Baseball Toaster Western Homes
Monthly archives: March 2007


Sky Operation
2007-03-30 15:38
by Mark T.R. Donohue

The new Wilco record is really marvelous. I have been listening to it over and over again, and while not listening to Sky Blue Sky, I've been listening to Kicking Television and A Ghost Is Born. This new one is that kind of record. It opens your ears to all of the confusing and amelodic parts of the last two albums, it confirms that guitarist Nels Cline is indeed the exact right replacement for Jay Bennett, and it does all this while being (like every previous Wilco studio record) completely different from the one that preceded it.

The key however to my immediate embrace of Sky Blue Sky isn't a Wilco record at all. Earlier this year, I got an advance of the new Gomez album, How We Operate, and was initially totally underwhelmed by it. It seemed like the band was operating with one hand tied behind their backs, playing only mild midtempo songs and cutting back hugely on the weirdness that made Liquid Skin and In Our Gun such vast and relistenable records. But because Gomez are one of a very short list of favorite bands of mine that didn't break up 10 or more years ago, I stayed with it. Eventually, I came to really appreciate How We Operate. It's a little too earnest in places, but I see how the band was challenging themselves by trying to concentrate on a specific and perhaps too-long underrepresented aspect of their sound.

Sky Blue Sky is less self-consciously radio-friendly than How We Operate. Well, that's not precisely correct. It's perfectly friendly to AM radio circa 1974. It's a record of slow, electric ballads minimally arranged and lyrically it's a lot more opaque than the frequently confessional A Ghost Is Born. The sort of electronic augmentation that enlivened Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and then drove parts of Ghost into the ground is present on Sky Blue, but in more of a background role. What's foregrounded is clever, subtle group performances and some typically indirect Jeff Tweedy melodies. Many of the songs end with short, contained solos from Cline, who can be unlistenably self-indulgent at times. His work on this record really forces a reassessment. While Tweedy and Jim O'Rourke's strangled soloing on A Ghost Is Born was only the most extreme expression of an album steeped in self-doubt and confusion, Cline's role on Sky Blue Sky is quite different. Most of these songs are so acutely arranged and structured as to be almost airless; Cline's messy and expressive playing adds the spark of danger and passion that Tweedy's work sometimes forgets.

If the career-summarizing Kicking Television, a double live album featuring Cline's first recorded work with the group, was Tweedy's celebration having finally settled on a lineup with whom he could work, Sky Blue Sky is the songwriter's way of upping the ante by presenting his band with some difficult, narrow, fussy songs and seeing where they can take them. Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche are more than up to the challenge. The album hits stores on May 15th; you'll be hearing a lot more about it around then.

"Idol" Tuesday: That Was Just... Weird
2007-03-28 10:36
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I don't know what to make of where this "American Idol" season is headed. Every week it gets weirder. You look at this group of contestants, and you really have to wonder. Where is the talent? Did the judges deliberately pick a group that was more likely to lead to compelling TV, like the producers of the "The Real World" would do, than stirring singing performances? Or is it always this bizarre? Hard to say. In any event lengthy studies could be written on the underlying psychology of many of the performances from Tuesday night, not to mention the capable politicking of guest coach Gwen Stefani. Stefani's motive, unlike the dazed Diana Ross or the genuinely well-meaning Peter Noone and Lulu, seemed to be to make sure fans of all 10 remaining "Idol" finalists buy her next record. Stefani couldn't have said less of consequence to say even if she was working for the United Nations. Even so, she managed to get three contestants to perform No Doubt songs, which is kind of impressive given that in the ill-defined "modern pop" category, there are few artists with a more negligible or annoying catalog. And two Police songs? What is this, 1985?

LaKisha Jones While the technical quality of her vocals is top-drawer week after week, everything else about LaKisha tends to fluctuate. Sometimes she seems confident about her choice of song, sometimes she seems adrift. From time to time she really gets in touch with a song and can be very fresh and original. Jones also can be a little bit of a copycat, as was the case with her Shirley Bassey-channeling "Diamonds Are Forever" for last week's show. She's also inconsistent in appearance -- sometimes her dress choices flatter her figure, and sometimes they really don't. She didn't look her best last evening, but she did sing beautifully. I didn't catch the name of the sort of pop-disco thing she sang. It might have been "I Need You by Me," but it's not terribly important. Once again LaKisha illustrated the talent that only she and Melinda Doolittle really have in this competition, that of taking a forgettable song and investing it with fire and flair. Using her rather safe last couple of times out as a bridge, the LaKisha we saw Tuesday had a new confidence. She actually sang an upbeat song and wrested real soul out of it. A lot of my concerns about Jones were addressed Tuesday, but can she keep it up? 9

Chris Sligh Chris had the personality and the chops to make him the favorite in a profoundly weak male cast, but he's had his thunder stolen by Blake Lewis and is sliding desperately. After taking a lot of criticism for left-field song choices and questionable arrangements, Sligh somehow passed up the opportunity to come flying back into contention this week. He could have chosen almost anything; he went with "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic." The tempo was too slow and the usually pitch-conscious Sligh seemed tentative and unprepared. It was one of his worst performances, and a heinous mistake at this point in the contest where no one is really safe. A shaken Sligh admitted in his post-performance interview that he'd selected his song a day late. Boy, I mentioned this last week, but I would really like to get a look at the list from which the contestants have to choose numbers every week. There had to be a few things on there Sligh could have sung better than an elevator-music love tune from the second-most overrated band of the 80's. If there's anything to be said in Sligh's favor, it would be that while his song threatened to completely fall apart almost from the very beginning, it never quite descended to the level of outright catastrophe. Now, was this flameout bad enough to knock Sligh out this week? I don't think so. In fact, I think that finally showing some vulnerability could be a good move for the usually jocular Chris. His eyes were looking pretty misty while Randy and Simon were reaming him out. 5

Gina Glocksen So that's who Gina really is! Glocksen attempted to to climb into the pigeonhole the judges constructed for her with screechy "rocker" performances two of the last three weeks, but below and to the left of the pink-streaked hair beats a heart that just longs to sing the big ballads. I didn't recognize the song Gina chose this week (it was the Pretenders' "I'll Stand by You"), but boy, she made it work for her. Her tight dress was a worthy counter to Haley Scarnato's napkin-sized halter from last week, but Glocksen has vocal reserves on which Haley can never hope to draw. Strangely, singing a ballad seemed to restore her confidence, and she dripped with personality both in her interpretation of the lyrics and her coy eyebrow raises. Glocksen was infinitely less shouty than she has been the last several times out, and she rode the song's crests very well. Simon Cowell: "It wasn't one of your best performances. It was your BEST performance." Whichever "American Idol" line producer fed Cowell that line, she deserves a raise. 8

Sanjaya Malakar Gambling interests have bought Sanjaya off, right? That's the only explanation for Malakar's unspeakable outing Tuesday night. Where to begin? The hair? The choice of song? I don't know if Malakar has been brainwashed, is getting very bad advice, or is genuinely as clueless as his on-air persona seems, but his "Bathwater" was so unbelievably weird and bad (and not in a watchable way like his "You Really Got Me" last time) that even his non-irony-motivated fanbase (if such a thing can be said to exist) must have been made to cringe. What's funny is that given the theme for the evening Sanjaya easily could have picked a catchy, memorable song that wouldn't have even taxed his lean vocal talents, thus holding on for at least another week. Instead he teased his hair up worse than Joakim Noah's and sung a crappy, forgotten No Doubt single to which I suspect Stefani might have difficulty remembering the words. Malakar stumbled on his lines a few times, and that might finally mean the end for him. Please. 2

Haley Scarnato It's funny how Gwen Stefani's guest appearance ended up being the pretext for a whole series of revivals of Eighties Songs We Thought We Had Finally Rid Ourselves Of. I thought that the theme for this week was going to be Nineties Pop, which was supported by the "Idol" website, but the unannounced switch to Songs Gwen Stefani Likes or Wrote (I guess) was explained so poorly that it kind of lays clear how stupid and contrived the whole "theme night" concept is to begin with. Last week Haley was able to do "Tell Him," an American R&B hit, because apparently there was some obscure British cover released in the appropriate era. That wasn't the root cause of a sudden surge in Scarnato's popularity, however. This week Haley dialed back the skin exposure slightly and she didn't accordingly increase the quality of her singing. She looked more like a trophy wife than a prostitute this time around, so watch her vote totals plunge. Haley's "True Colors" was so pedestrian that I don't have a lot of useful things to say about it. Scarnato has so little vocal power and character that it's only the overall talent vacuum this season that has allowed her to stay alive so long. I think Sanjaya will, deservedly, take the fall before she does but it's only a matter of time. 4

Phil Stacey By contrast, here's Phil, still plugging along, still nobody's favorite but more than likely to coast along for another few weeks. Even so, I think we have seen the very best Phil has to offer. He's got a great voice, but I just don't think he's got good enough musical instincts to ever figure out what to do with it. Last week he oversang "Tobacco Road" and this week he did "Every Breath You Take," another lousy and overexposed Police song, in a shallow and imitative style. Despite an arrangement that demanded far less of Stacey than the full-range workout he successfully negotiated last time, Phil made a bunch of bad pitch mistakes. I think he could finish in the bottom three this week and for the next four weeks running. 6

Melinda Doolittle Melinda is like an NFL coach whose team has already clinched a first-week playoff bye. You're not going to see her starters playing in Weeks 16 & 17 for more than a quarter or two. She's playing it as safe as safe can be, which is a real snoozer to watch seeing as she was already pretty vanilla back when she was legitimately trying to make a name for herself. Even when she goes upbeat it still seems kind of tame (last night, particularly in contrast to the fiery Glocksen). She's moving more on stage than has been her style but her awkward dance steps and slow arm raises look anything but natural. But her voice is so obviously great. Doolittle has a very good chance of winning "American Idol," but nothing she has shown me so far gives me the faintest hope that she will be an enduringly successful commercial artist afterwards. Gwen Stefani, for example, can't sing a lick. 8

Blake Lewis Continuing the Chris Sligh-Blake Lewis comparison might be useful here. By taking on such artists as Keane and (last night) The Cure, Lewis has won himself an image as the "Idol" contestant who does his own thing and doesn't care what others think. Of course, Chris Sligh has done the same, only Sligh has been too clever for his own good, picking artists that nobody has heard of, instead of just not the judges. I'm not impressed that Lewis is a 311 and Jamiroquai fan. All that means is he has a slightly longer memory than his voting constituency. So "Lovesong" by The Cure was a perfect Lewis choice, alternative and edgy only by degrees to Sanjaya and Jordin's Radio Disney stylings. Lewis's outfit, then, must have been the "Idol" homogenization of goth, some sort of grey-and-black sweater ensemble rather than the usual mismatched Blake getup. I don't know if I would have chosen "Lovesong" over "Just Like Heaven" or "Friday I'm in Love." For Blake's pitch, the song wasn't a perfect fit. It was too draggy to let him beatbox, and he sounded like he was swallowing many of the lines. He also couldn't avoid affecting that weird fey intonation a lot of Americans inadvertently get when trying to sing like Robert Smith or Morrissey. I realize he has been chastized by the judges for it before, but this might have been a case where Lewis should have taken a radical chance with the arrangement. On the whole it could have been a lot more interesting than it was. 7

Jordin Sparks Sparks is being promoted as the youthful, fun-loving counter to Jones and Doolittle's accomplished predictability. That would be fine, if she was any good, but I've never been a fan of Sparks' singing and the candyfloss where her brain ought to be bothers me more and more each week. First of all, anybody who thinks No Doubt's "Hey Baby" should be listened to by anybody, ever again, is an idiot. Second of all, Sparks may be the youngest female contestant left in the running but she's like two feet taller than Ryan Seacrest and her running around in a skirt and knee socks just seemed incongruous. Having yet to completely sell this critic, at the very least, on the merits of her singing voice, why did Sparks choose a song that doesn't even have any singing in it? I don't see how she could be considered a favorite. Now that I've said that, she'll probably go on to win. 6

Chris Richardson I keep writing that Richardson sings the same melody every time out, but from time to time he will surprise you. I was weary of No Doubt after Seacrest's hagiographic introductory narration, and yet Richardson managed to turn the third ND song of the evening into a mild highlight. Richardson gave "Don't Speak" a more soul-based feel. I can't say I understand the contestants' relentless enthusiasm for No Doubt tunes, but in this case it was certainly a song that Richardson both knew and for which he had an original take. Richardson is definitely in the area where he needs to be on his toes week in and week out to stay alive. I believe that on this occasion he did more than enough. 8


Homes: Sanjaya Malakar
Lobes: Melinda Doolittle
10-Sided Die: LaKisha Jones

"Star Trek" II: The Wrath of... Bakula?
2007-03-24 08:17
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Whenever I get in arguments with people about which "Star Trek" show was best, it always boils down to "The Next Generation" vs. "Deep Space Nine." Few people my age have seen enough of the original series to really judge, and those like me who have absorbed it all by and large are forced to agree with the assessment of Philip J. Fry: "79 episodes, about 30 good ones." You guys know which camp I'm in, but I can certainly see the argument for "Next Generation." They're both great shows, if you afford for rather long shakedown periods and the occasional misfire in the later seasons.

From time to time you meet people who are diehard "Voyager" fans, but often these are folks who just haven't seen enough of the other series to judge. (I suppose it's possible that there are a few people who have seen every single hour of "Trek" ever produced and still prefer "Voyager," but these people are wrong.) I haven't yet encountered anyone willing to stand up for "Enterprise," though.

At the same time I picked up the DVD sets for the first three seasons of "Enterprise," I began to watch "Voyager" reruns on Spike TV. I've made repeated attempts to get into "Voyager" over the years, but it's tough sailing. It's a poorly constructed show with a recurrent problem with snail-like pacing and a framing concept that requires the writers to insult the viewer's intelligence at least two or three times per season. The idea of flinging a Starfleet crew 70 years from home was a good one, but the incontinent "Voyager" writers simply couldn't resist cheating. The feeling of isolation the producers were shooting for is rather mitigated by the fact that Voyager runs into familiar Alpha Quadrant races and even other Starfleet vessels all the damn time. The series also has an incredibly annoying trapdoor effect. Whenever the writers run out of ideas for whichever nightmare race Janeway and company are battling at any given moment, the ship encounters a "transwarp conduit" or somesuch that flings them ahead out of danger and the writers away from all vestiges of accountability for their own dumb ideas.

All of these problems could have been overcome but for a completely unfixable flaw: Paramount's normally uncanny casting department fouled up almost every possible role on "Voyager." The potentially interesting roles (B'Elanna, Paris, Seven of Nine) are all filled with incompetent actors and talented performers like Tim Russ, Ethan Phillips, and Garrett Wang are saddled with badly conceived, poorly written characters with little opportunity to shine. The only exception, as I alluded to in my previous post, is Robert Picardo's holographic doctor, who's the only good thing in many "Voyager" episodes. It's not a good sign when the standout character in your ensemble cast is literally insubstantial.

And at the center, of course, is Kate Mulgrew's Captain Janeway, who might have been a really compelling figure on a show set in the Alpha Quadrant (indeed, I hope some future "Star Trek" project will afford her the opportunity to reprise her role as Admiral Janeway from Nemesis) but was completely the wrong choice for "Voyager." Janeway is so rigid and by-the-book that there's never any drama in any of her command decisions. You always know what she's going to do in "moral quandary" episodes, and unlike the similarly minded Jean-Luc Picard, her reasoning is usually shallow. Compounding the error in Janeway's characterization is the spectacularly pliant Chakotay, who as played by the milquetoast Robert Beltran takes all of about four episodes to go from rebellious Maquis raider to aphorism-spouting lapdog. The show could have gone several interesting places with the chemistry between captain and first officer... but they didn't.

If "Voyager" represents an initial good idea taken in the wrong direction at every turn, "Enterprise" is the opposite case. When I first heard that the followup to "Voyager" was going to be a show set a hundred years before the time of the original series, my immediate reaction was that the series' storytelling would be irreconcilably handcuffed by the weight of forty years' continuity. It is true that "Enterprise" plays fast and loose with the "Star Trek" canon from the pilot onwards. (No way a ship with a top speed of warp 4.8 could reach Qo'noS from Earth in a few days' time, c'mon, people!) The writers also use the half-baked "temporal cold war" concept as a similar no-consequences trapdoor as those accursed transwarp conduits. But... it's still a real watchable little show.

"Enterprise" succeeds where "Voyager" fails because it made a conscious decision at the outset to concentrate on three central characters, like the original series, and it wrote and cast all of them well. Scott Bakula was obviously a no-brainer pick as Captain Archer and while some fans have critiqued his tendency to rapidly flip from affable to raging, upon re-viewing the first season I can see how Bakula crafted the captain as a guy with a bit of a chip on his shoulder from the very beginning. When "Enterprise" premiered many focused right in on Jolene Blalock as the obvious successor to Jeri Ryan's "hot alien babe with huge rack" function. Berman didn't help matters any with the expoitative decontamination scene in the pilot, where T'Pol's nipples in Earth orbit could have been detected from Vulcan. But Blalock unlike Ryan is an intelligent and subtle actress, and T'Pol's politically and sexually charged interactions with the humans aboard Enterprise NX-01 make for an eye-raising spin on the classic Kirk/Spock dynamic. Finally, Connor Trinneer's Trip Tucker is the real star of the show as the kind of guy superior breeding techniques have weeded out from humanity by the time of the Enterprise-E. Uh, not that I am suggesting that southerners are genetically inferior. (Or am I?) Tucker is amusingly fallible and relatable in a way "Star Trek" humans seldom are. In one first-season episode he and Lt. Reed get mugged by a pair of honeys they picked up in a Risan bar, and Reed questions his judgement in following two strangers into a secluded basement. "Yeah, but they were gorgeous," Trip protests.

In order to enjoy "Enterprise" you have to get past the fact that all of the characters past the central trio and the terrific John Billingsley's garrulous Dr. Phlox are just seat-fillers. That's okay, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov themselves never really had very much to do until the movies. You can't help but feel a little bad for the game Anthony Montgomery, whose Ensign Mayweather is by a wide margin the least-developed regular in "Star Trek" history. But I don't think it's such a bad thing that the Hoshi episodes are few and far between.

I'm really enjoying my "Enterprise" DVD sets, despite going in with the lowest of expectations, and I'm already trying to figure out how I can get a hold of the fourth season for a similarly reduced price. (By the way, no discussion of the current state of "Star Trek" should pass without Paramount being sharply rebuked for the wildly disproportionate pricing scale applied to their DVD releases. If you can get your hands on the entire seven-season run of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" for less at retail than a single year of "Voyager," something is awry.) On the other hand, when my TiVo gets so full of "Voyager" episodes that I have to either watch them or delete them it's a real chore sitting through them. I would rather watch an entire season of a spinoff dedicated to Morn from "DS9" than suffer through another episode about Tom Paris being Too Cocky for His Own Good.

A Wide-Ranging Rumination on "Trek" Past, Present and Future
2007-03-24 07:08
by Mark T.R. Donohue

A few weeks ago I was browsing the used DVD section at a Boulder video game store. Signage informed me that the place was in the process of phasing out its video stock, so everything I could find was buy two, get one free. Even so, I felt that $120 for three seasons of "Star Trek: Enterprise" was pushing it. As it turned out, the hideously packaged first, second, and third season sets had been marked down from $60 to $40 each. It was also by coincidence the week of my birthday, and therefore one of the few times of the year I legitimately had money to waste. So, what the hey. I bought the "Enterprise" sets. It couldn't be as bad as all that, right?

Like a lot of "Deep Space Nine" fans, I've been off of the "Star Trek" brand since that show's cancellation. Due to a petty feud between Paramount's executive in charge of "Trek," Rick Berman, and showrunner Ira Steven Behr and the "DS9" brain trust, an entire generation's worth of world-class writing talent left the franchise with "What You Leave Behind." Just to list their credits since reveals how costly this breach has been to "Trek" and Paramount. René Echevarria went on to create "The 4400" for USA; Behr later joined him on that show. Robert Hewitt Wolfe also worked on "4400" and just wrapped "The Dresden Files" for Sci-Fi. And of course Ron Moore, once the supreme loremaster of all things Klingon and the writer of the best "Next Gen" movie, First Contact, went on to create the wildly successful updated "Battlestar Galactica." If there was any justice in the world, all of these writers would still be hard at work on the seventh season of a popular (read: not "Enterprise") "Star Trek" series and preparing the screenplay to a follow-up to a profitable film that heaped on the fan service by joining portions of the "DS9" and "TNG" casts (and maybe Robert Picardo) for a compelling new 24th-century adventure.

That's not how it went down, though. "Enterprise" suffered the indignity of being the first "Trek" series since the original to be cancelled before its time, and Star Trek: Nemesis was a brutally poor film that probably shut the door on future movies with the "Next Gen" cast. Not that the "Star Trek" brand hasn't weathered truly awful big-screen productions before: Star Trek V makes Nemesis look like Wrath of Khan. (In terms of quality, I mean. In point of fact one of the biggest problems with Nemesis was how it cheerfully thieved Wrath of Khan's entire plot and many of its major story beats without anyone involved ever seeming to consciously acknowledge it.) The real red flag is the way that Berman continues to insist that Nemesis was a quality product, and it was "brand fatigue" or something of that sort that caused its poor domestic box office showing. No, Rick; it was a bad movie.

Berman's arrogance and denial have increased in inverse proportion to the fortunes of the franchise which he personally stewarded to juggernaught status after the death of Gene Roddenberry. The controversial finale to "Enterprise" is a good example. While his stated intention was to send the series out with a love letter to "Star Trek" fans everywhere, the completed result was a love letter to nobody except Rick Berman. "You idiots don't know what you like, I'll tell you what you like," is his attitude. Nobody burns bridges quite like Berman. His screenplay for "These Are the Voyages..." so offended Connor Trinneer and Jolene Blalock, who played the two best characters on "Enterprise," that they elected to skip the show's wrap party. But I'm sure Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis were really grateful for the work.

Berman's latest brainstorm to save "Star Trek" is a new film to be directed by "Alias" and "Lost" creator J.J. Abrams. That's not a bad idea in and of itself, I suppose. But the more you look into the details, the more you wonder what Paramount can possibly be thinking. (With apologies to Chris Griffin, How does Rick Berman keep getting work?) If "Star Trek" is truly suffering from "brand fatigue," and not just a vacuum of quality creative talent, why do Berman and Abrams plan another movie with Kirk and Spock? The prequel idea having already failed on the small screen with "Enterprise," do they really intend to try it again in theaters? With Matt Damon as Kirk? You know what they say about people who keep trying the same thing over and over expecting different results each time.

I'm not so much concerned with whether or not they'll be able to keep cranking out "Star Trek" movies. "Trek" has never really worked on the big screen. The highlights from the film series would all be atypical had they been television episodes. Wrath of Khan and First Contact were essentially action movies and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was a broad comedy. ("They like you very much, but they are not the hell your whales.") "Star Trek" is at its best when it emphasizes teamwork and brain power, which aren't really multiplex-filling concepts. This is why I've always preferred television to movies and "Star Trek" to most other TV shows.

So, I guess it's almost inevitable that after trying to avoid to them for so long, I'm now finally watching "Enterprise" and "Voyager." And that will be the subject of Part Two.

Quickly Hit
2007-03-22 20:19
by Mark T.R. Donohue

1) "Andy Barker P.I." is just as funny on TV as it is on the Internet.

2) Entertainment Weekly recently implied that due to the runaway success of the CW's Pussycat Dolls reality show, "Veronica Mars" could be on its deathbed. Really, CW? Cancel the best teen show with the strongest female character on TV in favor of a pole-dancing competition? That's just not classy.

3) I've noticed than none of the movie trailers shown during the NCAA tournament commercial breaks are in HD. Is this the movie industry's attempt to try and keep people from just staying home and watching their monitors that now offer a clearer picture (and it some cases, even a bigger screen) than film does?

4) I can't stand his music, but I must admit that Dave Matthews did a credible job acting in his recent "House" episode. I also couldn't help but notice that another recent "House" very prominently promoted a song by Gomez. I'm crazy about Gomez, but they're not normally prime-time fare. I wonder if Matthews parleyed his guest appearance for some exposure. How We Operate, the newest Gomez record, is their first for Matthews' personal boutique label, ATO. Well, if so, good for him. Better he promote others' music than produce more of his.

"Idol" Rundown: Take That, British Isles!
2007-03-20 21:58
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Last week I thought that the "American Idol" conceit of beginning the final round with a series of "theme" nights where all the contestants are forced to choose songs from the catalog of some has-been was unfair to the contestants. After one week with Diana Ross and one week with the British Invasion (represented by someone called Lulu and the singer from Herman and the Hermits), I've changed my mind. This device might be harsh on the finalists, but the real losers are we the American viewing public. The currently vogue strategy among the heavyweight singers in this year's "Idol" cast is to seize a hold of some narrowly defined image and cling to it with genre-obliterating tenacity. This has led to such blasphemies as Blake Lewis's beatboxing the Zombies and Chris Sligh attempting to fuse "Endless Love" and Coldplay. It's also led to my downgrading Melinda Doolittle, despite no apparent dip in the quality of her performances, from "prohibitive favorite" to "MOR annoyance I wish would go away."

We're not privy to the exact list of songs from which the contestants had to choose this week, but it seemed to me like everyone in the final eleven left the risky choices on the table. I felt like Chris Sligh probably had the biggest advantage this week with his crisp, slightly gritty delivery, and indeed he was the best among the men, although he certainly didn't knock it out of the ballpark. I have to say, it's nice to have only people who can sort of sing left in the competition. Except for Sanjaya Malakar, whose obvious limitations have become borderline comedic now that Sundance and Antonella aren't around to make him look good by comparison. Accordingly, I'm being a harsher judge now. None of these singers should be safe, and the only ones who seemed to detectably raise their game this time out were the ones who were justifiably desperate -- Sanjaya, Haley Scarnato, and Phil Stacey. Even so, I expect it will be one of those three to take the plunge tomorrow night. Except not Sanjaya. That would be too logical.

Haley Scarnato She can't sing that powerfully, so she tarted it up, rocking a micro-miniskirt and stopping just short of giving Simon Cowell a lapdance. I don't know, Haley, I might have gone for the gusto there. Scarnato's vocal on "Tell Him" was barely audible. It sounded like they forgot to turn her microphone on. Compared to the Paula Abdul-like Diana Ross last week, Lulu was pretty coherent. She actually gave Scarnato some good advice about retaining the staccato quality of the original recording. Like every other contestant on the evening, Haley ignored the advice and instead spent her practice time perfecting her streetwalker moves. Sashaying like a hooker does not equal stage presence, and Scarnato's performance while leerworthy (Simon got in a few good ones) wasn't very good. Technically, it wasn't bad for Haley's established standard, but I still think she's a lock for the the three lowest vote-getters. 6

Chris Richardson Finally Richardson's knack for making every song he sings sound exactly alike caught up with him. Peter Noone attempted to warn Chris that a vital part of performing "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" would be to learn its melody, but Richardson blithely went ahead and sang it like it was "Bye, Bye, Bye" anyway. Chris is usually pretty good about staying on pitch, but he had some real problems in that area Tuesday. Is he incapable of singing without applying a steady vibrato to every sustained note? Noone called Richardson out on that as well, but hey, he's an "American Idol" finalist, he doesn't have to listen to anybody. I did very much like the Spanish guitar-led arrangement of the song that the "Idol" band delivered. The group that is voting for Richardson every week surely doesn't know and wouldn't in any event care that he hardly even bothered to learn the song he sang this week. He's safe. 6

Stephanie Edwards All the commentary you read on Edwards, be it positive or negative, can't help but stress the word "modern," I guess because she has short hair. More than any other contestant, she seemed adrift in the British Invasion idiom. Her overly powerful vocals ran roughshod over the arrangement, and she seemed at a loss as to how to sing "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" with even a modicum of subtlety. Her bright blue dress and big black boots didn't really suit the mood either. Cowell speculated that Edwards might be "losing her edge," but I would lay the blame for that more on the producers than on Stephanie herself. They're the ones who have dictated that the last two shows have wholly belonged to 60's and 70's has-beens. 5

Blake Lewis No finalist is feeling his oats more than Blake Lewis. Ask and he'll you. He thinks he's the favorite, and his performances have an air of confident bombast that isn't hurting him at all. On the other hand, he has to watch his smugness. He seems impervious to the judges, and I don't know how that will pay off with his popularity among the voters. Lewis piled it on too heavily with his take on "Time of the Season." Everything from the psychedelic lighting to his peculiar vest/plaid pants/punk rocker T-shirt ensemble to the part Phil Spector, part beatboxed arrangement screamed "Look, ma, I'm mixing old and new!" This is unnecessary. Lewis's singing style and unadorned appearance are modern enough on their own. He doesn't need to pile it on week after week. His Zombies interpretation was a little effeminate and put the actual singing a distant second to all of the arrangement's bells and whistles. His stiff breakdancing schtick could stand to take a week or two off, too. That said, the choice of song was obvious and while all the drastic stylistic shifts definitely put pressure on Lewis to stay on key, he carried it off with aplomb. I'm very impressed by his falsetto control. He'll be around for a while. 7

LaKisha Jones I would have liked to see even more of the footage with Lulu and Noone tutoring the contestants. While Ross was an airheaded cheerleader, it seems as if the Brits actually had some disagreements with the would-be "Idols" this week. Lulu tried to convince LaKisha to do "You're My World" instead of "Diamonds Are Forever," but unsuccessfully so. I'm not familiar enough with the former song to judge, but I thought Jones did a pretty good job with one of the best of the Bond themes. I liked how her vocal paid a little bit of a tribute to Shirley Bassey in the verses and then freed themselves to do Jones's own thing during the disco-flecked choruses. While the busy arrangement was a good showcase for LaKisha's range, it also made it harder than usual to get into. Bedecked in a million dollars' worth of actual diamonds, Jones was a vision in green on Tuesday night. She was totally in the moment during her performance, too, which was nice to see because LaKisha can occasionally become beset by her nerves. Cowell grumbled that the whole effect was "too old-fashioned," but Jones had the last word when she confidently told decaying meat puppet Ryan Seacrest "I think I look GOOD." Preach on, sister. 8

Phil Stacey Stacey was undeservedly one of the low three last week and he reacted by seizing ahold of "Tobacco Road" like it owed him money. He went high, he went low. He wiggled and waggled and waved his mike stand like Axl. It might have been a little too showy. It wasn't necessary to drop into basso or swoon up into falsetto at the end of every single line. Stacey is already the most technically gifted of the remaining male vocalists and he didn't need to blast every line in order to prove it. That said the doo-wop/metal/honky-tonk stew of the arrangement was one of the few really electric performances from the band all night, and no one besides Phil could possibly have pulled it off. He seemed a little desperate and defensive after the judges' breakdown, and that more than anything else may sign his death warrant. That and the fact that Stacey unlike Scarnato didn't have the option of dressing like a slut to prolong his "Idol" run. Well, I suppose he did have the option, but thank heavens he elected not to exploit it. 8

Jordin Sparks Sparks did "I Have Nothing" and frankly the song was too big for her. Lulu and the judges kept repeating her age (17), arguing over and over again that it didn't really matter, but I think they doth protest too much. Sparks really hasn't lived long enough to invest the big ballads with real understanding, and I would much rather have seen her continue playing up to her cheerful, chipper chipmunk image. And while I'm at it, she never should have straightened her hair. She seemed stiff at the microphone Tuesday, her diction was awkward, and the high notes came over way shrill. It also didn't help matters any that in the pre- and post-song interviews she came across like a complete and utter ditz. 6

Sanjaya Malakar The band's arrangement of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" deliberately recalled the classic Van Halen cover, but I doubt Sanjaya has any idea who David Lee Roth is. More's the pity. His outfit, with a massive shoulder-padded jacket and fingerless gloves, made Malakar look like a subcontinental cross between Michael Jackson and Elaine Benes. His vocal kind of reminded me of the oldies covers on the Sex Pistols' Great Rock and Roll Swindle, with such a pitchless, artless gracelessness to it that it almost came all the way around from bad back to good again. Unhinged screaming is almost never bad, and you just don't get enough of it week to week on "American Idol." Sanjaya didn't quite make it all the way, however. Simon Cowell continued his Sanjaya freeze-out campaign by simply pointing to the young girl near the front row whose face streamed with tears for the entirety of Malakar's performance. Any criticism of Sanjaya's singing as is pointless as it has been for the last several weeks; he guaranteed himself at least one more week on the big stage where he gave the poor little girl (who reminded me of the "GEORGE!!!!!" girl from A Hard Day's Night, speaking of the British Invasion) a great big bear hug. 4

Gina Glocksen Gina, oh Gina, wherefore art thou, Gina? I feel embarrassed for ever pegging Glocksen as a contender. She's supposed to be the rock chick of the group, but her persona is more gum-snapping mallrat than class-cutting, smoke-bumming bad girl. (This would be a good time for her to leak some smutty photos to the Internet.) While most of the singers stayed away from the real history-makers of the 60's UK scene, Glocksen tried to take on the Stones and it was a huge tactical mistake. Her "Paint It, Black" sounded like a lowlight from one of those ghastly tribute albums, like Sheryl Crow singing Zeppelin. Not only was her pitch awful, but she seemed to have little to no understanding of the song. I heard all of the words (many more clearly than Jagger ever sang them), but where was the venom? "Paint It, Black" needs hiss and spit and menace and all of that good stuff and all Gina could really do was vamp and shriek. Simon wasn't buying it: "Just not very good, style over content." 5

Chris Sligh A safe comeback pick after his "Endless Clocks" train wreck last week, Sligh miscalculated by beginning his "She's Not There" by walking through the audience. He was paying more attention to not stepping on anyone's feet than getting his vocals correct. Once he arrived on the stage, though, bam! He really knocked the song's bridge right out of the park and I loved his playful swipe at Cowell with the mike stand. Lots of use of mike stands as props this week, and a lot of wandering around off the stage. Next week I'm sure everyone will be sitting still. For someone who tries to affect a self-deprecating, above-the-muck vibe, it's funny how close the attention Sligh paid to the judges' advice from last week was. His glasses were back, and he was back to dressing in the accustomed Chris Sligh fashion. As Homer Simpson once said, if you're going to wear a Hawaiian shirt, you better be a big fat party animal. I would totally party with Chris Sligh. 8

Melinda Doolittle It was fine I guess. I've just had it with Melinda Doolittle. Every single week, it's the same thing, a wishy-washy ballad that starts slow and then she just rips it for two minutes straight. Surprise me, Melinda. Do anything different. I won't be at all shocked if she keeps working the dreck angle and one of these weeks, boom! she gets the hook from seemingly out of nowhere. Or maybe she'll win, I don't know. If so America deserves the absolute snoozer of a debut album that will be the ultimate result. 7


Homes: Phil Stacey
Lobes: Melinda Doolittle
12-Sided Die: Jordin Sparks

"Idol" Tuesday: I Had No Idea Diana Ross Had So Many Crappy Songs
2007-03-14 00:13
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Having not watched a moment of "American Idol" before this season began, I didn't know what to expect from the first "mentor" show, where the producers bring in some publicity-seeking has-been to give the contestants useless advice for their back catalog sales-boosting performances of the has-been's old material. Boy, wasn't Diana Ross a perfect fit? Ross strikes me like the 60's version of an "American Idol" winner. She wasn't the most talented female Motown vocalist nor the most creatively adventurous, but she managed to sustain a long career with an impeccable sense of which way the pop winds were blowing. She left the Supremes just as girl groups were going out of style, she embraced disco at precisely the right time, and her career even extended far enough into the 80's for her to make an imprint on the burgeoning yacht rock scene. On Tuesday night, her wishy-washy advice and effusive praise for all 12 of the "Idol" finalists (particularly the ones not at all deserving of it) got on my nerves, but not nearly as much as the contestants themselves.

Sure, it might seem like forcing the guys to do Diana Ross songs would put them at a disadvantage, but remember, Ross was in the Supremes. This means that virtually the entire Holland/Dozier/Holland catalog was at the contestants' disposal. If you can't find a Holland/Dozier/Holland song that suits your style, you're beyond repair in my view. And yet no "I Hear a Symphony," no "Come See About Me," no "My World Is Empty Without You." Instead we got a number of tepid disco rehashes, way too much representation from Ross's "Endless Love" period and beyond, and to add injury to insult, seemingly no one could remember the words. The low point was Blake Lewis's brain-dead techno reconstruction of "You Keep Me Hangin' On," which erased the HDH melody and tried to hang most of the song on a two-finger, one-chord synth drone. See, that's the trouble with "Idol" these days -- these contestants all know they've as good as made it already. We're getting to see the whole rise-peak-indulge-decline arc of pop stardom all in the course of a couple of weeks. Which is pretty cool, I guess. But I sure wish one of these singers was music-savvy enough to have heard the Afghan Whigs' Uptown Avondale EP and know that Holland/Dozier/Holland doesn't freakin' need modernizing, thank you very much. Even the poodle-coiffed, barely sentient Ms. Ross seemed to despair of convincing any of the finalists to actually read the lyrics they were singing. That might explain why so many of them choked on their words.

Brandon Rogers Rogers started weak on "You Can't Hurry Love" (which when sung by a male of course immediately recalls Phil Collins, not a good role model for Rogers) and reached what I thought would be a low point when the "that" in "that keeps me hanging on" came out sounding like vocal flatulence. Don't we both wish. Brandon completely forgot the words to a whole chunk of the bridge and was unable to recover. Even without the two huge screwups it was a nightmare performance. Rogers' dance moves were stagey and silly-looking. He looked very much like he didn't belong on the giant stage the show moves to beginning with the round of 12. I pegged him to go once before, and I certainly wouldn't be surprised if this was finally his time. If he does hang on, he has it in him to completely recover next time out. It's not like it could possibly have been much worse. 4

Melinda Doolittle First of all, Doolittle is overplaying her hand, big time. Her line about preferring sneakers and sweats to gowns and heels sounded like it was fed to her by her team of coaches, perhaps subcontracting Bruce Vilanch. Her take on "Home" was not at all what I expected to hear from the current "Idol" favorite. It was a terrible choice of song that went directly from a too-hushed part to a shouting marathon, leaving Doolittle no space to demonstrate her superior instrument in its most flattering range. I don't know how many other viewers will have this reaction, but if she doesn't buck up and sing better, her act is going to start wearing mighty thin on me. That said, she didn't totally lose the plot -- she was in key and she did some nice things, particularly her fly-up on the word "real" at the end of one early line. 7

Chris Sligh Sligh's disastrous decision to try and create an on-the-fly mashup of Ross's biggest solo hit, "Endless Love," and Coldplay's HBO commercial song had one kind of positive outcome. That was Randy Jackson displaying amusing cluelessness by naming the Coldplay song incorrectly as "Speed of Sound," not "Clocks" as the syncopated drumbeat should have made patently obvious. Well, most Coldplay songs do sound more or less the same. While Sligh claimed in his taped intro to "not have a nervous bone in [his] body," actions speak louder than words, and he seemed tiny and terrified on the big stage, especially without his trademark glasses. Sligh didn't get a hold of his vocal until the very end of the song, and by then it was too late. A very, very curious choice. I admire his ambition, but I lament his instincts. I bet he could have sang "Come See About Me" really well, too. 5

Gina Glocksen What sick game are the producers playing here, anyway? The judges let Gina have it week after week for not playing up to her image, praised her immoderately for a relatively tame Evanescence song last week, and then with the craven Ross tie-in they forced her to go against type again this week. Ross told her she needed to enunciate better (actually, the word she used repeatedly was "pronunciate," which was pretty entertaining) and yet I could hardly understand a word in Glocksen's interpretation of "Love Child." Then again, I can't really understand most of the words in the Supremes' recording, either. At the very least Glocksen was the first contestant of the evening to look at all comfortable in front of the bigger crowd. Her vocal was pretty typical of her established level, inconsistent with a few pitch howlers here and there but some quite nice bits mixed in as well. 7

Sanjaya Malakar Simon Cowell's strategy to get rid of Malakar, whom he clearly loathes intensely, switched to reverse psychology this week. He was actually the least harsh of the three judges on Sanjaya this time out. And he was right to do so, in a sense, because this was the best Sanjaya has sung since the auditions. He's still terrible, don't get me wrong; unlike anyone else still left in the competition he is an absolute lock to completely lose the melody for entire verses at a stretch. But he did get a little bigger on the big stage and there were a few random pieces of his "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" that I liked. He isn't going anywhere, still, which should inspire some interesting contortions on the part of Cowell next time. Unless his powers are truly contained entirely within his hair and America reacts violently to the perm he sported on Tuesday. 4

Haley Scarnato Ah, here's our cannon fodder. Scarnato changed her hair from last week and honestly when she first started singing I couldn't remember who the heck she was. Simon sarcastically put undue emphasis on her name while critiquing her just to demonstrate that he had indeed made a point of learning it, although I'm not sure why he bothered. Scarnato's voice would be completely overwhelmed by some of your more elaborate windchime assemblies, to say nothing of the expanded "Idol" band with big horn and string sections. She forgot some of the words to "Missing You" and compellingly collapsed into the best waterworks since the Hollywood cuts after her performance mercifully concluded. As far as her technical merits are concerned, after starting out wispy when she tried to slip into high gear the piece...well, I can't put it any plainer than what I wrote in my notes, which is "it started to power-suck." Only two good things to say about Haley, really. One I mentioned already: Cowell definitely knows her name now. The other? Well, it never pays to underestimate the power of appropriately deployed cleavage. 3

Phil Stacey "Idol" critics have plenty of grist for their mills, to be sure, but if they ever say the show is predictable, you know they're not really watching it. Phil -- creepy, bald, owl-eyed Phil -- was the standout performer of the show Tuesday. He did "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," appropriately enough, and while I don't know if I'm quite ready to declare my love for him, I can at least say that I find him substantially less unsettling now. Getting rid of the bowler hat helped a ton. The song Stacey chose had a real tough melody for his range, with a lot of the verses drawing him dangerously near to a growl. He pulled it off admirably, though, and when he moved into the obligatory no-holds-barred vocal chord blowout in the coda he became the first and last performer of the night to really get me moving in my seat. I'm not as soft a touch as Paula Abdul, you see. I really like Stacey's little falsetto pitch-ups; nobody else in the male cast has that kind of control. 8

LaKisha Jones Jones did "God Bless the Child," which Ross sang "as" Billie Holliday in the film Lady Sings the Blues. It was a bad choice. Jones, like Ross, has no clue how to sing jazz, and her instincts were all over the place as she and the band at times appeared to be performing entirely different songs. LaKisha's ad-libs were uniformly lousy and she was noticeably off-meter at the beginning of every line. Yes, I'm a bit of a jazz snob, but what of it? The four-on-the-floor computer rhythms of modern commercial R&B have made it really difficult for even talents like Jones to feel their way through tunes with the old-fashioned conceit of not having every single accent land flatly on the 1 and the 3. This is why I really miss the sane Lauryn Hill sometimes. Talk about wasted talent. Well, as far as Jones is concerned, she's safe, and the cross-section of people who watch "American Idol" and really dig Billie Holliday is probably so tiny that I'm the only person who thought she was less than perfect Tuesday. The judges sure ate it up. She was on key throughout, I guess. But there's more to it than that. 7

Blake Lewis As I mentioned earlier, Lewis arrogantly transformed "You Just Keep Me Hangin' On" into a synthpop monstrosity, chucking out a timeless melody for no good reason and irritatingly reminding me of the late-90's electronica fad. Given the rare opportunity to sing a Motown classic in front of an enormous band with full string and horn sections, why would you make a big show out of the radical new arrangement you worked out last night using Garageband? Lewis's whole package, from his checkerboard vest to his obnoxious rattling-off of the names of underground rappers the "Idol" audience had no chance of recognizing, came across as way too self-satisfied on Tuesday night. Clearly Blake has been reading his press clippings. In the early rounds Lewis's strong sense of self was a plus because he moved confidently and chose distinctive material. Now it's coming back around on him because he's losing sight of the fact that he's not one of the better vocalists left in the game and needs to dial back all of the other stuff and concentrate on singing as well as he can. It's not that he's untalented. I think as do the judges that for all the beatboxing and breakdancing Lewis has an original and commercial singing voice in him somewhere. But his "Hangin' On" like his dance moves were too much style, way too little substance. He's got some work to do to get back his contender status. 6

Stephanie Edwards I drifted off midway through Edwards' performance and almost started fast-forwarding when I finally snapped back to attention. I must have thought I was still in the commercials. More than any of the other female contestants, Edwards was exposed on the big stage. Her "Love Hangover" was shallow and imitative and at the same time managed to excise the song's most memorable parts. Technically, she was fair to fair-plus but no one on the evening was more uninspired or boring. She's losing me. It's like the judges told LaKisha, you either have "it" or you don't. Jones despite the poor song choice demonstrated again that she's got "it" in spades. Stephanie Edwards, I am becoming increasingly convinced, does not. 5

Chris Richardson Richardson has a knack, like his obvious role model Justin Timberlake, for making every melody he gets a hold of sound like the same song. It's not a bad song. It's a bit funky, it has elements of blue-eyed soul, and you wouldn't run screaming from the dance floor if a DJ mixed the hook into his set one night at the club. But to win "Idol" he's really got to demonstrate some more range one of these days. Richardson tried to wake up the crowd during his rendition of "The Boss" by taking his performance beyond the stage's usual boundaries, but with all the running around his vocals kept dropping in and out. His falsetto only approximately located its intended pitch at best. 6

Jordin Sparks An appropriate ending to a dreary evening. Faced with the whole panoply of Motown composers from H/D/H to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, Sparks chose...a soppy ballad from a forgotten non-Disney 80's animated film. Say what? I guess Sparks' wispy, sub-sub-Whitney vocal stylings are best suited to MOR fare like "If We Hold on Together," but pick a four-consonant word. Schlocky, schmaltzy, you see where I'm going with this. Every high note Sparks reached for sounded pinched, and her too-literal attempts to heed Ross's advice to engage the audience resulted in these impossible-to-describe little half-points half-salutes that just blew Brandon Rogers' pelvic thrusts out of the water on the Unintentional Comedy Scale. Well, at least at this point the misery was over. Next week, please let these poor kids make their own career mistakes instead of having to replay all of Diana Ross's. 4

And here are your picks:

Homes: Haley Scarnato
Lobes: Melinda Doolittle
12-Sided Die: Blake Lewis

"Idol" Wednesday: There's Melinda, and Then There's Everybody Else
2007-03-08 12:56
by Mark T.R. Donohue

The title just about sums it up, doesn't it? A lot of our response to each "Idol" performance is subjective. A lot of these singers are real talented (a few aren't); whose particular style you most respond to is going to vary depending on your background, orientation, and personal preferences. But come on. Nobody who watched the show on Wednesday night can deny that Melinda Doolittle is the best singer in the contest by a wide margin. If there's any justice in the world, she'll win the thing. Of course, there isn't a whole lot of justice in the world.

That's why as much as I would like to customize my TV with a "Sea-chip" that will replace everything that comes out of turtlenecked homunculus Ryan Seacrest's mouth with whimsical banjo music, I don't fast-forward to just the songs and the Simon when I watch "American Idol." All of the nonsense that goes into padding out each show, the witless banter, the cheesy interview footage, it all has to be factored into the equation. If Antonella Barba's fortunes take a turn for the worse, it might not be her singing but the fact that she's now revealed herself as a crappy violin player. (Probably not though.) With reluctance I am removing Gina Glocksen from my list of favorites, partly because she finally played to type and it was a disappointment, but also partly because she carries a good-luck troll around in her pocket all the time. Still, though, Gina, if things don't work out with Overmoussed Goateed Shemp #3, call me. I don't think you're going to win it all, but I still like it when you stick out your pierced tongue.

Jordin Sparks I don't get why Sparks hasn't done any rockers before now. Her Pat Benatar number was the best I've seen from her. Unfortunately the few pitch mistakes that Sparks made came where she could least afford them, on the major long sustained notes. A more costly tactical mistake might have been her choice of outfit. If she was going to sing Benatar, she should have dressed the part, with the torn shirt and the owl mascara and everything else. Instead she dressed like she was headed to a freshman mixer. I never would have guessed that Sparks and Glocksen would both bring the rock this week and Sparks would do so more convincingly. However, I think she's more likely than Glocksen to get sent home because she hasn't done as effective a job of establishing a memorable persona. That's to be expected from the youngest contestant among the group of women, I suppose. 8

Sabrina Sloan After a guys' night when I mostly agreed with what the judges had to say, we flew way apart on many of the girls' numbers. I don't how Simon, Randy, and Paula managed to completely miss the incredibly unpleasant, wince-inducing stream of blue and even purple notes Sloan emitted during her interpretation of "Don't Let Go." It's far worse to hear a good singer like Sloan miss notes than a less confident singer like Barba, because while Antonella will self-consciously swallow her voice when she's off-pitch Sloan projects and sustains like she's doing nothing wrong. Frankly, she made me cringe several times. For me her continuing dearth of personality is a secondary concern, but that and not the vocal choke job will be the reason if she gets ejected. 4

Antonella Barba I think she did her absolute best this time out, and her absolute best is not anywhere near good enough. I give her credit, as did Simon, for maintaining focus and really giving her all in the face of some pretty unpleasant media coverage. When ESPN's Bill Simmons is scoring cheap laughs off of you in his lame Celtics-misery train blog, it's a bad sign. Barba is good enough for your high school production of The Music Man, but she's not good enough for "American Idol." Cowell as he so often does tied a bow around it perfectly: "I just wish you could sing better." 6

Haley Scarnato Oh, wow. I can't think of anything at all to say about Scarnato. Um...I'd never paid particular attention to her looks before this week, but I thought she looked pretty cute in her red tank top. She rocks the mic with her left hand, and I have an established thing for lefties. But as for her singing? Well. I'm at a loss. Super lukewarm. "No pizzazz," said Randy Jackson. "Horrible! Couldn't remember her name," said Simon. She has to be toast tonight. 5

Stephanie Edwards I don't know if it's completely random or not, but the order of performers on Wednesday's show had my top four female contenders doing their thing all in a row to close the show. Make that the top three contenders and Glocksen after this week. Edwards maintains her contender status, but just barely, with a mostly safe take on "Sweet Thing." Her song had its share of ups and downs, but she's so obviously better than all of the girls who preceded her that I doubt many noticed. Her lower register is problematic; she should stay away from it in the upcoming rounds. Earlier on I thought Edwards' effusive personality might help her to make up the slight talent gap between she and the Jones/Doolittle duo, but Doolittle has stage-managed her aw-shucks act so perfectly that Edwards needs to to get outsized if she's not going to get muscled out of the picture. 8

LaKisha Jones I've said it before and I'll say it again: I hold LaKisha Jones to a higher standard than any of the other contestants, Doolittle included. Her raw talent is breathtaking. Wednesday night's "I Have Nothing" was excellent as expected but it just didn't lift me. She helped herself out by ditching last week's unfortunate sweater/skirt combo for a flatteringly cut gown. "Tonight you look beautiful," said Simon, and you're deluding yourself if you think it doesn't make a difference. I love her potential, and I would totally buy a record by LaKisha, but I wonder if she's really in it to win it. Doolittle unquestionably is. 9

Gina Glocksen Once again the judges and I disagree. Glocksen, with her tattoos and streaked hair, looks like a metal chick but has been singing adult contemporary numbers up to this point in the competition. She made us wait too long for her big rocker, and then she picked a song by the profoundly lame Evanescence and rendered it into a bit of a shouty muddle. Honestly, can't one of her homies from noted metal nexus Naperville, IL call her cell phone some time this week and explain to Gina who Joan Jett is? Oh, man, I would love to see this girl sing "Bad Reputation" or "Do You Wanna Touch Me." As it is, I was this close to breaking it off with Gina and running off with Simon Cowell until Glocksen threw the band the ol' devil horns during her postperformance interview with animatronic human replica Ryan Seacrest. There might be hope for you yet, Gina. 7

Melinda Doolittle What more needs to be said? What everyone else is missing, Doolittle seems to have in spades. She has a game plan, her song choice instincts haven't failed her yet, and while even the other talented females sometimes get drowned out by the backing singers, Doolittle's "I'm a Woman" threatened to overpower the band. She's got style, she's got grace, and as you would expect from a pro, her technical skills are second to none. Of course Simon Cowell had to ruin the exultant mood Doolittle's performance brought to the end of the show by somehow managing in his praise of Melinda to find space for a none-too-subtle dig at Jennifer Hudson. Oh, Simon. My man-crush on you grows every week. 10

Whoops, I almost forgot the picks.

Homes: Haley Scarnato, Sabrina Sloan, Jared Cotter, Phil Stacey
Lobes: Melinda Doolittle, Stephanie Edwards, Sundance Head, Chris Sligh
8-Sided Die: LaKisha Jones, Haley Scarnato, Sanjaya Malakar, Phil Stacey

Update: I was just watching this afternoon's "Pardon the Interruption" and Tony Kornheiser says Sanjaya has got to go. He also likes either Phil or Jared from the guys and Haley and Antonella from among the girls to get pink-slipped.

Warning: If you haven't watched the results show yet, stay out of the comments section.

"Idol" from Tuesday: Doesn't Anybody Here Want to Win This Thing?
2007-03-08 09:20
by Mark T.R. Donohue

That's a rhetorical question in the title, but let's plow ahead and respond to it anyway. I've touched on this a few times before, but other than natural human competitiveness, why would you want to win "American Idol?" All you really need to do is get enough screen time to catch the eye of some record executive somewhere, and you know every single one worth his salt is watching. It's a win-win situation. The wannabes get their 15 minutes (or 15 seconds, which is more than enough), the record guys get to cherry-pick naïve business outsiders who already have built-in fanbases thanks to their "Idol" spells, and both get to avoid the rather restrictive path that the contract a grand champion gets seems to dictate. Kelly Clarkson aside, the most successful post-"Idol" careers have been experienced by singers who didn't come out on top at the end. And for me at least, the gold standard is held by William Hung, who never got past the auditions. He got a guest spot on "Arrested Development." I'd almost rather have that than the money and the fame.

So this morning while I polished off the remainder of the oatmeal raisin cookies my sister sent me for my birthday, I tried to think not about whom among the guys could win (because I don't think at this point any of them can) but which ones will release records this fall that I will illegally download. Chris Sligh and Blake Lewis for sure. Chris Richardson is definitely growing on me. He needs a savvy producer to shape an image for him, but I think Brandon Rogers could do some good work as well. The rest of the lot? Go back to whence you came.

Tuesday night's show set a new low-water mark for the competition. I didn't give a single score higher than an 8, and I felt like I was being generous. Sanjaya and Sundance only escaped the shame of the 1-bomb because I thought they did marginally better than past efforts that in retrospect I scored too highly. Of course, I don't expect very much of those guys. What really disappointed me was the failure of the good singers to seize the opportunity to emerge on a really weak night and distance themselves from the pack. The technical guys with weak personalities, like Phil Stacey and Jared Cotter, couldn't really get anything going. Sentimental favorites like Lewis and Sligh backslid from their solid earlier work. The biggest shame of this show is that no one did a good enough job to break the voters of their schoolgirl crushes on the pitifully outmatched Sanjaya Malakar. Simon Cowell couldn't even work up the energy to be nasty to Malakar after his dreadful "Waiting for the World to Change." What would the point be? In the absence of any real players, the guys' side of the competition has turned into a popularity contest, and it's probably going to get worse before it gets better. If I had any real affection for any of the male contestants besides the almost certainly safe Sligh, I would be on pins and needles for the results show tonight.

Blake Lewis I think a lot less of Lewis now that I know 311 is his favorite band of all time. Dude, really? 311? Lewis was the first but not even close to the last contestant Tuesday to pick a song that he liked rather than a song that was a good showcase for his abilities. His vocal scratching-outs of the swear words in "All Mixed Up" wasn't a particularly clever use of his unique skill among the players, and his attempt to channel 311's weak lead singer Nick Hexum (who always, always, always is multitracked to the point of oblivion on their records to obscure his extreme limitations) was like shooting himself in the foot. "All Mixed Up" like every 311 song (except for the "rap" ones, and let's not even go there) has a melody built on rudimentary tritones that a robot could sing adequately. The usually invincible house band didn't feel the song, and the whole performance never got off the ground. And was one of the better songs of the evening. Yikes. 6

Sanjaya Malakar Do you think I spent more time critiquing 311 than critiquing Blake Lewis in that last entry? Well, it's all I can do to keep myself from dedicating this paragraph to venting all of my hostility towards John Mayer. It's too bad that I still have to watch and break down the ladies' hour, because I just don't have time enough to go there. As for Malakar, I'm with Cowell. I throw my hands up in surrender. The kid simply cannot sing. He can't sing swing, he can't sing ballads, he can't sing soulless Sly & The Family Stone ripoffs by craven media-whoring "blues guitarists." Oh, wait, I guess I went there just a little. Cowell, piteously: "It's a singing contest!" 2

Sundance Head Since I haven't watched "Idol" before this season, I don't know what the demographic breakdowns are usually like. Are there always this many contestants in their late 20's? I was always under the impression that it was more of a teen show, but that might have more to do with the way the winners are promoted than the actual hard facts. In any case, there sure have been a lot of songs performed during this competition that were popular when I was in high school. Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" was a huge swing and a miss for the bipolar Head, who was awful for two weeks, almost good last time out, and dire once again on Tuesday. When Head managed to revive his fortunes with "Mustang Sally," I wrote that the song was basically a freebie. Attempting "Jeremy," which calls for a big rock voice but requires some real pitch control to sing at all well, could have been a fatal mistake for Sundance. He just seemed to have zero idea where either his voice or the song were going. Said Simon, "It sounded like he was shouting the whole time," and I couldn't agree more. Whatever Head seized upon last week, it's gone. 3

Chris Richardson As my appreciation of how the "Idol" machine works has grown, my opinion of Richardson has improved as well. He still can't really belt it with the true talents, but that becomes less of an issue with every passing results show. Soon there might not even be any real male belters left! Raw power is really the only thing Richardson lacks at this point. He's a looker, he has enough of a self-aware ease about himself to appeal to the sort of people who normally resent good-looking guys, and when he picks the proper song he's able to display both control and originality all at once. Not a lot of guys in the field can say that. Week after week he's been able to take songs I didn't think I liked and get me moving in my seat a little bit. He plainly has good musical instincts, and that's something you can't really teach or practice. Tuesday night wasn't his best performance, but he really benefited from the lack of musical instincts that his immediate predecessors betrayed. They chose bad songs and Richardson didn't. He gets a bit of a curve benefit but he can't control the fact that he's competing in the "Idol" equivalent of the NL Central. 8

Jared Cotter Time is running out! Jared is one of the best pure singers in the remaining male field but he's squandering what little advantage that gives him. Cotter aroused a pet peeve of mine by giving a performance that put undue stress on "an's" and "and's" and "-ing's" and other syllables that ought not to be emphasized. I liked the quirky arrangement that started funky and backpedaled into ballad mode rather than the thoroughly overdone reverse case, but that was about all I liked. Cotter's attempts to come across onstage as a party guy (in an argyle sweater-vest?) came across as super forced. Simon, translating for Paula: "Wasn't very original." But then he also said that Cotter was popular, which surprises me. In my opinion Jared is the least charismatic of the remaining male contestants. Do the judges have access to the raw totals from the phone votes every week? It seems like they shouldn't, for some reason, but I don't know precisely why. If they do it would explain Simon's complete and abject surrender in the face of the inexplicable continuing survival of Sanjaya Malakar. 6

Brandon Rogers I've been trying to avoid other people's "Idol" coverage to as much an extent as is possible. I kind of like learning from my own mistakes, and part of the whole idea here is to give a complete outsider's perspective on a long-running phenomenon. However, it was hard to miss Entertainment Weekly's selections for "interesting contenders" in this week's issue, since it was the only thing in the whole magazine that wasn't about the Oscars. EW singled out Rogers (along with Blake Lewis, Melinda Doolittle, LaKisha Jones, and Stephanie Edwards), so perhaps I have been underrating him. Tuesday night was his weakest vocal since the studio round began, but his best performance. I absolutely loved his sweet dance moves. The little kicks! "I Just Want to Celebrate" is another song like "All Mixed Up" that barely taxes even the least musical of vocalists, but Rogers was feeling it, and he's finally evidencing a personality. I also have to say that I'm super-impressed by the fact that Rogers is a competent classical piano player. I never would have guessed. The standout of a profoundly weak night. 8

Phil Stacey What can I say? Simon can claim that "It's a singing contest" until he's blue in the face, but it isn't. It's a popularity contest plain and simple. And I don't see how Phil Stacey can be very popular. He's just...well, he's creepy. There's no way around it. Putting those gigantic, undead sunken eyes under a snap-brim hat was a recipe for disaster. Stacey took a long time locating the right register on Tuesday, dithering around with a pitchy basso and a pedestrian falsetto before too late locating his happy place. He can rip when he's on, but he wasn't on enough this week and while he's technically superior to almost all the other male singers, the voters are likely to be less forgiving of his few mistakes than they will be for the likes of Sundance and Sanjaya. Simon Cowell and I seemed eerily in sync this week: "You appeared very...odd." 6

Chris Sligh An internal debate has been raging about how good Chris Sligh really is, since it's hard to separate his Michael McDonald-ish voice from his Hugo Reyes-like appearance. This week for the first time Sligh was without question the best technical performer. And yet, something was missing. After so many underwhelming showings the crowd -- and yours truly -- were completely ready for Sligh to come out and bring the house down. It didn't happen. A missed opportunity. He's as safe as safe can be for now, but I still feel like there's another gear available that he simply hasn't hit yet. Maybe it will take being in direct competition with the superior women's field for Sligh to claw his way to the top. I'm rooting for him. 8

Andy Richter Patrols the Universe
2007-03-07 12:29
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Well, this has got to be some sort of record. I am known for anticipating and lamenting the demise of new television shows well in advance of the news of their actual cancellation, but I don't believe I've ever started mourning for a show before its premiere. It can't bode well for "Andy Barker P.I." that the NBC website is offering six entire episodes online for free before the show ever goes over broadcast airwaves. Perhaps sponsor TurboTax was so tickled by the idea of a sitcom about an accountant who gets diverted into crimefighting that they made NBC an offer they could't refuse. Or maybe the network doesn't feel like properly promoting "Barker" and this is their way of covering their backs. It wouldn't do to have show creator/excecutive producer and "Tonight Show" heir apparent Conan O'Brien unhappy with his bosses, now would it?

I used to watch "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" religiously in college. My favorite bit was where they would drive around behind the desk. You'd think they would run out of ideas for that particular sketch fairly rapidly, but no. I haven't watched a minute of "Conan" since Andy Richter left. It's not so much that I don't think O'Brien is capable of being funny on his own. The man did write "Marge vs. the Monorail." It's more that I don't think I can take watching Max Weinberg try to act any more than I already have. In any event, I thought Richter made the right move leaving "Late Night" when he did. Who wants to be Ed McMahon their whole lives? Besides, I suppose, the genuine article. I felt pretty confident Andy would land on his feet, but he's had a bad streak of luck since striking out on his own. America wasn't ready for the too-weird-for-its-own-good "Andy Richter Controls the Universe," and his performance on the dire "Quintuplets" had the distinct reek of contractual obligation. His film career "peaked" when he played opposite James Woods in Scary Movie 2's pre-credits Exorcist parody. The last great straight man deserves better.

The discipline and timing required of a real good comedy straight man is a dying art. If you watch an old pairing like the Smothers Brothers or Morecambe & Wise with anyone much under thirty, they'll probably be confused as to why one member of each duo seems like such dead weight. Nowadays most ensemble comedy operates as a game of can you top this. That's one reason why I still don't feel as if Jason Bateman has gotten enough credit for how marvelous his work on "Arrested Development" was. It wasn't a traditional straight role, as Michael Bluth only seemed a normal functioning human being by relative degrees to the rest of his family, but Bateman still deserves special praise for providing an anchor amid all that chaos. Perhaps his choices of roles since have been a natural opposite reaction. When last I saw Bateman in Smokin' Aces, his performance was so over-the-top that he should have been wearing a tiara. Andy Richter, on the other hand, is a pure straight man. His persona is so open, innocent, guileless, and old-fashioned that you just can't wait to laugh at him.

"Controls the Universe," with its storylines involving fringe religious cults and 19th century businessghosts, was often more bizarre than it was laugh-out-loud funny. I'd still like to see an eventual DVD release for the show, but I can understand why it didn't catch on. I quite liked Jonathan Slavin on that show as Andy's disturbing officemate. He's since resurfaced on "My Name Is Earl," which isn't too surprising. What underemployed, vaguely funny-looking character actor hasn't earned at least one "Earl" guest shot by now? "Andy Barker P.I." resembles "My Name Is Earl" quite strongly. They're both shot in widescreen HD with mostly long, patient wide angles broken up by occasional comedy action sequences. They both feature large expanded casts with many faces of varieties you don't often see on prime time. I don't think that "Barker" is as much directly ripping off "Earl" as the two comedies share an obvious inspiration. If "My Name Is Earl" is a present-day riff on Raising Arizona, "Barker" could be a sanitized, exurban reinterpretation of The Big Lebowksi. I'm not just saying that because David Huddleston appears in one early show as Andy's father-in-law. Richter's protagonist, like The Dude, becomes accidentally involved in detective work. Both pieces are set in an alternate-reality version of Los Angeles where everyone you meet seems straight out of creative writing class. It's funny, but as filmmakers the Coen brothers are so distinctive that few really try to make movies in their style. Now NBC has two comedies that heavily draw upon their love of quirky characters and obsession with understatement airing on the same night.

Things have changed quite a bit since "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" flopped. For one thing, at that time single-camera shows with no laugh track were the exception and not the rule. Now NBC's entire Thursday night lineup is a two-hour four-show block of them. Cheap high-definition cameras make a big difference too. "Andy Barker" looks like a movie and gets to have big explosions and surprising violence. People get shot in this show! Not shot at, but shot. I don't know if that's a good thing or not. In any event, the episodes that you can preview on the NBC website show some rapid progress. The writing staff (which in addition to O'Brien features my Hollywood crush Jane Espenson) seems adept at realizing the show's weak spots and immediately addressing them. The pilot makes it appear as if Andy is going to hide his detective gig from his wife, a hackneyed plot device if there ever was one. By the second show she's in the loop. Dialogue in earlier episodes establishes that the Barkers have children, but it's distracting that no evidence is seen of them. Then the fifth episode rolls around and it's the best of the lot so far because it balances not just Andy's accountancy and his sleuthing, but his responsibilities to his family as well. And who ever juxtaposed the search for a stuffed toy elephant with psychedelic shots of Albanian bikini babes playing badminton? I'm pretty sure that that at least is a TV first for "Andy Barker."

The concept for the show isn't the most original thing ever (and the double-crossing Russian femme fatale story in the pilot has been done to death), but "Andy Barker" has a great supporting cast around a likable lead. Harve Pressnel, who played Bill Macy's father-in-law in Fargo, is invaluable as the completely insane semiretired private eye whose office and responsibilities Andy inadvertently assumes. Marshall Manesh plays overcompensating Afghani restauranteur Wally, whose patriotism-themed falafel joint has a sign on the wall bearing the legend "MSG NO, USA YES!" After some confusion about her character's role in the first two episodes Clea Lewis gets some good lines as Andy's wife, although I think there are probably better acting role models than Victoria Jackson. And then there's Tony Hale, who I would watch in almost anything (I draw the line however for the Larry the Cable Guy movie). Hale's Simon is a wannabe womanizer who lives on a cot in the back behind his video store and follows Andy around on cases because he feels his knowledge of gangster movies will be useful. It's a little odd watching Hale play an almost grown-up after three unforgettable seasons as Buster Bluth, but the writers keep feeding him all the best lines. Andy's black assistant: "I can read lips. My brother is deaf." Simon: "I like Stevie Wonder." And one more: "Hey sunshine, are you looking to buy or rent?"

While the single funniest thing in the six "Andy Barker" eps available for preview is the decidedly lowbrow spectacle of an obese heart attack victim rolling down a hill, for the most part the episodes get smarter and tighter almost every time out. The "online-only" episode (well, they're all online-only at this point) with Amy Sedaris is an exception, since Sedaris's unrestrained hamming takes us out of the show's reality in a way the rest of the cast works very hard not to do. Most of the best jokes on the show are random asides and blink-and-you'll-miss-it sight gags like "Arrested Development" at its most inspired. "Barker" has respect for its characters but celebrates in the ridiculousness of their actions, as the half-baked episode titles ("Dial 'M' for Laptop," "Three Days of the Chicken") imply. I have an immediate affection for a show that can simultaneously recall "The X-Files" and "The Adventures of Pete & Pete" with an absurdist story involving corrupt Federal Department of Agriculture employees and the world's most nefarious poultry cartel. I also really like the device of having most episodes end with Andy being sent out on a ridiculous mission that's completely forgotten by the next week's show.

I like the show so much, in fact, that I am certain they will cancel it. I don't see how giving the six episodes away for free is going to help ratings, since most of the people who would be watching this show now aren't going to be anticipating new episodes on broadcast TV for another two months. Maybe they are hoping Internet buzz will carry the day. Well, I'm on the Internet. Buzz! Buzz! Buzz!

Sooner as opposed to later: "Idol" breakdown.

2007-03-05 23:55
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I've been getting a lot less work done since I changed my desktop wallpaper to this. Three cheers for gratuitous fan service! Seriously, though, next week marks the launch of Dark Horse Comics' "Buffy Season Eight" series and I'm terribly excited for it. Since plans for a series of loosely related made-for-TV movies continuing the "Buffy" story (left quite pointedly open-ended at the end of the television series finale, "Chosen") were scuttled, this is the next best thing. Joss Whedon will be writing at least two four-issue arcs and an undetermined number of standalones and other major "Buffy" writers (Drew Goddard, Steven S. DeKnight, Doug Petrie, the great Jane Espenson) will be contributing in addition to some people who I guess are famous comic book writers...I don't know, I haven't really had much to do with the comics world since "Sandman" wrapped.

You'd think in the wake of the success of stuff like "Lost" and (especially) "Heroes" the networks would be beating down Whedon's door to get him to come back to TV, but it doesn't seem like it'll be happening any time soon. In an L.A. Times interview promoting the comic series, Joss sounds showbiz-weary discussing the demise of the TV movies: "I think the studio thought they could do this for no money — that everybody would show up because we're all buddies. But I don't think they noticed that everybody seems to have careers. It was an unrealistic business model." He's also taken himself off of the Wonder Woman feature film which he's been working on for the last few years. I love the idea of the comic books, especially because they'll allow the established "Buffy" characters to play on a bigger stage than ever before with no special effects budget. But Whedon's claim to fame is and always has been his crisp, deeply influential dialogue writing. Great dialogue really needs to be heard, not read out of little bubbles. Someone get this guy a genius grant already. For those of you who don't have set as your default browser homepage, there's another good recent Joss interview up at IGN.

I was just writing about "Veronica Mars" last week and alluding to the fact that when Season Two seemed to be going off the rails, Rob Thomas got things under control with one wonderful episode right in time for the race to the finish line. Well, the semifinale "Papa's Cabin" (it wrapped up the second of the three medium-sized story arcs which this season has resentfully been chopped into) was just what the doctor ordered. Exciting, surpring, great ending, and without the self-conscious artiness this time. (Just what was up with that episode a few weeks back when almost every single shot was at a slightly askew angle? I felt like I was going to have to put sugar packets under one of the legs supporting my TV to watch it properly.) But now there's no race to the finish, because "Mars," like "Heroes," is going on a month-long hiatus in order to position new episodes for May sweeps. I'm bummed. On the other hand, "Lost" is back with a vengeance and the rest of the episodes of the season will run without repeats through the end of sweeps month. Hey, Hurley, hey Charlie. I missed you guys all winter while Jack was playing mind games with the red herring killer from the first Saw movie and Sawyer and Kate were trying to figure out how to have sex with each other while locked in separate cages.

Speaking of the Saw franchise, I recently saw Saw II for the first time and, well, I don't have much in particular to say about the movie proper. The first one had a lot of bad acting and at least one entire subplot (the one with the two cops) that could have been excised entirely, but it also had a genuinely surprising twist ending and some tension in the main body during the scenes where Westly and the screenwriter shout at each other. There was some question about what was going to happen to those guys. The victims in Saw II though are so obviously mentally handicapped, even for a horror film, that you know they're all going down. Except for the one who the camera lingers on suspiciously to the degree where the ending is all but given away.

Both movies cheat the laws of screenwriting. The first one manages to get away with one of the lamest gags possible in the puzzle-movie genre (the killer isn't any of the suspects introduced as speaking characters but rather a guy who's randomly in the background of like one scene) because the ending is clever and the basic two-guys-in-a-room setup is unbeatably high concept. The second movie gives the already ridiculously resourceful antihero apparent powers of prescience. There's a bunch of people all in a house full of traps, some of which are just random, and some of which are targeted for specific victims. How can Jigsaw possibly know which people will survive long enough to reach their customized scenarios? How did he know not to bother to prepare a personalized death for the poor moron who's the first to go? Oh, well, I don't know what I was expecting, it's a horror movie. But anyway Saw II does have one sequence that's kind of a feat of bad filmmaking, and it makes me glad I bought it used on clearance the other day. There's a flashback scene at the end of the movie that has to be the single most condescending, over-explaining plot recap I've seen in any film of any genre ever. Kind of convenient, I guess, because if you don't particularly feel like watching people roll around in pits of needles but you're interested in how not to write a screenplay, you can just start the movie right there and get the gist of the whole thing in minutes.

"Idol" Ladies' Night: Sometimes, the Bar Eats You
2007-03-01 11:12
by Mark T.R. Donohue

You know that Busta Rhymes song where he's babbling about switching it on flipmode style at the beginning? That's a good song. Week two of the studio round of "American Idol" completed an unexpected reversal that began on Tuesday night. During the first week, the male contestants were underwhelming to the last man, and except for a few stragglers the women really impressed. Wednesday night's live show wasn't quite as brutal as the first week's guys' show, but it didn't hold a candle to the surprisingly entertaining second men's night. A lot of the really good female contestants must be feeling too secure, because every one of the Big Four I identified last week -- LaKisha Jones, Gina Glocksen, Melinda Doolittle, and Sabrina Sloan -- declined from the last time out. At the same time, no one from the field really stepped up to fill the void. It was a pretty dull evening on the whole, although the number of contestants who flat-out can't sing is getting lower. It might take a cut or two more before the serious contenders start to feel the icy grip of fear and things get interesting.

Gina Glocksen My sentimental favorite among the women, Glocksen did "How Do I Get You Alone" in unsuitably bipolar fashion. She whispered the verse and then immediately went 0 to 75, oversinging the heck out of the chorus. Her outfit didn't match the song and while this shouldn't really be used as ammunition against her, when they showed her boyfriend (to whom she dedicated the performance) he looked like a total shemp. How come Chris Sligh has a smokin' hot wife and the comely Glocksen is attached to some no-neck? Weird. Then again I myself look like an emaciated marionette version of Bill Gates and I do just fine with the ladies, thank you very much. This is my way of saying that I don't have a ton to say either positive or negative about Glocksen this week. Simon Cowell offered that he was confused about what image Glocksen was trying to present, and I see some merit to that. She's safe for now. 7

Alaina Alexander Boy, Wednesday night had a lot of performances that were neither particularly good nor bad enough to be worthy of special notice. I wish that the voters could eliminate four women instead of two this week. Alexander would be one of them. She sang "Not Ready to Make Nice," the Dixie Chicks' sassy anti-Bush number, but in a typically airless SoCal fashion that drained whatever Dixie still was left in the Chicks. Not that I am saying Alexander needs to adopt a Nashville style. I would be impressed if she managed to evidence any kind of style at all. Like a lot of the other less gifted female contestants, she operates in that cruise ship cover band kind of territory where all personality and edge is left on the shore. I thought Alexander was at times overpowered by her backing singers (which happened a lot last night), but at least she was trying with her movement. I think her best bet to save a sagging campaign might be to appropriate some Latin rhythms and phrasings into her stuff. I don't know if she's actually Latin (her mother appeared to mouth something to her in Spanish at one point, but I'm no lip reader), but she definitely needs some kind of angle. She's not talented enough to play it straight. 6

LaKisha Jones By contrast LaKisha Jones is absolutely dripping with talent, even if her ill-chosen ensemble made her look like a giant rubber eraser with two tiny pushpins for legs. Jones did "Midnight Train to Georgia," a song I've always disliked because of its antifeminist sentiments. (Travis Morrison noted this brilliantly in the lyrics to the Dismemberment Plan's "The Ice of Boston." Man, I am having a fantasy about an "Idol" contestant singing a Plan song -- that would be so amazing. Now I guess I'm going to have to audition for the show, I guess, because who else is going to do it?) Jones stayed right in the pocket for her "Midnight Train" and on the whole the effect was kind of wishy-washy. That's surprising, after last week I wouldn't have thought Jones capable of being this ordinary. I guess I hold her to a higher standard because she's so obviously the cream of the class. 7

Melinda Doolittle I don't know about her chances to win the title, but Doolittle is rapidly becoming one of the more fascinating characters on the show. She has a gift for seeming unassuming, but don't think for a second that she isn't aware of it. She's a pro and knows completely what she's doing. Her dedication video revealed that she has a stylist and vocal coach who plan out her outfits top to bottom to make sure she gives off exactly the right vibe. I wonder how Doolittle's practiced act strikes other people. Personally, I couldn't be more conscious of how contrived "American Idol" is and I say give all available credit to those who play the system rather than allowing the system to play them. Will it dawn on most voters that Doolittle is manipulating them a bit? If so, will their reactions be positive like mine or negative? I don't know, but I am interested to see. Wednesday Doolittle did "My Funny Valentine" and while she couldn't have been better technically the performance simply didn't reach me. I'm used to Elvis Costello's brave, straining version and hearing it sung by a superior vocal talent it felt like it lacked the vulnerability and weirdness I've come to associate with the tune. It's a strange song, when you think about it, which I guess you don't since it's such an established standard. A title like that doesn't really suggest a slow, mournful dirge in a minor key. Doolittle sang it without any subtext and I felt from the first line that I knew exactly where she was going with it. Huge risks and surprises wouldn't fit with Doolittle's whole self-managed image, but that's just where I'm coming from. 7

Antonella Barba Barba has built a voracious fanbase in all the wrong ways, but who's to say she isn't playing the furthest-out game of them all? Wouldn't that be a trip, if she deliberately leaked sex photos of herself to artificially prolong her "Idol" stint? I think that might be too Machiavellian even for this show. In Season 6 anyway. Wait a cast or two and see what happens now that the idea is out there. Going in to last night's show I wanted to offer Barba every opportunity to give me something to write about besides her holiday snaps, but no luck. I think she sang "Because You Loved Me" as well as she possibly could, but that's not saying much because she's not a good singer. She's more obviously unmusical than any of the other ladies, seemingly having difficulty negotiating the distinction between major and minor scales and wandering all over the map in terms of balancing her head voice and her chest voice. She needs a vocal coach; she'll probably get a movie career. 5

Jordin Sparks Maybe I'm too cynical, but I felt Sparks' tearful dedication to her brother was a bit of an act. Whatever, I love my sisters too, I'm not going to go all into hysterics about it. Sparks is the youngest of the female contestants and this week singing "My Reflection" she used her youthfulness and vulnerability to her advantage. I don't think she's the best singer in the cast by a wide margin but in a night marked by missed opportunities her solid and emotional outing was a standout. It was a poor performance technically but she sold it well and it was nice to see some passion on a stage more accustomed to attention-getting stunts. Eight seems high when I look at my scores all in a list, but then again I honestly can't think of anyone who was better than Sparks last night. That speaks more to the disappointing quality of the evening overall than it does to Sparks' talent or lack thereof. 8

Stephanie Edwards The judges, especially Simon of course, didn't care for her song choice but I thought it was great. In a field full of ladies stretching notes over eight measures and three keys at a time, Edwards' "Dangerously in Love" had a quick, rhythmic vocal which was refreshing. Thumbs down on the prom dress, Stephanie, but I love your diction. She fell apart just a little bit at the end but for competently handling a smart song pick on a night where nearly everyone seemed off their game she earns a tie for the highest score of the show. 8

Leslie Hunt I hated it. She did "Feeling Good," which A.J. Tabaldo sang just the night before, and it was a crummy regional theater-level performance with a just plain dreadful scat section at the close. She's doing her thing, but she just doesn't have enough vocal weaponry to hang on in this field. On the other hand, she should feel lucky that she even made it this far. Do you occasionally get the notion that the final 24 contestants are selected less on pure talent than on making sure all of the proper demographic bases are covered? There must have been a below-average selection of winsome white girls this time around. 3

Haley Scarnato Boy, I am really stretching to find things to say about the cannon fodder girls this week. Scarnato did "Queen of the Night." I think she oversang it by a wide margin, although the initial notion of doing a rocker was a good one after three shows of mostly ballads and dance songs. One thing I can say in her favor, Scarnato is very sure of who she is and she does a good job of projecting her personality while she's up on the stage. However, I don't like her personality. 6

Sabrina Sloan Last week after giving it much thought I named Sloan as one of my four favorites among the females, although she was the one about whom I had the most doubts. It's no basis for fair criticism in a singing contest, but Sloan just strikes me as a little off-putting for some reason...I don't know what it is precisely. She's just a little off both in her appearance and her movements. She sang "All the Man I Need" and while she was all over it technically and displayed well her impressive power, it was a perfomance utterly devoid of emotional investment. It just sounded like she was singing along the record. Singing along well, but it takes more than that. She also screwed up the ending pretty badly. The judges and I are alike in that we both tend to be harsher about pitch mistakes made at the beginning or the end of a song rather than in the middle. Paula Abdul called Sloan a "big contender" last night, and while that is the way I felt last week, I'm less sanguine about it after Wednesday night. Going last is risky; your performance can fall completely out of the viewers' minds if you don't seize the day. Last week LaKisha Jones topped off a solid evening by nearly bringing the house down; I wonder if her being slotted much earlier this time didn't weaken her performance a bit. This time Sloan had a golden opportunity after a very unimpressive series of outings to make a big impression. She didn't seize it. She will get more chances, though, she's not out of her league here by any means as some others are. 7

How are our experts doing with their picks so far? Not so great. The first week was obviously kind of a crapshoot, with way more than four contestants richly deserving to be sent home. I went for Sundance, Nick, Antonella, and Alaina and was 0 for 4. Looking back at my notes from last week I'm stunned I didn't pick Amy Krebs. For future reference, I must remember when deciding between two contestants of equal lack of merit like Barba and Krebs, sex appeal is the obvious tiebreaker. Now we're going to be stuck with Barba for weeks to come. Ugh. Anyway, the research department went Sundance, Melinda, Jared, and Sabrina and he wore the collar too. He doesn't watch the show; I just had him look at headshots and single out the ugly ones. At this point we're both getting schooled by the random dice throw, which correctly predicted the demise of Rudy Cardenas. So after Week 1 the scores are Dice 1, Homes 0, Lobes 0. I guess we'll see if I've learned anything with my picks this time around.

Homes: Leslie Hunt, Alaina Alexander, Jared Cotter, Brandon Rogers
Lobes: Melinda Doolittle, Stephanie Edwards, Sundance Head, Chris Sligh
10-Sided Die: Sabrina Sloan, Leslie Hunt, Jared Cotter, Nick Pedro