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Belated "Idol" from Tuesday: Lo, Give Them Good Songs and Good Performances Will Follow
2008-03-12 18:36
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I realize that by the time this post is finished the results from the Wednesday night "American Idol" elimination show will be out already in the eastern states. Well, it couldn't be helped; my rock and roll act had a gig last night up in the mountains and what with work and every other thing I couldn't get around to viewing my DVR's recording of the latest "Idol" until five this afternoon. But maybe you'll read this before checking out the results, or maybe it'll be illuminating anyway. I often read the "Idol" wrap-ups days after the fact and they're still entertaining.

Kicking off affairs on the redesigned "Idol" big stage with an evening of Lennon/McCartney songs was a real treat. A few of the contenders gave their best performances ever and a lot of the late risers in the semis continued to impress -- David Cook and Carly Smithson looked particularly comfortable with the bigger crowd and flashier lights. For whatever reason the night mixed very early Beatles tunes with very late-period ones... not a lot of material from their 1965-1968 records (you know, the ones that laid the foundation for the entire history of rock since) except for Cook's ingratiating "Eleanor Rigby" and Syesha Mercado's somewhat unfortunate "Got to Get You into My Life." A few contestants rather foolishly messed with songs that were written expressly to show off the Beatles' incredible natural skill for three-part harmony (Ramiele's "In My Life," Jason's "If I Fell") while Preordained Big Winner/Cutie Pie David Archuleta bungled "We Can Work It Out" so badly that the backlash could sink him... but not this week. (I hope. Writing this now that I know the results are already out there somewhere makes me feel like the stakes are higher for some reason. Weird.)

Syesha Mercado I feel bad for Syesha having to go first, as her forgettable performance of "Got to Get You into My Life" might have played a little better later in the evening after bold remakes by Chizekie and David Cook got everyone into the spirit of reinterpretation. Syesha overdid it trying to emphasize the soul aspects of the tune -- she could have sung it in her own voice over a more faithful arrangement and I think it would have surprised some people. As it was she messed around too much with the chorus and ended up doing her big finish on a totally unfamiliar melody, which was strange to say the least. I did like some of the adjustments she made. The delayed last words at the end of some of the lines in the verses she sang were cool and sassy. I wonder if Syesha isn't one of those contestants who sees "Idol" more as a stepping stone to fame as a TV personality versus an authentic recording artist. She hasn't improved much as she's gotten deeper into the competition and she still seems stiff on stage while singing, while perfectly at home in her interview segments. Like Michael Johns, if she put a little more effort and heart into the singing, she could go places, because she does have a good voice at times. 6

Chikezie Chikezie barely dodged elimination last week and the close call seems to have made a new man out of him. Chikezie's "She's a Woman" showed an entirely new side of the guy, comfortably linking an acoustic, banjo-led "Hee Haw"-esque intro into a bombastic, hard rock final two-thirds. And what a vocal by the former airport security worker, who threw in several nice falsetto breaks in addition to some powerful roaring unlike anything he'd done up to this point. There were some pitch issues but you have to give Chikezie all the credit in the world for seizing the moment -- he went from one of the most anonymous guys in the Top 12 to unforgettable in one performance. Who knew he had such a range in music tastes, and the audaciousness to go with such a crazy conceit? You go, Chikezie. The confidence boost that this single outing (and effusive praise from the judges) will give him could redefine the whole contest for this man. 8

Ramiele Malubay Malubay's obvious vocal gifts kept her from ever needing to break a sweat during the semis, now she's exposed and could be singing for her life as soon as next week. Malubay's "In My Life" seemed to me like the exact reason Sony/CBS waited such a long time to grant the "American Idol" producers the rights to the Lennon/McCartney catalog. It was chintzy, overarranged, and sluggish, and the melody (simply constructed, again, to allow Paul, George, and John to sing it so beautifully as a trio) did Ramiele no favors whatsoever. She had to really strain to find places to show off her power while singing the song and as soon as she left the main melody the weaknesses of the slowed-down, syrupy arrangement became all too apparent. Ramiele still hasn't picked a single song that shows her in her best light and after this week's tepid showing I'd have to think that she needs to shape up right quickly or she'll be shipping out any minute now, huge pipes notwitstanding. 7

Jason Castro The sweet, Paul McCartney-penned "If I Fell" was a funny choice for the openly Lennonesque Castro, but it challenged his voice in a good way. Unlike last week's "Hallelujah," this time Castro really held it together on the high notes -- though his voice cracked a few times, it was deliberate and in pitch. I held my breath a few times thinking he was going to completely wipe out on one of those tough notes, but he absolutely held it together. Castro isn't a belter but if he can keep doing such honest, heartfelt jobs with difficult melodies he'll deserve to go as far as his undeniable guileless charm will take him. There are a surprising number of gracious, humble personalities in the Top 12 this year... it makes for kind of a pleasant change. Although you have to wonder how sincere it is for all of them, even Castro, who couldn't have become that good of a performer without some kind of sense of how he presents himself to people. 7

Carly Smithson Carly says she has been singing "Come Together" in a bar every week for two years, and the complete mastery of the tune she displayed was exactly what she needed to deliver on all of the hype the judges and producers showered upon her in the earlier shows. This was her best vocal by a wide margin. Carly, like Chikezie, showed far more power than we'd ever seen her display before, and she also had a wit and confidence that was previously absent, probably a result of her level of comfort with the song. She came off the melody just enough to make it her own without diverging too far and annoying all the Beatle purists out there. (Ahem.) I didn't think her dress was very flattering, but other than that this was a winning performance. Best of the evening, if not as pyrotechnic as Chikezie's "She's a Woman" double-bluff. Did Simon Cowell wink at Smithson during the judging? If so, that's really creepy. 9

David Cook I wanted to dislike Cook's rather blasphemous, sort of Staind-like nu-rock deconstruction of "Eleanor Rigby," but his vocal was really quite fabulous. When he hit the "all the lonely people" section, I was pumping my fist right along with him despite myself. His vocals, not that stellar in the early going, have become a consistent treat week in and week out. He is not to be taken lightly in this field, particularly after David Archuleta's off night. If he had been really brave, he would have delivered a similar power-rock vocal -- to a simple string quartet accompaniment like the original's (actually a double quartet on the record). I think that would have been kind of awesome and I encourage some mash-up artist on the Internet to make that happen for me. 8

Brooke White At first I thought White's sweaty, steamy appearance on my hi-def monitor was the result of a fog machine being placed too near her and her piano, but in fact she was crying quite openly for the whole of "Let It Be." Deep strategy, Brooke! Given that she was sobbing the whole time she did an amazing job holding it together vocally. She didn't really do herself any favors by playing the piano -- once at the very head of the piece she screwed up with her playing and it gave her vocal a little hitch, just as happened to her during the Hollywood auditions, and she screwed up several more times during the course of the song. I didn't notice any more really obvious instances of the piano playing affecting her singing, but I can't help but think she could have done a more expressive, on-pitch vocal if she hadn't been banging away at the piano. There was a point just towards the end of the song where she really seemed to light up, realizing the enormity of the moment, and it almost made you forget about the imperfections before. It was nice to see Brooke's dreams coming true on live TV -- that's the whole selling point of "American Idol" -- but she needs to be more than happy to be there, starting now. 7

David Hernandez One of these things is not like the others! David probably sealed his fate with a lame, oversung karaoke mutilation of "I Saw Her Standing There." Given recently leaked reports of his past as a male stripper, his "I'm gonna work the stage" pre-song comment was absolutely hilarious. I thought on a technical basis his vocal was very good, and his numerous big runs all hit their marks. The trouble was that his look and his song choice were all wrong. There are tons of Beatles songs with difficult, muscular melodies that take talented singers with lots of range to handle. "I Saw Her Standing There" isn't one of them, and Hernandez looked like he was going to burst a blood vessel trying to make it into one. He wasn't the worst of the evening but he's certainly the most likely to be going home, given that the extent of his appeal to this point is kind of a mystery. He is one of the better vocal talents in the male field, for what it's worth, but that really doesn't count for anything at this point. David's continuously unmusical song choices mean he's losing traction fast, and at this point I don't think it would be such an injustice if the far less talented Michael Johns outlasted him. Remember, numerical scores are on the basis of the song's technical merits alone. 8

Amanda Overmyer Overmyer lost a lot of respect in my book when she admitted that she had never heard "You Can't Do That" before this week... but, then again, she deserves a lot of credit for finding on short notice a Beatles song that while not an obvious choice really did suit her vocal style. The instant I heard which song Amanda would be doing I could imagine in my head what it would sound like. And it sounded good, except for a couple of swallowed words and a few pitch things here and there. She sped the song up a little bit too much, and I'm starting to wonder if she's ever going to display even the tiniest hint of stylistic range. I think that if she had kept the song at the original tempo and sung it in her own voice it could have been a classic "Idol" moment. As it was it was still quite good. As we saw two weeks ago, she is more susceptible than anyone else remaining in the field to a sudden collapse given one poor song choice or one bad theme week. She needs a few more total smash-hit performances to buffer her against that happening and this one while okay wasn't at that level. 8

Michael Johns With each passing week, Johns seems more out of place... he's a photogenic guy with an average voice, and most of the talent around him really is far better than recent "Idol" casts as the producers have been promoting so loudly all season. Johns really isn't a good enough singer to hang with this cast, and as far as innovation and musical identity go, he's getting creamed by Castro, Cook, and even Chikezie. Johns seemed quite committed to the song in his reading of "Across the Universe" but it was a jumbled vocal with pitch and timing issues. Johns has stage presence but it's really on more of a semifinalist level. His voice wasn't big enough to meet the force of the full band at the tune's peak, and his one big go-to move (hang head parallel to microphone and look vulnerable for moment, raise head and continue song valiantly) is lame. Now that we're familiar with the other guys, I don't think Johns' good looks are the asset they once were. 6

Kristy Lee Cook Wow, how horrible was that? Cook forced the "Idol" band into a clunky, forced country boogie abomination of an "Eight Days a Week," and the band, which almost never sounds unprofessional, sounded just hideous. Cook gave what was for her kind of a good vocal, with a lot of game yee-haws and a hysterical torn-jeans cowgirl look, but it was just too much for one of the Beatles' most indelible melodies to take. More than anything, Cook was just trying way... too.. hard... after the judges prompted her repeatedly in earlier shows to "go country." If she had any self-awareness at all, she would have picked one of the many Beatles songs with a country feel already in place -- "Two of Us" or "Rocky Raccoon" or "What Goes On" (maybe she's saving that one for the "Idol" week dedicated to the songs of Ringo Starr). I think David Hernandez is more likely to go home this week than Kristy, but many more weeks like this and America will just have to rise up and vote her off in self-defense. 7

David Archuleta David's youth is finally beginning to come around on him -- he admitted in his pregame interview to having no familiarity with the Beatles and other old-timey music like that. That's simply unacceptable, David. Even if that was the case you never should have admitted it on national TV. Of course, had David not told us right out that he didn't know anything about the Beatles (he's in a pop singing competition and he doesn't know anything about the Beatles?) his bungled take on Stevie Wonder's cover of "We Can Work It Out" would have revealed it -- he forgot about half the lyrics, and he tried to sing the one he could remember in so many different styles that nobody came out of it looking good, not David, not Stevie, not Lennon/McCartney, and not the judges, who were way too easy on Little David. It was awful -- a mess -- and if there were any justice in the world he would be sent packing stat. It will never happen, though. His cult is simply too huge at this point, and it's the "Idol" producers' fault. Could David be this disastrous again in another week, the hype machine having carried the unprepared 17-year-old to too high of a level? I hope so. I'm sick of his generic smile and his weekly choices of blandly positive "message" songs. 5

Picks, for what it's worth: I like David Hernandez to head back to Glendale, Arizona (although probably not back to the gentleman's club) and the 12-sided die says it's curtains for Brooke White.

2008-03-12 20:15:32
1.   Inside Baseball
I have been checking your blog all day, glad to read your thoughts.

In a bit of a rush right now but I'm on the west coast and don't know the results. My guess is Syesha's going home.

I really was happy for for Chikeze, thought Ramiele sounded much better than anyone else did apparently, and feel sorry for Archuletta. It's not his fault he was the anointed one. He seems genuine if anything.

Favorites this week were Chikeze, White, Malubay, Castro as usual, and Cook, whose confidence is soaring.

2008-03-12 22:47:58
2.   Inside Baseball
Good call Mark.

I actually watched the entire results show. Now we get to listen to the worst three performances again as opposed to just the one of the person going home. They should have each judge pick one encore performance each week instead.

2008-03-14 13:16:39
3.   Mark T.R. Donohue
One-hour results shows are like water torture. Thank goodness for DVR technology.

They've now announced that next week's theme will be... Lennon/McCartney AGAIN. Seems like a risky move. This week's show was almost free of horror show moments, but asking the completely ignorant David Archuleta to pick another Beatles tune he's never heard could be asking for trouble. Gives Amanda a chance to sing "Get Back," though.

I want to point out that in the EW "Idolatry" podcasts, which I otherwise really enjoy, Michael Slezak suggested Brooke White do "Here Comes the Sun." Not a Lennon/McCartney tune, Michael.

2008-03-16 18:00:30
4.   overkill94
Once again I thought Overmayer was terrible. I haven't enjoyed one moment of any of her performances so far. She looks terribly awkward on stage, has absolutely no vocal range, and the range she does use has no place in modern music.

I may have been the only person who thought Carly's performance was pretty crappy. Her vocal was way too strained for such a normally laid-back song; I didn't think it worked at all.

Not sad to see the stripper go home, but he didn't necessarily deserve it. Kristy Lee's "interpretation" of Eight Days a Week was an abomination. Like you said, she needs to do songs that either already have a country element to them or tweak the arrangement only slightly to give it a country feel. I'm happy to have her eye candy for at least one more week, but her vocals won't carry her much further.

2008-03-17 11:19:36
5.   driches
Good review, I agree with just about all your comments.

Although I actually kind of enjoyed Kristy Lee's countrified '8 Days a Week.' I think if she had changed up the driving snare beat on the bridges and slowed them down the way the Beatles do ("8 Days a week...I lu-uh-uh-uh-v you.."), it would have flowed a lot better and it would have gone over well.

Finally, one correction: "If I Fell" IS a Lennon song, not a McCartney.

(On that note, one deep Beatles history aside: In the entire Beatles catalogue, there are only two songs that Lennon and McCartney vehemently debate ownership of: the lyrics of "Eleanor Rigby," and "In My Life."

In the intro video from Tuesday's show, discussing McCartney vs. Lennon, they flashed the titles of some Paul songs, then some John songs. One of the three "John" songs was...In My Life. I see this as a dig on Paul; of the dozens of indisputably John songs, they picked one of two where authorship is questioned. Paul must be steaming.)

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