Monthly archives: April 2008
"Idol" Top Five: Not Even the Chair
I can't think of anything to say about Neil Diamond. I don't dislike him exactly, but his popularity and longevity mystify me. There are so many better songwriters in the world. I went to a concert last week in Boulder featuring Nick Lowe and Ron Sexsmith, two songwriters who are exponentially better, and the place was half empty. But Neil Diamond has sold hundreds of millions of records. The world is very strange.
This season of "American Idol" is getting strange, too. The producers seem determined to change every little nagging detail all at once, including some that didn't really need changing. For the first night of the season where each contestant would be called upon to perform two songs instead of one, the judges were asked to hold off on doing their little comment schpiel until after the second song. Except after the first five performances, Ryan Seacrest brought the whole cast out and asked the judges to recap the round quickly, which led to the season's highlight thus far, and one unlikely to be topped -- Paula Abdul's inexplicable conviction that Jason Castro had already performed two songs when indeed he had only performed one. Whatever it is she's taking, I want the prescription.
Jason Castro I think that the producers see Castro as the biggest threat to their idealized David Cook-David Archuleta showdown, and that's why the judges have been increasingly savage on him in the past few weeks. While it is true that the laid-back Castro is prone to experiencing lulls, I rather liked both of his Tuesday songs. "Forever in Blue Jeans," particularly, suited Jason's vibe, and it was surprisingly pleasant to hear his lower register utilized for once. He didn't try and make a reggae song out of it, and the result was to my ears the most commercial-sounding tune we've heard from Castro. It was also about as good technically as he's capable of being. His "September Morn" was less satisfactory. His voiced strained obviously at a few points and while the parts that were in the pocket were affecting on the whole he didn't seem to find a personal entry into the song in the way he did "Blue Jeans." Still, I thought the harsh words he received from Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell were uncalled for. If the objective for an "American Idol" candidate is to illustrate what one would be like as a successful recording artist, Jason is doing a better job than David Archuleta. 9/7
David Cook Cook, I feel it is underreported, sounds much worse than he tries to sing a song "straight" rather than imposing his own arrangement (or someone else's arrangement that suits his style) than does Jason Castro. Cook did "I'm Alive" more or less like a Neil Diamond song and it sounded wrong, almost as if he was attempting an impersonation at points. The arrangement was large but not in the fashion that lets Cook best showcase his power. If he was going to attempt to show his more introspective side, he could have at least picked a more familiar melody so that people could have better followed how well he was doing. As for his second outing, Cook's rendition of "All I Really Need Is You" was much more what we've come to expect from the guy, a relevant-sounding hard-pop-rocker with soaring, gritty vocals. I haven't always been Cook's biggest fan, but I would be far happier with a David Cook win than a David Archuleta win. 7/9
Brooke White When "Idol" did the two-week Beatles song theme earlier in the season, Brooke White had two performances that had the same Jekyll and Hyde character as her two Diamond tunes from last night. When she did "Let It Be," it was elegant and moving. Her "Here Comes the Sun" was gaudy and tacky and both White and the viewer felt as if they couldn't wait for it to be over. White's "I'm a Believer" and "I Am, I Said" demonstrated the same duality, only conveniently this time White saved the good one for her second go-round. That might save her from elimination this week, because "I'm a Believer" was dreadful indeed. It sounded off, the tempo was sluggish, White's vocal was a disaster, and she looked and sounded utterly miserable. I thought for all the world that she was sabotaging herself so that she could go home. But then she came on for the second time and was quite lovely, so who's to say? Obviously whatever record company gets a hold of Brooke needs to keep her away from the upbeat stuff. 5/8
David Archuleta Snooze buttons engage! David Archuleta hasn't developed musically or emotionally for this entire season, and his first choice of "Sweet Caroline" revealed this -- even singing a song about holding hands, Archuleta's utter lack of adult sex appeal made the lyrics sound like something being parroted by a high school kid in a musical theater production. I don't understand -- well, I do understand, but I resent it -- why the judges don't take David to task for using such an unshaded, open-throated theatrical style of singing when it's supposed to be a contest looking for a pop recording artist. Who was the last guy have to a hit single taken from a musical, Murray Head? David's second song, "America," was presented with the same billowing-flag scenery as the producers gave Kristy Lee Cook for her abominable "God Bless the USA." It wasn't quite as base as that occasion, however, since David probably did not consciously choose the song looking for votes and certainly does not need them. Past that, though, Archuleta sounded even more hammy and old-fashioned on the song than he did on his first number. 7/7
Syesha Mercado Syesha might have been the evening's best performer, but I also think she's the most likely to go home. The numbers start to work against you at this point, and I just think based on the amount of blog coverage and extraneous screen time they get that the other four are all more popular than Mercado. She can hang her head high if this is the point she goes out. She more than anyone else in the cast grew over the course of the season. She started out as an actress with a good sense of stage presence, some raw vocal talent, and little idea of her identity. She's leaving as a great singer with possible careers ahead of her in either field. First she challenged herself and made herself better by picking harder and harder songs each week, and now we're seeing her begin to define her own style. Her first Diamond choice, "Hello Again," was done in a ballad style that's nothing new for Syesha, but as it was a less difficult melody we got to hear her really express herself and play around with her delivery in her middle register. The second song, "Thank the Lord for the Nighttime," was not as technically precise but it did introduce a swinging 60's girl-group vibe that fit Syesha surprisingly well. She also looked as beautiful as she has all season. She blew away Archuleta and Brooke last night but if it's her time, it'll be perhaps the best way to go. 9/8
Like I said, I like Syesha Mercado to get sent packing tonight, through no fault of her own. The six-sided die likes Brooke White.
"Idol" Lloyd Webber: God Save the Queen
Okay, was it me -- or was Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber flirting with David Archuleta and David Cook? Obviously he has the same taste as the "Idol" producers, who could not make their preferences for the final more clear if they digitally put little frowny faces on Jason, Syesha, Carly, and Brooke. Or little skulls and crossbones -- all of those kids are dead meat. It's going to be the "Daves I Know" final, and may God have mercy on our souls if David Archuleta wins. His eye twinkles might melt your flatscreen.
This was a predictable week -- Syesha and Carly pushed it to no avail, Brooke and Jason were set up to fail, and David and David... well, they were pretty good. If singing was the only factor in play, Jason Castro would go home, undoubtedly. Brooke White was actually pretty good for the second half of her number and everybody else was a cut above. Syesha in particular was marvelous, giving easily the most expressive performance of the evening and a fine technical vocal as well, although she didn't pick as difficult a song as some. The fact that Mercado went first -- and the rather large Jason Castro fanbase -- could topple her anyway, which would be the worst injustice of the season so far. A Carly Smithson ejection would be a surprise too, but I for one wouldn't mind seeing her go. Her act has worn thin.
As for Jason and Brooke, I feel for them. This was supposed to be the "musician" season of "American Idol" as opposed to another diva season, and Andrew Lloyd Webber night was just asking for trouble. Jason Castro didn't seem to know anything about Webber at all (which is Castro's own fault, but still). It would be pretty wacky if both of them survived, but somehow I doubt it. The musical theme is going to end up costing the show one of its two most interesting characters, and from a drama perspective that's too bad. Clearly 19 Entertainment feels as if whatever drama is lost from the show, they'll make it up on the back end when both David Cook and David Archuleta become superstars. I don't know about Archuleta -- he tried a bit of a love song for the first time this week and he sounded utterly irrelevant -- but Cook is going to make somebody some dough.
Syesha Mercado Syesha has lasted a lot longer than I gave her a shot to, and that's partly been by choosing harder and harder songs each week and showing steady improvement on them. She did "One Rock & Roll Too Many" and started it as kind of a nightclub number, only blown up for the big stage, with a sexy reveal and some antic facial expressions. When the arrangement expanded to use the whole band proceedings got a lot less interesting; Syesha started out sounding smoky and beguiling but ended up just sounded like bland, overprojected musical theater. She whiffed on one big note near the end but that was the only thing keeping her from a perfect score technically. I thought she was great and ought to rally some undecided/former Kristy voters to her side, but those votes could go to Brooke or Jason as well. 9
Jason Castro Jason probably could have gotten out of Lloyd Webber week bruised but not broken if he'd picked something within his range that fewer people were familiar with, but fatally he picked "Memory," which was really just stupid. Everyone knows that melody and thus everyone knows that Jason sung it brutally, with his low register flapping like an untuned bass string and his high notes not even coming close. Folks, it was ugly. Despite the lumpy technical delivery the song wasn't entirely without its charms. Jason was affecting in his higher register (which while still imperfect sounded truer than his lows to mids) and his body language had an "I know I'm toast" feel that some might find a tad endearing. The judges rightly raked him over the coals. I didn't think it was Sanjaya-level horrible but it certainly was a disastrously bad vocal for the fifth-from-last "American Idol" of the season. 4
Brooke White Poor, overmatched Brooke blew the first line of her "You Must Love Me," leading to a mortifying few seconds where she had to announce she'd screwed up and ask the band to begin again. Or wait a second. Did Brooke really forget a line? Or... was she playing the deep strategy, trying to draw some attacks from the judges and thus sympathy from her voters? Perhaps Brooke thinks she isn't going to win over a lot of new fans at this point and thus she needs to try drastic measures to get her fans to vote even more often than they do already. That might be conspiracy theory, but stranger things have happened on this show. White was almost as bad as Jason for the first half of her tune but really, really picked it up when the song swelled up -- I've always thought that Brooke had more pure vocal talent than we were seeing, and for a little while we saw just that. Overall, though, it simply wasn't polished or professional on the level of the rest of the cast last night save Castro. 6
David Archuleta This night could have been designed for pitch-perfect, content-light David Archuleta, the only male in the cast really with the instrument to sing theater. Weirdly David picked a song written to be sung by a woman, and it really backfired on him. His "Think of Me" was nowhere near as good as we have come to expect from the 17-year-old. He normally misses only a handful of notes each outing but on Tuesday he was noticeably off a good number of times. He also didn't give as good of a performance interpretation as the others, pretty much just walking around and smiling. He's such a lock to move on that Fox should replace his performances from here on out with promos for "'Til Death." 7
Carly Smithson Carly chose "Superstar," and it was really nice to get one uptempo number mixed in with all the dreariness. That right there may have predisposed me to rate Carly a little higher than she merited. She was very strident, sometimes singing so hard that she lost tonality and was just shouting. The song choice called for it more than some of the other tracks Carly has howled through, but it still was a little much. Smithson's desperation is her least attractive quality. It will be interesting to see if she avoids the top three. Perhaps her choice of a religious-themed number (even if it is sung from the perspective of an angelic Judas) will give her a boost in the Bible Belt. 8
David Cook David like Jason Castro had a slight "this is not my scene" expression on his face for the entire night, but Cook was better equipped than Castro to coast through the night on a good but not great vocal. Cook didn't take too many chances on "Music of the Night." He found a way to get his hard rock singer ballad croon into the arrangement at points, but for the most part he sang it straight. This was not an entirely unpleasant experience, as David Cook -- unlike Jason Castro -- has a pretty good, not great, pure singing voice. If David had been fully engaged in the song, he probably could have really blown it away. But I can see the wisdom behind taking it easy this week and saving up my ammo for the battle to come. Rocker David versus Little David! Either way, Nigel Lythgoe wins! 7
The picks: It's got to be Jason Castro. I don't think his fans are going to want to vote for him after that -- I think they're going to feel sorry for him and think like Amanda Overmyer when she went it's just his time to go. Jason is a dreadlocked college student who loves reggae, and he's been sequestered under 24-hour "Idol" surveillance for months now. How long do you suppose it's been since Jason smoked a joint? Poor guy must be bouncing off the walls. Maybe he picked "Memory" to sabotage himself.
Six-sided die -- you probably have some of those in your house -- likes... wow, Jason Castro. That's the second time that's happened in a row, the die and I agreeing. It didn't bode well for Kristy Lee Cook. We'll see how it goes for JC.
"Idol" Rundown: Mariah! Mariah!
Although part of me was hoping to see Mariah Carey and Paula Abdul compete to out-crazy each other on "American Idol" last night, as it turned out Carey was the best guest coach they've had all season. She listened, she gave intelligent opinions, and she gave David Archuleta a genuinely insightful tip. Carey might be loopy, but she's no dummy.
As for the final seven, there are six of them who could win (although Syesha Mercado's and, increasingly, Carly Smithson's chances are slim) and there's Kristy Lee Cook, who sounded unbearably wretched compared to everyone else in the field. Even Jason Castro outsang her handily. Castro and, even more so, Brooke White seemed back on their games as we close in on the finale. David Archuleta remains formidable, as maddeningly vanilla as his song choices continue to be. The night belonged however to David Cook, who put a highly unexpected and frankly quite brilliant on "Always Be My Baby" -- an arrangement I'm almost certain Cook didn't lift from some obscure version he found online.
David Archuleta There are some things about David that will never change -- his predilection for "inspirational" songs of any stripe, his appeal to preadolescents and grandmothers, his inability to add the least bit of original shading or personality into any vocal. But I will concede that the David whose last name I can't remember has been expanding the limits of his fine instrument with his last few outings and that's what he has to do -- all he can do, really -- to win the competition. In the event he does, he will surely not be more successful than the likes of David Cook and Brooke White. David's "When You Believe" was blatantly obvious, but it gave him a lot of tough notes to hit. Past recurring problems with his very low register, he hit them. I think that if Archuleta had any musical knowhow at all, he would have rearranged the melody into a sequence more suited to a male voice, which is less suited to making huge rapid drops up and down in pitch. But as it seems I write every week, Archuleta doesn't know anything about anything. Not music technically, not anything about its history except for the inescapable megahits -- he probably has the "Macarena" on his 4-gig flash drive iPod, which is two-thirds empty. 8
Carly Smithson Carly performed as if she thought she was absolutely destroying "Without You," but really it was merely engaging -- a lot of the tune's impact was blunted by an arrangement that put every note somewhere where Carly could murder it. That was a bad idea -- other singers on the night, and far less talented ones at that, got into the spirit of the theme (Carey, as Knocked Up's Ryan Seacrest narrated at the top of the show, has a five-octave range) by just giving the notes that were way out of their league the old college try. If Carly had challenged herself, she could have blown those kids out of the water. She didn't, though -- it's like the field was all playing Guitar Hero and Carly set it on Medum while the other six had to play Expert. She might have gotten away with this gambit, but the judges called her on it, old school. Have they turned? It would certainly be a shocker, and a travesty, if Carly went home over Kristy Lee this week. Were I the producers, I would toootally fix things so this happened. 9
Syesha Mercado Syesha has survived a long time by repeatedly being slightly better than I thought she was -- since this keeps happening logic dictates that she must be continuously improving. She swings for the fences each time out, a risky but defensible approach given her position, and I think it's worked once again with a "Vanishing" that despite its obscurity (ironically, not to me -- I was all over Mariah Carey's debut album when I was ten, I listened to that cassette over and over again, maybe Syesha did too) really won me over. Syesha picks a song that's too hard for her every time out and it always costs her a perfect score but impressively, she gets closer each time. She didn't quite reach the peak of "Vanishing," but she came close to toppling it. Syesha is still a huge longshot since she just doesn't have the following of the others I sense. It's not beyond the realm of possibility though that she just has a transcendent moment one of these weeks and surges to the finale. Given her persistent efforts to better herself it could happen. She's playing on Expert. 9
Brooke White Brooke White could go home this week, but it wouldn't be the fault of her performance, which was her best in some time. The wipeout potential on the tune "Hero" was huge. This was the toughest song White had ever attempted on "Idol" by a wide margin. Winningly, she delivered it while also giving the most confident accompaniment on the piano we've yet seen from her. That shouldn't figure into anybody's judgements about whether White should continue on "Idol," but it does show her shaping into someone who's going to sign a record deal right after her ejection and releasing a record quickly with several of her own compositions on it. I felt like after a few detours that took White out of her comfort zone and led to a bottom three scare she was at once restoring her potential as a dark horse winner and her potential as a commercial artist. The latter is rather substantially more important. The one thing that White did that was unnecessary was following the original's key shift up for the bridge. Key shifts like that are an imperative part of diva music, since they allow the Big Finish to commence, but since White was giving it more of a reading in her Carole King-derived style, it would have been totally appropriate (and face-saving). Anyway, I thought even with the fluffed notes on the bridge it was a pretty nice one and I think Brooke moves on. 8
Kristy Lee Cook Kristy's "Forever" was so bland, glitchy, and stiff that I felt bad for her -- she's a draft horse in the field of thoroughbreds, talentwise. I think she's a near-lock to get the axe. Her attempt to graft a bit of a country feel on to the tune didn't go all the way -- she still tried to sing it like a ballad, only she missed her mark about every fifth or sixth note. Every single person who went before her was massively better, something that at least some of the people who have been voting for her week in week out had to notice. 6
David Cook Cook's "Always Be My Baby" was reminiscent of Blake Lewis's "You Give Love a Bad Name," a radical remix that was so eye-popping it changed the shape of the whole season. Only Cook is already a strong #2 favorite right behind David Archuleta. Will this be enough to defeat Mr. Adorable? No. Cook has to be this good or better pretty much every time out after this, which seems unfair since all Archuleta has to do is not forget to put his pants on... or the lyrics. I don't know if I can understate how smart Cook's treatment of this song was. By throwing in some haunting suspended chords and delivering the vocals in a knowing growl, he totally gave the song a stalker subtext (euphemistically identified by Carey as a "male take") that one would have thought impossible. That's pretty badass for "American Idol." It seems plain that to complete the theme of reinvention, renewed relevance, and "the most talented cast ever" David Cook would be the ideal winner of "American Idol" this season. He'd be the first "rocker" winner, the first instrumentalist, and certainly no complete commercial stiff like Ruben Studdard or Taylor Hicks. As for David Archuleta... about 94% of mainstream hits these days are love songs. Either that or anthems about how hard you're going to party. Neither seems something David Archuleta can deliver with any authority, so who's buying his records? Not all the people who are voting for him. By the time his album comes out they will all be obsessed with whomever is the cutie-patootie of "Idol" Season Eight. 8
Jason Castro Tough act to follow for Jason, who did sound a little more confident and invigorated adding hand percussion and an island feel (reggae from the guy with dreadlocks -- it's a rule) to "I Don't Want to Cry." I didn't think it was either as good as Paula and Simon did nor as bad as Randy did (the incredibly rare Paula-Simon/Randy split was trenchantly noted by the ceremony with which Cowell revealed he was siding with Forever Your Girl). Although the sound of the performance was nothing out of the ordinary for Jason the difficulty of his vocal part was -- it was the first time I felt as if Castro was challenging himself in a month. He did better than I though he would, too, hitting most of the notes, if not exactly with authority. At the very least most of his croaks were in pitch. I also felt that like Kristy Lee's sort-of not-quite country touch, the monster ballad nature could not quite be killed. He should have gone further, and used fewer instruments. Could he maybe be a shock ejection? No, I think the big pats on the back from (two out of three of) the judges keep him going. Bottom three? Totally could happen, it could be anybody in there. Likely not David Cook. Absolutely not David Archuleta. 7
This week the die and I agree that Kristy Lee Cook must go. MUST go. Whether I actually threw the die or fixed things because I hate Kristy Lee's singing so much I leave for you to speculate for yourselves.
"Idol" Inspirational Night: No Subhead Suffices
"American Idol" ought to be getting super exciting right about now, now that almost every obvious candidate for elimination has been sent home and those left have to start manuevering to put themselves into position to win the thing. The trouble is, the people who run "Idol" hate music, and television, and particularly you, and they want to have Inspirational Week. Something about making all the contestants wear white fills them with a sense of accomplishment. As for actual entertainment, look elsewhere. HBO's "John Adams" miniseries is very good.
The big charity week of the show had an unexpected warped nature this time out, since the producers haven't given the cast a single chance to pick their own material the whole season long. This meant that a few of the more desperate people in the field took rather radical interpretations of the category and we ended up with the weird, fevered, but not precisely inspirational "Dream On" of Michael Johns and a strident, hectoring "The Show Must Go On" from Carly Smithson, whose sweaty desperation officially became obnoxious this time. Emotional favorites Jason Castro and Brooke White made obvious choices again, were underwhelming delivering them, and yet should be able to coast through another vote. David Archuleta, who picks a generically inspirational tune every week, was as good as he's been in a long time, finding some unexpected dimensions of expressiveness in his normally vanilla vocals. David Cook was off for the first time in a while, indulgently choosing a song by a terrible band with no melody. Kristy Lee Cook and Syesha Mercado are both lucky to still be alive but neither has any surprises to pull out at this point; even when they're okay as they both were Tuesday it still seems like a deathwatch for that pair. Or maybe it will be Carly, who really does need to be put out of her misery -- you'd think in the seventh season everyone would be savvy to what "Idol" is and how it works, but Smithson seems so white-knuckle set on winning that she's wrecking her chances of having a successful music career after the competition whether she wins or not. She's exhausting to me, and I suspect that the voters might feel the same way.
Michael Johns Michael's logic behind choosing Aerosmith's "Dream On" as an inspirational tune was a bit tortured. Whatever he said for the purposes of the show, what his internal thinking must have been is obvious -- after weeks of scuffling, he'd finally shown his voice in its best light and wanted to bring it with another scorcher. Trouble is, "Dream On" has a slow build that didn't really lend itself to the truncated minute-and-a-half "Idol" format and by rushing to the end, Johns was mostly just squealing by the climax. It was a song choice that a contender would make, but not much of a performance. Whenever I hear "Dream On" I think of how much Steven Tyler's voice has changed since the original was recorded in the early 70's and it seemed like Michael was thinking about that too, he sounded rather imitative for most of the song. Even if he had made more of an effort to stamp his own identity on the tune I think it was too much for Johns' modest talents to handle. I think his built-in fanbase is larger than Carly's but I could of course be wrong. Based on the quality of the vocal he could certainly be a candidate to go home this week. 7
Syesha Mercado Syesha is so predictable with her song choices that she's selling herself short. I don't think she has any shot of winning but she could be positioning herself for a commercially relevant singing career right now. Instead she's dragging out "Idol" warhorse after warhorse in a misguided attempt to outsing everyone else in the field, not something Mercado really has the capacity to do. It's a shame because she is a very good singer and has some verve to her, but with Ramiele gone the only purpose she is serving is to keep nobly carrying the flag of "Idol"'s diva-crazy past. I guess if you want to get into deep strategy Syesha must figure she doesn't have much shot of expanding her following past where it already is so the best thing to do is pick songs that will mobilize her base. That might be the best short-run choice and it could sustain her for another... what, two or three weeks? It's past the point where Syesha could boldly redefine herself and it would be foolish to expect that of her at this point. She is what she is, which is to say a huge bore each week. It wouldn't be total justice if she got the axe instead of Michael or Kristy Lee, but it would probably make for the most entertaining show next week. 8
Jason Castro Castro's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" was cute enough, but he hasn't changed his look or style for a month and his vocals have been slipping in quality each time out. He was barely in key at all for "Rainbow," something that didn't seem to register with the judges or the crowd. Personally I would feel uncomfortable if Jason kept performing at this level and made it all the way to the final; there is a certain baseline of respectability "Idol" usually adheres to and Castro is starting to flout it. It's not like he's incapable of singing better, it just hasn't been necessary for a while since it's been so clear that he's more popular than a lot of the other singers in the field. He also still has a boost coming, because Brooke White is going to go out before he does and her fans seem a natural fit to transition over to Jason. It's been a long time since Castro could do the "Aw, shucks, I hate interviews" thing in his pre-song footage and seem believable. He needs a song that he knows really well and some sort of new hook, whatever that may be. It sure would be novel if a guy with dreadlocks who can play the ukulele won "American Idol," but it would be better for all parties involved if said winner actually deserved it a little. 6
Kristy Lee Cook I kind of feel sorry for Kristy Lee because I am running out of ways to say she's just not very good. Wait, no, I don't feel sorry for Kristy Lee. I feel sorry for myself. She brought about the best vocal she's shown throughout the whole competition in the last third of her performance Tuesday, and it was still a B-minus. That's as good as Kristy can get, and if she could look pretty and maintain that standard, it might be enough, but she only peaks at B-minus -- when she's out of key, as she was for most of the verses of her song this week, she's way worse than that. Also, every time she moves at all on stage it seems overplanned and mechanical. She'd be an excellent regional beauty pageant candidate but she's kind of a dud as an "Idol" contestant, and having prevailed on both god and country to sustain her run this unnaturally long, it'd be a fine time to ride off into the sunset. I wish we were so lucky, but I think Kristy Lee has a few more weeks in the bottom three without being the big loser left in her. I'll bet she outlasts Carly, which based solely on talent level would be a travesty. 7
David Cook David Cook has been consistently good longer than anybody else in the field. It's hard to remember the last time he came out and was just lousy. Well, not any longer! David chose to do a song called "Innocent," by the deservedly forgotten alterna-band Our Lady Peace, which according to Cook is his favorite band ever. Really? Our Lady Peace? And I thought Blake Lewis's 311 fixation was embarrassing. Well, Cook's crappy taste is a subject for another time and place, but his song pick we can deconstruct right now. Why pick a tune that allowed no space whatsoever for Cook's money vocal midrange? He was either way too deep, doing a half-assed impersonation of OLP's singer, or way too high, squeaking at us in a lumpy falsetto. Where were all the soaring notes we come to expect from Rocker David? Hiding in a better song. The judges didn't really express the sentiment coherently, but it was vain of Cook to pick a song he liked that no one had heard. He's one of the favorites, but he's not so safe that he can do whatever he wants from here on out. Another brash arrangement of a well-known tune like his watershed "Hello" would have been a good move here. Our Lady Peace was profoundly not. He's one of the few in the field who could afford a total disaster, though, and this fell a bit short of that mark. 7
Carly Smithson Vocal talent has never been the issue with Carly, who was powerful and professional again this week. The trouble is that she looks somewhere between desperate and miserable on stage, and the effect has gotten only more extreme with each passing week. Singing Queen's "The Show Must Go On" (a very weird choice indeed) Smithson was doing everything short of grabbing the audience by the lapels and demanding they like her. This had the opposite effect as intended. I'm terrified of Carly now and I want her to go away. How did she perceive a cumbersome, dated Queen anthem as a good choice for 2008's "American Idol" inspirational week? Like her hair and her outfit, the song was just... tacky. And Carly's deluded attitude that anything she does is brilliant because, well, dammit, she's Carly is one shared by few in the "Idol" viewing audience. I think that the judges and the producers want her to go home this week, in classic recognition of their own failure to shape Carly's arc properly. Her story has been supposed to inspire "Idol" viewers since early on in the auditions, yet past a small core of loyalists everyone I know who watches "Idol" is just sick to death of Carly and her tenacious need for everyone to like her as much as she likes herself. For some reason I think the "Idol" braintrust would love for Carly to go home this of all weeks. They are usually pretty good at manipulating results to meet their desires. 8
David Archuleta I still have trouble remembering his last name, but here's little David, who's really not as bad as I make him out to be sometimes nor anywhere near as good as the frothing, drooling judges describe him week after week. This was one of David's best performances, as he picked a song that was slightly more soulful than is the norm for him and he gave it some really nice flavor with vocal ad libs. He had a lot of noticeable timing issues, starting a lot of his lines late from the beat, but that is kind of a common complaint with Archuleta seeing as he knows absolutely nothing about music and has to learn his entire song from scratch every week. David is talented but just too young -- his peak is higher than Kristy Lee's but it's still no better than a B-plus or so because he simply never has any idea of what it is he's singing. He should have waited another two or three years before going on "Idol." That said, he could still totally win, if none of the more interesting but less adorable kids ahead of him seizes their moment. 8
Brooke White White did a bit of a brave thing coming off of the piano this week -- most of the times she's done that she's looked awkward and exposed. She was dressed too chastely in an unflattering pink dress but "You've Got a Friend" was a total alley-oop of a song choice, like Jason's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and she didn't blow it. White isn't going to win over new converts at this point so give her credit for a nice honest reading of a great song. When White goes, it probably won't have anything to do with her performance that week -- it will be more a product of her being the least popular singer left. I think she's ahead of a few people still so this won't be her week. Good candidate for the bottom three, though. 8
I think it's going to be Carly Smithson -- she's not that popular, and she's utterly blown her vocal advantage by picking songs terribly and dressing hideously to boot. The eight-sided die likes Michael Johns, also a distinct possibility.
"Idol" Recap: Dollyworld
Wow, Dolly Parton has written some great songs. And even in the few moments the "Idol" producers granted her, she sure sounded impassioned and serious about the craft. Like most celebrity guest coaches Parton was far too polite to criticize any of the cast -- indeed, she didn't seem to much if at all other than listen to them run it once and give a hug. So what if she maybe wasn't the best on-camera guest? The body of work she brought with her to the night is all the case Parton needs to stake her claim. On the whole contestants felt a little too free to arrange the material as they liked -- I don't think Jason Castro or even David Cook should be afraid of a little country, and David Hernandez's "Smoky Mountain Memories" just felt uncomfortable played in a neutral mallpop style -- but also I think that that's a commendable aspect of Parton's writing. Her songs with their simple chord changes, readable storylines, and strong central melodies can stand up to a lot of squeezing and pulling and still sound good.
It's going to be a tough call on elimination this week. Not because there aren't any obvious, richly deserving candidates, but because all three this week have perfect "Idol" thumb-week storylines working. Kristy Lee Cook has been treading on thin ice for a while due to the fact that she's not a very good singer; her willingness to take on the "country contestant" mantle granted by the judges led to some of the most hideous moments of the season thus far. The fact that this was country week and Kristy was substantially worse than Carly Smithson and all the boys and no better than Brooke White would make for a deliciously ironic dismissal. That probably won't happen, though, since Kristy's still got the body. More probable would be Ramiele Malubay. Ramiele is a talented singer (although to my ears she's been adrift and out-of-touch increasingly since the finals began) but she knows nothing about music history or music theory. Less-schooled such talents show up on "Idol" all the time but they tend to get tripped up on a theme week that doesn't suit them, as country did not suit the 100% high-school-talent-show Ramiele. I've also picked her to go two weeks in a row and it hasn't happened... it's bound to be coming though, right? How far would Ramiele have to last for it to be considered a travesty? Final six? Final five?
Then there's Syesha Mercado. I think Syesha's body of work on the show thus far has earned her more of a pass than either Ramiele or Kristy Lee, but... how many "Idol" wannabes have seen her dreams dashed against the rocks of Whitney. Did Syesha have to choose "I Will Always Love You?" Did she have to sing it in the precise same Whitney arrangement with the big key shift at the close... which Syesha botched completely? Syesha's performance was better than Ramiele's or Kristy Lee's, but "Idol" voters tend to react instinctually to hubris, and Syesha had no business singing that damn song.
Brooke White I was pleasantly surprised by how White took the spirit of the evening to heart and injected a bit of a twang in her voice to sing "Jolene," but it didn't quite gel -- it was a happy twang instead of a heartbroke twang. That was the major problem with Brooke's capable outing, which utilized a stripped-down band arrangement (a good choice both visually and sound-wise for Brooke) and did feature some choppy guitar playing from White. I think it's kind of beside the point to criticize the "American Idol" cast for their guitar-playing abilities, particularly this late in the game, but the judges seem to pick on Brooke disproportionately. Watching Jason Castro try to hit high notes while remembering chord shapes reminds me of trying to drive my car and pick songs on my iPod at the same time. Brooke wasn't terrible, but she could make an appearance in the bottom three thanks to going first, which is always no fun. 7
David Cook Cook continues to challenge himself with arrangements that take his voice to its limits, and he also gets that he doesn't have to use big electric guitar every song, every week to be secure in his identity as the rock guy. (Remember Robbie Carrico? Hah!) Cook's "Little Sparrow" wasn't the best he's ever shown, but theme weeks can be death traps for niche contestants and in continuing to handle every curveball with a smart answer Cook has locked down his status as someone who can win. It was also smart of Cook to finally do his own arrangement of a song instead of cribbing off someone else's. The "controversy" over that story is hugely overstated (and completely irrelevant to "Idol" voters -- the intersection set of people who vote for "American Idol" habitually and people who care deeply about fair acknowledgment of intellectual property rights is pretty damn near null) but it didn't hurt Cook any. And like we've discussed, Parton's songs aren't tricky to put your own spin on if you're motivated. 8
Ramiele Malubay Ramiele has been plummeting almost since live shows began, but she's become increasingly exposed as pretty much everybody else in the cast has tried at least once or twice to do something creative or individual. Malubay continues to present performances so shallow you wonder where the screen for the karaoke machine is. Her outfits are also garish, ill-fitting, and silly; Ramiele is not a young girl because she's petite and she should dress more to her age. I have no idea how she's managed to build such a loyal fanbase (somebody has to be voting for her in huge numbers); I suppose it's in some small part the show's core demographic of older women providing resistance against the new wave of Cook, Castro, White types. But even so Ramiele is less talented and way more bland than similar contestants of recent "Idol" vintage. As has been happening with increasing frequency of late, Ramiele's usual ability to stay on pitch left her often during her "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind." It was badly sung, her stage movements were amateur and dull, and her body language was screaming "Please send me home, I don't want to play any more." 6
Jason Castro Castro, like Brooke White, has seen a few weeks go by since the last time he genuinely blew anyone away. That's why it would have been smarter for Jason to do something in a bit of a country style, to which I think his voice might be suited, rather than a soft-rock, bongo-flecked thing that sounded... pretty much the same as Jason the week before this one, or the week before that. It's going to catch up with you eventually, guy. Although for a guy like Castro the utility of winning or even reaching the final of "Idol" is suspect, my personal affection for the guy makes me root for one more real good night for him. 7
Carly Smithson Carly does a bit more to wipe away the doubt with each passing week, but concerns continue. She still dresses funny, and her desperation to win and Make It is very, very palpable. I don't know if Carly could ever be a star -- is she really that interesting? She's a great singer, though, and her "Here You Come Again" was maybe her best of the season. It wasn't perfect, but it was quite close, and it proved once and for all that from here on out the tentative Smithson should continue singing ballads whenever possible. She's significantly better than Syesha at it and simply assassinates Ramiele. She is raising her game as we approach the big finish as are some others are but I wonder if she will have problems winning enough a big enough share of the vote totals that splinter off each week as one contestant's fanbase has to pick a new person for whom to vote. 9
David Archuleta Boy, David is a really good singer -- I'm not sure whether I have said that too much or too little. He's probably the most talented 17-year-old they've yet had. But... he's still 17, and there's so much he just completely doesn't get. Like how performing a song about being from Tennessee and making it sound like Phil Collins (not from Tennessee) might be a bad idea. David sounded like he had a bit more of an emotional connection to his song choice this time around, but that might have been a bad thing -- rural TN and suburban Salt Like City are not comparable. For all of his generic heal-the-world song choices, Archuleta is just monumentally oblivious, and to indulge the conceit of "Idol" for a moment, it seems to me as if such a person ought not to presented as the winner of a pop singing competition. But then of course my idea of pop music was formed in the 80's when Prince, Springsteen, Madonna, Boy George, what have you all sold millions of records while also attempting to be in their own ways trangressive, confrontational, and political. It's not like the pop nowadays, where the vocalists (female and male) are essentially sweaterhangers. On that note, it is worth a mention that Archuleta was one of few in the cast to not seize country night as the opportunity to wear a completely ridiculous outfit. 9
Syesha Mercado Not much to rehash on this one that I didn't already cover in the above comments. I knew she was going to do "I Will Always Love You" before they announced it, I knew it would start out sounding fine, and then it would all go horribly awry at the climax. The infamous Whitney Bodyguard version of the song has a modulation up at the end that's like the vocal equivalent of hitting the wall in a marathon. Syesha got to that point fine and then collapsed in a heap -- not a single note she sang after the key change was in tune, including a very long and very squirm-inducing "glory" note. 6
Kristy Lee Cook I don't have a lot more to say about Kristy, either. You know her strengths and weaknesses by now. She's the least talented person still in the field, which is sort of an accomplishment. At least Syesha's wipeout was exciting to watch; K.L.C. was just tepid. Again. And she has to pay for that atrocious flag-waving "God Bless the U.S.A." perforce. 7
Michael Johns I said a lot during the semifinals that I suspected Michael Johns had reserves of talent he wasn't using. On the rare occasion that he connected with a song -- sadly for Johns, the last memorable example of that was on Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," back in the Hollywood audition round -- he showed power and range. And he's also been the best-looking guy in the male field from the getgo, which doesn't hurt any. "It's All Wrong, But It's All Right," the Parton song Johns chose, obliterated whatever you might consider his past best and possibly threw the whole season storyline into chaos. Johns took his vocals to an entirely new level, tearing it up with his falsetto, and the piano/electric guitar arrangement was stylish and classy. Wait, if the really good-looking guy can also really sing, what ever will happen? Will "Idol" break? 8
I didn't know for sure when I started writing this, and I'm still not sure now... but what the hell. I'm going with Syesha, because that's the storyline I feel in my gut. Kristy Lee, who isn't very talented, and Ramiele, who hasn't progressed as an artist or personality one iota since the competition began, seem destined to return to continue annoying me. 10-sided die likes Michael Johns. Nah, I don't see that.
Performing that miracle, raising the living
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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