April 18, 2012

TV: American Idol 2012: Now & Then

The top seven come back for a second round after last week's save, and they're in for a long night, boys and girls, tackling two songs each in "Now & Then" night. It's going to be a night so crowded with music that we don't have time to bring in a guest mentor, and that the mention of Dick Clark's death feels a trifle rushed and perfunctory. The themes are wide open, so everyone should be able to find songs that show them off well. Let's see...

The rundown:

Round One: 21st-century hits

Hollie, "Rolling in the Deep" -- Not surprising that she'd arrange the song to start with the big anthemic chorus, since that's the part that suits her voice best. And doing so gets her off to a strong start, which seems to boost her confidence, because even the relatively quiet verses sound better than usual, more in tune and with a fierce passion that we haven't seen from her in a while.

Colton, "Bad Romance" -- Some of the low notes are too low for him, and I'm not convinced that the song really works with the rock arrangement. It's Colton doing what Colton does, and it's a competent performance, but not a very interesting one.

Elise, "No One" -- It's an odd stylistic hodgepodge of a performance, with her rock growl slipping in occasionally where it doesn't really belong, and some strangely over-articulated phrases ("try tooo dee-ny"). From moment to moment, it's attractive enough, but it never comes together into a cohesive whole.

Phillip, "U Got It Bad" -- The slightly smirky grin, the half-closed eyes, the "aw, c'mon, you know I'm cute" smugness, the voice that sounds like a bad imitation of Bleeding Gums Murphy -- those things have been background annoyances in Phillip's previous performances, but they're all turned on full blast for this one, and the effect is unbearable. I hated every second of this.

Jessica, "Fallin'" -- Her technique is truly astonishing, and her singing is perfectly suited to the song, with just the right amount of ornamentation, always tastefully applied. But every week, I find it harder to believe there's a human soul in there anywhere. The craft is so impeccable that I want to love her performances more than I do.

Skylar, "Born This Way" -- The tone is all wrong; what should be joyous affirmation becomes angry and petulant. She's shouting the entire thing instead of singing it, and slipping back into her old habits of sloppy enunciation. A stronger rhythm section and a more defined beat would help the arrangement, too. A disappointment after a couple of strong weeks.

Joshua, "I Believe" -- Those last few notes were a bizarre mushy combination of groaning; I couldn't even tell if they were supposed to be words, much less what words they might have been. But everything before that was quite good; the verse was especially lovely, powerful without being screamed or forced.

For Round One: Hollie, Joshua, Jessica, Colton, Skylar, Elise, Phillip.

Round Two: Soul Train classics

Hollie, "Son of a Preacher Man" -- Part of what made Dusty Springfield such a special singer was that she could take her enormous voice and turn it into something laidback and sultry. Hollie can't do that; her voice is big, but aggressively so, and she's not capable of modulating the aggression very much. This song needs the seductive appeal of a European sports car; Hollie's barrelling at us with a steamroller.

Colton, "September" -- Well, he certainly knows who he is musically, and he's going to do his best to fit every song into his "I want to join Coldplay when I grow up" mold, no matter how poorly it fits. And lord, does this one fit poorly. The arrangement sucks all the joy out of the song, leaving nothing but Colton's whiny voice piercing like a poisoned dart into our very souls.

Elise, "Let's Get It On" -- If you're going to sing "Let's Get It On," you have to sing it in a key that allows you to sing the words "let's get it on" loudly enough for us to hear them. And while Elise may have many musical skills, seduction is not, I fear, among them. That was like discovering that the main attraction at the strip club is your pastor.

Phillip, "In the Midnight Hour"-- Remember how much I hated Phillip in Round One? This makes me long for those halcyon days. I need a large bottle of ear bleach to get this out of my head. The smarmy grin, the Cosby-esque affected growl, the twinkliness that's completely at odds with the song. No. No. Please, no more.

Jessica, "Try a Little Tenderness" -- Jessica's at her best with songs that require pinpoint precision; this calls for more spontaneity, and needs to feel rough around the edges. And god love her, she's trying, but it's coming off as an utterly precise imitation of the right style instead of actually being the right style. It's not awful -- she's too skilled for that -- but it falls flat and feels (in every possible sense of the word) soulless.

Skylar, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" -- Another musical expression of anger, but it suits the song this time, and it's not only angry, it's also playful and surprisingly funny in spots (love the inflection and articulation on "I must say"). The country reinterpretation works, and it's a high point in a weak round.

Joshua, "A Change Is Gonna Come" -- It's a very good performance. If it feels a little disappointing, it's probably just that it seemed like such a perfect combination of singer and song that I was hoping for -- maybe even expecting -- brilliance, which is hardly a fair burden to dump on anyone.

For Round Two: Joshua, Skylar, Jessica, Hollie, Elise, Colton, Phillip.

For the night: Joshua, Hollie, Skylar, Jessica, Colton, Elise, Phillip.

For the season: Joshua, Skylar, Colton, Jessica, Hollie, Elise, Phillip.

Let's send home: I'd be so happy if it were Phillip, but I expect it to be Elise.

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