May 29, 2007

BOOKS: Farthing, Jo Walton (2006)

Alternate history in which England negotiated peace with Hitler in 1941, due to the efforts of a group of upper-class politicians known as "the Farthing set," after the country estate where they planned and plotted.

The novel is set in 1949, and Lord and Lady Eversley have invited their friends to Farthing for a country weekend, an anticipatory celebration of the upcoming vote in which one of their group is expected to become the new Prime Minister. They have also invited their daughter Lucy, which is unexpected; Lucy has been somewhat estranged from her parents (especially her mother) since marrying David Kahn, who is Jewish.

There is a murder at Farthing, and the evidence points to David; Lucy begins to suspect that they were invited so that there would be a convenient suspect to draw suspicion away from the real killer. The chief detective from Scotland Yard, Inspector Carmichael, shares her suspicions, and has secrets of his own that help him to look beyond the planted evidence.

Farthing is a nominee for this year's Sidewise Award, given each year to the best alternate history novel. It was also a nominee (but did not win) earlier this year for science fiction's Nebula Award. I confess that nomination puzzles me; I am not among those who believe that all alternate history should automatically be considered science fiction. There is no SF content here, and I can't find any reason to think of the book as such.

It's a terrifically entertaining book, though, a success both as murder mystery and as alternate history. The mystery story plays fair, and it should be possible for a sharp reader to figure out whodunit; the fascist England that Walton creates is vivid and frightening. Kudos especially to Walton for not wimping out in the final chapters; the ending is not entirely happy, but it perfectly suits the bleak vision of the story.

May 27, 2007

Department of Link

From the June issue of Los Angeles magazine, film critic John Powers compares our recent presidents (and the current crop of contenders) to the great directors. Why is Bush 41 the Victor Fleming of presidents? Is Bill Clinton our Martin Scorsese or our Peter Bogdanovich? How does Dubya exemplify the problems of auteurism? Amusing and clever.

MOVIES: Once (John Carney, 2006/US 2007)

A Dublin street musician (Glen Hansard) meets a Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova) -- both characters remain unnamed throughout -- who turns out to be a singer herself. They begin spending time together, singing and writing songs, until he leaves for London in hopes of landing a record deal. That's all that happens in Once; it's a low-key glimpse at a few days in these two lives, with very little traditional plot and no attempt to generate artificial drama.

The two lead performances are very good, especially in light of the actors' limited experience; Hansard's only previous movie role was a small part in The Commitments, and this is Irglova's first movie. Hansard has an easy-going rumpled charm, and Irglova (only 17 when the movie was filmed) is irresistibly likable.

The relationship between the two isn't quite a love story -- he makes an awkward pass that's politely, but firmly, turned down -- though the two are clearly attracted to each other. Similarly, the movie's not quite a musical in the traditional sense -- the characters don't burst into song for no good reason -- but there are about a dozen songs scattered throughout the movie, performed by Hansard and Irglova. Some of them are quite good; my favorite of the bunch was "Falling Slowly," which they sing in a piano store where the proprietor lets Irglova practice at lunchtime (she can't afford to buy a piano of her own). The two have fine voices on their own, but the blend of the two is marvelous, and much more interesting than either as a solo.

If you need a lot of plot from your movies, then Once may not be for you; the dramatic highlight, after all, is the recording of a demo tape. But it's got strong performances, good music, and a perfect control of tone and mood; it's wistful and romantic, and I loved it.

BOOKS: Hey, mystery fans!

Been looking for a good book to read? J. Kingston Pierce celebrates the first anniversary of The Rap Sheet by asking more than 100 critics, authors, and bloggers to name one novel that they felt was the “most unjustly overlooked, criminally forgotten, or underappreciated over the years.” The results have been compiled on one convenient page, and there's sure to be something there that'll catch your fancy; my own to-be-read list is about 20 books longer from just a quick skim of the list.

May 22, 2007

MUSIC: American Idol (the finals!)

It's the finals, boys and girls, and though Melinda's absence leaves me with a major sense of anticlimax, we will soldier on. It's a night of no glaring errors, but it isn't hard to choose a winner.

We get three songs from each finalist tonight -- one they've sung before, one they haven't, and the winner of the songwriting competition.

Blake opens with "You Give Love a Bad Name." Of his previous numbers, this is the right choice ("Time of the Season" was really his only alternative); it lets him show off the beatboxing -- his only distinctive quality -- in a context where it's not too obtrusive. He seems nervous, a little short of breath in spots, and it's causing a few mild pitch problems. He's also distracted by the larger theater and the huge audience, and keeps turning his head away from the mike while he's still singing so that we lose words. It's not as good as his first performance of the song, but he does a reasonably good job of it.

Jordin presents her new song, "Fighter." It seems clear that after the disaster of Bon Jovi night, she wants to prove that she can do something with a harder edge; the impulse is understandable, but it's not a wise move. The key to Jordin's appeal is her sweetness; this song completely undercuts that. It's not a bad performance, though she has breath control problems on some of the long phrases in the bridge. In fact, it's probably the closest she's come to a good rock-style performance. But the song doesn't really suit her, and on finals night, she'd have been smarter to choose a song that she could nail. Round one to Blake.

Blake chooses "She Will Be Loved" as his new song, and it's perfectly in his comfort zone, so much so that I keep thinking "Are you sure we haven't heard him sing this before?" His phrasing is off, and he's breathing in odd spots mid-sentence. After the relative crispness of his first number, we're back to the mushy enunciation he's prone to, and in the 85 times or so that he sings the word "loved," not once does it have a final "d." Simon sums it up perfectly, saying that it's a safe performance that doesn't make much of an impact.

Jordin chooses to return to "A Broken Wing;" having revisited "I Who Have Nothing" last week, it was her only choice. And she delivers a top-notch performance. It's not the spine-tingler that it was on country night, perhaps, but there are no major flaws, and the big notes at the end are stellar. Round two to Jordin, who takes a narrow lead for the night.

Among the stated goals of the new songwriting competition was to find an Official First Single (OFS) that was different from the schlocky ballads of the first five seasons. From the moment we hear the title, "This Is My Now," it's clear that this goal has not been met, and that the song is going to be closer to Jordin's style than it is to Blake's.

The producers have done as much as they can to even that imbalance, though, with an arrangement that pushes the song as far into Blake territory as it can go. The semi-obligatory gospel chorus is absent; the beat is closer to adult contemporary pop than to R&B.

And Blake does all he can with it; the opening verse is very nice indeed. But as he heads into the big chorus, he hits a few painfully off-key notes, and by the time we reach the bridge, he's bouncing about in a weird dance that doesn't suit the song at all; it's as if he's trying to physically force the song into his comfort zone, and it just won't go there.

(Let us pause for a moment to imagine what this song might have sounded like in the hands of Melinda Doolittle.


Jordin, not surprisingly, has much better luck with the song. Aside from one "ow!" off-pitch note in the verse, it's a solid performance, and she's communicating the emotional journey of the song far better than Blake did. She hasn't made the song her own in the way that, say, Fantasia did with "I Believe;" it still feels like she's doing a cover version of a song by someone more talented. But when the emotion of the night (combined with the overly spot-on "my moment in the sun" lyrics)
overwhelms her, and she breaks into tears at the end of the song -- well, that's the moment that she wins the competition.

It'll be a close vote, and a Blake victory wouldn't completely shock me, but the win should -- and I think will -- go to Jordin.

May 20, 2007

BOOKS: The Spellman Files, Lisa Lutz (2007)

Family is complicated under the best of circumstances, but when everyone in the family -- right down to the 14-year-old daughter -- is a trained private investigator, those moments of dysfunction get really complicated. And so it is with the Spellman family of San Francisco.

Parents Albert and Olivia have raised their daughter, Isabel ("Izzy"), in the business, but now that she's in her late 20s, she's wanting to find a way out; it's hard, for one thing, to have a real love life when your parents are doing full background checks on every new boyfriend. Izzy is also starting to worry about her 14-year-old sister, Rae, who's developing an unhealthy fondness for doing unauthorized surveillance of random strangers. Only big brother David, an attorney, isn't directly involved in the family business, though he and his law firm do send a lot of business back to Mom and Dad.

The characters are lively and sharply defined, and the dynamics of living in a professionally nosy family are captured with crisp wit. We also get a vivid glimpse of how the Spellmans look to an outsider, as Izzy's newest boyfriend Daniel finds himself caught up in the web of deception that they've come to take for granted.

I don't know if Lutz plans further novels about the Spellmans; I hope so. This novel is narrated by Izzy, but it would be fun to read stories told from each Spellman's point of view. Lutz frequently has Izzy fill us in on the background to current events with flashbacks to notable events in Spellman family history, and I'd love to see some of those events as narrated by other characters in future volumes (Rae's version of her stint at summer camp, for instance).

If there are further volumes, Lutz will have to work hard on her plotting skills. The story is the least interesting thing here; it takes forever to kick into gear, and it's not very interesting or suspenseful when it does arrive. She gets away with it because she's doing such a marvelous job of introducing these characters, but I don't think that witty dialogue and amusing character will be enough to sustain the characters through more novels.

It's enough to make this one a nifty entertainment, though, and it's a very promising first novel.

May 19, 2007

MUSIC: American Idol (end-of-year awards)

After the surprising elimination of Melinda on Wednesday night, I'm finding it hard to care much about the upcoming finals. I'll watch, if only to see how it plays out. I expect Jordin to win, if only because the sort of songs that wind up as Official First Single are big goopy ballads that will be much more in her comfort zone than his. (It's possible that could change this year, what with the online songwriting contest to choose the OFS; I didn't listen to any of them.)

But before we get to the finals, let's give out the end-of-year awards for the high and low points of the year. All awards are based on the final rounds of the competition, just from the top 12 on.

Best performance: Jordin, "I Who Have Nothing" (the first time through)
Runner-up: Melinda, "Have a Nice Day"
(if I were considering semifinal performances, Melinda's "My Funny Valentine" would be the clear winner of this award)

Worst performance: "Sanjaya, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"
Runner-up: Haley, "Turn the Beat Around"

Voted off too soon: Melinda
Runner-up: Gina

Lasted too long: Sanjaya
Runner-up: Chris R.

Most disappointing: LaKisha, whose immense vocal talent was rarely matched by the sort of personality and charisma that would have made her a contender for the title

Most pleasant surprise: Gina, who turned out to be more than just the bland rocker chick she seemed at first, and was finding her real strength and comfort zone when she was sent home

MOVIES: Paris, Je T'aime (various directors, 2006/US 2007)

A 2-hour collection of 18 short vignettes about love, each set in (and named for) one of Paris's administrative districts, and each with a different cast and director. The results are uneven, but there are few outright clunkers and several lovely gems in the mix; the movie as a while is delightful.

Let's get the clunkers out of the way first, and note that they are only relative clunkers; even the worst segments of the movie are watchable. Vicenzo Natali's "Quartier de la Madeleine" finds Elijah Wood pursuing a vampire (Olga Kurylenko) through gloomy streets; it's striking to look at -- everyone's dressed and made up in various shades of gray, and the only noticable color is the extraordinary bright red of blood -- but Wood and Kurylenko aren't good enough actors to tell the story without dialogue, as they're called upon to do. Sylvain Chomet's "Tour Eiffel" resorts to the scariest of Parisian cliches -- the mime -- and drowns in its own whimsy. And Christopher Doyle's "Porte de Choisy" finds Barbet Schroeder, of all people, selling hair-care products to salons in Chinatown; the segment allows Doyle to indulge his fondness for photographing Asian women in striking settings, but beyond that, it's a muddled mess.

On the plus side, Joel & Ethan Coen's "Tuileries" finds Steve Buscemi waiting for a train at a Metro station when he's caught up in a local couple's romantic drama; his panicked deadpan is a marvel. Gerard Depardieu and Frederic Auburtin give us an all-too-short glimpse into a marriage at its end in "Quartier Latin;" I would gladly have watched Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara sparring for another hour. Wes Craven turns in a surprisingly sweet and witty ghost story of sorts in "Pere-Lachaise," with Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell finding a little romantic magic in a cemetery.

("Pere-Lachaise" isn't the only ghost story in the movie, and there are other odd recurring themes and images -- the intense red of blood, famous graves, parents and children, misunderstood messages.)

Best of all is the final segment, Alexander Payne's "14th Arrondissement," in which a postal worker from Denver (the always delightful Margo Martindale) narrates the story of her Parisian vacation in heavily accented French; the love story here is between Martindale and Paris itself, and it strikes just the right note of wistful nostalgia.

The roster of directors also includes Gus Van Sant, Gurinder Chadha, Walter Salles, Alfonso Cuaron, and Tom Tykwer; among the cast are Catalina Sandino Moreno, Marianne Faithfull, Miranda Richardson, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Nick Nolte, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Bob Hoskins, and Natalie Portman.

Paris, Je T'aime is a charming collection of vignettes, and it left me wondering whether Paris should be the destination of my next big vacation.

May 15, 2007

MUSIC: American Idol (choice night)

It just doesn't feel like a final three without Clive Davis lending his Cryptkeeper-ish presence to the event, but it's still a solid night, and each singer's strengths and weaknesses are clearly displayed.

The rundown, taking each singer's performances as a whole:

Jordin, "Wishing on a Star"/"She Works Hard for the Money"/"I Who Have Nothing" -- Jordin has tended to lean on the big ballads and love songs, and with "Wishing on a Star," Simon sets out to see whether she can groove. The results are inconclusive, as the arrangement allows Jordin to deliver a fairly smooth, laid-back vocal while the band does all of the serious funk work. The producers give her another chance with "Works Hard," and Jordin steps up, sort of. It doesn't have quite enough oomph, and Jordin can't pull off the tough-girl attitude the song needs. For her own choice, Jordin returns to her best performance of the competition, "I Who Have Nothing." This isn't quite as good as her first performance of the song, but she nails the melodrama, the big notes at the end are marvelous, and it's her best performance of the night.

Blake, "Roxanne"/"This Love"/"When I Get You Alone" -- Simon is correct to note, I think, that it's virtually impossible to sing "Roxanne" without it sounding like a bad Sting impression, and Blake can't avoid that trap. He does well enough with the angular melody and the odd rhythms, and should be grateful to Paula for choosing a song that forces him to simply sing. He's plagued, though (as he has been throughout the competition, and will be all night), by the mushiness of his singing; notes and words are blurred together, and the excessive echo on the mike doesn't help any. By the time we get to "This Love," even the individual notes are goopy slurs; listen to how long it takes him to get through the "ch" in "choice," for instance. (And for the love of god, stop with the beatboxing, already; it's neither interesting nor novel.) I confess that I can't adequately judge the performance of "When I Get You Alone;" I was so stunned by the fact that someone thought it wise to build a pop song around a disposable novelty like "A Fifth of Beethoven" that I couldn't really focus on the actual singing. But perhaps that's Blake in a nutshell: The song is always more compelling and attention-grabbing than the singing.

Melinda, "I Believe in You and Me"/"Nutbush City Limits"/"I'm a Woman" -- Randy's choice of "I Believe" gives Melinda a chance to show off her control. The opening is quiet without being just empty breath; there's a solid core to the sound, even in her lowest register and at low volume. The bridge builds gradually; she's not just suddenly shouting, as so often happens with Idol divas. (Hi, LaKisha!) "Nutbush City Limits" isn't much of a song -- the melody is limited, and what there is of it just repeats over and over -- but it's a sharper contrast to her first song than either of the other singers has had, allowing her to show off her stylistic range. The song is all about personality, and while Melinda may not quite be the force of nature that is Tina Turner, she gives the song everything she has and makes it work. Like Jordin, Melinda returns to one of her best moments with "I'm a Woman." (Not her very best moment, though; that was "My Funny Valentine.") The enunciation is a bit sloppy in spots, especially at the beginning, but it's stylish and funny, and it adds to her demonstration of versatility. When Melinda, the former backup singer, acknowledges and interacts with her own backup singers at the end, it's like a declaration that after a season of shyness and "who, me?," she's finally ready to claim the spotlight as her own.

For the night (and for each round): Melinda, Jordin, Blake.

For the season: Melinda, Jordin, Blake. The gaps separating #1 from #2, and #2 from #3, are clear and wide.

Should go home: Blake.

Will go home: Blake, setting up the best Idol final since Ruben/Clay.

Jerry Falwell, 1933-2007

As his followers mourn his passing, let us remember how Jerry Falwell responded to the attacks of September 11, 2001:
I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say "you helped this happen."

I am not normally one to rejoice in the death of any human being, but Jerry Falwell was an evil and a hateful man, and the world is a better place for his leaving it.

May 14, 2007

It's been a hectic week around here, but things are settling back to normal, and the blog should return to its usual low level of activity.

Let's start with this article from the New York Times, about the new ways musicians are finding to connect with their fans. Among those featured in the article is Jonathan Coulton; if you don't know his music, you should. I'm particularly fond of "Code Monkey," "When You Go," and "I'm Your Moon" (a poignant song sung to Pluto after its demotion from the list of planets), but it's all good.

May 08, 2007

MUSIC: American Idol (Barry Gibb / Bee Gees songs)

Oh, my children, our little Idols did terrible things to the songs of Barry Gibb tonight. There wasn't a single impressive performance in the bunch; it was a tremendous disappointment on what should have been the best Final Four night in Idol history.

The rundown, taking each singer's two songs at once:

Melinda, "Love You Inside Out"/"How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" -- Without the harmonies and the slick production, all of tonight's songs lean to the dull side, and Melinda isn't doing anything to help them. She's got less personality tonight than she's ever had. "Broken Heart" is particularly weak; its lyrics are on the cornball sentimental side, which is undercut somewhat in the Bee Gees' original by the relatively precise rhythms of the singing. But Melinda is emphasizing the sentiment, and giving the song precisely the sort of florid melodrama that it can't withstand. Oh, the notes are there, and the big finish sounds impressive in the abstract, but it's the first time that Melinda has utterly failed to understand how best to make songs work for her.

Blake, "You Should Be Dancin'"/"This Is Where I Came In" -- Let's dismiss the whole beatbox thing first. It's boring, dated, and does nothing to improve these songs. Even more than Melinda, Blake doesn't seem to understand that rhythms matter in this music. The word "crisp" isn't in his vocabulary, so where these songs should crackle with energy, Blake simply oozes from word to word, from pitch to pitch. (He's not helped any by the excessive echo on "Dancin'.") It's lazy, mushy singing, and while there are nights when he can get away with it, this isn't one of them.

LaKisha, "Stayin' Alive"/"Run to Me" -- Paula, of all people, nails the problem with the first song: By slowing it down so much, LaKisha has sucked all of the energy out of it. She has (again) ignored the advice of the guest mentor, which was (again) a foolish thing to do. We lose her voice completely at one point, as she forgets where the mike is. "Run to Me" is a bit better, but she ignores the drama that's built into the song and tries to improve on it with a flurry of R&B runs and flourishes. Her voice is a bit off tonight, and at one point, I find myself wondering if she has a cold. Worst of all, tonight marks the return of the LaKishaBot, as the glimmers of personality that had started to shine through in recent weeks have vanished.

Jordin, "To Love Somebody"/"Woman in Love" -- There's some minor pitchiness in both songs, and neither performance is particularly memorable, but she's doing a better job than anyone else of finding her own approach without destroying the things that made the songs work in the first place. "To Love Somebody" is the night's high point, rising all the way to bland competence.

For the night: Jordin, Melinda, LaKisha, Blake.

For the season: Melinda, Jordin, LaKisha, Blake (but all of the momentum is with Jordin).

Should go home: Blake.

Will go home: LaKisha.

May 05, 2007

MOVIES: Away From Her (Sarah Polley, 2007)

Here's the thing about Alzheimer's movies: Too often, they dive so quickly into the mental decline part of the story that we haven't had time to get to know the characters; we don't have any sense of who and what are being lost. (This was the major flaw in Iris, for instance; the Kate Winslet flashbacks weren't enough to give a sense of Judi Dench's character.) Much to her credit, Sarah Polley avoids this pitfall in her marvelous movie Away From Her; we get to know Fiona (Julie Christie) quite well in the early part of the movie, even as she begins to display Alzheimer's symptoms.

The casting of Christie also helps immensely; her movie images from the last forty years are so iconic that we feel as if we know her already. In a way that we wouldn't be with most actresses of her generation, we have a sense of the intelligence and vitality that are being lost as Fiona declines. (And since the movie takes place during a Canadian winter, we often see Christie against snowy backdrops, in the harsh glare of winter light, images of Dr. Zhivago dominated my mental flashbacks.) Christie's presence here is not just about the power of an icon, though; it's a superb performance that should be remembered when awards season rolls around.

Fiona and Grant (Gordon Pinsent) have survived some early rough patches in their marriage and settled into a comfortable cottage on the lake. As her Alzheimer's symptoms begin, it is Fiona who decides to move into a nursing home, over Grant's objections. He is not allowed to visit or phone for Fiona's first month at Meadowlake, and is shocked on his first visit to see how rapidly her disease has advanced. He's even more surprised at how quickly she's made new relationships at the home; she's cordial and polite to him as her memories fade, and she seems to be falling in love with another patient.

Christie's performance is understated and subtle; the dialogue is spare, and there are unspoken volumes in her every word and glance. She's matched at every turn by Gordon Pinsent, a fine Canadian actor who's not well-known in the US (think of a more rumpled Donald Sutherland); he communicates every bit of Grant's anguish and desperation in an immensely moving performance. Olympia Dukakis, as the wife of Fiona's new nursing-home friend, is not quite at their level, making her character a bit too much of an ogre.

Director Sarah Polley also wrote the screenplay, adapting Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain." It's her first film as a director, and it's a stellar debut. Very highly recommended.

MOVIES: Waitress (Adrienne Shelley, 2007)

A screwball comedy of sorts, anchored by an utterly winning performance from Keri Russell.

Russell plays Jenna, a small-town waitress; pies are the specialty at the diner where she works, and Jenna is a pie-making genius. During the movie, we see several of her pies being created, each one inspired by a moment in her life. There's the "Pregnant, Miserable, Self-Pitying Loser" pie, for instance, or the "Spanish Dancer" pie.

The "pregnant, miserable" part is because Jenna's married to Earl (Jeremy Sisto), an obnoxious lout; she's only pregnant because Earl got her drunk enough to have sex one night. (Jenna is given a speech about why she won't even consider abortion; it's not terribly convincing, and you just have to get past that moment.) There's a handsome new OB/GYN in town, and there's immediate chemistry between Jenna and Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), but he's just as married as she is.

Russell is marvelous here, perfectly capturing the movie's whimsy and delivering the rapid-fire dialogue. The supporting cast (with one key exception) is just as good. The movie's writer-director Adrienne Shelley and Cheryl Hines are Jenna's fellow waitresses; Sisto walks a very fine line, making Earl loathsome without making him inhuman. Andy Griffith is charmingly vulgar as the crusty old coot who owns the diner.

The weak spot in the cast is Fillion, who's miscast as the dithering charmer, a role that needs the sweetness of Hugh Grant in his prime; there's not enough insecurity in him, and his comic rhythms are out of sync with the rest of the cast.

There are other flaws, to be sure. The movie gets a bit too cute occasionally, especially in the banter among the three waitresses, which is a touch too reminiscent of the sitcom Alice; and the happy ending is telegraphed far too broadly. But there's such warmth and joy in this movie, and Russell's performance is so fine, that I was delighted to see that happy ending arrive, even if it wasn't much of a surprise.

May 03, 2007

Department of (not so Retro) GaGa: Erik Mongrain

From a Quebec TV show, Erik Mongrain plays his PercusienFa. If I had heard this without seeing it, I don't think I'd have guessed that it was a solo guitar.

May 01, 2007

MUSIC: American Idol (rock / Jon Bon Jovi)

I had not been looking forward to Rock Night. None of our remaining singers are really rockers, and the Bon Jovi songbook did not strike me as a particularly strong source of material. But it turned out to be a fascinating night, with some remarkably good performances; even the clunkers bombed in more interesting ways than usual.

The rundown:

Phil, "Blaze of Glory" -- He looks much more relaxed than usual, and as a result, less creepy. His pitch is solid, his voice is strong; it's the best we've ever heard from him. And it still won't be enough to land him in the top half; it probably won't even be enough to keep him from going home.

Jordin, "Livin' on a Prayer" -- The rock-chick outfit doesn't work; she can't hit the low notes in the verse (even with Jon helping her to re-write the melody); and no matter how hard she tries to belt the chorus, the band is drowning her out. A complete disaster.

LaKisha, "This Ain't a Love Song" -- There are some pitch problems with the low notes at the very beginning, though she's got a lovely tone down there. It's a very smart song choice, and LaKisha delivers more emotion and passion than usual. It's the first time in weeks that she's been more than just a big voice; there might actually be a person in there after all.

Blake, "You Give Love a Bad Name" -- Simon said this would be a love-it-or-hate-it performance, and I'm sort of on both sides of the fence. I don't ever need to hear another bit of beatboxing as long as I live, and the style of what Blake is doing bores me. But if I separate from that, and judge the performance on its own terms, it's remarkably good. There's a surprising amount of power in his singing voice, he's almost completely gotten rid of his usual "aren't I sensitive" breathiness, and I give him major points for the sheer audacity of it. (And I love him as a brunette.)

Chris, "Wanted Dead or Alive" -- Well, he's less nasal and whiny than usual, but only because he's screaming from start to finish. It's harsh, it's ugly, and it doesn't get any better. It's never pretty or pleasant to listen to.

Melinda, "Have a Nice Day" -- I was worried about Melinda on Rock Night. Silly me. From the second we see her standing with the guitarist at the opening of the song, she looks the part, and when the first note comes out of her mouth, it's clear that Rock Night isn't going to cause her any more trouble than any other night. The attitude is perfect, right down to the sneering lip at the end of the song. And as always, she sounds terrific. I am in awe.

For the night: Melinda, Blake, LaKisha, Phil, Jordin, Chris.

For the season: Melinda, Jordin, LaKisha, Blake, Chris, Phil.

Should go home: Chris and Phil.

Will go home: Chris and Phil. Jordin did well enough last week to survive tonight's disaster; Blake did well enough tonight to survive last week's mediocre performance. Melinda and LaKisha were good to excellent both weeks; Chris and Phil were in the back of the pack both weeks.