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We've gotten to a recognizable point in the "American Idol" season where there's really only one completely talentless person left (Megan Joy and her voodoo warble). So it's not terribly surprising when an evening of average to good performances comes over on a softball theme night. Here's the thing we know for sure. There aren't any "alternative" candidates in the field this year. There's no one the least weird, interesting, or original who also has talent, someone for the adults among us to anticipate and root for every week. Except, maybe, Adam Lambert, who is interesting and original but also delusional and totally untutored. Lambert is the producers' pet, which is makes it hard for him to get behind. But there isn't anyone else in the cast who has the wits, or the stones, to try and do something radical with their source material any week, let alone every week as Adam has done.
Yes, sometimes he's truly terrible. But with his "Tracks of My Tears" this week, he entered another zone. His massive range and power was working for him rather than against him this time, and his untracked ambition served him well on an evening when everyone else was terrified to mix it up with an arrangement while Smokey Robinson was in the audience. No one picked a song that was even a little obscure, because there's nobody in this field who has that kind of creative confidence. This could get tiresome over the next two months.
But on the other hand, the broad theme was revealing in other ways. It was astonished how average a singer Lil Rounds seeemed when she was taken even the least tiny bit out of her comfort zone. On the other hand, Allison Iraheta continues to rip apart everything she touches. Matt Giraud is ruinously obsessed with marketing himself and has all the wrong instincts. Kris Allen and Michael Sarver will never become anything more than what they are. Anoop has talent to spare but is always going to struggle with star power. Danny Gokey shouts everything, Scott MacIntyre is a great piano player but not a singer or much of a distinctive artist, and Megan at this rate will need to strip down to two band-aids and a cup if she expects to make the finals. So whom does that leave? Adam, unfortunately. He's been awful more often than not, but he does fit the vague description of what the show is looking for better than anyone else. A showdown between Adam and Allison, Mr. Style vs. Little Ms. Chops, would be very interesting. And also probably a walk; Allison has been in the bottom three already and Adam already has a waiting list for concert tickets. Now he just has to not do anything stupid, like tip off the preteen girls he's not really playing for their team.
Matt Giraud Poor, dumb Matt just can't get out of his own way, which is too bad because I think he's genuinely a better singer than Kris Allen or Danny Gokey -- he just keeps trying to force a signature moment with songs that are too big, too distinctive, or in this case, too sexy for him. Matt had one good idea, beginning his "Let's Get It On" at the piano and then standing up when the band kicked in. In a season a little light on showmanship the one-eyed dueling piano player could be king. But something just never clicks for Matt, and in this case it was an overly reverent rehashing of Marvin Gaye's numerous vocal tics, matched with a few wooden all-Giraud ad libs, that took a bedroom song to the library and ended up in effect just like all of Matt's other songs. Forced, too earnest by half, and most troublingly, uncool. Although it wasn't all that impressive, he did sing a hard song very well on a night that most took on easy melodies. His falsetto wasn't always quite on point but otherwise he showed off his underrated range well. I think that just singing a song like "Let's Get It On" very well isn't enough, though, it's one of the tunes on which you either have to go for broke or pick something else. 8
Kris Allen Kris Allen's "How Sweet It Is" drew comparisons to James Taylor from the judges, but I was more reminded of Chris Klein's tone-deaf attempts in the first American Pie movie. Look, Kris is great-looking, he's affable enough, he can grow facial hair way more convincingly than I could at his age. But he's no kind of musician. His singing cycles affectations depending on which genre it is he's taking on each week, and his guitar playing is completely worthless and terrible. Unlike Scott MacIntyre, who's a bona fide piano player, Kris just knows a couple of chords and his random two bars of stabbing before the sound guy simply mixes his instrument out are becoming a weekly feature. Why? He looks better and moves better without the guitar, and it's possible he could show more on vocals if he wasn't bothering. It's hardly as if he has an ironclad identity that attaches him to the guitar -- he hardly has an identity at all. At this point in the competition that's a terrible sign. Michael Sarver is in the precise same boat as Kris right now, only he's less good-looking and not as good of a singer, so that alone ought to keep Allen safe right up until the week after Sarver goes back to the oil derricks. 7
Scott MacIntyre I have a lot of respect for Scott, who has gotten bolder with his homemade arrangements and piano excursions as his run on "Idol" has gone deeper. But I no longer really look forward to his turns, because I think we've pretty much seen all he has to offer. Scott's a very good musician but his singing voice really isn't good enough to hang with the Adams and Allisons and even the Dannys of this field. It's a shame because you can hear in his committed performances all of the interesting ideas he has. He just misses the big crescendos with his voice, and pretty consistently at this point. If you could put his brain, except for the part that doesn't interpret information from his eyes right, into Adam's body, then you might have something. Scott got criticized by the judges for picking a song that was too easy ("Can't Hurry Love") but Kris got love for picking one that was easier. 6
Megan Joy Megan sounded better than last week, since she wasn't sick, but she's still lasted way longer than musical logic would demand. Megan hits the front of about fifty percent of her notes flat; less than half the time, she slides up to the right note. If she employed the technique consistently, it would be style, but she doesn't, so I think it's safe to say that she just sucks. What was especially bad about her "For Once in My Life" was that she also tried some soaring high notes and those didn't slide anywhere, they wobbled all over the place, and with an even lower success percentage than her low phrases. Megan is the only "Idol" contestant left this year who often reminds me of someone trying to sing a song they don't know in Rock Band on expert and failing. For what it's worth, although it was technically disastrous I liked Megan's style more than usual this time. It was a signature performance for her, whatever that means. The judges really let her have it, which was weird to me because I thought she'd been this bad or worse every other time she's sung so far. Why now do the knives come out? I guess there are a few people who are less popular with the voters than she but at least we know now that when she does go the judges won't waste a save on her. 5
Anoop Desai Anoop kind of got lured on to the rocks by Smokey Robinson; he seemed humbled and almost reverent in the great man's presence, which was a welcome change after the half-asleep Anoop of the last several shows. But then he decided to do "Ooh Baby Baby," which was ambitious and a little unwise. Anoop has wonderful range, but his chief strength as a vocalist is the fine sustain on his notes in the upper register of his comfort zone. "Ooh Baby Baby" isn't in anyone's comfort zone, skipping from verses below where Anoop would ideally like to start to superhuman falsetto. For the most part Desai had the notes, but it's awfully hard to stay in key in your falsetto head voice and maintain a level of personal expression at the same time. (That's part of what made Lambert's "Tracks of My Tears," later on, so impressive.) While in pitch Anoop was straining just to stay there, and you could hear a lot of gasping and popping on the microphone. It probably works best in Anoop's long-term interests to have a real technical wrestling match like this under his belt, but he needs to get back to moving around pronto. 7
Michael Sarver It was kind of sad watching Michael rush and huff his way through "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." It simply wasn't meant to be, although he might have raised his odds a little bit by slowing it down at least a little and grafting some country elements on to it -- that would have made his rapid-fire transitions into the chroruses sound a little more at home. He needed to do something to personalize the number because allowing the band to default to karaoke mode invited deeply unflattering comparisons. As it was it was average and forgettable, though not without its charming moments -- Michael's no "Idol" champion, but there have been less qualified finalists over the years. Trouble is you can't sing "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and not win people over, and Sarver wasn't winning anybody with that interpretation. Average and forgettable, but not unpleasant. An ideal "Idol" epitaph for Michael, who's got to be the chalk to go tonight. 5
Lil Rounds This was the big shocker on the night for me. Lil tends to impersonate Mary J. Blige on everything, but even to do that requires rare talent. When it came time to deliver in a different style, I figured she'd have the goods to carry over. Not so much. Lil's "Heatwave" was a near-disaster. If it had come a week or two later in the competition, it might have been a killer. She managed to put in some virtuoso work near the end to save a lot of the glaringly blue beginning third, but she sounded harsh throughout. It's the worst we've seen her on the show by a wide margin, and that sudden jarring shift in quality might hurt her disproportionately. Her status as a possible big winner is shaken, in my mind. Can she avoid ever having to get out of her comfort zone again? It's hard to say that she can if the fairly small leap from Mary J. to 60's R&B is a complete puzzler. 6
Adam Lambert Adam is still way too fond of himself and his Sophomore Spring Play dress-up ensembles, but for the first time in ages he let the song call the shots instead of trying to flamboyantly redefine a classic for the Adam Era. He still overreaches theatrically from time to time but for the most part his "The Tracks of My Tears" was a bold new level of not sucking for Lambert, who desecrated "Ring of Fire" just a week ago. He didn't try to hump the song to death, and that in itself was so refreshing that he went up a few notches in my personal estimation. It was quite a beautiful and affecting use of his authentic talent, in fact. His expressiveness in his falsetto notes put Anoop Desai to shame. It was also the most interesting reimagination of the night by far, arguably the only real reimagination -- Scott MacIntyre went out of his way to make "Can't Hurry Love" sound white, but Phil Collins had already done most of the leg work for him. Still pretty surprised by how emotional of a performance it was from a guy who comes across as a bit of an ice queen -- perhaps Adam does have a soul after all. 9
Danny Gokey Male co-favorite Danny has the best efforts of the production team behind him -- it's amazing how the stage lights up with 3D effects and adoring flattering yellows for Danny, while Allison Iraheta sings in front of a white sheet in a single puke-green spotlight. But Danny's vocals are becoming like the special effects, lots of movement and bright colors but very little real excitement. Danny is convincing as an inspirational figure, but not so much as a party-hearty floor-filler, and his "Get Ready" showed momentum-killing detachment from the subject matter. And vaguely musical shouting is his only real vocal weapon, whether he's doing a ballad or a rocker. I'm bored of him. 6
Allison Iraheta Allison didn't quite process all of the lyrics for "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," and it's too bad, because it kept me from giving her a rare 10. But I'm happy to save it for a later date, but Allison is quickly establishing herself as the only "Idol" contender with stage-transcending, once-a-generation talent. My goodness, she really can sing anything. She's powerful but she doesn't press the accelerator all the way down on every note, she has unteachable instincts (and a valuable sense of humor) when it comes to dirtying up a phrase here and there, and she has a look and style that's she's comfortable with without having to need to tinker with it every time out. In short she's a natural, and the sort of singer "Idol" loved to promote... for the first two seasons. This season, the less authentic, but far more marketable (and coachable) Adam is the guy. It'll be funny to see how the producers and judges conspire to torpedo the unflappable Allison, who seems barely aware of her surroundings most of the time. She was helpful enough to point out this week that Simon had drawn a mustache on Paula with a crayon when the audience couldn't see, in a little scene that could well have been concocted to make her appear more fully conscious. Maybe 19 thinks she's more marketable than I think they do. 9
Michael Sarver, everybody? Seems kind of obvious, although there are more cute boys around than cute girls to split the vote. Megan might go out for that reason. I think she's been interesting enough to keep voters loyal -- and she's consistently worn less clothes each and every time on stage, which is key. Michael on the other hand is more generic than Megan, who's uniquely bad, and thus I feel more likely to slip out of people's phone-voting memories.