Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Non-Pun Involving Word "Standard"

"American Idol"
Fox via DVR

It seems like the season took forever to get going, and now all of sudden its end is nearly upon us. The loss of Anoop and Lil, neither of whom had the faintest prayer of winning, seemed to register upon everyone still going, contestants, judges, Seacrest, and lighting designers alike. So expect (even) less graceful humor and (even more) deadly earnest ballad stylings going forward.

Standards night, like disco night, is one you have to do, but I again question the timing. With a bigger field and earlier on in the season, we'd get to see more singers trying to do radical things with these weary old tunes. Kris Allen, for one, seemed like he had a lot more in him than a straight reading of "The Way You Look Tonight" that was good but not quite as good as the version done by the Vegas hologram on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine." But with everything to lose and only other four other options left to be low vote-getter, the safe play was irresistible. The whole night was like "American Idol" versions of moving the runner over to second, not an extra-base hit in the bunch. But also it has to be acknowledged that they've done a better job than usual with sending talent home this year. All five of the kids left can sing, and all are capable of putting together a real showstopper, flashing some gap power -- Danny alone might need a wind assist.

Kris Allen Kris got the pole position slot for the evening, which is not usually a good omen. You can't be merely okay when you're up first. Given his vocal abilities and the defensible decision we've already discussed to not attempt anything frisky with the arrangement, Allen did the best he could. His vocal was on key for the most part, although I didn't like everything after the dramatic key change towards the finish. He needed to take that kind of risk, having not really built up his vocal resume over the past several shows, concentrating more on burnishing his musicality. I go back and forth on whether Kris is a good musician who doesn't embarrass himself with his singing voice (like Scott MacIntyre) or whether he's got a genuine gift. I don't think he was ever going to prove himself with a melody this far out of his comfort zone, but he did get some good stuff in, even after the modulation. He kept some personality in his delivery, while a lot of "Idol" types can seem like they're reciting with their hands folded behind their backs when they do something this obviously unfamiliar. Kris was fairly charming, and (importantly) not old-fashioned. 7

Allison Iraheta Allison was the best bet to shake it up and stick some guitar feedback on her song, but she didn't. She did let her voice get some gravelly rock feel into it for emphasis at a few points, but for the most part it was the most subdued we've heard her all season. She's managed to justify belting something in every week up to this point, but it hasn't really seemed as if she's been repeating herself. And her "Someone to Watch Over Me" gave a new kind of evidence as to why: She's the most talented singer in this group. Her rare expression, control, and sustain remind you more of listening to a really cracking jazz soloist than the comparative bleating coming from the rest of the field. She seemed more isolated than ever before as the only female left, but bore up under the pressure. For the first time all season you felt some of that transcendent "Idol" magic in Allison's vocal, something Lakisha Jones and Melinda Doolittle were bringing with regularity a few seasons ago but has been nearly forgotten with all this newfound focus on "package" artists. Package, hell! All you need is pipes and this girl has them. I'm going to be super cranky when she doesn't win, however soon that may be. 9

Matt Giraud I certainly don't begrudge him getting a few more chances to prove his mettle at the expense of Anoop, but Matt looks and sounds like a zombie at this point -- it might have been better off for all parties involved if the judges had exercised restraint. I don't think there's anything in his entire body of work on "Idol" that suggests he has a real spark of musical originality anywhere in his desperate-to-please body. The Giraud take on "My Funny Valentine" had the same sort of stuff we've been harping on for months -- sour low notes half-swallowed in a garbled stab towards soulfulness, valiant but blue falsetto runs, no sign whatsoever of unique human spark. For some reason Matt's style inspired the band, likely unprompted, to head in markedly more lounge-ish direction than they went for the other contestants, for whom they erred on the side of taste. Ill-conceived and uncomfortable, as is par for the course for Matt. Perhaps he'll rebound by becoming the keyboard player in Adam Lambert's band, much as Chris Sligh did for Blake Lewis. 6

Danny Gokey Danny is Matt's opposite number, kind of. He has no musical ability whatsoever, yet he still has better instincts than Giraud, who's a fabulous pianist. For all Matt's study, he comes across like a witless clod. Danny? Well, he comes across like a witty clod, which is somewhat better. When Danny picks something he can sing, you know you're going to get a game effort with a few enjoyable moments, although his overall lack of consistency and professionalism never fully go away either. At least Danny seems less aggrieved by the whole thing than Matt, and that's to his credit, although he's gotten fluffy-pillow treatment from the judges the entire way through (and I'm pretty sure he's never been in the bottom three). This is all going a long way to say Danny deserves to last one more week than Matt, even though his "Come Rain or Come Shine" was another pretty mediocre shout-a-second vocal from the most perplexingly well-received crooner of Season 8. Standards suit him less well than others, as he seemed stiff and overcharged for the atmosphere of the song. Guest coach Jamie Foxx, by the way, was genuinely impressed by the talent of the other four singers... but worked out a comedy number to sidestep having to give his honest opinion of Danny. 6

Adam Lambert I'm working my way into accepting an Adam coronation in the upcoming finale, but I have to say his song choice -- "Feeling Good" -- has had more than its fair airing on "Idol" by now and has been found wanting. No more, please. It's wild how much more effort the producers put into Adam's performances than everyone else's; it looked like Laser Floyd out there while Adam was singing. For Allison I think they used a bare 60-watt Sylvania on a desk lamp duct-taped to a broomhandle. Adam battles his demons of theatricality every week. This time, his first few bars, before the band and the lights and the whole nine yards kicked in, were fantastic. Captivating, like his "Mad World," and not a note given the least bit more force than needed. Then he got the main body and started shrieking again. What can you say? The judges tell him everything he does is genius, especially the extemporaneous falsetto screeching, so he keeps giving them what they want. At some point you have to imagine they're going to put him in a studio with a real professional producer, and the poor S.O.B. is going to be tearing out his hair getting Adam to stick to the melodies as written so all of the backing vocals will line up right. Adam's very long, held climax note was a little much -- not a lot of call for that sort of thing in pop music -- but it was impressive. 8

I think Matt has to go this time. I mean, he was given a second chance to prove the voters were wrong when they sent him packing two weeks ago, and what has he done? A transparently desperate "Stayin' Alive" and a pedestrian "Funny Valentine." Allison meanwhile is super awesome and Danny, Adam, and Kris have been judged far more positively. If I had to pick another, Danny would be my surprise choice. He's never been in danger, but... I mean, come on, line up those five singers and listen to them all for ten seconds. Which one is the least good, not counting deceased spouses?

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