Thursday, May 7, 2009

Slash Fiction

"American Idol"
Fox via DVR

I'm late getting to the "Idol" party this week, and I hope you'll forgive me. I was as excited for this episode, featuring surprisingly radical guest mentor Slash, as any this season. But that's not saying that much, and on Tuesday night itself the NBA playoffs proved a more appealing live programming option. That reminds me, wouldn't it be radical if the Lakers made an early playoff exit one of these years and "Idol" brought Kobe in as a guest mentor? They had Quentin Tarantino, so it's hardly like musical talent is expected or required. And who knows more about throwing your weight around, refusing to share the spotlight, and making everything all about you in L.A. than Kobe Bryant?

Slash is kind of a mellow guy, for a legend of hard rock and charter member of the hardest-partying band of the extremely party-hearty late 1980's. While Axl Rose has spent the last 15 years working on a followup GnR album that people stopped anticipating a decade ago, Slash has been touring, playing, doing his thing, mostly in bands that are less dangerous, less ambitious versions of the original article. But what came across most in his low-key "Idol" stint was his essential good nature, his lack of bitterness or a chip on his shoulder. Axl is defined by his inferiority complex, Slash has nothing in particular to prove. He had nice things to say about all the "Idol" finalists, if little helpful advice. I loved the idea of each of the musicians jamming out in front of Slash's band, but so as to not undermine the live performances, the producers didn't share any of this footage. I'm sure it's online somewhere.

The big news on the conspiracy-theory front this week is the random new device of duets. Instead of having each singer go twice this week (that's what they did last year when they were down to four) they had one individual appearance each and then each sang a duet with a partner apparently selected by the producers. Evidently the producers have finally realized that Allison Iraheta would be a much better finale foil for Adam Lambert than the genial but limited Danny Gokey. So Allison and Adam got to close the night with a "Slow Ride" dripping in star power while Danny and Kris Allen were mismatched for a talent-show level "Mama." The duet thing was unbelievably weird, in addition to being unfair. Kris had to find a song he could reasonably sing with Danny, while both Adam and Allison hardly seem to have any limitations left at this point. What's interesting is that the arrangements couldn't have been more different. Kris and Danny actually harmonized for large sections of their piece, and they sounded really good -- Kris's natural pocket is just about exactly a third higher than Danny's.

Adam and Allison, on the other hand, just took turns in a "you fire and then I'll fire" kind of arrangement. That's less impressive than learning a tough harmony under huge pressure, in less than a week, and with an entire other solo performance about which to worry. But frankly, Adam and Allison got a much better song and are much better singers than Danny and Kris. Even though they had less work to put in, they sounded vastly better. So I don't think the duets really proved anything, and if they did, they had the opposite effect from what they should have. I'm not going to give them their own paragraphs.

Adam Lambert Adam has veered back and forth between unlistenably self-indulgent and pretty damn swell. "Whole Lotta Love" could have been a mess for him, but he showed admirable restraint. Basically, he sung the song as people remember it rather than overloading it with runs, wails, and that peculiar modal raga scale he uses sometimes. As it was it was nervy and thrilling, a cross between Zep and Queen with an in-key authority nobody else in the field could deliver. One of Adam's signature outings, and all because he played it relatively safe by his standards. 9

Allison Iraheta I didn't think "Cry Baby" was a very good choice for Allison. Janis Joplin is an icon of an entirely different sort, an instinctive vocalist who wasn't in key most of the time but became a legend due to her intensity, passion, and mystique. Allison is a masterful technical singer, and I would have liked to hear her sing a rocker with less bluesy simplicity and more challenging melodic passages. She seemed a little unsure what to do with all the space her song choice left her, and she wobbled away from pitch at times in a way she hardly ever does. While the vocal wasn't her best technically it was nice to see her feel the song a little bit and move around on stage in a convincing way. She was also swaggering nicely during the duet, feeding off of Adam's energy. While the increase in confidence is nice to see she still has yet to make a number really pop in that YouTube, water-cooler sensation way. With such a broad theme ("rock") it would have cool to see her do something harder-edged and further from her comfort zone. (It'll never happen in a million years on "Idol," but couldn't you totally hear Allison singing a Tool song?) People are paying closer attention now. 8

Kris Allen When they did Beatles songs for the first time last year, it was presented as a special occasion -- two weeks of nothing but, as if to separate these timeless classics from the dreck that fills that "Idol" air most weeks. Kris slipping "Come Together" into Slash night marked the first time that a Beatles song was part of a "regular" broadcast, and it felt a little weird. Among other things, it's not really a song that flatters its singer -- the verses mostly ride a single note and the chorus hook is deliberately universal. Apparently Kris decided at the last moment against "Revolution," which would have been prettier but has the same problem with disconnect to the relentlessly maintained apolitical character of "Idol." Kris's performance didn't hit the level he needed it to to remake himself as a serious contender. He's certainly the most musically innovative of the field this year, and he's benefited from it, but he doesn't rank at the same level as quirky alternatives from years past (Blake, Jason, Brooke). It was interesting to hear Kris's more laid-back vocal style set against what passes as a hard-rocking performance from the band, but it also floated over into frat-party cover band territory at points. He didn't need his guitar at all on this one. We're all still waiting to be blown away and Kris has but a handful of chances remaining. This night would have been way better if they'd all gotten to do two songs instead of the silly duets, right? Then Kris could have done "Come Together" and something a little more ambitious, and Allison could have added a screamer, and Adam would have gotten another winner in there, and Danny... would have done the same exact thing he does every time. Only twice. 7

Danny Gokey It seems to me as if Danny has lasted something like 10 weeks longer than is justified by his musical talent alone. So, you got to hand that to him. He was given an advantage at the outset and he's never failed to press it, always staying close to his comfort zone and continuing to send out vibes of modesty and decentness. Now with only four people left, Danny realized he had to raise his game somewhat in order to goose his vote totals and stay alive for another week. So he picked "Dream On," a classic rock screamer's song, and it seems as if he bit off slightly more than he could chew. He made a total hash of the first verse, staying flat the entire time before transitioning directly to yelling. But the yelling part? Not bad! He managed to reflect the harsh quality of Steven Tyler's vocal from the original while staying in key and putting his own stamp on it. He did elect to throw in a "doot doot doo" at one point during the big chorus, which was hugely stupid. But then he got to the big free scream crescendo and gave it his everything, which was questionably musical but pretty damn entertaining. If he goes out this way -- and he should, because the other three are better -- he's going out with gusto. 7

My prediction, if I'd written this thing in a timely fashion, would have been Danny. But it ended up being Allison, which is a load of crap. This stupid show.


  1. I wasn't a big fan of any of the performances this week. Adam didn't really add anything to "Whole Lotta Love" and his big ending was just plain creepy. Allison sounded good, but the song didn't really have much of an impact - I think "Move Over" would have been a much better choice if she wanted to go with Janis Joplin. Kris' version of "Come Together" was truly forgettable and Danny's "Dream On" was a mess. It's more and more apparent each week that Adam's going to win, I just wish he had someone to give him a run for his money talent-wise.

  2. Turns out Allison and Adam asked to work together for the duet. I suppose the producers knew from past weeks' voting results that Allison had no chance of passing the other three. She got a good sendoff, one more than a few voters may end up regretting when Danny sings next. I hope she finds a good producer.

    The "Entertainment Weekly" cover story(!) about Adam Lambert is just the capper, I fear. Was it ever in question? After Lil washed out as a serious contender, nobody else had any shot of being the best each week in terms of pure vocal pyrotechnics. And Adam's doing it as a male contestant.

    The best thing about the "EW" piece is the carefully triangulated passage on Glambert's simmering passion for musical theater. Is Adam Lambert gay, or at least bi? They should have put him on the cover with a Magic 8 ball reading "Ask Again Later." The correct answer to the question is "that's not appropriate right now," which is the right tack to take given the cross sections of class and religious affiliation that tune into "Idol." It's not really up to a TV singing contest to force that discussion between parents and their kids. Maybe if this show is still rolling in 10 years, they'll have out gay teens competing each year, but network TV still treats gay content -- and this is putting it mildly -- gingerly.