Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Sing Off, season 1 (Dec 14, 15, 16 & 21)

As I've been fairly steeped in the contemporary a-cappella scene since college (and continue to be), I was really interested in doing an episode-by-episode blog about NBC's four-episode competition The Sing-Off. Personal conflicts, including my own sing-off in the form of prepping for my new school's winter assemblies, have kept me from doing with The Sing-Off what I did with American Idol. That said, there are lots of things to take away from the show, from contemporary a-cappella and general performance angles. I won't be nitpicking individual performances; just making general observations.

[Heads-up: I hyphenate the term "a-cappella", as opposed to writing it as two words. I wasn't inspired by anyone else to do it; about ten years ago I just thought it'd be easier to read that way, as opposed to having that Italian preposition "a" sitting all by itself, just begging to be confused with the English indefinite article.]

Issue One: Why did it take three episodes for the sound mix to finally work?

For the first two episodes I thought all of the basses had been quarantined. The sound in the third episode was so much stronger and authentic to what the performers were doing. Is it that hard to find an engineer in the Los Angeles area who knows what close-miked group vocals are supposed to sound like? I imagine an NBC exec was watching playbacks of the first two episodes, and it occured to him "Hmm, maybe a musical showcase should have a sound mix that doesn't suck."

Issue Two: Maxx Factor sold out. And it backfired on them.

This was never billed as an exclusively "contemporary" a-cappella competition, as far as I can tell. ("Contemporary" in this context is an umbrella term that refers to simulating the impression of a band, whether that be through rock, jazz, latin or other genres.) The irritating mantra in the first two episodes, spouted by group after group in their pre-song profile clips, was how each group was going to show the proverbial world that "a-cappella" isn't just doo-wop and/or just barbershop and/or just jazz and/or just R&B and/or just pop and/or just classical and/or just big choruses and/or just small groups and/or just inexperienced college guys and/or just old-fashioned adults. (Anything else we want to throw into the contradictory mix of what a-cappella isn't supposed to be? Doesn't that kind of confusion kind of prove its own point?) So here is an award-winning quartet, the cream of an incredibly huge and competitive international crop in the barbershop world, with a chance to bring barbershop-- a difficult and gorgeous vocal form-- back into mainstream attention. And from the get-go they announce "we're going to show the world that we're not just barbershop."


This goes to the point of numerous previous postings I've made regarding American Idol: DO WHAT YOU'RE BEST AT. Samantha (my wife) and I thought that three of the four of them (excepting the youngest one) sounded ridiculous trying to do pop & rock solos. It's not because they have bad voices, but because they're not pop or rock singers, and they shouldn't have tried to be. How kick-ass would a true barbershop-style re-imagining of a current popular tune have been? It would've brought the house down, reminded the world of the more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts power of skilled arranging and correctly-tuned singing, and would have confirmed what makes them the best in the world at what they do. (Barbershop singing has particular approach to tuning-- where the octave isn't always neatly divided into twelve identical steps-- that creates that distinctive ringing sound that makes four people sound like twenty.) If the Beelzebubs or Noteworthy tried jazz harmony, I'm sure it would've been a disaster-- not because they're bad singers, but because it's not what they do. Portions of Maxx Factor's Beach Boys medley verged on genius, and its a shame they didn't apply that genius to their other material.

Issue Three: What's happened to The Beelzebubs? (This one is going to be serious inside-baseball a-cappella talk, so bear with me. I also may need to go into hiding over this.)

I was in awe of The Beelzebubs throughout college ('91-'95), and followed them via their brilliant recordings and by virtue of singing with some of them over the years. When I was in college, if the 'Bubs were coming to our campus (from nearby Tufts Univ.), the anticipation among our vocal groups was palpable. Their live performances were like testosterone personified. They were guys' guys who barged into a recital hall (or conference room or chapel) and f-ckin' took the place over. Just... took it over. And not just by virtue of their sheer numbers (they've always been 12 guys and up), and not by virtue of loud colors (they did muted shirts & blazers then, not the über-frat fun-house weirdness of the last week). They chose songs that either rocked your face off or were really powerful and intense, and their in-your-face performances and inventive recordings made you want to either a) if you were a guy, get drunk with them, or b) if you were girl, get drunkenly groped by them. And now on this show, it's so... cheesy. It's like they're playing into the stereotype of an old-school college group that every other group was saying they'd avoid: hyperactive movement and a collective shiny-happy demeanor without true vocal strength behind it. Being cheesy is easy; true ballsiness is hard. And they've really tipped the scales the wrong way this time. I know it's odd to use such a wide time frame, but I haven't seen them in concert since '97, so my image of them is frozen from then; making it more jarring is that their recordings, especially from the last six years, continued to be stellar. (I mean, listen to this. Or this. Or this. It's damn good.) If their change in stage style is a result of pressure from the producers of the show, then I'll forgive them, but otherwise I wonder what's gotten into them over, um, the last twelve years. What a shame.

Issue Four: Thank God that actual a-cappella-experienced people were involved.

When I heard about the show being developed several months ago, I was intrigued. Then, as the promos began airing on NBC in November, I was somewhat dismayed to see Ben Folds on the judging panel. Let me preface that: I love Ben Folds. His piano chops and heartbreaking lyrics have driven me to dancing and tears respectively; I own all of his Transcribed Scores books; "Boxing" in particular is in constant rotation on my iPod. However, his involvement in this show obviously stems from his recent album Ben Folds presents University A Cappella!. I am proud to own a signed copy of this CD as a cultural touchstone of sorts, but I don't listen to it, because it's... not good. And its not the groups' fault. On Folds' web site, Mickey Rapkin describes Folds as a latter-day Jane Goodall, discovering and studying this heretofore unknown world of college kids singing in groups other than choruses. Well, unknown to him, which is why it's such a sloppy album: it's an unfamiliar musical realm for him, and what's tolerable to him turned out to be very corny and sub-par for those of us who listen to this kind of thing all the time. (I could go on and on; listen to the premiere episode of Mouth Off starting at 12:03 for more on this.) Point being, Folds is a stellar musician who I was afraid would turn out to be talking out of his butt on the show; fortunately, he turned out to be a pretty killer judge. (Shawn Stockman was great as well, as expected. And, um, that's all of the judges, I think.)

Now, having qualified judges is one thing; having people behind the scenes that understand how to make it work is another. Thankfully, Deke Sharon (founder of the Contemporary A Cappella Society) was one of the head arrangers and was part of the production process, and Ed Boyer and Roopak Ahuja (both formerly of my boys) recorded the interstitial music. (I noticed that Petra Haden was the other head arranger in the final credits; I'm curious as to which charts were hers, as her a-cappella outing The Who Sell Out is my only [very raw] frame of reference.)

Issue Five: We now have confirmation that Bobby McFerrin is a musical god. Not really an issue; just wanted to say it.

Issue Six: We now have confirmation that Nick Lachey is a really bad singer. Not really an issue; just wanted to say it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

American Idol, episode 8-40 (May 20): final results (season finale)

[There is a LOT missing here, but I'm posting now in the interest of timeliness. I promise I'll clean it up and fill it out later this week.]

After the chickens of mediocrity came home to roost last night, I fear the mother of all chickens will roost, and Kris will pull enough of the moony-eyed teenager vote.

Kris and Adam aren't being piped into the mix. Fox sound guys strike again!

The Top 13 performance of "Rock Star" reminds us of all of the far worthier singers that could've been there in Kris's place, and not just the criminally-denied Allison Iraheta and Danny Gokey-- there's Alexis Grace, Li'l Rounds, and even Michael Sarver, bless 'em all.

(Did they just sing "and you're a tool"? Man, Fox's censors are on a non-roll!)

David Cook! Yay! Strands of hair plastered to his forehead and everything! "Permanent" is a pleasant enough moody arena-rock ballad, and David still sounds in good form, with a killer high note at the end of the last chorus. He, Danny and Daughtry should get together and make the hoarsest album ever.

David says "I don't think America can get this wrong." Er, they already did. Have you seen the top 2?

Li'l Rounds and Queen Latifah duet on ???????. This song would've gotten her farther in the competition. This song was so good! Where was it when she needed it?!

Anoop Desai and Alexis, who both sound fantastic, lead into Jason Mraz (just back from a fishing trip, apparently), which leads into the entire Top 13 singing together. The last few bars of this song, with the thirteen of them singing in glorious harmony, sounded better than any of the Ford videos, which I'm sure are done painstakingly in a studio over a course of hours. How bizarre.

The ladies of the Top 13 perform, and Megan Joy immediately reminds us why she should never have made it past the Wild Card round.

Then Fergie walks on, and of course the opening chords of "Big Girls Don't Cry" are played. Sam immediately says "Are you kidding me? Hasn't she performed this a million times? It was old on New Years' Rockin' Eve, and she's still doing it!"

And... then The Black Eyed Peas, accompanied by some really, really creepily-dressed backup dancers, demonstrate how far they've fallen from their original appeal as a funk/hip-hop hybrid band.

(They cut to another camera angle for about ten seconds. Anyone know why they did that?)

More awards, during which we meet many enablers. (Ryan Seacrest says one of the greatest off-the-cuff lines in the history of live television.)

Allison is accompanied on the zither by Cyndi Lauper. Why them together? The hair?

Danny takes the stage alone to sing "Hello", which is of course heartbreaking, and of course shows us that his absence in the Top 2 is utterly absurd. Lionel Ritchie, of course (and by "of course", I mean that we can just take for granted that Idol will book anyone and everyone they want), joins him onstage for "All NIght Long", and damn they sound good together (and the horn section is outta control).

Adam plays into the media's worst stereotypes of him with his outfit, and sings "Beth"... and... gee, we didn't see this coming... K.I.S.S. joins him! In a hail of fireworks, no less. And they're a performing a medley of, well, K.I.S.S.'s greatest hits.

Carlos Santana and his two killer Latin percussionists tears through the intro of "Black Magic Woman", joined by Matt Giraud and eventually the entire Top 13. Even with the mass unison, it still sounded pretty good.

Oh no. Not a Ford video. And of course, it's a montage of previous Ford videos. *snore*

Steve Martin accompanies Michael and Megan on Martin's bluegrass ballad "Pretty Flowers". This is Michael's obvious home territory, and Megan just gets more bizarre everything we hear her.

Boys' number! Finally. Michael seems to be getting a lot of solo time tonight. Of course, Rod Stewart shows up, and puts them all to shame.

In my opinion, we haven't heard enough of Jorge, who we heard earlier briefly. We have yet to hear a featured line from Scott at all tonight, so I thought I'd just mention him here.

The last "award", Outstanding Female, goes to Tatiana Del Toro, who is seriously a killer singer. It's such a shame she had to amass such massive ill will (I lost track of how many anti-Tatiana groups popped up on Facebook) during the Top 36 rounds, which, to be fair, she was asking for.

Brian May!!!!!!!!!!!! Freakin' Brian May!!!!! Under the bass-drum banner of Queen, Kris and Adam sing "We Are The Champions", with a monstrous, amorphous chorus behind (and around) them. This was quite glorious, I must admit.

And it comes down to... 100,000,000 votes. A large number in and of itself, but I will stick to my usual math and assume that there are 100 people voting 1,000,000 times.

And finally, after the bikini-wearing and middle-finger-displaying and adversity-overcoming and wife-mourning and sexual-orientation-questioning and machine-gun-laughing, the winner is...




I'd been gunning for a Danny/Allison final, so it's not like I had a personal favorite here, but at least Adam was entertaining and brought something new to the table. Kris is a capable musician, but is also a shag-haired bottle of Sominex. America, you officially are idiots. Well, the over 50 of you who cast 1,000,000 votes are idiots, anyway.

And now Kris sings "No Boundaries" as Fox and 19 Entertainment's new milquetoast golden boy. I do admit, the song is growing on me. Nevertheless, and I say this with the deepest sarcasm: enjoy your idol, moony-eyed teenage girls of America.

What a bummer to end this season on. What an anti-climactic end to what should have been a two-hour coronation. I will eagerly await both Kris's and Adam's (And Allison's and Danny's) first recordings, which I will critique here, and contrast-and-compare here, with relish.

And that's the season! 40 episodes of pure white-hot entertainment, most of which I was able to cover here, and I hope I did it with tact, grace, inside musical jargon, a grain of intolerance for entitlement, and a grain of my own entitlement. And, of course, there's the real reason I started this blog, which I occasionally diverted from but remained the guiding principle througout: to give some of the music educators (and other educators) out there some jumping-off points for legitimate critique of the show (and other pop culture offerings).

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

episode 8-38 (May 13): Top 3 results

The Ford video, as usual, sounds lifeless. You'd think with three solid singers left on the show, they'd be wailing on a rocker, or singing three-part harmony on a smooth R&B jam. But no, they go with the happy-crappy quasi-reggae "Break My Stride", sung with maximum lightness, accompanied by comic-book imagery of the quality you'd find in the margins of an eleven-year-old's social studies notebook.

Alicia Keys, after an impassioned plea for donations to Keep a Child Alive, introduces a young Rwandan singer named Noah, who sings a jaunty quasi-African ditty called "I'm the World's Greatest". It wasn't the most musically deep song, but I suppose that that would've been beside the point.

Jordan Sparks introduces her new single "Battlefield", and she's really reaching unnecessarily into the depths of her range. This reminds me of when Avril Lavigne performed her then-recent single "Complicated" on Last Call with Carson Daly, and, without the intense compression like on the recording, the low notes of the intro ("whatcha waitin' for" etc.) were painful to listen to. Following Sparks' low notes was a mostly mediocre song with a relentless barage of the word "battlefield"... an intense but disappointing performance, considering how decisively she beat Blake in the season 6 final.

Katy Perry surprises me with her new single "Waking Up In Vegas". As my only previous listening experience with her was "I Kissed a Girl" and "Hot N Cold", as well as the disastrous performance at the Grammys. But her voice was actually quite strong for the genre. She was wasn't as one-note throaty as I recalled; there was a huskiness and an attitude and a variety of tone colors I wasn't expecting. And such a better overall performance; this time she looked like she actually wanted to be there.

Finally after 56 minutes, a reveal! And after 80 million votes were recorded... Kris?! Oh, for the love of God. What has he done to deserve any of this? Am I insane for not giving a crap about this guy? I've been watching this show religiously, and I don't even remember what he sounds like.

Immediately, Samantha says "Danny's going home, hon." And... yeah, of course he is. Adam is in to the final, and Danny is felled in his prime. Both of my two favorites, Allison and Danny, will not be in the final, which is personally embarrassing for me and generally embarrassing for the America whose idol might actually be Kris. This is going to be one sleepy decade if Kris wins. Damn you, you 80 teenage girls who vote a million times each!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

episode 8-37 (May 12): Top 3 performances

And this... is a sham without Allison. Six days later, I'm still shocked that Kris is about to perform for America to prove his worthiness and not her. What away to celebrate a 300th episode: with a dark cloud of WTF.

Paula chooses Terrance Trent D'Arby's "Dance Little Sister" for Danny Gokey. In retrospect, it's shocking we haven't heard a TTD song from him yet, considering the similarity of his voice. This song starts off absolutely kicking butt, perfect for his voice, a great groove to match his tone... and then the chorus gets really shouty and hoarse, and not in a good way. I'm starting to hear what Samantha heard last week, in terms of his creeping (and creepy) vocal similarity to Taylor Hicks (although Danny is in far more control; Hicks' hoarseness is more of an affectation). In terms of his much-maligned "dancing," he certainly looked like he was having a blast, although it was a goof-fest.

Kris Allen gets the text message from Randy and Kara to perform One Republic's "Apologize". Oh good Lord. Really? Could a song be more half-assed than this song? Or are they bringing it onto the show to finally eliminate the ass entirely?

The grand piano makes its return for the first time since Scott MacIntrye's elimination, and now we remember why we hated it in the first place: single performer + seating + enormous looming piece of furniture = disaster. Luckily for us, the cameras swoop in and out and around, but from the audience's point of view he might as well be wearing a mask, for all of the connection he's making from behind a piano sitting perpendicular to the judges. After practically making out with the mic for the first verse, Kris's limitations shine through as he's unable to make the strong leap to falsetto for the hook ("it's too laaaaaaaaaate" and such); by the second chorus he isn't even singing the melody! I can see Simon nodding off as they pull the camera back. What a waste of time this imitation of a recording was.

Simon puts the smackdown on Kara for what he sees as hypocrisy in her comments. Wow. Just... wow. It's a shame to see this happen, as I'd seen Kara as the anti-Paula from the beginning.

Adam Lambert has the heavy duty to sing "One", as chosen by Simon. Uh oh, he's blue-lit from behind like when he sang "Mad World". But hey! He sounds really good and smooth on this! And not at all showy! And it's a tasteful arrangement! And then... everything goes to hell in the last verse, and it's back to screaming, screechy, out-of-tune run-heavy Adam. Of course, the great unwashed will eat this up, because screeching really high somehow equals good. Ugh.

Danny is up again, and we can see a string quartet set up on stage as he's talking to Ryan. He says he'll be singing "You Are So Beautiful", and my first reaction is: great, another ballad. And then my second reaction is: actually, finally, an actual ballad. "Apologize" and "One" are just middle-tempo songs with no drive or "sweep" to it; this should be good, and will probably get the hausfrau vote back. But he starts so low-- "to me" was uncomfortable to listen to. The chord changes at the end of the first refrain were quite gorgeous, and then the final refrain kicks in, and HOLY CRAP is this powerful. You can't avoid the obvious undercurrent of the loss of his wife with this song (and, previously, "Endless Love"), and whatever fake energy came from him in the first song was negated by this powerhouse performance. What a perfect choice.

Kris has the misfortune to follow that. Kanye West's "Heartless" is actually a really interesting choice; its melody feels really repetitive at West's tempo, but it's original enough that it could stand on its own if you slowed it down... and Kris does, and it works. And then... oh, right, there's the chorus, which isn't written particularly well-written, and it's awkward to listen to. This is like the Quentin Tarantino episode all over again for him; a boring mess. And naturally, the judges are falling over each other to praise him. Is it "brave" to perform in this manner on this stage? Sure, but that doesn't make it good.

Adam makes the obvious choice of an Aerosmith song, "Cryin'". Man, does he look angry. Those backing singers are really doing him a disservice with their intonation on the first chorus. And then he does himself a disservice on the bridge-- "making loooooove" and some other inscrutable run both sounded like a wounded cat. It's a shame, because he's seemed like a very musical guy throughout this season, and then he makes such odd choices for performance purposes. I get it, he's charismatic and a has a great range... but that range should be used in a way that doesn't involve screaming.

Alas, Adam and Danny are falling into the same trap, conflating soul with straining. Will the world ever learn?

By the way, tonight I listened to the show through headphones (for the second time this season), and kudos to the audio staff. Between the hi-def signal and the audio mix, It's just like being there. Quite stunning, actually, particularly in the intro of the Angola sequence.

Tomorrow we'll be seeing Jordan Sparks (yay!) and Katy Perry (yiiiii). Perry put on one of the most awkward performances I've ever seen on live TV at the Grammys this year; we'll see tomorrow if she's been putting in as much effort into her live act as she's put into her photo shoots.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

episode 8-36 (May 6): Top 4 results

In the intro video, Kris says "I'm ready to rock!" This reminds me of the episode of King of the Hill, when Chuck Mangione comes to play on Arlen's town green, and Chuck says to the crowd "Hey Arlen! Are you ready to lite rock?" It's rock... but it's not.

The Ford video is so dumb, it's not even worth mentioning. Oops.

The Top 4 jam with Slash and his band on "School's Out", and Kris's inadequacies just get more and more apparent. I'm more and more impressed by Adam (he's singing the higher harmony with Allison, for God's sake), but I'm still gunning for Danny and Allison. Danny's breathy performance leads Samantha to make a comment that chills me to the bone: "He's reminding me of Taylor Hicks." Blasphemy! Blasphemy!!!!!

Well, if anyone needs Auto-Tune, it's Paula Abdul, and she's got it in spades. This is so heavily processed, it's like the opera singer from The Fifth Element. A terribly mediocre song, with a lead singer who's lit in a way that makes it impossible to tell if she even is lip-synching. All of her increasingly rational comments this season are meaningless in the face of this nonsense.

Oh, no! They've used up their rations of insanely bright sparks dropping from the ceiling! What will they use in the finale?

We go abruptly (so abruptly that I thought it was taped) into a performance by recently-reunited No Doubt. Gwen Stefani is a force of nature, easily giving the most spirited performance we've seen on the show this season. I'd really grown tired of her solo shenanigans ("Hollaback Girl"? Really?), but she seems like an earnest performer now that she's back with her heavily-gelled friends.

And Kris... is safe? Seriously? Good lord! How could any of the remaining three possibly leave tonight? That's unthinkable. The moony-eyed teenage girl was out in force last night, that's for sure.

To distract me from my annoyance, Chris Daughtry takes the stage to debut his new single "No Surprise". I loved his first two hits-- "It's Not Over" and "Feels Like Tonight" (my band covers the latter)-- so I'm shocked how milquetoast and unoriginal this song is. Here were my predictions of the chord changes of the first chorus as I heard them; let's see how they match up:

I... yep.
V... yep.
vi... yep.
IV... aaaaaaand yep. That's a shame.

Daughtry's voice still sounds great though, and in fact sounds stronger and cleaner in his high range than I'd expected.

Ryan reminds us that Kris is safe, so my anger returns. Adam, not surprisingly, is called to safety, which now leads me to the unthinkable exacta-breaking situation of Danny and Allison being the only two left. This is going to be a crime either way, and the victim is Allison, who was the best singer in this competition.

For some friends of mine, the breaking point was the wild-card round; this might be mine. Interestingly, back in the cattle-call rounds, Danny was generally considered to be the hausfraus' sentimental choice, but now Kris's apparent army of lovesick girls are obviously kingmakers now. Adam seems a universal choice to get to the finals, but if Kris outlasts Danny, then America is as mushy as the rest of the world thinks we are.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

episode 8-35 (May 5): Top 4 performances

Slash takes on mentoring duties this week. As I mentioned last week, I'm now a bigger fan of the non-musicians as mentors, because they tend to see the bigger picture. Slash, of course, is a rock musician par excellence ("Sweet Child o' Mine" was, after all, the song that launched a thousand Long Island garage bands), and so now, in my reactionary mind, I'm expecting him to be supremely musically fussy. Instead, he's surprisingly general, and doesn't seem to say much beyond the obvious, at least in the videos, which is disappointing. The practice-with-a-full-on-rock-band-as-you-perform idea is brilliant, though; I was getting sick of hearing these guys wail next a five-foot grand piano.

Adam Lambert takes on Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love", with some decent vocal advice from Slash-- to lay off the improvs in the upper register. Matching Adam with a Robert Plant lead is a no-brainer, given his natural histrionics up there, and finally, this is a performance of Adam's I can finally say I truly liked. (What?) For once, his over-the-top nonsense worked in his favor-- except his "way, way, way..." improv, which was sloppy. (See? When in doubt, listen to the guy who's sold 100 million albums.)

(Where exactly is Kara going in clothes and a hairstyle like that? Did CBGB reopen in L.A.?)

Allison Iraheta chooses Janis Joplin's "Crybaby" over Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody To Love". At first, like Simon, I though she had nixed the Queen song; certainly, that song would've been a more obvious foil to Adam's song, but she certainly rocks the hell out of "Crybaby" anyway. (JA's "Somebody to Love" was even in consideration for her? Is she trying to channel Janis or Janis-wannabe Amanda Overmeyer?) As relatively repetitive as this song is, her power is undeniable. I sit in slack-jawed amazement and how effortless it is for her. I'd hate for her to lose her place in the show based on a less-than-perfect song choice, as opposed to, say, her ridiculous talent and preternatural focus.

Which leads us to Kris Allen's first appearance, which unfortunately for him is alongside Danny Gokey. Ryan makes a point to note that there won't be any phone numbers on the screen during the duets, implying that these songs don't count as much as the solos. But when Kris and Danny team up for Styx's "Renegade", there's no comparison. Not that Kris isn't a strong singer in isolation, but Danny's tone is so much more interesting and powerful, it makes Kris sound like a boy on a man's-- albeit an increasingly-metrosexual man's-- stage. Also, Kris looks exhausted, or perhaps just doesn't want to be there anymore. And lucky him... he's on again next! Somebody get him a cup of coffee, for goodness sake.

Kris seems eerily committed to The Beatles, and runs with "Come Together". Even in the setup video, Kris sounds so small and boyish with Slash's band. Slash opines "If he manages to pick up the actual live performance, that'll help." Uh, yeah, that's kind of the point of the show. Surprisingly, his singing is stronger live. Perhaps he's feeding off the audience, or off of the army of guitarist behind him, or off of the guitar he's playing, but he looks a lot more awake, and sounds bigger somehow, than in the duet. He's still a boy in a man's (and woman's) competition. I'm realizing now that this is the issue I've had with Kris from the beginning; it's not that he's not talented, it's just that he's just kinda there, and that kinda-there-ness is in stark contrast to Danny, Allison, Adam... Anoop, Matt, Alexis... hell, even Tatiana del Toro and Nick Mitchell, bless their neurotic hearts.

Danny dares to take on Aerosmith's "Dream On", and I expected the opening to be stronger, since it seems to perfect for his moody breathy John-Mayer-ish tone. Instead, he seems to be out of his element (and out of tune). It pains me to say this, as I've called him to win from the beginning, but this is the first time I ever thought he was delivering a less than stellar performance. Then the chorus (actually the coda, if were in Real Unabbreviated Song land) kicks in, and he kills it. Oh wait, now here comes the screaming... (Samantha and I brace ourselves)... and it's a little out of control, ruining his comeback. Samantha: "He lost control, so he just decided to shriek, and my ears were the victim."

Foghat's "Slow Ride" makes for slightly more compatible pairing of voices, although Adam's histrionic highs sound so forced compared to Allison's otherwordly grit. Although this was not nearly as interesting of a song as "Renegade" (it's quite dull actually, upon second listen), it was a more even vocal performance in comparison, no thanks to Kris not pulling his weight earlier. They did, however, spend most of the song facing each other in rock-god mutual-encouragement bliss, which I'm sure made for a dull performance in person.

My favorite tonight, for appropriateness of performance: Allison, with Adam a close second. Allison and Danny still remain my top two, partly because they have the best voices of the entire Top 36, and also because I don't care to see Adam's smarmy mug looking at me from a Skechers ad.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

episode 8-34 (April 29): Top 5 results

"But who will get the shock... tonight?" Probably either Taylor Hicks fans or Taylor Hicks detractors. Who knows, maybe he learned to sing in the last two years.

I'm pretty much used to idea that the Ford videos will be mediocre at best. But the song choices themselves have been just dreadful lately, "Energy", an ironically energy-less piece of jangle-pop is no exception. As Jack Donaghy said to Liz Lemon, "This is not open mic night at the Bryn Mawr student union." Why bother bringing these five great singers into the studio if you're going to make them sound awful? Isn't the studio the place where you make awful singers sound great, not the other way around?

A medley of "It Don't Mean a Thing" and "I Got Rhythm" is so much better than anything we heard last night. A ton of energy in this set, and regardless of the vocal consistency (Samantha thought it sounded bad from another room), it looked like an absolutely joy on all of the competitors' parts (and the band's). The "doo-wa doo-wa doo-wa" in the refrain of "It Don't" was more interesting than the entire Ford video, and landing on a lydian chord at the end, while obviously impossible individually, was icing on the cake. What a shame they weren't this good last night.

One additional thing we're reminded of tonight: a lot of great jazz standards are usually famous for their refrains and not their verses for a reason. The verse of "It Don't" kinda rambles on in harmonic no-man's land. And the lyrics are obviously tossed off, probably because the refrain-- written by Duke Ellington and Irving Mills, no less-- is going to be the ultimate focus anyway. "It ain't the melody, it ain't the music / there's something else that makes the tune complete." Er... isn't rhythm part of the music? That's like saying "It's not the color of your shirt that I like; it's the fact that it's red." Huh?

(Samantha and I, by the way, found the mansion food-fight video in very poor taste. "What is this about? They're ruining the house with tasty food while people are starving?")

Natalie Cole's "Something's Gotta Give" is like a bad musical theater song. Nothing says class like beating the listener over the head with the irresistable force paradox. Oh, and she sounded like she was out of breath. Ryan: "You guys enjoy that?" Audience: silence... then "oh right, we should applaud now..." **applause**. More grudging kudos to the band, though, who cooked throughout.

And now, after the umpteenth promo for Glee (featuring an a-cappella arrangement of "Don't Stop Believin'" that sounds suspiciously like my band's), we come to Taylor Hicks. If you haven't guessed already, I was not a fan of his weak and scratchy voice in season 5, and his Soul-Patrol-enabled victory over the smoother (and yummier) Katherine McPhee still sticks in my craw. So, yeah, I'm looking forward to hearing this.

"Seven Mile Breakdown" seems like a nice and jaunty enough song (with some interesting and expected use of the ii chord in the choruses). His voice is... pleasant at best, and he reveals the weakness I remember him for when he reaches for high notes he doesn't have; instead of taking the easy way out and going into falsetto, he strains upward, and it ain't pretty. New Taylor, same as the old Taylor.

Taylor's advice to the Top 5: "Right now it's about song choices." Um... haven't we been talking about that since Hollywood week?

Alright. I've had enough of the live auto-tuning. If Jamie Foxx is as great of a singer as he wants us to think he is, does he need to do this? Kanye West (who is legitimately talented), T-Pain (who might be talented, it's hard to tell), and now Foxx (and many others) have fallen victim to the temptations of sounding like you're singing underwater. Why?! Why?!?!

Interestingly, Kris is sent back to the couch to join Allison (good) and Danny (even better), which leaves Matt and Adam. We suspect that Matt is going home, as Adam appears to have a more consistent following... and so it goes.

But do we have to hear this awkward pinched version of "My Funny Valentine" again. He eviscerates it all over again; sounding like Al Jarreau holding his nose. He hits a great note on "stayyyyyyy", but ruins it again with that over-the-top final note. He's going out with a bang, I suppose.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

episode 8-33 (April 28): Top 5 performances

Holy crap! It's a big band! The rays of hate for Rickey Minor will be abated for the evening.

Jamie Foxx is an interesting choice for mentoring Rat Pack night, as he's best known musically for R&B, and also apparently a T-Pain impersonation. He's also introduced as having a classical background, as he also of course has his Oscar for his performance in Ray. An impressive range, but not one that immediately lends itself to being an expert on the Rat Pack style... and yet he gives some killer advice and gets great performances out the competitors. It's the out-of-left-field mentors (Foxx, Quentin Tarantino) who are doing the best mentoring, probably because they're not stuck in their own parochial musical worlds (Randy Travis, Andrew Lloyd Weber, etc.) and are more concerned with what makes for a great overall performance. The singers know how to sing, but how to translate that singing into an overall performance requires the Big Step Back that Foxx and Tarantino have provided.

Kris Allen starts "The Way You Look Tonight" (one of Randy's "favorite joints") in super slo-mo, but thankfully picks up the pace aftert he first refrain. There's nothing bad to say about it-- he's smooth, dead in tune, and makes some great choices. But that's it; it's like jazz oatmeal.

Is it a bit odd how the fangirls in the crowd start cheering when Kara says he's "set the technical bar so high"? Nothin' gets the great unwashed goin' like complimenting the technical aspect of a performance, huh?

Allison Iraheta may be a bit out of her depth on "Someone to Watch Over Me". Not performance-wise-- her focus and connection is still impeccable-- but her vocal tone is just not appropriate for a jazz ballad. Not that jazz vocals should be limited to one particular tone-- Ella vs. Billie, e.g., or even Darmon vs. Peter-- but her otherwise fantastic grit is a distraction here. I'd still vote for her, just to keep her in the running so she can return and kick everyone's butt once again.

I'm really annoyed how they cut the second 8 out of the song. We get it, the show is running long every time, but taking a full quarter out of a 32-bar form is insulting and makes it feel odd. (I mean, it's called the freakin' 32-bar form for a reason! 'Cuz it's 32 bars long!)

Foxx (and the anonymous vocal coach at the piano) gives the first indication of transposition consideration this season, implying that Matt Giraud might be taking "My Funny Valentine" up or down a key. I'm guessing they took it down, because this mostly sat in a terribly uncomfortable and Dave-Matthews-esque part of his range, which was exacerbated by the ballad tempo, just for the sake of trying to hit a mythical money note at the end. And said money note was belted at full volume, completely out of character with the rest of the arrangement. I'm in rare disagreement with Simon tonight; this was a badly thought-out performance after all.

Danny Gokey is singing yet another ballad... and then the feel picks up like crazy. At first he seems to be coasting on his breathy-dreamy voice, and then he amps it up (backed with, I'm reluctant to say, a killer performance from Rickey Minor's band) to another level entirely. Out of control. If he (or Allison) doesn't take this competition, America is officially as stupid as the rest of the world already thinks we are.

Adam Lambert doesn't seem to get much coaching from Foxx for "Feelin' Good". He plays it safe, so to speak, at the beginning, by having the Rhodes piano come in to accompany his histrionic-by-default voice, reminiscent of Supertramp or other '70 arena rock, which is his strength. But when it goes into jazz mode, it doesn't work; his voice, like Allison's doesn't fit. And the screaming, the theatricality, the sneering, the smarminess, the strutting... as Simon likes to say, this was terribly indulgent.

Tomorrow, Taylor Hicks returns... to... do... whatever it is he's doing nowadays. Singing, I suppose.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

episode 8-32 (April 22): Top 7 redux results

As I'm watching the opening credits, I have a sneaking suspicion that a chicken is coming home to roost tonight. The judges saving Matt last week was an ultimately silly move, as he is not going to make it to the final four. And if he does, it's because Allison and Danny seriously shank at some point.

During the group number, the enormous screen looming over the stage urged us all to "DANCE! SHOUT!" In Comic Sans typeface. Classy.

Holy cow! This is a long group number! It's an obvious lip-sync operation, but man, this is admittedly very entertaining, probably because it was conceived as an actual production number. Samantha and I, while watching the making-of video, being to reflect on the amazing influence that Paula Abdul had on the music industry in the late '80s, not only obviously as a solo artist, but dramatically raising the bar for choreography in music videos (most famously Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation"). Just amazing stuff 20 years ago, and a great job this week too, given the "dancers" she has to work with.

Someone's got a sign that says "Vegans [heart] Simon". I'm confused as to the Simon-vegan connection; anyone?

"I'm Good I'm Gone" is one of the worst-written songs I've ever heard. If Ford is willing to pay extra cash for these God-awful videos, then the auto industry must in be in better shape than we thought.

Ryan makes short work of Lil, giving her the boot immediately. Suddenly she's a bundle of energy, absolutely ruling the stage on "I'm Every Woman" like this was the performance that matters. The contrast was stunning.

Freda Payne struggles her way through her 1970 hit "Band of Gold". This was one of those performances where we're supposed to forgive the performer because we accept that he or she is not at the top his his or her game, but this was just inexcusable. We had the wonderful guest spot from Frankie Avalon, as well as more formal performances by previous Idol champs and prominent performers, and this was so uncomfortably inferior.

Thelma Houston fares much, much, much better on "Don't Leave Me This Way", taking over the stage with her energy and absolutely killing the final passage. My Lord, she is good.

K.C. (of the Sunshine Band) whispers his way through his evergreen "Get Down Tonight". He was lifting and lowering his mike like he was trying to pump water out of the stage, usually resulting in being barely audible, which is odd because when wasn't pulling back (or ogling his backup dancers) he doesn't sound much thinner than on the famous recording. Surrounding a paunchy older man with four much younger and lither women was just unfair too.

Danny, thankfully, doesn't need to be saved tonight. But Allison might. That is... just... unconscionable. Allison is the most powerful singer of this season, and her being in the depths of the vote is ridiculous. The Judge's Save from last week is starting to look like a terrible mistake.

David Archuleta continues his streak of adolescent-crush songs with "Touch My Hand". (Wow, an untucked grey button-down shirt with a black-and-white tie. Never seen that before.) I loved his performances last year, and this... was the worst I've ever heard him. What is he doing sitting on all of these low notes? He's trying to feign power down there, and ends up bleating like a sheep instead of belting like the runner-up of season 7 of Idol. What an odd, odd performance.

I literally held my breath waiting for Ryan to reveal . Turns out Anoop, an early favorite of mine, was in the voting basement. During his farewell song, unlike Lil, Anoop wasn't much better than he was last night, and in fact had the same shakiness in the exact same spot at the end. A shame he had to end an amazing run on that note.

As the closing credits ran, Samantha and I reminisced about Alexis Grace, and how she probably would have held her own in the Top 13, had she not been eliminated too early to be strategically Saved by the judges. Meh.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

episode 8-31 (April 21): Top 7 redux performances

The producers have opted to go without the introductory videos this week. Much has been made in the press about how poorly time has been managed on the show, and how poor the producer's attempts at fixing the problems have been. It's odd to not have that transitional material between interview (if there is one) and performance. (Samantha got caught off guard in the middle of Lil's song-- "Wait, was that song, like, the song she's doing for real?") Obviously the preset hour-long time slot-- scheduled with six singers in mind, not seven-- would've been too short to hear everyone sing and for the producers to lard the show with the usual nonsense, but it does feel very seat-of-the-pants without the videos.

Lil Rounds gets through Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman" without any of the grit we fell in love with back in January. Still, though this was a less-than-stellar performance, I'm a bit shocked at how negative the judges were; likely it came across even "smaller" in person. It's odd to say, but perhaps Simon is correct in portending her doom; she was a front-runner in the good ol' free-wheeling days of Norman Gentle and Nathaniel Marshall, but now in the harsh comparative light of the finals, she's not pulling her weight.

Kris Allen makes an interesting choice with Donna Summer's "She Works Hard for the Money". (The producers also make an odd decision to allow this song in a disco-themed show, as it's decidedly an early '80s tune.) This was a pretty brilliant reimaging of the song. This may be the first time I've actually enjoyed his performance... which is not to say I think he ever truly deserved to be in the Top 13 to begin with, but he made a good case for staying.

Danny Gokey is a little disappointing-- not as a vocalist, but as a performer (and Simon says so too). The whole stationary dancing thing seemed very forced. He was, as usual, a stunning singer, but he was simply not in his element, particularly in comparison to prodigies like Allison and hams like Adam. He even looked down mid-song! I've never seen him lose focus like this before. (Simon in fact called the performance "clumsy", which seems extreme from my living room, but perhaps came across stronger in person.)

"Hot Stuff" is a little disturbing sung by a 16-year-old. Allison Iraheta has the vocal chops, to be sure, but I felt uncomfortable watching her in a skin-tight outfit, stretched out on the stairs, singing about she's "gotta have some hot stuff, gotta have some lovin' tonight". Ick. Getting past that aspect of it, it was a great performance; when she commits, lord does she commit, and she can scream with the best of them. I'm confused as to how Simon considers her to be an "underdog," as she's consistently the best singer in this competition, and arguably the best singer of the last four seasons.

Adam Lambert slow-jams "If I Can't Have You", an already mediocre song. Why, why, why? When he went on his tangent, he sounded like Family Guy's parody of Christina Aguilera, and it was super short to boot. This was almost as bad as Kelly Pickler's performance a couple of weeks ago. (The vocals were "immaculate"? Really, Simon?)

Matt Giraud is finally coming out of his vocal shell. He somehow coasted through most of this competition without really demonstrating-- at least to the viewing public-- outstanding vocal chops. This time, an R&B take on "Stayin' Alive" really works for him. (Samantha wants to interject that she thinks "he's awesome and hot and awesome.") Great arrangement, with some killer reharmonizations in the stabs in this chorus ("ah, ah, ah, ah..."); I don't know how Randy, formerly of Journey and The Time, could have found that arrangement bad.

Anoop Desai, presenting a ballad version (another one?!) of "Turn On The Lights", put me to sleep for the first time, and it pains me to say that. And that ending passage was just miserable. This was easily not just the worst performance he's done yet, but possible the worst performance since the top 13 was chosen. Making it worse, it's another easy listening arrangement of an already mediocre song.

Of all of the songs in the disco repertoire, why didn't more of them pick songs that are actually interesting? While it's debatable whether "She Works Hard For The Money", a drum-machine-driven song from 1983, qualifies as disco, it was actually a good choice for energy and melodic reasons. When I think of the disco era, the songs that immediately come to mind are brilliant dance grooves like "Staying Alive" and "I'm Every Woman", or impossibly funky earworms like "September" and "Shining Star", or impossibly lush ballads like "How Deep Is Your Love", not middling easy-listening fodder like "If I Can't Have You" or "Turn On The Lights". Were these the only songs they could get licenses for?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

episode 8-30 (April 15): Top 7 results

In retrospect, Quentin Tarantino wasn't so odd of a choice to coach a singing contest. It worked because he's not stuck "in the weeds" of vocal technique or musicality; he's just concerned about how they come across, and that's been the biggest problem amongst the contestants this season.

This week's Ford video makes me wish J. Geils had never met his Band. Seriously, with of that septet of powerhouse singers, the producers couldn't get any more vocal energy out of them? Or was it just the worst audio mix ever?

Michael Sembello's "Maniac" (from Flashdance) is actually a great choice for a group number; it's a well-written song (harmonically, anyway), and it gives an opportunity for multiple solos alternating with group harmonies.

Jennifer Hudson continues to have a voice to die for, but this song is such a generic matchup for her. "Put your hands up"? "I know I ain't trippin'"? Her voice is better suited to grand melodies (most famously "I Am Not Going"), not this kind of repetitious Ne-Yo-eque range-lessness.

When the Bottom Three is settled, Danny and Allison are not in it, which is for the best; it'd be a shame for the judges to use an obligatory Save on them this early. Anoop also escapes the Bottom Two, which is good for sentimental reasons, but he doesn't stand a chance in a three-way matchup with Danny and Allison.

For some reason, Miley Cyrus is playing "live"... last month. (That article implies that this happens regularly; does it?) Yikes, she sounds like she's holding her nose. Oh, and her high notes are painful and bleaty. Oh, and she's flat and out-of-breath half the time. Samantha asks: "Is she even singing in English?" Why is she famous for singing again? I get it, she's Disney's meal ticket and family-friendly, but her singing ability is set in stark relief compared to the talent already on that stage. (Or would be on that stage if she was live. Wow, this really awkward to listen to and write about!) Making the whole thing more awkward is the transition back to the live feed, where Ryan obviously can't do his usual post-performance interview due to the non-existence of the performer and has to make a non-sequitur back to the Bottom 3, further trivializing the whole ordeal.

So Lil is saved, leaving Matt to sing the Desperation Song du jour. Hmmmmm. Samantha suspects that Matt may be the beneficiary of the Save that Simon mentioned he'd give; I have my doubts, given that better performers (IMO) are still in the running. In his Desperation Song, though, he's got vocal issues: the beginning of "Loved a Woman" sounds like a bad Peter Gabriel imitation. On the flip side, this performance is so much better than last night's by virtue of his ability to actually walk around and connect with the audience. I wish the Save had been saved for someone more worthy, but Samantha points out that the Save was used for the exact right reason: Matt isn't a fan favorite by virtue of being on the bottom of the vote on a regular basis, and the judges want to save someone they feel deserves to make it to the Top 4. even if they recognize-- as Simon did-- that he or she probably won't. Good for them; let's just hope Danny or Allison don't shank horribly next week.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Episode 8-29 (April 14): Top 7 performances

"And this"... is a little disturbing. Quentin Tarantino lords over the introduction like he's about to take Ryan Seacrest hostage. Man, is he tall.

Rickey Minor is now on the stage. I'd pay $20 to see Stevie Van Zandt slap him after we're subjected to another performer singing at the very bottom of his or her range.

Allison Iraheta, the most consistently killer performer on this show, lost me this week. "I Don't Want To Miss a Thing" (from Armageddon) is an unfortunate choice, because it involves those low notes at the beginning ("I could stay awake..." etc.) that are a twelfth(!) below the eventual high notes, and since Allison is more known for alto belting than actual high notes, that's a recipe for disaster. I could tell it from when she started singing in the setup video, and again when she started live. Good thing she's built up some good will already this season, or I'd seriously fear for her. I don't quite follow Paula's and Simon's gushingness; again, we're getting a different show on TV.

Anoop Desai, inevitably it would seem, chooses "Everything I Do (I Do It For You)" (Bryan Adams' monster milquetoast hit from Robin Hood). Tarantino makes a great point about maintaining intensity... and then Anoop starts with the breathiest note imaginable. Fortunately, the rest of sits really really well in his money zone.

Two things, though:

1) The whole song ran 1:51, and that's from the first piano chord to Rickey's cutoff, thanks to cutting off a verse and the entire bridge. If the producers are that concerned about running on time, and they think that the remedy is to eviscerate the structure of songs and make them as short as possible, and make the judges' role smaller and smaller every week, then... um, what's the point of this show? (Oh, and making Ryan's say his post-song disclaimers at lightning speed makes it even more odd.)

2) "Look into my eyes / and you will see / what you mean to me." Is that even English? If a song doesn't make any logical sense and is in fact bad out of artistic negligence, does it really deserve a position in the pantheon of great movie songs, where you'd expect to find songs that further the plot or set a scene well with lyrics that aren't distractingly bad?

Adam Lambert appears to get no real advice from Tarantino on "Born To Be Wild" (from Easy Rider), which seems a shame seeing as how cinematic Adam's performances tend to be. For once, I do dig the unexpected switch to IV in the chorus to accommodate the harmony in fourths (I wonder which came first).

I listened to this show through headphones for the first time tonight, and noticed that the audio of one particular chunk of he audience appear to be isolated and panned hard left. Interestingly, It's most obvious when they're booing. Hmmmmmm. Did Fox learn to do this from NFL stadiums that pump crowd noises through their PA systems?

("Fortune rewards the brave." Or the bold, Paula.)

Matt Giraud gets some decent advice from Tarantino on "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman": don't lose the lyrics! Also in the setup video, Matt insist that he's going to try to "have an emotional connection"; alas, he chooses to be behind the piano this time, so... way to sabotage yourself there. He lost some control in the bridge (Randy noted that too), and it was rather odd of him to go off on melodic tangents, after he talked in the video about his admiration for how well-written the song is. All-around a solid vocal performance though; killer falsetto at the end.

Danny Gokey makes a killer call with "Endless Love". The harp was a regrettable choice for an instrument on stage, but his voice cut through the cheese and, as Paula said, he slayed it. These arrangements may be short this season (this one was just 1:43!), but this is first time I've actually wished the song was longer. Wow, was this heartbreaking.

Kris Allen chooses "Falling Slowly" from Once, which is quite a bold choice considering the relative obscurity of the movie (Academy Award notwithstanding). A gorgeous song, to be sure, but another slow song and an unfamiliar one to boot? And with such an inconclusive ending? Hate to say it, but having a guitar on stage actually would've made it more exciting. "Exciting" being relative in this case, of course.

Lil Rounds is singing... "The Rose"? Seriously? Is this a ballad competition? I must say, Tarantino has been making some killer comments. Unfortunately, it doesn't help Lil that this arrangement omits sections to the point where the structure starts to feel off. She (and Ricky Minor) makes it feel even more off by not transposing up a bit, and so she has to sit in that awkward low part of her range again, where she sounds hoarse (in a bad way, not in a Gokey way) and uncontrolled. Ricky makes up for it a bit with some killer gospel chord changes, though.

This was overall a very dull show, and the fact that they still ran a minute late-- even after all of the changes they made-- underscores that there are fundamental issues with the way the show is being run. I shudder to think that they may pare down the structure of the songs even more than they already do.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

episode 8-28 (April 8): Top 8 results

Frankie Avalon surprises everyone (well, everyone's grandma) and doesn't sound bad, either. I'm willing to overlook his limp, because he has the air of a guy who's been doing this forever, and singing alone on stage on the top-rated show on television doesn't faze him one bit.

So Kylie Minogue from 2002 is now nostalgia music? "Can't Get You Out Of My Head" is, of course, a song with one brief catchy passage and lots of two-chord time-killing. Fortunately, it felt less cheesy than usual, because at least the singers were blocked in a way that let them interact-- you know, like people. Scott MacIntyre, as usual, is painful to watch, because he not only has no idea how he appears on stage, he likely can't see what everyone else is doing too; is nobody helping him out in this respect?

Another change: This actually sounds not lip-synched at all. How do we know? Because... it sounds kinda awful. Which means that either they had a really awful pre-recorded vocal track (not likely), or Idol (and Rickey Minor) is throwing criticism over the recent lip-sync controversy back in the viewing public's face. "See, public? It would suck if it weren't lip-synched!" But that's putting the cart before the horse: how about not putting these numbers on at all?

Most pointless Ford video yet. Sam, who works in television, points out that this video likely took hours to shoot-- to set up the empty theater, to do makeup and costumes, to move the cars in and out, and much more-- and this 30-second video was... pointless. Sound and fury on the set, without any sound or fury as a result.

(We're 17 minutes into the show, and we're deathly bored.)

Enough with the gushing over Adam's supposedly brilliant performance last night. It was... competent. And twee.

It's a little odd that Idol keeps showcasing guest artists who don't perform in any genre that's ever performed by the contestants. Flo Rida's "Right Round" is a high-energy R&B/dance hybrid, and was all-around fun to watch for what it was; Lady Gaga did a similar song (not identical, of course, but close enough) last week, and put on a hell of a show. So is this music chosen specifically for cross-promotional pay-for-play purposes, or because it reflects the overall ethic of the show? If Flo Rida were a contestant, would he have been able to perform that song and not scared the hell out of the judges?

Kelly Pickler is screeeeeeeeeeechy. It doesn't help that the song is poorly straddling the line between mid-'80s hair metal and mid-'80s fake blues-rock.

Ryan's fakeouts with the reveals are no longer suspenseful; is he just contractually obligated to make every day Opposite Day? It's just irritating.

Deep down I admit I'm sad to see Scott have to go, but he shouldn't by any rights win this competition. The judges are split? With Allison and Danny sitting there on the couch, staring back at them? Seriously? Thankfully, Simon lays down the law and calls it an end to Scott's roller-coaster. I'm sure Scott will not lack for work after this show is over, but probably not primarily as a live performer. If he does end up on stage again, he should take a cue from Andrea Bocelli, who doesn't try to fake an hyperactive stage presence; he stands there with dignity and emotes like hell, and it works.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

episode 8-27 (April 7): Top 8 performances

After much fussing with baby photos, we get on with "Songs From The Year You Were Born" night. Time to make me feel ancient. I can hardly wait!

Danny Gokey starts an R&B version of "Stand By Me" really disappointingly. He's got a whole lot of fast standing going on tonight, and does little to show us the amazing voice he's shown us before. Things picked up in the last coda, though. Paula makes reference to the chord changes and how it was a good reflection on him, which again begs the question: who does the arrangements? The performer or the musical director? (He's looking very Clay Aiken-ish too, no?)

Kris Allen gives us an interesting take on "All She Wants To Do Is Dance". Fascinating funk arrangement, considering how very '80s the original recording is (when i hear the original I can't help but also think of Robert Palmer's "Simply Irresistible" for some reason). And he sounds... okay. I still don't quite get his appeal. And again, we've got a guy stuck on a mini-stage in the middle of the crowd; even in a medium camera shot, he looks like he's trapped in a sea anemone made of people. Kara makes an interesting comment about it sounding like "jazz-funk homework", which I disagree with for the most part, although I understand her point. I do agree with Simon and Randy that the arrangement was more of a distraction than anything else, and his in-crowd performance tipped it over the edge into lack-of-connection oblivion.

Lil Rounds semi-powers through "What's Love Got to Do With It". If I were Paula, I'd stamp this song untouchable on behalf of Tina Turner. While Lil channels Tina Turner very well, this song was a poor choice, because she's shown repeatedly that she doesn't have control over the lower half of her range. It's not until the bridge that she starts to reach into the meat of her range, and that's too short a time. Combine that with a mid-tempo song done exactly the same mid-tempo way as the version, and you have a disappointing performance from an early-favorite.

Paula takes a roundabout swipe at Rickey Minor, which somewhat clarifies the issue: perhaps the contestants are responsible for their arrangements. But that makes for a disturbing proposition. This is the highest-rated show on American television, as Ryan so kindly reminded us earlier. Isn't in the producers' best interest to put on a more interesting show? And can they leave the kind of quality in the hands of the contestants? And if they can, then is "artistry" the new voice, as opposed to, you know, the voice?

Anoop Desai bolts out of the gate-- so to speak considering the slow-jam feel-- with a Brian McKnight-ish "True Colors". His voice sounds fantastic, and while down-tempo usually means death, he goes less-is-more on us and doesn't bring in excessive frilly nonsense like certain other singers. (Samantha, however, moaned "Boooooring" near the end.) I couldn't put a finger on why I liked it so much until Paula remarked that the song sat in a "magic" part of his range, and that was it: it sat just on the cusp of his belting range, and it worked so, so, so very well.

Scott MacIntyre will bring us the histrionic arena-rock ballad "The Search is Over"... please no piano, please no piano... finally, no piano. Guitar is actually a good prop for him ("prop" as in something to hold, not that he wasn't playing it), because it allows him stand up while also giving his arms to do. For once it wasn't uncomfortable to watch him... but his voice is sounding thinner in relation to the competition each week, and . Randy says "It didn't show you as a star, as one of the best undiscovered talents in America," but upon further consideration over the past few months... is he? Really?

"I Can't Make You Love Me" was popular when Allison Iraheta was born. Good Lord, do I feel old. It's annoying to hear another slow song, but I can't hold that against her after this powerhouse performance. Her choices are so ridiculously... mature. Such an amazing palette of tones. Paula makes the great comment that it doesn't matter that the arrangement was the same as Bonnie Raitt's, because she killed it in her own way.

Matt Giraud half-times Stevie Wonder's "Part-Time Lover" (which is The Jam as it is), to really impressive effect. This is the first time I've been truly impressed with him, and his voice in particular. The rather big He cops out with a falsetto on "by day" and the, um, high parts. I definitely love when he dips into his lower range, which was thicker than I'd realized. Alas, the judges are pressed for time and have to give a series of hyperbolic sound bites, instead of explaining in detail to the voting public why they should keep this guy in the competition.

Aaaaaaand then my DVR cut off. Nice, Fox. Why is it that the smaller the group of contestants, the more off-schedule they get? Fox can pretty much schedule the show for as long as it needs the show to be (and indeed it has before, making all of the other networks scramble to accomodate it). Fortunately, I've got the Internet and other obsessive bloggers to make it all better.

Adam Lambert's performance of the Donnie Darko arrangement of Tears For Fears's "Mad World" (let us briefly recall some other auditionees' take on that song earlier this season, shall we?) begins in a chair, lit from behind for maximum broodiness and wheezing out high falsetto notes like Mr. Herbert on Family Guy. Man, Fox will do anything for a promotional tie-in, won't they? There's no doubt that he's got a killer falsetto, but, again, so does the "frosty mountains" guy. He hits one really impressive note near the end, but all in all, that is the performance that got Simon off his butt for a standing ovation? Really?

Allison nailed it, and deserves every save the judges can give her. They should make a special save just for her. Will tomorrow night will be the night Scott finally goes? Please?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

episode 8-26 (April 1): Top 9 results

So... the Ford video ("Mixed Up"). Um... what was that? It featured very little actual singing. I'm sure it was fun for the nine of them to mug in front of a green screen, but shouldn't some singing enter into it?

Allison is a great choice to open "Don't Stop Believin'". Man, Danny and Allison should've just done the whole thing, because they just nail it every time the camera focuses on them, which oddly enough iturns out to be most of the time anyway. Samantha is convinced the whole thing was lip-synched, but I don't think so, and my lip-synch radar is pretty strong. "Hot and Cold" those many weeks ago absolutely was lip-synched with a vengance (if both an Idol spokesman and Justin Guarini says so, it must be so!), but tonight I don't think so.

In the extended hangout-at-the-house clip, Matt's imitation of Danny turns out to be one of the most entertaining things we've seen this season. (When they talk about the chefs and pull out the menu, what does "Scotts" in quotation marks mean? Do the conventions of proper punctuation not apply in the holy Idol house?

Oh my lord. This initial separation of the "safes" from the "maybe-safes" from the bottom three is like watching paint dry. And not fun, day-glo paint either.

Season 7 champion David Cook (my pick from the beginning, thank you very much) presents... a rather dull song. I'm a little surprised that this was his choice for his return engagement, considering he was supposed to be the less boring of the two Davids. There were moments when he added some grit to offset the blandness, but it didn't work.

Megan makes crow noises on her way to the Chaises du Bottom Three, and it didn't sound much different than her singing last night. ("Tuuuuuuuurn your lieeeeeets dowwwwwn lowwwww.")

Allison and Adam look like twins! Who's styling these people? Allison was sent to Les Chaises as well, which is disappointing, but hey, someone's got to be there. But Anoop too? Seriously?! Enough, folks. We get it. Scott is a sentimental favorite for overcoming his disability, but how does he sing?!?! How. Does. He. Sing. Like that guy who sang "Silent Morning", that's how.

Lady GaGa, playing the world's brightest piano (and very well to boot), performs her hit "Poker Face". I find it fascinating that a well-trained musician is going the dance-club route. At least it's a fairly well-written dance-club song, though the vogueing started to give me a headache. Seriously, will go out of style already?

Yay! Megan is gone! And they gave her the ironic dignity of singing for fun this time, as there was no chance for a Save for her. But instead of standing like a stringless-marionette, this time she dances like Kermit the Frog when they do a full-body shot on Sesame Street. I hate to ask this of a woman who will be returning to her baby, but... is she under the influence of something? Or is she really just that odd? We see in the goodbye clip that Simon liked what he heard from the start, and the appeal is still a mystery to me.

Next week: songs from the year the contestants were born. 1983 is, in my opinion, the greatest year for pop music ever, and I feel pretty secure that Adam won't ruin it for me, but pity the poor fool who has a sentimental attachment to the music of 1986, 'cuz Scott's got your number. I forsee a nasal and awkward rendition of "Back in the High Life" in our future.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

episode 8-25 (March 31): Top 9 performances

iTunes Top Downloads... as a theme? Whatever pays the bills, Fox, whatever pays the bills. Are we to believe that all of these songs can be found on one "Top Downloads" list (before tonight, that is)? What single sales-based list could possibly include "Caught Up", "What Hurts The Most" and "Just the Way You Are" within a hundred places of each other? Really? How long is this list?!?!

Anoop Desai goes first for once, and chooses Usher's "Caught Up". (We see clips of him working with the vocal coach we haven't seen since Hollywood, which is encouraging for Rickey Minor because now he doesn't have to be the scapegoat when bad choices are made). He shows flashes of strength, but a song like this doesn't show off his smoothness. Yes, there's swagger (as Randy says), but this is the equivalent of Lil Rounds singing "Heat Wave" last week.

Lauryn Hill's (or perhaps Bob Marley's) "Turn Your Lights Down Low" is Megan Joy's choice of music to sleepwalk by. This may be a good song for her odd singing accent, but she needs some serious coaching in the "what the hell do I do with my hands" department. It actually doesn't sound half bad for what it is, but she looks like a marionette without the strings. Simon says that "the things we liked about you are disappearing," but Samantha and I are still trying to figure what her appeal was to begin with, considering all of the much better (and less distractingly quirky singers) they could have chosen from even during Hollywood week. (Kara suggests that Adele would've been a far better choice, which is spot on.)

Danny Gokey chooses Rascal Flatts's "What Hurts the Most". He annunciates the T's at the end of words, which is really distracting, but he holds on to the power in his voice all the way through. The ending was a bit odd, and the song felt very short, but this really worked for him. This guy knows how to connect with an audience; it quite uncanny. (Paula: It was strong from the beginning "to the cadence"? Um, which cadence? Coda, perhaps?)

Allison Iraheta makes a bold choice with No Doubt's "Don't Speak". (She "grew up with this song"? Good lord, am I old.) She also make the bold choice of dressing like an anime character by way of Wednesday Addams, which doesn't work to her advantage. She definitely makes the song her own vocally, but her guitar becomes more of a hindrance than a help as she speeds up like crazy.

Man, these song are so short tonight! I don't feel like we have much to judge from tonight.

Scott MacIntyre comes full circle with Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are". We first met him in the cattle-call round, performing a beautiful understated "And So It Goes". His hair looks like late '70's Joel, but his voice reveals a whiny tone that doesn't work here. The judges, predictably, are gushing, but perhaps you had to be there. Being behind the piano does him good (SAT moment: Scott is to piano as Megan is to stool), but doesn't make him any less boyish sounding. That felt really odd. (Paula: it was a "legato performance"? Is that supposed to make sense?

The Fray's "You Found Me" is an interesting choice for Matt Giraud. His jump to falsetto at the end was really impressive, but overall it wasn't particularly effective. (Randy looked bored!) Playing a keyboard in the audience is a paradox: you're literally in the audience, so there should be a connection, but if you're stuck playing at said keyboard, you can't make a connection. It's like you're the anti-social guy who feels isolated at a crowded party, expect in this case everyone actually wants to talk to you but you've made it impossible because you're hiding behind a damn keyboard. (Unless it's a guiboard, of course. Or perhaps a keytar.)

Lil Rounds makes the outside choice of Celine Dion's "I Surrender". (I love the typos in the lyric sheet in the clip. Are they pulling them from a fan web site?) She channels Roberta Flack at the beginning, but then pulls out Jennifer Hudson and takes it home. Her conquer-the-song-by-half-steps passage was a bit dicey, but at least she hit the notes. And lordy, can she hit notes. I don't know why the judges are harping on the age of the song; if the song killed, why rain on the parade?

(Audience: Shut up. Seriously. Why are you booing compliments? Why are you booing half-sentences? Are you actually listening? Are people being paid to boo?)

Adam Lambert chooses "Play That Funky Music" and performs in a half-time arrangement (and in a haircut stolen from Sha Na Na). Finally, I have a reason to like this guy! This is the first time I've been able to hear vocal power from him without the distraction of Goth moodiness or "how slow can I perform this song and still appear original without inducing sleepiness?" Adam, interestingly, give RIckey Minor a shout-out, . (Kara: Studio... 57? Is that some crazy dance club where they pour ketchup all over each other?)

Kris Allen reveals that he's chosen "Ain't No Sunshine", which immediately sets off the alarm in my head: he's better sing the hell out of this song. The gimmick of bringing a keyboard and a string quartet on stage is manipulative, but it totally works in giving the illusion of a contrast of moods. Oh, and he happened to have sung the hell out of it. Interestingly, he doesn't change the tempo-- just the feel, which is tricky. But man, does it work.

Megan shows more energy being a goofball behind Ryan Seacrest while he's closing the show than she did during her performance. The girl needs a movement coach, a deep breath, to see herself on videotape, and to be in the bottom three by 12:25 AM Pacific time this morning. Please, screaming masses, send Megan, Megan's long locks and Megan's mysterious accent packing.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

episode 8-23 (March 25): Top 10 performances

Motown night! Can't go wrong with Motown, right? Right? Or maybe you can. Smokey Robinson looks good! He and Kenny Rogers had a competition going on for who could have the beadiest Botox-affected eyes, but apparently Smokey cried uncle.

Matt Giraud's rendition of "Let's Get It On" starts at the piano. Vocally he's very strong, and is adding some cool add9 and 9sus voicings on the piano. Samantha immediately said to me "The judges are going to tell him to get out from behind the piano." Eight measures later, sure enough, he's up! And... he's really, really unsteady. Obviously you're going to have a better overall presentation if you're up and moving about, but for some reason he lost the control in his voice. The judges were oohing and ahhing over him, calling him a sudden front-runner. Did I watch something else?

Kris Allen walks into Smokey's practice room with his guitar strapped on, and I got a sinking feeling. "How Sweet It Is" actual goes very well for what it is: a milquetoast and complete unpretentous song. His singing is nearly flawless, and he really looks like he's enjoying himself. But again, it's milquetoast and unpretentious. Kara is impressed with his artistry (i.e. not imitating James Taylor or Marvin Gaye), Paula says it was a good song, and Randy cryptically says "It's all good", but... it wasn't. It was a dull song that I certainly won't remember by the time he's eliminated.

Scott MacIntyre balladizes "You Can't Hurry Love". In the clip, Smokey says he likes how Scott has modernized it, but apparently Scott changed his mind, as it was rhythmically identical to the Supremes version with the exception of some throwaway brass stabs and an occasional inappopriate piano riff between sections). Alas, he's not only sounding reedy like an overeager musical-theater high schooler, but also out of vocal control (see Kara's comment on executing improvised lines). I didn't get this at all. (Flesh colored pants? The flesh of a salmon, maybe.)

Megan Joy did the watusi to the camera before the fade to commercial, so our expectations are a bit low. "For Once In My Life" is an interesting choice; a killer groove with a wide range. In the clip, It's a "good Megan song"? Is she referring to herself in the third person now? Oy. And back on live TV she fails to back this kind of arrogance, wailing bizarrely through the song. She's got power, but her voice is so... bizarre, like she's channelling Billy Holliday mid-fix. Randy even calls it bizarre, too. How in the world has she made it this far? Simon suggests that "whoever is advising you should be fired,"; hmmm, who's in charge here? A musical director, by any chance? Interesting, her speaking voice is just as odd; that's a problem. She's got a 90-year-old woman stuck in her throat of something.

Anoop Desai makes a fantasticchoice with "Ooh Baby Baby". And... sleepwalks through the first verse (Simon later agreed). The belted notes on the second verse sound killer, but this whole thing seems like it's running in slow motion. And the outfit... oh lord. A windbreaker, over a shirt & tie... it's like me in 6th grade. And I had terrible fashion sense in 6th grade. Kara makes a good point about the difficulty factor, and I do appreciate that holding those notes strongly for such an extended time is impressive; I just wish it weren't so damned slow.

In his clip, Michael Sarver says he's going to "church it up", and explains that that means he'll "sing off the cuff." Because God loves unpredictability? In performance, he's brought back some of the charm and power that I loved in the cattle-call round. This is easily his best performance of the season; it's about him, and it's killer. His attempt at a run near the end hit a snag, but other than that (and, admittedly, a failure to his falsetto in the first chorus), it absolutely kicked my ass. Then Paula, Simon, take him to task for not bringing his game. If we make the assumption that what the judges experience in person is substantially different from what we experience at home, I think we should all feel cheated as a viewing public. Unless I'm really just crazy and, as Samantha suggested, I've lost my credibility. Have I? Somebody please comment and tell me why that performance sucked. I don't get it.

Lil Rounds makes an unfortunate choice with "Heat Wave". Her singing the hell out of it seems like a sure bet, but suprisingly she was quite unsteady. Part of the problem is that it's not that great of song. (*dodging Motown thunderbolts*) And then the song ended so awkwardly, like a bad variety show. (A worse variety show than this one, anyway.) I'm totally with Randy, Kara and Simon on this; she needs songs that lets her voice "breathe" (I thought that exactly), because her power is in... her power! A series of rapid-fire notes doesn't suit her.

Great. Someone else is turning a mid-tempo song into a ballad. Adam Lambert takes a lot of liberties with the melody of "Tracks of My Tears", and not all of them good. He's got a hell of a falsetto, which comes out in the bridge. But this transformation from freaky-goth to Extreme-meets-Dean-Martin doesn't work . Kara seems to have be swayed by the band on stage when she compliments his artistry. It wasn't bad, but a killer falsetto can't make you the best performer of the night, as Simon declared; otherwise, the "I climbed the frosty mountains" guy from season 7 would've made it to Hollywood week.

Danny Gokey makes some vocal missteps in the clip where he's preparing "Get Ready", which is otherwise a great choice. I thought, "this might be too high for him", and lo and behold, Rickey Minor did something useful and brought it down by a full step. Quite notably, he refrains from the ends of the lines in the verse, which left gaping holes in the melody. It otherwise was fantastic, and even when he strained to reach higher notes, something about his voice worked anyway. He's like the anti-Megan; everything Megan sings is wrong, and everything Danny sings is somehow right.

Allison Iraheta has a command of the stage well beyond her years. Just the way she plants her feet and stands still kicks my ass. That combination of intense focus and the depth of her voice is unreal. Absolutely unreal. Not only the best performance of the night, but perhaps, minute-for-minute, the best performance I've ever seen on Idol. That was so good, Sam and I watched it again. And considering how much crap on our DVR we have to catch up on, that's saying a lot.

Stevie Wonder schools Ruben Studdard tomorrow night. Humiliating fun for the whole family!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

episode 8-22 (March 18): Top 11 results

[Fox TV's video recap here.]

Tonight's group number-- "Trouble"-- sounds obviously pre-recorded. Right? It actually wasn't a bad idea for a song, and at least it _looked_ authentic, which is a rarity in these group numbers. But how sterile could this audio get? My goodness.

The Ford video-- "Here It Goes Again"-- sounds like Kidz Bop. You know, that production team that takes pop hits and replaces the memorable lead vocals with a dispensible chorus of children for no compelling reason? This was just like that, but with adults. Absolutely flavorless singing.

Ryan keeps bringing up the fact that the Top 10 (i.e. anyone who makes it part tonight) will go on tour. That said, Megan Joy (formerly Corkery) has no business going on tour. Allison Iraheta, Alexis Grace and Michael Sarver have ended up in the bottom three, and if Allison is at the very bottom, the judges _must_ save her. She's among the strongest of the contestants, and Megan is the last of the dead weight.

And Allison is rescued from the fake suspense machine! Yay! But the idea of Megan and her bizarre singing accent going on tour and not Michael or Alexis is outrageous.

Carrie Underwood and Randy Travis team up for "I Told You So". Carrie, like Kelly Clarkson last week, proves her pipes and then some, much as she did on last year's Idol Gives Back-- that rendition of "Praying for Time" was absolutely heart-stopping.

Michael, despite his poor showing last night, is also rescued from the fake suspense machine, leaving Alexis in the incredibly awkward and miserable position of singing specifically to impress four people who are huddled and barely paying attention to her. Even creepier, she's singing "Jolene", which is a dark, desperate plea to someone not to ruin her one chance. And now she's crying while she's singing, because, well, she's essentially been rejected and is desperate to impress the judges.

Again, this is just so, so creepy, and jarringly fake. I've made a point on other Internet boards of trying to bridge the gap between the music-ed naysayers and the music-ed fanboys, by suggesting that if one uses Idol as a tool in the classroom, one should wait until Hollywood Week and the live rounds, because that's where the auditions become legitimate. Unfortunately, tonight has ruined all of that.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

episode 8-21 (March 17): Top 11 performances

The Top 11 are coached by Randy Travis, who seems to open every pre-performance video with some variation on "I heard he/she was going to sing [name of song], and I thought, uh-oh, I don't see how that's going to sound good," and ends every video with some variation on "Wow! That turned out to be a great idea after all!" You'd think he'd be a little more open-minded after, oh, the sixth or seventh time.

[Fox TV's recap here.]

Michael Sarver sings Garth Brooks' "Ain't Goin' Down". I was crazy about him during the cattle-call rounds, but now his Kenneth-the-page side is coming out, and it's getting annoying. We get it, you're earnest; now please grow!

Alison Iraheta sings "Blame It On Your Heart". Finally, some big notes! And a great vehicle for her personality. Man, that was a workout watching her! For once, I'm in disagreement with Simon; I didn't have any problems with her performance.

Kris Allen smoothes his way "To Make You Feel My Love". Someone explain to me what makes this particularly country-esque. Sam, sitting at my side, called it "dullsville"; not that it was bad, but there was nothing to recommend it. Paula says it was a good choice, and Simon called it "terrific", which is partly true; it was well sung, but it wasn't a good song. Kara says she'd forgotten it was Opryland Night as though it were a good thing; what's the point of Opryland Night then?

Lil Rounds tries to power through "Independence Day", but its way at the bottom of her range! Why why why?! Like Randy, I found the verse is a waste of time; when she hit the chorus, I finally woke up. The last note was great, but what about the rest of the song? Lil is really doing too much justification to try to counter Simon's critique; this "I'm an artist, therefore my choices can't be bad" attitude is spreading like a fungus amongst the competitors.

Adam Lambert brings us "Ring of Fire", as performed by Soundgarden by way of Jefferson Airplane. Adam, can you feel me? (Sam got nauseous from all of the swirling camera work.) Kara says "Adam does country music!" Um, no he didn't; he took a country standard and turned it into a decidedly non-country acid trip. Paula commended him for "standing his ground as an artist", but what's the point of a country night if it the music doesn't resemble country? Are there any rules in place here? While it was impressive in terms of ideas, it was, as Simon says, incredibly indulgent.

Scott MacIntyre, in singing "Angels", has chosen yet another song that's too low in his range. Why why why?! And why isn't Rickey Minor, or these oft-mentioned vocal coaches, doing a damn thing about it?! The bridge kind of works, but it's all kind of milquetoast. Paula thinks the piano is a crutch that's separating him from the audience (to which Scott give a brilliant comeback); I think it does him good, in that he's awkward standing by himself. Kara's absolutely right; he needs to "up his game" and pick material that makes him stand out, not pick material just for novelty's sake.

Alexis Grace makes a bold choice with Dolly Parton's "Jolene". The beginning felt very unnatural and overly precise, almost like a Renaissance-era motet. This is the shakiest vocal performance we've seen from her; she tried too hard to make non-edgy notes edgy, and the song doesn't show anything we need to see. She certainly committed to the performance, considering the darkness of the lyrics; the emotional performance, in fact, is what saved this. (Alexis has a Kelly Pickler moment. A "sound-alike" is when you, um, sound alike.)

Danny Gokey would seem to be a shoo-in in this competition. Then he showed up ready for a day at the slopes, and I got very distracted. This verse of "Jesus Take The Wheel" is way too wordy for him; he's not a recitative-style singer which seems so prevalent in country nowadays (think the verse of Underwood's "Before He Cheats"). Thankfully, the chorus was fanastic. Kara hits it on the head, wishing he's given us in the first half more of what we saw in the second half. Why sabotage one's self with mediocrity when elimination is on the line? I don't get it.

Anoop Desai in turn channels Danny, and turns "Always on my Mind" into his best performance yet. A song like this could've easily devolved into boredom, but he kept engaged throughout and kept me engaged as well. If he makes it to the final episode, this could be the turning point.

What's up with the newly re-christened Megan Joy's accent when she sings? Is she possesed by a drunk Amy Winehouse? Did her standard American accent run off and elope with her ex-husband's last name? Patsy Cline's "Walkin' After Midnight" is a stationary disaster. Not only are movements awkward, she sounds odder and odder every week; aside from gems like "Searching' for yoo-oooooo", she's sounding like an elderly woman in a teenager's body. Influenza aside, could the show be taking a physical toll on her in the larger scheme of things? And how is this possibly the perfect song for her, Kara? This song showed up us nothing. Are the judges watching the same performance? This is was a side-show, not a full-on performance.

Matt Giraud is Sam's sentimental favorite ("Shh! The dueling piano guy is on!"), but his Five-For-Fighting-ization of Carrie Underwood's "So Small" is too much. He's spending way to much time looking at his hands as he's playing (not just checking occasionally but full-on looking), which is odd considering how much of his hype has been piano-centered. Paula had an issue with Scott using the piano as a crutch, but Scott made much more of connection behind the piano than Matt did. Look up once in a while, please! He certainly didn't outsing Danny, and he certainly was not as comfortable as Michael Bublé. Are the camera operators doing so poor of a job that we can't get nearly the same impression that the judges are?

Tomorrow: We likely lose yet another singer to the fickle tastes of the thirty industrious people who vote a million times each.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

episode 8-20 (March 11): Top 13 results

A twist? Ah, a Judge's Save! Fantastic idea... or is it?

[Fox TV's video recap here.]

While Ryan is explaining the Judge's Save, the Top 13 are holding those impossibly shiny microphones. I momentarily forgot about the mandatory group number coming up and just thought it looked ridiculous.

Something about the mix of men's and women's voices sounds inherently Disney to me. When they go into harmony for the first time, I was immediately reminded of a recording that a chorus teacher in high school played for a class; it was the cassette (hey, it was 1990) that came with a choral arrangement of "Stairway to Paradise". The professional singers on that recording were like nothing I'd ever heard before-- so clean and precise, yet they sounded so goddam happy.

While appreciate the work that obviously went into putting this number together, it's much ado about nothing. It's not much better than overblown nonsense like this. Thanks, rural high-school music teachers! (That's right. I went there.)

Oo, it's the first Ford video, and it's-- Aggghhhh!!!! Attack of the 40-foot CGI Projections!!!! That was... pointless. Except for paying Idol's advertising income, of course.

Jasmine is given the first boot, and now the Judge's Save becomes terribly awkward. Jasmine has to literally sing for the judge's pleasure, and has to flagrantly play up the qualities that the judges said she lacked last night... and the judges have the uncomfortable duty to reject her a second time. Wow, this is painful. The other odd thing is that the judges are asked to consider the bootees one at a time, so if there are two bootees, a judge may not want to "waste" his/her Save on whoever happens to be the first to get booted that night, in the event that suspect another better singer might also be at the bottom. Kind of makes the judges have to play some gamesmanship, negating the positives of the Judge's Save, no?

Kanye West, who is arguably the greatest recording artist of the decade ("Champion", for one, is an absolutely brilliant adaptation of an already brilliant song), performs an OK if repetitive song with far more pitch-correction than necessary-- a painful amount, in fact. I'd much rather hear a great entertainer singing mediocrely for real, rather than something so unncessarily artificial.

Kelly Clarkson continues to validate her first-season victory with her killer pipes. "My Life Would Suck Without You" kinda sounds like its own dance remix.

Jorge gets the second boot, alas. Ryan says "Jorge will sing while the judges are deliberating." And... Paula gets up and cheers him on, and Kara claps along, while Randy and Simon chat. As I really liked Jorge last night, I was rooting for a Save, but that was unlikely this early, and admittedly Jorge (and Jasmine for that matter) weren't going to win this competition anyway.

Next week: Top 11. Gokey in '09!