin Willett (Blake score 50, voter score 27): Ouch. I’ll concede that Erin didn’t bring her best last week, but she’s been one of the most dynamic and charismatic performers this show has had. It’s just a shame she had to go up against Jermaine.

– Jamar Rogers (Cee-Lo score 40, voter score 39): Wow! I won’t say I didn’t see this coming because as good as Jamar’s performance was, Juliet’s was way better. He got kind of cold in his last few performances, and maybe it was enough to swing enough voters to other contestants.

Finally, free Christina Milian! I want to see a “Dip It Low” performance next week!

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Thoughts on The Voice Top 8

April 30, 2012

Image edited from the original by Andrew Senay via Flickr, used under Creative Commons

All right, Voice fans! We have reached the semi finals! It’s been nearly three months, but the home stretch is in sight. We have a fairly decent Top 8 for the show, but it remains to be seen if they can deliver. Let’s do it!

Here are the contestants in order of their appearance on the show.

1. Tony Lucca (Team Adam) – “How You Like Me Now?” This was a slow starter.
Tony was flat as a pancake during the stair descent (“but he had to balance those models hanging off of his shoulders!”) Then he found his inner dance dork and cut loose. He was a bit bleaty from time to time and his dancing was silly, but he managed to project over the big brassy sound and showed great vocal control. I appreciated his big buildup and sense of fun. Dare I say it, this guy is growing on me.

2. Erin Willett (Team Blake) – “Without You” She’s doing that thing where she purposely sings way off the beat. I think it was meant to show emotion, but it came off as messy. I should give her points for doing something different with a popular song, but she went the wrong way. I’ve liked Erin the best when she brings the uptempo power show. Instead she sang only the boring parts from this David Guetta hit. When this song comes on the radio, I’m willing to deal with the beatless Usher verses that sound like a crummy photocopy of “With Or Without You” for the sake of Guetta’s visceral Fuck Me I’m Famous beats. There was no payoff to this performance – not even her vocal runs, solid as they were.

3. Chris Mann (Team Xtina) – “Ave Maria” My knowledge of opera is limited to when I interned in the marketing department of an opera company in college, but this sounded ok. Straight-up worship/performance songs like this don’t lend themselves to the performance rubric beyond technical execution (as opposed to songs or arias that relate to the actual plot of an opera, where the emotion is key.) I think Chris sounded decent within the conventions of performing stuff like this, but those conventions made it kind of boring. And that piano was way too high in the mix. Its countermelodic playing was jarring.

4. Jamar Rogers (Team Cee-Lo) – “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” Does Cee-Lo wish he was a judge on Idol (or Jimmy Iovine?) Why is he picking such stodgy songs? Jamar’s retouched arrangement isn’t as radical as he thinks it is, but he sure can sing. He managed to stay grounded in his spot on the stage, but still made use of the space with the strength and variety of his vocal moves. The way he projected was intense without oversinging, and that crazy downshift at the end was pretty hot. To cap it off, he managed to have the emotion of last week’s performance with the solid singing of his early performances. Props for making the best out of a difficult situation.

5. Team Adam and Team Cee-Lo – “All These Things That I’ve Done” They have to pad this show out somehow. Juliet continues to sing on-key. Katrina was a crackly hot mess early on but righted herself quickly. Jamar tries to steal the show and succeeds for 15% of his mic time. Tony’s Bruce Springsteen impression was a tad anemic.

6. Jermaine Paul (Team Blake) – “Open Arms” Jermaine’s execution is flawless – seriously he missed not one note. I was a little nervous about this performance since this song in the wrong hands has the potential to be way too plodding and saccharine, and for the first verse it was. Then the rock parts kicked in and Jermaine found his emotional levels. His emotion matched the power of his belting. I felt passion. I felt commitment. I felt strength. I was almost at the crying level. Well played!

7. Katrina Parker (Team Adam) – “Killing Me Softly” I kind of wish Katrina would get into the performance a little and bop to the beat (the backup singers were getting into it more,) but we’ve established that swagger just isn’t her performance style. She prefers to stay grounded. That said, this is The Voice and that performance was really fun to listen to! It was crazy catchy and Katrina nailed the torchy sensuality that a proper vocal performance of this song demands. She was on key and unwavering, and her commitment as she hit note after note was quite charming. Way to bring the A-game!

8. Blake Shelton – “Over” Blake sounded buried in the mix, which really detracted from any vocal performance he brought. Not that his singing was that hot to begin with. It was bleary, off-key, and just a bit hunger-dunger-dang. Look at how the other coaches were reacting. Christina was doing that robotic head nod thing combined with a stare that looked like she wanted to set Blake on fire with heat vision. Meanwhile Cee-Lo looked confused and disconnected, the way I probably look upon seeing the controls to a Madden game or when someone tries to explain the concept of a “standard deviation” to me. Why is this guy a coach?

9. Lindsey Pavao (Team Xtina) – “Skinny Love” I should have seen this coming – the indie singer does the song from the whiny indie band. “Say Aah” this is not. At least she’s singing more coherently than Justin Vernon and his band of Civil War reenactors when they were on SNL. To her credit, Lindsey sang with a delicateness that was pleasant to hear and moderately engrossing. She managed to be dialed back and restrained and still execute with some coy emotion. She was a bit mushy on the mic, but I suppose that’s to be expected.

10. Team Blake and Team Xtina – “Edge of Glory” Jermaine sang too high. Lindsey sang too low. Erin sang too quietly. Chris oversang. There you have it, four ways to get to the same result: Wrong.

11. Juliet Sims (Team Cee-Lo) – “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” Even with all the negativity I’ve written about Juliet on this site, any doubts I had about her abilities were gone after that performance. Her snarly emoting gave Jamar a run for his money. In the past three weeks she developed the sheer stamina to sustain those growl holds, which seem difficult to nail in the first place. She also stayed on key despite all the soul power poses and vocal swan dives that would have turned a lesser performer (which was her in the Top 32 and earlier) into a scratchy trainwreck. She wins because she went for difficult material, avoided overindulgence, and came off as charismatic and entertaining. Way to stick her in the end, producers!

My Performance Ranking
1. Juliet Sims
2. Jermaine Paul
3. Jamar Rogers
4. Katrina Parker
5. Tony Lucca
6. Lindsey Pavao
7. Chris Mann
8. Erin Willett

Tonight was a pretty good night. There were maybe two performances that I didn’t care for. Otherwise we had a solid mix of standout performances. I kind of feel bad for having to rank Tony and Lindsey as low as I did, but it’s all relative. Here’s hoping for a smashing final four. See you for the results show!