March 01, 2011

MUSIC: American Idol 2011: men's semi-finals

And we're off!

It's a new season, with new judges, of whom I've not seen much yet, since I don't join the show until Hollywood week. Based on Hollywood/Vegas week, I'm tentatively pleased with both Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, though I don't think we'll really know how they'll be as judges until we see them in live episodes. (The semi-final shows that air tonight and tomorrow were taped in advance.)

We've also got a new set and a new condensed semi-final format, in which 24 singers will be hacked down to a field of ten voter-chosen finalists (plus some wild-card picks from the judges) in only two nights. First up, the men, who will all struggle with the band being mixed just a little too loud.

The rundown:

Clint, "Superstition" -- Not bad, though it's not a particularly challenging song and the performance is too hyper for my taste, and on the longer notes, his vibrato gets a bit wide and wobbly, making him sound rather like a bleating goat.

Jovany, "I'll Be" -- Goodness, it's an old-fashioned truckdriver's modulation! We don't get many of those on Idol. Sadly, that was the most memorable thing about the performance, which was blandly competent. Jovany tends to swallow the low notes, so the chorus, which should begin with "and I'll be...," consistently begins instead with "dial be...".

Jordan, "OMG" -- He lacks power, especially in the lower register; the stuff we can hear is often out of tune, especially the falsetto. And it's not a good sign when a singer feels compelled to start peeling off clothing on the first night; it suggests that even he thinks that's all he's really got going for him.

Tim, "Streetcorner Symphony" -- I'm typing this less than 20 seconds after Tim finishes singing,  and I can already barely remember any of it. Duller than a Joe Lieberman standup routine.

Brett, "Light My Fire" -- I have the feeling that this will  be the guy whose appeal  I struggle all season long to understand. I find him shrill and terribly mannered, with oddly affected pronunciation, especially at the beginning, where "fire" seems to be spelled with 18 Rs.

James, "You've Got Another Think Comin'" -- Not my type of music,  but he's the first guy to choose a song that really plays to his strengths. The shrieking sounds natural and appropriate to the genre, instead of forced and pained as it often does with would-be Idol rockers.

Robbie, "Angel" -- I have the hunch that he might have a nice voice when he sings full out, but in this hushed quiet mode, he's only got a very narrow useful range. His high notes get pinched and whiny, and some of those falsetto runs are just ugly.

Scotty, "Letters from Home" -- I fear to think what will happen to him when he's forced outside his country niche, but within that niche, he's delightful. He has a surprisingly well developed ability to play to the audience (and the camera); the timing and inflection on that "y'all" was impeccable.

Stefano, "Just the Way You Are" -- He's pushing way too hard,  and there's a strangled quality to his voice, which may have something to do with the broad smile that's plastered on his face throughout. The high notes at the very end are painfully out of tune.

Paul, "Maggie May" -- Not a horrible performance,  really, but he's so self-consciously quirky and eccentric that it creeps me out a little. I'm also not sure it was a good idea for someonewith so naturally raspy a voice to choose a Rod Stewart song; might have been wiser to choose someone you can't be so obviously compared to, and suffer for the comparison.

Jacob, "A House Is Not a Home" -- Spectacularly wide range, and absolutely in control of it from top to bottom. He doesn't communicate a lot of emotion, and that will hurt him in the long run; cool and elegant don't last long on Idol. But the pyrotechnics will be enjoyable while they last.

Casey, "I Put a Spell on You" -- No serious technical flaws, and wildly entertaining; he commands the stage better than anyone else in the group.

What's interesting about the night is that the best singers are completely outside the usual Idol mold, and the most traditionally Idol-esque singers aren't very good. Only one question to be asked tonight: Which five deserve to stay? The first four are easy: James, Scotty, Jacob, and Casey. Beyond that, I'm not particularly enthusiastic about anyone, but if you forced me to pick a fifth, I guess I'd go with Clint.

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