Posts Tagged ‘Josh Ledet’

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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: 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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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 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 American Idol: Top 6

April 25, 2012

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

Theme: To pad the show out, contestants perform two songs: one by Queen and one open pick.

Mentor: A quick session from Brian May and Roger Taylor and nothing more. Sweet.

Here are the Top 6 performers in order of appearance on the show

1. Top 6 with Brian May and Roger Taylor – “Queen Medley” Elise and Josh own this shit early on. Skylar’s not too shabby either, especially on the shouty parts. Jessica gets a few good solos in, but she sounds thin. Phillip was the last guy I expected to sound out of his element, but then this is a big loud show and Phillip is Mr. Down-To-Earth. They should have done “Bohemian Rhapsody,” with its multiple vocal parts and song styles. That would have been great for this group! Instead we get a shoddily harmonized “We Are The Champions.

2. Jessica Sanchez – “Bohemian Rhapsody” So she keeps this song for herself! What greed! She did the initial “mama” part fairly well, as the soft stuff is her bread and butter. Then she abruptly jumped to the hard-rocking part with nary a “scaramouche.” She hit the notes but lacked the defiant swagger necessary for an anthem like this. She also lingered too long on the outro. For the first time in awhile this season she looked like a child instead of a seasoned performer. Bad call, Bebe Chez!

3. Skylar Laine – “The Show Must Go On” Skylar shows great vocal control in the buildup to this slow-burner. It’s a testament to her performing ability that for a “country” contestant she can rock out pretty damn hard. For the chorus she shouted with charisma and emotion. Other than lingering a little too long on some of the verse notes, she dominated this track. Sometimes I wish she would have been a little showier in her stage moves, but all things considered I thought this was pretty good.

4. Josh Ledet – “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” Josh’s take on this tune is way louder than the original, but in a live performance setting I think his choosing to melodically shout his way through was actually a good call. He had a carefree sway to his stage moves as well, and it worked for me. I think Josh is at his best when he cuts loose and doesn’t have to work too hard. His urgent singing kind of wore out its welcome by the bridge (where he should have dialed it down a notch). Nonetheless he came off well.

5. Elise Testone – “I Want It All” This performance was no-frills straight-up rocking. Elise stuck to her spot with her tambourine and went to work. She had the power notes in all the right places, and her singing was on point if a bit shrill. She had a solid emotional investment in the song, evident in her vocal ad libs. It was good. My only problem was that the back-to-basics approach didn’t stick out against the back-to-back beatdown that was Skylar and Josh’s time onstage.

6. Phillip Phillips – “Fat Bottom Girls” But we just heard this song! This was one time where Phillip should have played his guitar, as his stage presence was skittish and perpetually collapsing. That’s not how you want to come across when singing something as joyous and lascivious as this jam. Meanwhile he was vocally straining the whole time. He sounded like he forgot how to sing from his chest. It was dangerously close to “squeaky-voiced teen on The Simpsons” levels of off-key. Ouch.

7. Hollie Cavanagh – “Save Me” I can understand Hollie wanting to do something more ballady compared her competitors’ mostly punchy song choices, but I don’t have to like her choice. She executed like a pro, and that moment where she kicked her voice up an octave to rise above the backup singers was awesome. That said, I was underwhelmed for the same reason that a lot of her performances underwhelming – too held back and too stale-sounding. It was only a few notches above her early pageant work.

8. Jessica Sanchez – “Dance With My Father” Hey! Just because Jermaine Jones got tastelessly booted off the show for his legal issues doesn’t mean that his singing record gets redacted. Don’t forget that he kicked that song’s ass in Top 24 week. Also, there are other Luther Vandross songs and other ballads! Jessica does ok, but she’s just holding her own. Her singing isn’t her best, either. For me, any emotion that came across was negated by all the other baggage.

9. Skylar Laine – “Tattoos On This Town” And we’re back to straight-up country. Skylar’s performance was pretty grounded, which makes sense given the rootsy romanticism of the source material. Her vocal runs were like rolling waves in how she delivered them, yet she didn’t seem too indulgent like some of Josh’s worst performances. On the downside, those same runs felt a little too big compared to the music. Still, if that’s the worst thing I have to say about this performance, then Skylar did ok.

10. Josh Ledet – “Ready For Love” Josh had a bit of a rough start with his singing, with quite a few flubs early on. He righted himself about 50-60% into the performance and whipped out quite a few nice notes that were loaded with emotion. Dare I say it, at times he even reminded me of some of the best soft moments from Adam Lambert’s run on the show. His ending dip-and-run was not nearly the moment he wanted it to be, but it didn’t detract from the emotional highs of the overall piece. Nice job, dude!

11. Elise Testone – “Bold As Love” This isn’t hooking me. Elise is showing off a lot of her range and showing it off quite well, I must say, but this still sounds like a less catchy version of “You And I.” She tried her best to emote and really get loose with her hippie stage moves, but the noodly music and lacksadaisical lyrics didn’t connect with me. I respect her risk taking and choosing difficult material but if she wanted to do Hendrix she should have done “Fire.”

12. Phillip Phillips – “The Stone” This sounds like open mic night, and that brick backdrop isn’t helping. This was a poor song choice because it lacks a hook and doesn’t really have enough musicality to allow Phillip to really sing. Instead he was just quietly mumbling and trying to be introspective. I respect his risk taking and choosing difficult material but if he wanted to do Dave he should have done “Crash Into Me.” Kathy posits that he’s checked out of the show and I agree.

13. Hollie Cavanagh – “The Climb” I thought this was a good song choice for Hollie because it was originally made famous by Miley Cyrus, another teen singer. I thought this was a bad song choice for everything else. The pace is plodding, the lyrics are inspiration bait, and the music isn’t nearly dynamic enough. And Hollie just regressed right back to pageant mode – big notes, stiff stage presence, and the emotional investment of a cynical technician. What a sad finish!

And what would I have sung? Well since “Another One Bites The Dust” was taken, I’ll go for the only Queen song to get a cover by Electric Six – “Radio Ga Ga.” The part in the song where the music drops to just the drum track and the “Radio Ga Ga/Radio Goo Goo” lyric would be so fun for leading the audience in a clap-along. For the free choice, I’d go with “Black and Gold” by Sam Sparro. I like its techno broadway musicality and catchy shuffle beat. Its lyrics are full of emotion and spirituality, but it is still ultimately a love song. Vocally there are a few neat parts that don’t require a lot of power singing. Based on what the judges were saying about not taking chances…well I’d get the boot in Top 24 week, but to hell with that. When “Black and Gold” comes on it’s time to dance like Taylor Hicks and vamp like Blake Lewis.

Performance Rankings
1. Skylar Laine (#1 in Round 1, #2 in Round 2)
2. Josh Ledet (#2 in Round 1, #1 in Round 2)
3. Elise Testone (#3 in Both Rounds)
4. Jessica Sanchez (#4 in Round 1, #5 in Round 2)
5. Hollie Cavanagh (#5 in Round 1, #4 in Round 2)
6. Phillip Phillips (#6 in Both Rounds)

This ranking was easy to do. I thought the contestants were consistent from round to round for better or worse. I was surprised and disappointed with how the judges were repeatedly making explicit was has often been the implicit rule on this show: “Don’t take chances.” I’ll concede to knocking Elise and Phillip for picking somewhat obscure songs in the free round, but that was more because I thought their songs weren’t catchy or relatable and I don’t know much about the back catalogs of Hendrix and Dave. Steven Tyler’s end-of-the-show speech in disagreement with that rule made him the unlikely voice of reason. Also, go Skylar.