"Idol" Men's Round of Eight: Justice Will Be Served
by Mark T.R. Donohue
The first few weeks of "American Idol" studio shows were lumpier and more awkward than they needed to be, thanks in large part to a witless decision to start out with a 60's theme and then proceed into the 70's and 80's. That meant that a good chunk of the semifinalists never got a fair shake at delivering an identity-defining performance. But, looking up at the likely six male contestants who will make the coed final 12, you have to reconsider the producers' decision. We might actually be getting the six best singers of the initial twelve, and hasn't that been the Season Seven mission statement all along?
OK, let's be realistic. The five best singers and Michael Johns. But that's still pretty good, and Johns is hardly going to be able to ride his looks and his accent very much further if the talent around him continues to bring it. Tuesday night was unquestionably the most entertaining episode of "Idol" since the Elevator of Death/firing line show, with the bulk of the males picking quirky songs and going in surprising directions with them. It's hard to pick the best moment -- Danny Noriega doing way more with "Tainted Love" than you thought the song really had to offer, Jason Castro managing to not get totally eaten alive by "Hallelujah," and David Cook's no-way-dude arena rock version of Lionel Richie's "Hello" are all strong candidates. Of course, those are just nominees for the best singing moment. The single best thing about the broadcast was Simon Cowell's awe-inspiringly random anecdote about buying carrots at Whole Foods.
Luke Menard Menard's decent voice and decent looks got him farther than I thought he would, but this has to be the end of the line. There's a clear divide between Menard and everyone else left alive. "Wake Me Up Before You Go" was a poor choice for a guy who needed a showstopper; Menard has no profile whatsoever and despite some rather nice falsetto notes a wishy-washy George Michael impression is hardly going to win him one at this point. Menard's pitch and timing issues, and the fact that a couple of times he appeared to sing "wake me up before you goo goo," are hardly worth harping upon because on the whole it was a night more of entertaining star turns than really good technical vocals. What is important is that Cowell has Menard utterly pegged -- he's not Final 12 material and his Tuesday song choice and performance seal it. 7
David Archuleta I am still behind the curve when it comes to the runaway popularity of Archuleta, who to my ears is not much more than a middle-of-the-pack "Idol" finalist in talent level. It was cool to see him play the piano a bit to introduce Phil Collins' "Another Day in Paradise" then stand up and grab the mic as the band came in. That was a slick bit of stagecraft and Archuleta's assuredness on camera is definitely one of his strong suits. But I feel like he's getting graded on a huge curve because of his youth, and that's not how "Idol" is supposed to work. Not to mention there are some in the field about the same age as Archuleta who aren't getting the same benefit of the doubt. Who chooses a Phil Collins song and puts it into an even less edgy arrangement? Who sings a song about homeless people while making smoldering come-hither-and-hold-my-hand looks to the audience at home? Archuleta delivered a very glitchy vocal (although his piano playing was quite nice), and the increasing incongruity between his toothy grins and downer song selections is getting harder and harder to overlook. Based on his body of work, I don't think it's unfair that he's a lock to move on. But I am still waiting to see even a hint of the star power that many claim has already made Archuleta a lock to win the whole thing. He's kind of dumb, but very sincere, which I suppose is something folks respond to. 6
Danny Noriega Man, I loved Danny's "Tainted Love," even if there were some bumpy bits at the very outset. The Soft Cell classic isn't really a singer's song but Danny approached it with eye-opening bombast, moving between sweet lines and others that utilized a unsuspected husk and power in his voice. He isn't as good a singer as David Archuleta but I respond to him much more; I was jazzed he was doing "Tainted Love" and I was really pleasantly surprised where he went with it. Unfortunately Noriega's skill set -- fair voice, good music knowledge, tons of style -- would really have put him in more comfortably with the Season 6 male cast. I think he can last a while and I hope he does but I haven't seen anything from Danny thus far that gives me any notion that he has a prayer of winning. 8
David Hernandez Hot rumor is Hernandez was a male stripper in another life. If it's true I don't see it having the same positive notoriety effect as Antonella's topless pics. (By the way, if Kristy Lee Cook has any vengeful ex-boyfriends out there... now's the time, guys!) Hernandez chose to do "It's All Coming Back to Me Now," which is one of those hoary "Idol" standards that multiple female contestants dash their hopes against every year. What a bad decision -- almost all-time "Idol" Hall of Fame bad. Even had Hernandez nailed every note the song simply wasn't going to sound right to most people, who unfortunately have the Celine Dion version embedded in their brains. David didn't nail it, though, he was blasty and displaced. He's a good singer and deserves a few more chances to nail down a style. I'm pretty sure he'll get at least one... pretty sure. 7
Michael Johns Johns chose "Don't You Forget About Me," which was originally performed by the Simple Minds, not INXS as Randy Jackson seemed to think. Any excuse to compare Michael Johns to Michael Hutchence, right? It would be more annoying still if Johns didn't actually sound a hell of a lot like Hutchence in the few places in his number where he was on top of things. When the song first kicked in and I absorbed what the arrangement was going to allow Johns to do I thought there was a potential breakout happening. But the vocal was very troublesome and Johns didn't ignite the crowd -- Danny Noriega rocked harder, for pete's sake. I think Johns is going to get carried through to the next round on the basis of his sex appeal and his huge amount of camera time earlier on, and I am of two minds about this. On one hand, he sure hasn't earned it with his three studio songs to this point. On the other... it's not completely beyond the realm of possibility that he could knock one out of the park one of these weeks. His voice isn't bad, he's just kind of lazy and not a hard worker. If he ever got a fire lit under him he could win it all, because he's got the rest of the package worked out already. 6
David Cook Cook shouldn't have pressed his luck by bringing out his guitar for the second week in a row, particularly considering his leaden strumming didn't add anything in the least to his rather engaging rock remake of "Hello." What purpose did the guitar serve? Last week doing a rocker he looked and sounded cool but this week he would have been better off not taking away any attention from his vocal, which was the night's best in show -- not something I ever anticipated happening after the first men's night. He put a nice rock edge on the melody but he didn't lose pitch too much. He started the competition awful slow but now he's coming on very strong, and the judges more than made up for his tactical mistake with the guitar by explaining in no uncertain terms to the audience just how good the performance was. It's a sign of how much better this group of males is that I think Cook blows away everyone in the field from last year and yet he's only my third favorite of the remaining contenders. 8
Jason Castro On a technical basis Castro's attempt to scale Leonard Cohen's very difficult "Hallelujah" wasn't one of the highlights of the evening. But, man, it was fantastic that he even tried it, and since "Hallelujah" is one of the most beautiful songs anyone has ever written, even hearing it sung only fairly well is a treat. Man, Castro is exactly what "Idol" needs -- he's totally his own guy, he loves and respects music, and you can see his confidence in himself growing every time out. The way it looks right now he and Archuleta should be the last two guys standing, which would be fascinating because it's hard to imagine any possible overlap in the makeup of the fanbases for the two gentlemen. Go, Jason, go, beat that squeaky-clean little urchin into pixie dust. 7
Chikezie Why bother? I feel for Chikezie because like Alexandréa the 60's-70's-80's themes to kick things off really sabotaged him but I think we've seen enough evidence by this point that he has no business sticking around any longer. He did "All the Woman I Need," which... well, let's back up a second. Every year, a bunch of Whitney Houston and Celine Dion covers are butchered by overmatched female "Idol" singers. Every year. You'd think some of the contestants, who all claim to watch the show religiously, would have picked up on this and decided to stay clear of the dynamic diva duo. You'd definitely think that male contestants at least would have the common sense to know that "Idol" viewers have heard all of these songs before and have a certain idea of how they're supposed to go. But both Chikezie and David Hernandez went ahead and picked diva tunes. I wish they could both go home, but Luke Menard's eminent unsuitability should sustain Hernandez, who did a better job with his dreadful song choice, for one more go-round. As for Chikezie, well, he had his moments every time out (if his feud with Simon during the first studio week counts as a moment) but he never put it all together. His "Woman" was just like his last two performances, with a few isolated bits of surprising range and expression but just way too much inconsistent stabbing in the dark at the pitch. 7
Picks this time out seem like a no-brainer. Luke Menard and Chikezie. Anybody disagree?