March 30, 2013

MOVIES: Blancanieves (Pablo Berger, 2012/US 2013)

Berger's black-and-white silent film is a charming delight, a new version of the Snow White story set in 1920s Seville against a backdrop of bullfighting.

Antonio (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) is Seville's most celebrated bullfighter, and as he nears the end of a daring attempt to take on six bulls in sequence, there is a horrible accident, and he is badly injured. The shock sends his young wife into labor, which she does not survive. With baby Carmen serving as too vivid a reminder of his wife, Antonio sends the child to live with her grandmother (Angela Molina), while gold-digging nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdu) sinks her claws into Antonio's fortune. Grandmother eventually dies, as grandmothers do, and Carmen (played as a child by Sofia Oria) is sent to live with Encarna, who refuses to let her see her father and turns her into a household servant.

Carmen eventually grows up to be a lovely young woman (now played by Macarena Garcia), and the rest of the story plays out with all of the familiar elements -- the evil stepmother's attempt to take her life, the rescue by a troupe of dwarves (only six in this version, and they're bullfighters), the poisoned apple, the glass coffin -- showing up in unexpected ways.

Maribel Verdu as Encarna is the movie's strongest asset; she's having a ball playing the evil stepmother, and walks right up to the line of camp without ever quite crossing it. It's a gleeful performance, and Encarna is a far more vivid character than Carmen, who is occasionally a bit too blandly sweet and naive (but then, such is the nature of fairy tale heroines).

The score by Alfonso de Vilallonga is a lovely mix of orchestral music and lively flamenco, filled with guitars and hand claps. And Berger's screenplay and direction embraces the sentiment and the melodrama that are inherent to the story, but never let those elements become too drippy or gooey.

March 27, 2013

TV: American Idol 2013: Music of Motor City

It's music from Detroit tonight, and any artist from Detroit is up for grabs. So that means lots of Motown, maybe some Aretha, perhaps some Madonna, and... I dunno, who else is from Detroit?

Because we no longer have enough singers to fill 2 hours, we're also getting duets and trios thrown in to fill out the evening. Those technically don't count as part of the competition, but it's silly to think that a particularly good or bad small group number won't help or hurt.

The rundown:

Candice, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" -- Most of the song works well, and the slower, bluesy arrangment is a nice change. The opening and the tag with the prominent sax feels cheesy, though, and undercuts the overall effect. As ever, Candice's singing is excellent.

Janelle & Kree, "Like a Prayer" -- Aside from a little twang in their voices, I'm hard pressed to say what's country about this song. Kree is certainly the better singer, though Janelle held her own better than I'd have expected. It wasn't a passionate or emotionally involved performance, but I imagine that they spent most of their time working on their solo numbers.

Lazaro, "For Once In My Life" -- He did his best. It wasn't very good.

Janelle, "You Keep Me Hangin' On" -- The singing is quite nice, but the arrangement is a mess. This is not a sophisticated song, musically or lyrically; it's a light fluffy piece of pop, and it's not substantial enough to be taken this seriously. It's like building a 12-ton marble display case for a feather.

Devin, "The Tracks of My Tears" -- It's an overwhelmingly pleasant performance, the sort that puts a mild smile on your face, the sort that will inspire aunts to pinch his cheeks, the sort that would easily win his high school talent show. But it's not exciting or interesting or memorable in the slightest. (I don't know why it took that red jacket to make me realize this, but oh my god, how much does Devin look like Tintin?)

Candice, Amber, & Angie, "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" -- To answer Ryan's mean-spirited pre-song question, it is obvious that Candice is the Diana. It's also obvious that Angie is the least comfortable with this song and style, but even so, she's a good enough singer that she's not horrifyingly bad. I do wish the background singers weren't mixed so heavily on the choruses, so that we could hear how well the three harmonize.

Burnell, "My Cherie Amour" -- Not his best moment. Making the "la la" phrases quieter meant making them choppy, since he needed to breathe midway through them. He's throwing in far too many runs and frills, and his pitch is way off for a few seconds after the key change at the end. (And, please, Idol stylists, let the man keep his glasses!)

Angie, "Shop Around"-- I don't know if it's because she's trying so hard to be relaxed and have fun, but her pitch is all over the place tonight. And though I gasped and cried "blasphemy" when Jimmy told her not to worry so much about enunciation, he may have been right; the first few lines in particular felt overly precise and prissy, with every consonant falling too crisply into place.

Amber, "Lately" -- A couple of the low notes in the first verse are too low, and can't be heard. Aside from that, it's a lovely performance. I'm beginning to fear, though, that she will be this year's victim of the long-standing Idol lack of enthusiasm for elegant black women. (See, for instance, Stephanie Edwards, Nadia Turner, LaToya London, Trenyce, Tamyra Gray...)

Lazaro, Burnell, & Devin, "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" -- Remarkable evidence of just how bad Lazaro and Devin are: They dragged Burnell down to their level. That was sad and embarrassing.

Kree, "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)" -- I wish her physical attitude matched her vocal attitude; she's just plodding back and forth across the stage with none of the swagger that's in her voice. But the vocal attitude and energy is more than enough to sell it, and it's great fun to listen to.

For the night: Kree, Candice, Amber, Janelle, Burnell, Angie, Devin, Lazaro.

For the season: Candice, Kree, Amber, Burnell, Angie, Janelle, Devin, Lazaro.

Let's send home: Should be Lazaro, but I think the sympathy vote is good for another week or two; Devin would be an acceptable alternative. I have this strange fear, though, that Amber will be the first woman to go.

March 26, 2013

BOOKS: Let Me Clear My Throat, Elena Passarello (2012)

The subject of Passarello's delightful collection of essays is the human voice, the sounds it makes, and what they tell us about ourselves.

The book is divided into three sections -- scream, song, and speech. Topics are wide-ranging; the scream section alone gives us essays on Brando's "Stella" (and on Passarello's, as she was the first woman to win New Orleans' annual Stella Shouting Contest), the movie sound effect known as the Wilhelm scream, and the yelp that contributed to the demise of Howard Dean's presidential campaign.

Even when she's tackling familiar topics, Passarello's approach is often unexpected. Her chapter on the voice of Frank Sinatra, for instance, is built around a "Tips for Popular Singing" pamphlet that Sinatra published in the early 1940s; a meditation on birdsong turns into a hymn of praise to the "crows" of the human world, men like Tom Waits and Sid Vicious, and the music that can be found in their not-terribly-musical voices.

Passarello's writing is filled with colorful details. In a discussion of the castrato voice, she notes that unnecessary castration was a sin, punishable by excommunication, and that choirboys all arrived with plausible sounding excuses; "in the 1750s," she reports, "every last one of the soprani in the Sistine Chapel was an alleged victim of a wild pig attack."

And her descriptions of the voice, a notoriously hard thing to describe in words, are both technically precise and filled with vivid imagery. Here's how she describes Howard Dean's scream:
It is a one-second glissando from an impossibly high note down two full octaves to a flat, guttural trough, as long as a slide down sixteen keys of a baby grand. It is the sound of a Muppet, or a baby in tantrum, or a bike horn half-squeezed. Or, rather, it is all three sounds at different milliseconds, smooshed. It meets his unbuttoned collar and the sloshing bottles and the fibers in that long mic cord and the tone of the HVAC to make a unique recorded moment -- an electric, fantastic, obscene, unspellable thing.

Delightful, thought provoking reading all the way through.

March 20, 2013

TV: American Idol 2013: The Beatles

It's Beatles night, a popular theme for the show -- this is their fourth night devoted either to the Beatles or to Lennon/McCartney -- but one that hasn't led to many great performances. And the memorable ones have been among the show's most polarizing: Chikezie's wacked-out genre-scrambling version of "She's a Woman;"  an "Eight Days a Week" from Kristy Lee Cook that was, depending on who you asked, either lovably charming or intensely grating.

But for the most part, Beatles nights on Idol lean to the bland, perhaps because the songs are so familiar a part of our musical heritage that it feels blasphemous to do anything radical to them. Will anyone tonight find a way to surprise us? Let's find out...

The rundown:

Kree, "With a Little Help From My Friends" -- Not the most interesting performance, perhaps, but most of the other women would have been buried under that band and chorus. This does show off her upper register, and how high she can sing at full power without sounding forced or harsh. Nothing exciting, but comfortably solid work, and certainly good enough to keep her around.

Burnell, "Let It Be" -- He's pushing a little too hard in spots, and it creates a harsh rasp that isn't pretty. I love his phrasing, though, which is relaxed and conversational. He's also got the cleanest enunciation in Idol history; there is never the slightest doubt what he's saying. The performance is overly polite and respectful, perhaps, but it's pretty to listen to. (And I'm glad to see the glasses are back!)

Amber, "She's Leaving Home" -- The biggest problem isn't her fault: We can barely hear the background singers, and the lyrical counterpoint is a huge part of the song. Her vocal is quite nice, although perhaps too calm and laidback; there needs to be more emotional urgency so that we're not left thinking that the note was "gone shopping; back for dinner."

Lazaro, "In My Life" -- He did his best. It wasn't very good.

(After the commercial break, Ryan spends a few minutes essentially scolding the judges and demanding that they justify their cruelty to Lazaro. It plays as an unfortunate attempt to drum up enough sympathy to keep the guy around for another week.)

Candice, "Come Together" -- Not a song I'd have expected her to pick, but she makes it work by coming at it from the blues end of R&B instead of trying to turn herself into a serious rocker. She does well with those gibberish lyrics, singing them with enough passion and commitment that they almost seem to mean something. Very nicely done, and bonus points for making a risky choice and not simply coasting through the night on a big ballad.

Paul, "Eleanor Rigby" -- Not a good idea to start with several bars of very exposed falsetto if you can't get your falsetto in tune. And he's adding a thick layer of drama to the song that it doesn't need; the melody and the lyrics are already doing that work, so he's only coming across as desperate and a little bit campy. The high notes aren't well integrated, and they pop out in a painful way. Not good.

Angie, "Yesterday" -- She's got a marvelous voice, and I love to listen to her. But this song is so damned close to perfect that any change you make to it has to be extraordinarily well thought out, and hers aren't; they're just changes made for the sake of showing off. The big long note on "something WROOOOOOOOOOOOONG" is, well, wrong. Sometimes, you need to get out of your own way and just sing the damn song.

Devin, "The Long and Winding Road" -- When he's content to just sing, this is really lovely; when he throws in an elaborate run at the end of every phrase, it's not, and it's not by a wide enough margin to outweigh the quality of everything else.. Even worse, he puts in an extra "and" that changes the meaning of the lyric ("it always leads me here / AND leads me to your door," which makes it sound as if "here" and "your door" are two different places).

Janelle, "I Will" -- Very smart song selection for a country singer on Beatles night, and sung with admirable simplicity and restraint. Breath is, as discussed in her intro piece, a problem, and these phrases really aren't so long that she shouldn't be able to sing them. But apart from a slight wobbling of the pitch on the last long "me," this was one of the night's highlights.

For the night: Candice, Janelle, Burnell, Amber, Kree, Angie, Devin, Paul, Lazaro.

For the season: Candice, Kree, Angie, Burnell, Janelle, Amber, Devin, Paul, Lazaro.

Let's send home: It should be Lazaro, as always, but it won't be, so I'll settle for Paul.

March 18, 2013

BOOKS: novels by Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey was a British novelist of the late 1940s and early 1950s, best remembered for her mystery novels, several of which frequently appear on "best novels ever" lists. I'd never read any of her work, so I grabbed a three-novel omnibus volume from the library to get an introduction.

Miss Pym Disposes (1948) is an oddly structured novel, with virtually no plot to speak of until about 80% of the way through. Miss Pym is a middle-aged writer of best-selling pop psychology novels; an old friend is an administrator at a womens' college, and has invited her to speak to the students. Miss Pym enjoys the change in atmosphere from London, and the company of the young students, and decides to extend her visit for a few days.

There is, eventually, a crime, which Miss Pym solves; that solution is not entirely satisfactory, as it requires us to believe that one of the novel's characters would be self-sacrificing to a degree that I don't think we've been prepared to accept. And the general aimlessness of the novel is occasionally frustrating. But the students are an entertaining bunch of characters, and Miss Pym is a charming protagonist.

The Franchise Affair (1949) is the most conventional mystery novel of these three. A middle-aged woman and her elderly mother are accused of kidnapping a young girl and forcing her to serve as their servant. They claim to be innocent, but the girl's story holds up and all of the evidence seems to support her. The resolution, when it comes, it something of a deus ex machina, but the story is an entertaining one, and Tey's explanation of what's actually happened is clever.

Brat Farrar (1950) was my favorite of the three. In it, Tey pulls off the stunt (which must surely have been even more audacious at the time) of making the criminal her protagonist and gaining our sympathy for him. The family on a British estate is about to celebrate the coming of age (and coming into his inheritance of the estate) of Simon, the eldest son, when a young man arrives claiming to be Patrick, Simon's slightly older twin, who disappeared and was believed to have committed suicide at 13. If Brat, the new arrival, really is Patrick, then he will take over the estate and Simon will inherit nothing. Tey presents the story as a tightrope exercise -- can Brat pull off his deception? -- and we can't help rooting for him to succeed, even as we come to like and admire the family he's attempting to deceive.

Tey's greatest strength is her vivid characters, who are well-rounded and vividly written; they were enough to hold my attention even through the book's occasional bits of mechanical plot-churning (or, in Miss Pym, full-on plotlessness). Her novels are certainly of their time, but there are moments that feel surprisingly modern; the relative honesty, bluntness, and lack of disapproval with which she treats homosexuality in Brat Farrar is quite unexpected.

There are five other mystery novels written by Tey, of which the most important appears to be The Daughter of Time, in which an injured policeman researches the history of Richard II and exonerates him of the accusations that he had his young nephews murdered. These three novels were good enough that I will have to put at least that one, and perhaps more of Tey's writing, on my "to be read" list.

March 13, 2013

TV: American Idol 2013: Music of the American Idols

The competition gets underway in earnest this week, with a rather nebulous theme: Pick a song sung by a previous Idol champ, either during their time on the show or during their post-Idol career. With eleven winners to choose from, there are 100 or so in-show songs to choose from, covering a wide range of musical styles. One would think that the women might have an advantage, as the ongoing careers of the female winners have been, on the whole, more successful than those of the men. But who knows? Maybe the show will give us exciting covers of every song from Lee DeWyze's Live It Up.

The rundown:

Curtis, "I Believe" -- I was actually enjoying his relative restraint until he went for that high note at the end, which was neither necessary nor tasteful. Some pitch problems throughout, and a restrained Curtis does pile on the runs and flourishes. Perfectly nice performance, though lacking in the get-up-outta-your-pew gospel thrills the song needs. (And the paisley jacket? No. Absolutely not. Never again.)

Janelle, "Gone" -- Making it to the top ten has given her a needed ego boost, and she looks more confident than she has before. There are moments in the verse when she finds the right sassy attitude for the song, but once she hits the chorus, that vanishes and it becomes just a piece of pretty singing with not much personality. She does well with the passages of rapid-fire lyrics, though, almost every word of which can be clearly understood.

Devin, "Temporary Home" -- That was astonishingly tepid. No energy, no emotion, no style, no nothing that would bring it to life or make it even slighly memorable for an instant. The song gets a small part of the blame, but most of it falls squarely on Devin. And how was this supposed to be a breakout from the comfort zone of ballads?

Angie, "I Surrender" -- Very good, and little to complain about. One small technical thing in some of the opening phrases: She's climbing in pitch at the same time that she's increasing in volume. Because the higher notes are easier to sing, the volume will tend to increase naturally, so she doesn't need to work as hard to get that crescendo as she is working, and some of the top notes pop out a little too much, making the crescendo less smooth than it should be. But the fact that I'm commenting on such a nitpicky thing is a sign of how solid the performance was.

Paul, "Amazed" -- He's still equating "sensitive" with "breathy," so about 80% of the verse is too airy to register as sound, much less as coherent words. And the chorus is a string of pretty notes with no emotional force or impact. He could be eating a bowl of tapioca for all the amazement he's showing.

Candice, "I (Who Have Nothing)" -- This song brings out the best in Idol women; it was the best performance of Jordin Sparks' run on the show, and Haley Reinhart's stalker-scary take was brilliant. And this is right up there with both of those. Absolutely riveting. There were moments here that sent chills up my spine -- that drop from a full belt into falsetto-y head voice on the "I love you" at the end of the first verse, for instance. No complaints at all.

Lazaro, "Breakaway" -- A few years back when Sanjaya Malakar was on the show, I eventually ran out of ways to describe the ineptness of his performances; it started to feel like beating up on the guy. So I decided that for the rest of his run, I would say nothing more than "He did his best. It wasn't very good." It's sad to reach that point with Lazaro after only three performances, but that's where I am. So: He did his best. It wasn't very good.

Kree, "Crying" -- The problem with this as an Idol song has been that if the performance is too faithful to the original, the time constraints don't allow for the smooth build up to the high octave, resulting in a sudden awkward jump. This arrangement tinkers with the melody just enough to smooth out that transition, and it lets Kree show off her terrific range. The high notes never feel forced or pushed, and the low notes have enough force behind them to be heard. Very nice.

Burnell, "Flying Without Wings" -- I'm a little disappointed that he's let the stylists take away his glasses; he had a distinctive look, and now he's just another cute R&B singer. Some of the high notes sounded a little pinched, and there wasn't much emotional depth in the performance (then again, there's not much in the song). There were some low notes, though, that I don't think we've heard before, and I'd like to hear more of that part of his voice.

Amber, "A Moment Like This" -- Amber has a big powerful voice, and she is barrelling through this song like Godzilla through Tokyo. But the song requires at least some measure of vulnerability, of "I can't believe this is happening to me," and she's missing that entirely. "Some people wait a lifetime," she seems to be saying, "and I laugh at those puny, pathetic people."

And so, not too many surprises in the first week, as the favorites mostly do well, and the long-shots mostly don't, with Amber's stumble being the major exception. The most interesting storyline of the season, however, is Lazaro, who will give us an answer to this question: In the absence of talent, how far into the season can one get purely on sympathy and pity? I'm betting it'll take him at least to the top six.

For the night: Candice, Kree, Angie, Burnell, Curtis, Janelle, Amber, Devin, Paul, Lazaro

For the season: Candice, Kree, Angie, Burnell, Curtis, Amber, Janelle, Devin, Paul, Lazaro

Let's send home: It should be Lazaro, but it won't be. Either Paul or Devin would be an acceptable alternative.

March 06, 2013

TV: American Idol 2013: Top Ten Men

The choices in last week's mens' rounds were far less clear than in the womens', with no real standouts and lots of mediocrities. And with so many "who cares" choices, it's not surprising that the judges and I were less in accord. There were four singers I thought deserved to move forward; only 2 did (Burnell and Curtis; Bryant and Mathenee went home, with Bryant's ouster being particularly undeserved). Of the seven who I thought should have been booted, three are still with us (Paul, Elijah, and Lazaro).

It's hard to imagine that these guys will produce anything as good as the second half of last night's show, which was one of Idol's best hours ever. But maybe it won't suck too badly. Cross your fingers, boys and girls.

The rundown:

Elijah, "Stay" -- There are good things here. He's got a wide range, and he moves smoothly from loud to quiet. And occasionally, when the sound opens up, you hear the marvelous singer he could be. But more often, the sound is pinched and tense, and you can see that tension in the giant knot between his eyebrows. He needs another year or two with a good vocal coach.

Cortez, "Locked Out of Heaven" -- Big improvement from last week; this actually had some life and personality in it. Nothing particularly original about the performance, but solidly done.

Charlie, "Mama" -- He needs to work on microphone technique. Especially in the quieter opening section, every breath sounds like a hurricane and the closing consonants are popping way too loud. The high notes he's going for are unpleasantly shrieky. And yet, there is something strangely fascinating about this; he's intensely committed to what he's doing, and the singing is often quite good. But it's so damn weird and dark and uncomfortable that I can't imagine voters responding positively to it. (There will, however, be some sympathy votes after that moment of vague confession with Ryan after the judges' comments.)

Nick, "Iris" -- The hushed intimacy of the opening verse is lovely, but when we hit the chorus and he starts going for power, the pitch gets iffy. He's got a strong falsetto, though, and if he can learn to control his belt better, he could be a real force.

Burnell, "I'm Here" -- The lyrics are an awful mess of meandering feel-good pablum, and I want to strap his hands down to stop him from constantly waving them about, but his voice is marvelous, and he sings with absolute sincerity. It's simple, straightforward, and powerful. By far the best performance of what has been a mediocre night.

Paul, "Just a Fool" -- He's working very hard and not getting much for his effort. It's such a dull performance that I've already forgotten it.

Lazaro, "Feeling Good" -- The song is a better fit for him than the country song he did last week. But the approach leans unpleasantly toward the lounge lizard, and the combination of his accent and his sloppiness makes it an impenetrable bowl of sound soup. There may be words floating around in there somewhere, but damn if I can pick any of them out.

Curtis, "I Believe I Can Fly" -- I have largely the same reaction as last week, which is that this is not a style that does much for me, but he does it extremely well. And those high falsetto notes in the middle were absolutely killer. He comes across as a bit smug, though; I'm not sure anyone is quite so impressed by Curtis as Curtis is.

Devin, "It's Impossible" -- I don't speak Spanish, so I don't know what he's saying for the second half of the song, but it has much more energy and commitment than the English-language first half, which is bland by comparison. The arrangement's rather old-fashioned, and doesn't do enough to bring the song into the modern era. Might be enough to get him through on a very mediocre night.

Vincent, "End of the Road" -- Very nice. A significant deduction, though, for the way he cheats that very high falsetto note; he turns away from the mike to be sure the note's in tune, and doesn't let us hear it until he's sure it is.

So, what are the judges to do? There are only three who I would send forward with any enthusiasm -- Burnell, Curtis, and Vincent -- and Burnell is the only one who I think is at a level to compete with the top four women. At the bottom end, Elijah, Lazaro, and Paul deserve to be sent home. I have no terribly strong feelings about the other four, and won't be particularly surprised by whatever happens to any of them. I'd probably keep Devin and Cortez over Nick and Charlie, but with no excitement about the choice.

March 05, 2013

TV: American Idol 2013: Top Ten Women

The judges did a reasonably good job of choosing the right women last week. Which is to say, of course, that they largely agreed with me. All four of the women who I thought clearly deserved to move on are still with us (that would be Amber, Kree, Candice, and Angela); only one of the seven women who I thought should be booted survived (hi, Aubrey!). And then there's the group in the middle, some of whom I liked more than others, but none of whom inspired strong keep-or-cut feelings.

Now, it's another chop-the-field-in-half week, but the choices this time will be made by the voting public, which means we're likely to see someone really deserving go home, or to see someone really awful stick around (hi, Aubrey!). Will a front-runner disappoint? Will a long shot rise from the pack? Let's find out...

The rundown:

Zoanette, "What's Love Got To Do With It" -- The fear after last week was that Zoanette was all bellow and showmanship, without any subtlety or technique. That fear is confirmed, I think; any singer who needs three gasping breaths to get through "who needs a heart when a heart can be broken" doesn't belong here. And the ugliness of her voice is clearer tonight than it was last week; it's harsh and wobbly and unpleasant.

Breanna, "Flaws and All" -- Like most Idol women, her low notes are weak, and I think she dropped the lyrics for a moment early on. She's got a pretty voice, and the sustained note at the end was well executed, not sagging at all in pitch. But there's something superficial about it; the notes  float over the surface with no emotional involvement or genuine passion. (Note added later: The seeming lyric glitch was apparently due to the fact that Fox wouldn't let her sing "bitch," which makes you wonder why they let her do the song at all.)

Aubrey, "Big Girls Don't Cry" -- Certainly an improvement, but not enough of one, I fear. There are spots where she shows that she's capable of singing quietly with solid tone, which makes it all the more frustrating that she so often doesn't. It was a competent performance, but not a memorable or an interesting one.

Janelle, "If I Can Dream" -- The song is a collection of inspirational cliches, but in the right hands, it can be remarkably powerful. Those hands do not belong to Janelle. It was pretty, with no glaring technical flaws, but it wasn't moving; it didn't make you want to get up off the couch and make the world a better place, the way it can when it's sung well.

Tenna, "Lost" -- She's pushing way too hard on the chorus, which makes her voice sound pinched and strained. Her enunciation is the worst so far, and the performance is mediocre.

Angie (previously Angela), "Never Gone" -- The song is dreck, but she sings the hell out of it. She's got a lot of power, especially in her upper register, and it never sounds forced. Her dynamic range continues to impress, and she's got a lovely voice. The first definite keep of the night, and miles ahead of anyone else we've heard.

Amber, "I Believe in You and Me" -- The "I be-" at the beginnings of the first two lines are completely inaudible, and there's way too much for melisma for my taste (but then, it's a Whitney song, so it's probably justified). But she's got the clearest, loveliest head voice of the group, and her transitions in and out of it are remarkably smooth and supple.

Kree, "Stronger" -- They're really packing all the good ones into the back half, aren't they? Those high notes, in full voice, are gorgeous, ringing loud and clear, and perfectly in tune. And every syllable was understandable. Lovely work.

Adriana, "Stand Up for Love" -- Impressive big note at the end, but a little shaky on pitch in the early going. She might have knocked my socks off if I'd heard that in the first half of the show, but she has the bad luck to follow three very strong performances, and her relative inexperience shows.

Candice, "Ordinary People" -- What I like about Candice is how easy she makes it look. This is a tricky song, with melodies that jump about in unexpected ways and rhythms that are more conversational than usual, and she tosses it off as if it were a nursery rhyme. Very fine work.

And what should America do now? The first four choices are easy: Angie, Kree, Candice, and Amber. If any of those four is cut, it will be an embarrassment. At the bottom, we can easily cut Zoanette, Tenna, and Aubrey. That leaves Adriana, Janelle, and Breanna, in my mind, fighting for the fifth spot; I think Adriana is the best singer of the three, but Janelle could well survive, because Idol voters do like the country singers. She may be hurt by the fact that Kree chose a country song tonight and did it so well.

BOOKS: Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter (2012)

Maybe it's just my imagination, but I feel like I'm seeing a lot more novels lately structured the way this one is. There are a lot of characters, scattered in time and place, each with his or her own story to be told, and they're tied together just tightly enough that the whole thing can be called a novel instead of a bunch of short stories. In general, I don't find it a terribly satisfying way to structure a book; I want to get lost in a story. That's A story. As in single. If I wanted to bounce from story to story, I'd be reading a collection of short stories.

With a book like this, every time I'm finally settling in and getting involved with one character, suddenly I'm whisked away to another that doesn't really have much in common beyond the moment of "oh, he's her daughter" that links the two.

And in Beautiful Ruins in particular, I had the added misfortune that my interest in each character was inversely proportional to Walter's. I'd have really enjoyed a novel about Claire, the put-upon assistant to an asshole Hollywood producer; or one about Pat, an aging pop has-been struggling with the realization that he probably never is going to be a star after all. But every time I'd just settled into either of their stories, Beautiful Ruins whisked me back to 1962 Italy and Pasquale, a sad sack innkeeper whose perpetual moping left me bored.

(And another thing that almost never works, and serves here to drag the Italy sections down: The addition of a real person as a character in a story otherwise made up of fictional ones. Richard Burton pops up here, and it's enormously distracting, not least because of Walter's authorial tic to always always always refer to him as "Richard Burton." Never "Richard" or "Burton" or "Dick," it's "Richard Burton this" and "Richard Burton" that. Lord, does that get old fast.)

If you like this style of storytelling, you may well enjoy the book. There was, after all, just enough of the interesting stories in it that I did finish, despite my lack of enthusiasm for the structure.