March 09, 2011

MUSIC: American Idol 2011: "Your Personal Idol"

The producers had promised us less restrictive themes this season, and here's our first example -- it's not so much a theme as it is a "oh, sing whatever you want" shrug. We also get our first real look at new permanent mentor Jimmy Iovine, who brings in a variety of the industry's best producers to work with the singers.

The rundown:

Lauren, "Any Man of Mine" -- If you don't have the lung power to get through long phrases, then maybe you shouldn't pick a song that requires you to sing long phrases. Aside from that, not bad, though rather devoid of personality and distinctive energy.

Casey, "With a Little Help From My Friends" -- Very distinctive and compelling. A few oddly mannered moments, perhaps, and those "hoo hoo hoo"s are a bit cuckoo-clock, but those are tiny quibbles.

Ashthon, "When You Tell Me That You Love Me" -- She's got the big notes and the runs, but that's about all she's got; there's no warmth, no charm, no joy in what she does. It's very chilly and impersonal. (And it took me about five seconds to decipher that she wasn't "shining like a Ken doll in the dark.")

Paul, "Come Pick Me Up" -- A few too many double espressos before the show, you think? He's bouncing across the stage with so much unfocused physical energy that there's not much left to go to the voice, which is a breathy, inarticulate mess. The pitches are there, I suppose, but there's no force to them, and the notes are faint wispy things that are blown away by the breeze caused by his manic hopping about.

Pia, "All By Myself" -- Very fine, and any complaints would be nitpicking. The big high notes are certainly impressive (and never shrill), but I really liked her in the verse, where her lower register has a strength (that she didn't seem to have last week) and a calm that remind me a bit of Karen Carpenter.

James, "Maybe I'm Amazed" -- Another terrific performance. The high notes are absolutely wailing, and every word is perfectly clear (a rare thing in this style, in my admittedly limited experience). He's completely connected to the material, and I like the arrangement. (On a shallow physical note, I would suggest that when you have Dumbo ears, straight up might not be the best choice in hairstyle.)

Haley, "Blue" -- She still loves the growl a little too much, but her joy and enthusiasm are contagious, and that yodel is spot on; the very last note is particularly nice. Yet another really good performance, in what is turning out to be a remarkably strong night for a first week.

Jacob, "I Believe I Can Fly" -- OK, he's got technique out the wazoo. Fine. We get that. Now let's work on restraint, subtlety, understatement. When everything is over-the-top fabulous, it begins to feel like an assault, and it stops being very interesting. One technical flaw: In that opening verse, the pitch tends to droop at the end of the notes. (And don't we usually have to wait for the finale before the gospel choir gets trotted out?)

Thia, "Smile" -- I believe I was speaking of subtlety and restraint? This is what I'm talking about. Absolutely lovely. The arrangement goes to pot a bit when the percussion kicks in (up to that point, I was thinking "I would buy this"), but Thia sounds marvelous throughout.

Stefano, "Lately" -- The big long notes are very pretty, but everything else? Meh. His enunciation is weirdly affected, and for someone who was so concerned about the song telling a story, there's zero emotional communication going on; it's just a string of notes.

Karen, "I Could Fall in Love" -- She's got a pretty voice, and her high notes are especially nice. But it's the sort of very competent performance you'd hear at any of your better theme parks, and in a year with this much talent and personality, that's not going to cut it.

Scotty, "The River" -- It's a song about persistence, determination; it should be a bit inspirational, even. And Scotty's just a bit too low-key to put that across tonight. The notes are all in place, and he's clearly comfortable in the style, but it's a rather lethargic effort.

Naima, "Umbrella" -- This is her best effort yet, but I really dislike her voice. It's harsh and grating, and long notes end with an unpleasant, wobbling vibrato. And what was that strange little 10-second interpretive dance break about?

Overall, a marvelous night. The strongest group of finalists the show's ever had, combined with the work of real producers, made for a show with only one or two really bad performances. There are at least five or six people who I could see winning this thing.

For the night: Pia, Haley, Casey, Thia, James, Scotty, Jacob, Lauren, Ashthon, Karen, Stefano, Naima, Paul.

For the season: Pia, Casey, Scotty, Haley, James, Thia, Jacob, Ashthon, Karen, Lauren, Stefano, Paul, Naima.

Let's send home: Paul was so bizarrely awful tonight that he really should go home, but I would not be disappointed with either Naima or Stefano.

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