Thursday, May 26, 2011

American Idol Season 10 Final Results -- And the Winner Is...

Was there ever any question?  It's hard to remember back to the Hollywood rounds when young, deep-voiced Scotty McCreery was going from group to group singing "Baby, lock them doors," over and over hoping to find someone who would take him in.  I can barely recall when they were putting together their top 24 and there were two, young male country singers and it seemed a bit like an odd choice when they took Scotty over the other fellow.  For weeks now, Scotty's coronation has been a mortal lock, as certain as Obama not getting invited over by the Netanyahu's for Seder.

So last night's show was not about the results so much as a way to encapsulate what has been an odd year under new management.  New judges, new format, new record label, new-old did it all play out?  Well, by not having rigid theme nights where singers were forced out of their comfort zones and into new genres, you were able to have consistently good, safe performances by the top two finishers.  Had Scotty been forced to sing something jazzy or bluesy or Broadway, perhaps the limitations of his voice would have been highlighted.  Conversely, maybe Lauren would have shone brighter (as she did with Candle in the Wind) when she wasn't staying on the safe path.

With label head and producer extraordinaire Jimmy Iovine running the show, it was less about the contestants showing us who they were and more about the show presenting us who they wanted them to be.  In years past, it was interesting to see the development of artists (think of the metamorphoses of shy Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood during their triumphant runs).  This year, we were instead privy to the behind the scenes machinations that produce the final product we see on the stage.  The magic and discovery of an artist's growth was gone, instead we got to watch How to Make a Star 101.

The instructions to the judges to observe the 11th Commandment -- thou shalt not speak ill of any performance -- left us alternately mystified and frustrated.  When every performance was "beautiful," when no errant note or poor vocal choice was ever criticized, the show moved from competition to coronation.  We were brainwashed into believing this was the best season ever, the most talented group ever, the best top whatever ever.  Jacob Lusk, who would be kicked out of show choir, and perhaps even an audition for La Cage Aux Folles or RuPaul's Drag Race, for being too over-the-top, was praised as the next Luther.  Paul McDonald, whose only clear attributes are his shockingly white choppers and the fact that his poor choice of outfits momentarily distracted us from Lauren's similar sartorial missteps, was the new Rod Stewart.  Casey Abrams, the band camp geek who was in way over his head, was treated like a musical genius for grunting and gesticulating wildly. 

Last night's show was a mish mosh of musical genres from the virginal gospel stylings of Lusk (punctuated with incongruous groin grabs) with Kirk Franklin to the raunchy mock-sex/suicide of Lady Gaga. We had 85-year-old Tony Bennett more than hold his own against the super sex kitten Haley Rinehart, back to her seductively purring ways, and seemingly ageless Tom Jones showing more sex appeal than a group of singers decades younger.  James Durbin asked us to give metal a chance and, while it's still not my favorite genre, his enthusiasm and raw talent was enough for me briefly to wish for a hair band revival.  Naima Adedapo showed more personality than the rest of the girl contestants put together, and Stefano Langone demonstrated an ability to command a stage beyond what I had seen before.

While the much-anticipated duet between Casey A. and Jack Black fizzled (and not just because of the lack of the eponymous Fat Bottomed Girls), the comedic highlight of the show was the duel pitting Casey and James over whose ouster was most shocking...a debate that came to a quick end when the dearly early-departed Pia Toscano checkmated the two of them.

Other take-aways from last night -- Beyonce is gorgeous, Marc Anthony and J. Lo can sure ignite a stage, the U2 Spiderman song was a snoozer, I prefer Carrie's voice to Lauren's but choose Scotty's over Tim's, and Steven Tyler can still rock.  Oh, and Randy Jackson is one lucky SOB since he contributes nothing and yet has had this cushy, steady gig for ten years now. 

So the winner is Scotty McCreery, the cute kid from North Carolina with the deep voice and occasionally goofy stage mannerisms.  If anyone say they saw that coming from the first episode, I'd ask them for their lottery picks and the name of the next IPO I should get in on.  I sure could not have predicted that back in January.  But, though originally unexpected, it's a satisfying win, much more so than the last two years, if not the most electric.  Congrats to Scotty and to runner-up Lauren.  I'm just sorry you're coming up in an age where your fellow teens rather steal music than pay for it.  I hope there's still a music industry for you to work in five years from now.  But if there isn't, at least you'll be young enough to do something else.  Like finish high school.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Recap: NBC's The Voice, Battle Round #3

Tell me that didn't just happen.  I know that the rules of the recap are that I'm supposed to go in order of what occurs on the show, but I'm still in shock.  Rebecca Loebe is out?  Gone.  History.  Toast.  Kaput.  She was my #2 pick.  Her mesmerizing take on Nirvana's "Come As You Are," was a revelation and she seemed poised to be the only singer in the competition likely to give Javier Colon a run for his money. 

And she was beaten by the second coming of Kevin "Chicken Little" Corvais???  Someone who should be in the customer service area of Best Buy, backing up your old computer files??  Not on stage singing a Radiohead song HE'S NEVER HEARD BEFORE.  One of the most iconic songs of this generation -- and he's unfamiliar with it????

Okay, let me regroup.  So, welcome back to The Voice.  It's time for Round Three, where the coaches cut their roster of acts till we end up with four from each who will head off for the live voting rounds.  Who won't be making it is Rebecca Loebe, despite being served up a softball of an alternative music classic right in her wheelhouse.  But, I digress.

First up is Christina Aguilera.  She picks 16-year-old Raquel Castro to go up against middle aged (i.e., twenty-something) Julia Eason.  They're going to sing Rihanna's "Only Girl in the World."  In the auditions, Julia blows Raquel away -- she has a strong, powerful voice that grabs you.  But on stage, Raquel comes alive.  The fireplug with the Snooki poof just takes over and you don't even see there is anyone else there with her.  Is she the greatest vocalist, the possessor of the best "voice?"  Well, no.  But she has that certain something that makes her instantly watchable and interesting and her voice is solid enough to back up the performance side.  And with that the previously all-bald Team Christina has it's newest, follicly well-endowed, member.

Next round pits two members of Team Blake -- Dia Frampton vs. Serabee.  They are given "You Can't Hurry Love," by The Supremes. Dia is a soft, gentle folk singer, Serabee is a gospel belter who never met a note she didn't want to pummel into submission.  During rehearsals, Blake Shelton stresses to Serabee that she needs to exercise some restraint when she's singing.  "Keep all the tricks down," he says, then tells us that he hopes she listened to what he said. 

Well, guess what, Blake?   Just like you will discover after you and Miranda have your first child, you can give all the good advice you want, but people still have to make their own mistakes.  And Serabee makes a big fat one right on national television doing exactly what Blake told her not to do -- she oversang possibly worse than she had in rehearsal.  But Blake showed that he may indeed make a great parent, telling her, in effect, just because you can doesn't mean you should. 

Dia has some weird vocal quirk that makes it sound like she's a Transylvanian vampire devouring every note (she sounded a little like Graham Parker -- not known for his vocal prowess as she glug-glugged through her part), but at least she didn't defy her coach.  And so Serabee, and her ironic hat, were kicked to the curb.  By the way, kudos to Cee Lo for the most apt description of the duel: "that was...bizarre."

Okay.  It's time.  Third pairing...the lustrous Rebecca Loebe against the anemic Devon Barley.  When their coach Adam Levine tells them the song he's chosen is "Creep" by Radiohead, Rebecca gasps knowingly.  She loves this song (who doesn't...oh wait, I can name someone).  Devon looks confused.  But, in his defense, when Adam tells him he's going to have to get in touch with his inner creep, Devon quickly responds, "Done" and I'm liking him a little bit. 
In rehearsal, Rebecca nails the beginning of the song while Devon doesn't even know the melody.  It looks like it'll be a romp.  Like any MLB team against the Dodgers this year (ouch).  But Devon learns the song and gets in touch with the lyrics and what they mean to him.  Then it's time for the duel.  Devon starts, instead of Rebecca, and he sounds good -- a little menacing and, yes, creepy.  Rebecca sounds a little off.  She's going for pretty, not weird, but it doesn't sound quite right.  When she comes in "I want a perfect body, I want a perfect soul," she is basically squawking off key, as if she's going through puberty right then and there.  Her voice completely falls apart and she never puts it back together.  A Chernobyl-like meltdown.  Adam looked shocked; I don't think he expected that to happen.  Based on the performance he had no choice.  And with that, Devon moves on and Rebecca heads back to her car.

Okay, with that out of the way, we can move on to the last duel of the night, Kelsey Rey vs. Tori and Taylor Thompson, from Cee Lo Green's team taking on Natasha Bedingfield's "Unwritten."  All three girls are cute and can sing.  Do the sisters have an advantage? Duh. Two cute girls are better than one.  They actually sang pretty well (as if that mattered, I'm so naive!!) as Kelsey seemed to have some a mini-breakdown of her own (not of Rebecca-esque proportions), her voice turning strangely raspy and weaker than in her audition.  She tried her hardest, but the sisters were an impenetrable force of nature and she was ultimately powerless to overcome their adorableness.

Next week is the final battle round and then we the people get to exercise our right to vote.  See you back here then.

American Idol Season 10, Finale -- Who's in it to win it?

The short answer is...neither of them.  I cannot recall such a lackluster finale.  And it wasn't just the lack of ethereal spotlights, gospel choirs and the other accoutrements of years past that the producers would use to send not so subtle signals that this is our winner.  It was also the lack of any fire in the belly of either performer tonight.  This is what going through the motions looks like.

But a moment to pause to contemplate the absence of blatant staging manipulation:  If the producers don't know who they're rooting for, and don't care enough to make sure you know who you're supposed to vote for, you know we're in trouble.

We have two competitors who are solid, capable, reliable, and consistent.  None of those adjectives are what comes to mind when you think of a great singer.  Instead, those are the descriptors of the kind of insurance agent you would want to sign with.  And therein lies the problem with tonight's show. 

I was chided in the chat room for using the word somnambulistic to describe one of tonight's performances, but I think the scolding was more for the affectation than accuracy in my choice of words. Because there was no question that the word for tonight was sleepy. 

It occurred to me that when I think back on Season 10, I will remember Casey Abrams' borderline psychotic performances and Paul McDonald beyond the border silly ones, James Durbin's over-the-top staging and Haley Rinehart's quasi-burlesque act, but not one performance of either of the final two will be recalled.  So it was really no surprise that the final competition pitting the two would leave no trace.

The first song was a reprise of the contestant's favorite performance from the competition.  Scotty chose "Gone" by Montgomery Gentry.  I haven't checked back to my earlier post, but I was told that I liked this in the earlier rounds.  Perhaps, but tonight his vocals were far outmatched by his excellent baseball swing at the end of the song.  When your arm movements are the most interesting part of a performance, perhaps there is something wrong.  The song started so monotone and unremarkably you had to check the DVR description -- yep, this is the finale!  It picked up by the end, but before the applause faded I would have been hardpressed to remember the performance.

Lauren did the Carrie Underwood song "Flat on the Floor" and it was only more interesting than Scotty's performance because we had been told ahead of time that Lauren had blown out a vocal chord during rehearsal.  So it was inevitable that we would listen a little more carefully, and care a little more, about her performance wondering if she'd make it or not.  But in the end it was what we've come to expect from her, good, a little breathless, but good.   She sounded best singing the song's title, where she carried some power along with a lovely tone, but the rest of the vocals were too muted.  After she sang I wondered, with all the medicine they gave her so she could perform, if she wins, will she have an asterisk by her name?

The next songs were chosen by the contestant's own idol.  Scotty's, chosen by George Strait, was "Check Yes or No."  I didn't like the weird looks into the camera that Scotty does, but I really liked his vocal on this song.  It sounded a little different from what he has done on ever other single song since the beginning of time and for that I was grateful.  But what's with the wide stance; did someone steal his horse right out from under him?

Lauren's second song was selected for her by former AI winner Carrie Underwood.  It was Pam Tillis' "Maybe it was Memphis."  Oh, if only Carrie had picked her dress as well.  That was beyond unfortunate.  Even on the most shoestring budget, no Little Miss pageant contestant would be caught dead in that outfit - it was tutu, too too much.  But, Lauren at least sang like she cared if she won and tried to put some passion in her vocals.  Her voice has so much potential -- just beautiful.  If she weren't just a child, she'd really know what to do with it and she could blow us all away.  Right now, it's just raw talent that needs to be worked with.

The last song was the potential single for whoever wins this season.  Jimmy Iovine picked a song called, I kid you not, "I love you this big."  Unless you're three, that is an unfortunate line to deliver, let alone sing on a stage before millions.  Silly, insipid, ridiculous are some of the words that come to mind to describe the song title.  None of this is Scotty's fault and I give him props for doing his best -- including risking mocking humiliation from his baseball friends -- to act out the lyrics.  But if he wins, I'll be glad I don't listen to country radio so I won't have to hear this treacle.  His voice though, as always, was good, fine, right on.

Lauren's last song was "Like My Mother Does" and it was a much better song than the one Scotty was assigned.  It actually had a chorus, and told a story.  Lauren sang beautifully, as always, and didn't let her emotion in singing to her doppelganger take away from her performance.  There were some quasi-creepy Gypsy allusions hanging over the song, but Lauren showed herself to be the better singer, the one more able to put her heart and soul into her vocals and to connect emotionally with the audience.  Too bad it won't be enough.

And there you have it.  Two kids who probably still sleep with their retainers in, who will toast their victory with a milkshake, are our final two contestants of Season 10.  They deserved to be there by virtue of their innate talent and poise, yet the very things that make them so attractive to a record label are what makes them not the best choices for an interesting finale.  They are predictably good, but predictable is not the main ingredient for an exciting TV show.  But on the results show, we get the train wreck contestants returning and while I might cringe at their least I won't be bored.

Prediction?  You don't have to be Nostradamus to know that Scotty will win.  Even that guy who incorrectly predicted the Rapture realizes he has the tween vote locked up.  I just don't see the middle-aged mom block, who had been supporting him, jump ship just because Lauren sang about her mom.  But I'll admit that I texted quite a few votes for Little Miss Sunshine and am hoping for an upset.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

American Idol Season 10 -- Top 3 Compete

DISCLAIMER:  I have a cold.  I've had it all week and apparently it not only dulls my senses of smell and taste but does something nasty to my sense of humor.  So I apologize in advance for the more straight-forward recap.

Considering this is arguably the most important episode before next week, the opening actually seemed muted.  I thought there would be a Chris Harrison worthy intro about the most emotional rose ceremony ever or something to focus on this being the TOP 3, just one spot short of the finale, etc. Instead, we got some abbreviated video of the Idols during their hometown visits followed by an E! Celebrity Bio on former Destiny's Child singer Beyonce.  About an hour later, the show started.

Three singers doing three songs somehow equals two hours worth of show.  So get comfy.  To aid us tonight, there will be three separate counts:  the number of times Steven says "beautiful," the number of times Randy says someone is "in it to win it," and how often Randy name drops or pats himself on the back.  Predictions??

The winner of the only American Idol contestant to never get the pimp spot contest is one Scotty McCreery.  Either the producers don't adore him as much as we think they do, or his numbers are so astronomically higher than anyone else in this contest that they have to force him to go first just to make it fair.  The first song, which Scotty picked for himself, is not, surprisingly by Josh Turner.  Nor is it sung in an octave deep enough to get a seismograph to register.  Instead, it's the song "Amazed" by Lone Star

The mentor for this round, Beyonce, has a clear favorite.  She is totally smitten with Scotty whose charm and innocence have beguiled her and she bestows on him the title "cutie pie."  Did the frontrunner really need any more adulation?  Are the producers secretly splicing one second images of confetti to reinforce that Scotty is our winner?  But then Beyonce gives Scotty some questionable advice, telling him to try and sing in his higher range.  Danger, Will Robinson!  Whatever happened to "if it ain't broke, don't fix it?"  I thought he sounded strained when he went for the glory notes, but it was another unexciting but solid vocal.  I am wondering if  by the finals, someone will figure out how to rig up Scotty's cross so it lights up and flashes.

Lauren Alaina picks "Wild One" by Faith Hill for her first song, and it occurs to me that this is the first time in ten years that I had never before heard the songs picked by the first two singers.  This really isn't my genre.  Lauren has more makeup on than a "Toddlers and Tiaras" contestant and her outfit is a crime in every state above the Mason-Dixon line.  Dolly Parton would tell her to tone it down.  But when she sings, she has the most beautiful tone, I forget all about the visual assault.

There were some problems with this performance, mostly involving the fact that she apparently just got off the treadmill before she started singing.  She was breathless, not in that sultry way, but in that, I'm being chased by a mountain lion way.   Probably nerves, but it's something she needs to work on.  Because anyone who can do what she can with the little tear in her voice and her control on the big notes should not sabotage themselves by panting like an Iditarod dog at the end of a race.

Haley Reinhart decides to dance with the one that brung ya' and continues to take daring chances with her song selections.  This time, ignoring the fact that the resident rocker was just sent packing, she goes all Led Zepplin on us with "What Is and What Should Never Be."  In the most pimp-worthy move since Chris Medina had his fiance at his audition, Haley brings her aging rocker dad on stage to whack the old axe.  Perhaps this was all part of some settlement with American Idol attorneys for the show's mistreatment of Haley over the past three months.  But, it smacked of the most egregious favoritism in the show's history.

Haley, if you pardon the pun, rocked the vocals and even earned additional points for falling with style and getting back up with grace.  She did not miss a beat.  Very impressive.  But unless they're going to bring Scotty's grandma on stage with a tambourine for his next number, I'm crying foul. Nevertheless, round one goes to Haley.

Round two has the contestants singing producer/mentor/person they hope to work for Jimmy Iovine picking their song.  He gives Scotty "Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not?" by Thompson Square.  Hey, I'm two for two.  Haven't heard of the song or the artist this time.  It's a silly, jokey song that I think is completely wrong for Scotty which is why I'm here writing a blog and Jimmy is there masterminding the careers of Gwen Stefani, Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas.  I get it. 

Jimmy says he picked the song because it reminds him of Tom Petty.  I don't see how he heard any rock at all in that country song.  For me, it reminded me more of Richard Petty.  But who am I to argue with the guy who's worked with John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen?

So the plus is, Scotty isn't leaning on a piano (which, I agree with the chat room is redundant) and he isn't finding new awkward ways to hold a microphone, but instead he takes on this weird macho persona which is greatly at odds with the Howdy and the Doody aspects of his Alfred E. Newman face.  He's a 17-year-old red head -- I'd suggest taking all romantic songs off the table for at least a decade.  Again, his vocals are fine.  I don't know that he's reinventing the wheel or doing anything that other country singers haven't on the show before.  But he's consistently good.

Jimmy picks "If I Die Young" by The Band Perry for Lauren and I wonder if maybe she's his favorite.  It's a beautiful song and she, if you pardon the expression, kills it.  I love her voice.  It's strong, clear, passionate.  She has by far the best recording voice, even if she did hit one bummer note after a little mental glitch during the song.  Staging is not her strong suit, and she manages to look awkward just sitting, but she has a natural gift and if nurtured she will be giving Taylor Swift a challenger as country music's darling.

I must now apologize to Haley.  What they gave her in the first round, by letting her daddy play with her (wow, that sounds wrong), Jimmy took away by making her try and sing Stevie Nicks.  Even Stevie can't do Stevie anymore.  Rhiannon is one of those seminal songs that everyone has imprinted on their brains and no amount of wind machines, beautiful dresses and favorable lighting can erase the original in our minds.  Haley had one nice, sweet run of notes, but other than that it was a forgettable performance.  Round two to Lauren.

The last round has the judges' choices (if we're all suspending belief for a moment that the producers had nothing to do with the selections).  Scotty is saddled with the Kenny Rogers workhorse "She Believes in Me," a song that should have been put out of its misery years ago.  The only thing worse than seeing that hirsute, bloated guy sing this song is watching cherubic, virginal Scotty sing it.  Yeah, the vocals are good, no complaints, but there is no emotional connection and it all seemed phony and forced to me.

Speaking of phony and forced....So Jennifer Lopez tears up at the end of this song. C'mon, JLo, don't even try.  You're just not that good an actress.  You're lucky the "I'm just so sweet" bit has been bought by the AI viewers.  Don't push it.  But, getting back to the vocals, Scotty sounded better in the upper register than he has good job.

So we see them touching up Lauren's makeup before her next song.  Somewhere Tammy Faye is saying...too much!  The judges give Lauren a beautiful song, Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance." 
This is unfair.  I'm not sure anyone wouldn't give me goosebumps singing this song.  I did find Lauren's pageant dress a bit distracting and I hope that her next reality show appearance is on "What Not to Wear." 
After Lauren doesn't win this season of American Idol maybe she can go on the "I Was Robbed" tour with Adam Lambert and Crystal Bowersox.  She has the best voice in the competition, but her lack of confidence has been a problem for her since she got to Hollywood.  Seeing the video of that ballsy girl during the audition, who was orchestrating her moment and directing Steven, makes you wonder where that girl went and why she always seems so skeered on stage.
The last performance goes to Haley Reinhart and she's given the anthem "You Oughta Know" by Alanis Morrisette.  I always found it funny how Alanis went from Debbie Gibson teeny bopper to Amy Winehouse manic depressive in such a short period of time.  But it was a good career move.  It is also amusing how the lyrical alterations made for the PG TV audience strips the power from this song.
Someone forgot to put the stripper pole up for Haley.  Oh well, she does a fine dance without it.  Her vocals are weak when they're supposed to be soft, but she nails the loud, angry parts.  Haley lacks subtlety when she sings which was why those few notes during the last song were such a nice change of pace.  She should work on developing that part of her voice.  Otherwise, she's just a good, solid rocker chick going into a music business that does not support the genre.  She has a lot of potential, but of the three I'd say she's least ready to make an album tomorrow.
Now for the moment you've all been waiting for.  The final count.  There were four "beautifuls" from Steven Tyler, just 2 name dropping pats on the back by Randy Jackson, but a whopping four "in it to win it" comments -- for just three contestants.   Masterfully played Randy.
So with some 90 million votes being counted, and I only managed to log in a dozen for Lauren, I have no predictions.  My gut tells me that Haley will make it to the end, but I can't bring myself to say that Lauren is going home.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

NBC's The Voice -- Episode 4: The Battle Continues, Rd. 2

Tonight was the second round of battles pitting two of the coach's team members against each other to see who would make it to the live voting rounds where the very discerning American voters will of course make the correct choice and not, for example, vote out the really talented kid with the big heart in favor of the boring, copycat country singer.  Wait, sorry, wrong show.

First up is the big, lovable teddy bear, Nakia, against the owner of the world's greatest Afro, Tye Austin.  I think the last time that much hair has been on one stage must have been the Poison/Warrant/Quiet Riot reunion tour.  They're singing Nee Yo's "Closer" and it seems more in Tye's wheelhouse.  He has such smooth, silky vocals and a perfect recording voice.  I could listen to him sing all night.  But he is up against a force of nature in Nakia.  He has the power, the emotion, the showmanship to really sell the song.  You can't take your eyes off of him on stage.  I would have gone with Tye, being the vocal purist that I am.  But Cee Lo takes "Kia" an interesting nickname for someone who would appear to outweigh his namesake car.

The next duel is actually a threesome, but much less sexy than it sounds.  It's the so cute you want to puke couple of Josh and Nicole Johnson who inexplicably go by the stage name Elenowen.  The folk-pop duo look like they could be third cousins of Kings of Leon and I want to take up a collection to buy Josh a full sweater or jacket so he can get rid of that gnarly vest.  They're going up against bald, rocker Jared Blake who I did not remember from the audition rounds.  Apparently, he did "Good Girls Gone Bad" and everyone passed, so he got a second chance with "Not Ready to Make Nice."  That time, Blake Shelton took him.

Now the folk-pop duet and the rocker dude are going to battle it out on..."Ain't No Mountain High Enough."  Really?  Strange song choice.  Jared started out all gruff and edgy, and then Elenowen came in and they were hardly a presence on the stage, just two lovebirds singing to themselves, somewhat unaware that they needed to engage the audience.  It was weird, Gertrude Stein-esque ("no there there').  I wonder if they knew this wasn't a rehearsal.  I think Blake may have wanted to go with them -- they're cute and marketable.  But Jared brought it and there was no way to ignore that he went after the song like it owed him money.  So he's the next member of Team Blake. 

Poor Angela Wolff.  She is cute as a button (although she should probably consider visiting a cosmetologist who can tame those formidable eyebrows before they take over her face), has a terrific figure and has a really nice voice.  She is as the saying goes, the complete package.  Just one teensy problem.  She's up against someone who may have the best voice to ever grace a reality TV singing competition in Javier Colon.  This guy gave me chills and while my memory of some of the other auditions may be a bit shaky, I will never forget the first time I heard him sing.

Their coach Adam Levine picks "Stand By Me" for them to sing.  I wonder if he thought of giving Angela a blindfold and a cigarette before she went before the firing squad.  As I expected, Angela is terrific.  She has nice stage presence and a lovely voice and is simply adorable.  So I'll be sad to see her go, but when Javier opens his mouth, well, let me quote Blake here:  "Javierrrrr."   He is what makes the music industry so confounding.  There are no guarantees.  You can have a great, really remarkably pure and soulful, voice and yet never make it.  Javier can sing rings around everyone else, but here he stands on the silly boxing-ring stage singing for another chance at stardom.

But sing he does and even though it's just a snippet of what he can do, there is no question he has the quality this show claims to be about...the voice.  And his is as sweet and crystal clear as any I've heard.

The last battle of the night is from Christina Aguilera's team.  She has bald, ballsy, blaster Beverly McClellan going up against some guy who looks like he sells insurance, Justin Grennan.  How cute, their last name's rhyme.  Last week the final battle was Vicci and Niki.  I'm sensing a theme.

They're assigned a song that looks tailor-made for the rocker chick, The Who's "Baba O'Riley," also known by the name of "Teenage Wasteland" and the theme from "CSI:NY."   Considering Justin has been living under a rock for the past twenty years and was totally unfamiliar with this overplayed song, he did a terrific job.  But in proving that heart and desire are sometimes more important than technical skill, Beverly just worked harder and wanted it more and so she fought off his strong opening vocals.  By the end, she was in complete control of the song and the performance and Justin had faded into the background.  Welcome to the live shows Beverly.

Some of these singers already have songs and albums out there, so no need to wait till the end of the show if you want to buy some of their music:

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

NBC's The Voice -- Episode 3: Let the Battle Begin!

We're back with the third episode in the latest entry in the crowded field of vocal competition reality TV shows.  Are there really that many great, undiscovered singers out there?  Well, apparently, because of the 32 contestants vying for 16 spots in the voting rounds, there are quite a few good voices out there.  If Randy Jackson were judging this show, he'd utter nary a "pitchy."  Which makes tonight's show particularly difficult.

This is the first round of battles, where two of the coach's picks have to go head-to-head, singing the same song on the same stage, with the coach picking the one who will go on.  Christina Aguilera is up first and she puts her two ample divas up against each other -- Terralyn Ramsey and Frenchie Davis.  They take on Beyonce's call to action,  "Single Ladies," and in rehearsal both sound amazing.

Christina is aided by Sia, who gives Frenchie a newsflash -- she has a tendency to go sharp.  First Frenchie heard of this, and, frankly, first for me too.  But she's taking the advice knowing that this is her last second chance...unless it's not too late to try out for the X Factor.  Meanwhile, Terralyn is trying to play mind games by holding back during rehearsal -- as if Frenchie couldn't tell that the powerhouse was not putting out her A-game. 

Well, maybe Terralyn shouldn't have held back, because when she lets it all out its a bit of a screechy mess.  Frenchie shows command of the stage and her vocal and she's the first to move on.

Blake Shelton is up next and he puts country boy Patrick Thomas against pop singer Tyler Robinson, giving them the Elvis song "Burning Love" to compete with.  Blake brings out the heavy guns, no less than Reba McIntire, to help him prepare his singers.  Blake gives Tyler some great advice:  just because you can do a lot of runs doesn't mean you should.  He also gives some a more questionable suggestion -- telling the very young, very innocent Patrick that one of the two needs to convince Blake that they are in fact a hunk, a hunk, a, burnin' love.  Patrick can barely reach a simmer, so I'm worried for him.

But Patrick has a really sweet, clear voice and takes immediate control of the song.  Tyler looks more like Elvis Costello than Presley. He takes the advice and doesn't oversing, but does a really nice thing with some of the notes.  Blake applauds him for his vocal restraint and seems genuinely struggling with the decision.  I would have given the round to Tyler, but, perhaps not surprisingly, the country boy is the choice.

The third battle of the night pits two of Adam Levine's team, Tim Mahoney and Casey Weston, singing the Don Henley/Stevie Nicks duet "Leather and Lace."  Casey sounds like she's been sucking helium since birth when she talks, but all that goes away when she sings.  Tim may not have the best voice for this song as his natural voice is a little high to provide the masculine contrast, the leather, to Casey's lace.  He makes Don Henley sound butch. 

One wonders whether this battle round is really a thinly disguised "face" round.  The premise of the show was that it didn't matter what a singer looked like, it was all about "the voice."  But with the judges facing the stage, knowing that in just a few weeks the future of their contestants will rest on the shoulders of a visually impacted, somewhat shallow America, how much does stage presence and look now factor into the decision?  In other words, without a dynamite vocal, Tim would appear to be on shaky ground.

Casey does an almost perfect Stevie Nicks' impersonation, complete with the raspy, purry vibrato.  Tim's voice is really good, but not blow-my-mind memorable.  And he did a lot of teeth baring that was not real attractive, while Casey just standing there was too adorable.  I think this was the easiest choice and Adam selected Casey.

Last up were Vicci Martinez and Niki Dawson from Cee Lo Green's team singing Pink's "F**kin' Perfect." I'd like to ask that they agree on one spelling of "icki" and stick with it.  This is really confusing!  Vicci had killed it in the audition round, Niki's was not shown so we don't really know what to expect from her.  Niki says, modestly, it should be a great battle since we're both such great singers.  Cee Lo's helper Monica notices Niki's, um, confidence.  So the question is, can she back it up?

Well, yes.  They both do.  Adam did not hyperbolize when he said this was the best duet of the night.  Vicci has a really unique sound, all rough edges, and she is quite the dynamo on stage.  Niki has the most beautiful, sparkling voice.  Crystal clear and powerful.  They sing like their lives, and not just a shot on a TV show, are on the line and one wonders if Cee Lo is regretting his decision to put them up against one another. 

I think it's ultimately the power of her physical presence that has him pick Vicci over Niki.  Niki -- next time you audition, do something about those bangs.  Your voice was an A+, but the hair was tragic and despite the name of this show, there's more to a successful singing career than just having a great voice.

Monday, May 16, 2011

All Hail Boston Rob, Winner of Survivor: Redemption Island

I did not blog Survivor: Redemption Island this year, expecting it to be as mind-numbingly boring as last season's Survivor: Nicaragua which was won by...anyone?  Exactly.  But I watched every episode because that is what I have done since a certain overweight gay guy sat up a tree and told us all that we might as well write the million dollar check for him right then and there (sadly, not suggesting that the producers deduct the taxes first).  I'm glad I did, because I found this season, though lacking in surprises, to be one of the most satisfying and enjoyable ever.

There were two twists for this twenty-second season of Survivor.  One, was the return of two of the most notorious past players, the pathologically evil-yet-entertaining Russell Hantz and the bad boy-turned- endearing "Boston" Rob Mariano.  The second was the creation of Redemption Island, a place where voted-off castaways would be given a second chance to get back in the game.

I loved the first twist because I recognize that first and foremost, Survivor is a television show and its first requirement is to entertain.  And like them or not, Russell and Rob are two of the most dynamic contestants to ever play the game.  The success of any season of Survivor is about 90% casting, 5% Probst dimples and 5% location.  When, like last season, there is a lackluster cast, no amount of "wanna know what you're playing for" or "Survivors, ready?!" will save it.  So, the producers were smart to ensure that there were two remembered, as well as memorable, cast members.

Bringing back two players did not guarantee that they would be around long to carry the show, as they each came with huge targets on their backs.  And, indeed, Russell was so hated by his tribe that they did the unthinkable -- throwing a challenge just so that they could vote him off.  It turned out to be a $1 million mistake for one of the former Zapatera tribe because they had the momentum, the numbers and the edge going into that challenge.  There is no question that had they not thrown that challenge, it would have been one of their own (if not all from that tribe) sitting in the finals and not riding the jury bench.

But Rob somehow used his voodoo magic, Boston charm or Survivor mind control to convince his fellow castmates to keep him around.  Though he was clearly the biggest threat, though he was the obvious choice to get rid of early, his team instead clung to him like a life raft in the middle of the ocean (rather than the 2 ton anchor he actually continue the metaphor).  Rob made them believe they needed his construction skills to build their shelter.  He had them thinking that, despite them losing challenge after challenge, they shouldn't risk becoming a weak team by voting him out.  He somehow manipulated everyone of them to being a key player on Team Rob.

A great example of just how intellectually overmatched his fellow castmates were, at the finale Jeff asked Natalie why she and the other girls didn't try and vote out Rob when they had the chance.  She, as did Ashley, admitted that she knew Rob had the secret Immunity Idol and so thought it would do no good to try and vote him out.  It is Countering the Immunity Idol 101 that when someone has it, you do whatever you can to force them to play it.  But instead they let him have the benefit of the idol without having to use it until the very last opportunity.  Crazy.

The Redemption Island twist was infuriating.  After "the tribe has spoken" there's a catch??  No, I'm a purist.  Out means out.  But this year...and it appears next season as well, had a chance to get back into the game by outlasting the other kicked-off survivors in a series of duels.  It gave us the story arc of Matt the Christian true believer whom God appeared to be carrying all the way to the end.  Matt won ten duels, was brought back in the game only to be voted out again, and seemed poised to make another miraculous comeback, all thanks to God, which would have given the premed student and the almighty quite a story to tell their friends.  But, instead, Matt fell short and all that time on the island seemed in retrospect a cruel joke.

A few observations.  David said during the jury questioning what the rest of us were thinking--no one played a better game than Boston Rob and no one since Richard Hatch has worked harder or more cleverly to come out on top.  Steve and Grant are whiny jerks -- the NFL should be embarrassed.  Phillip did not have to apologize to anyone.  He was interesting and real and was treated horribly by most of the opposing tribe (save for the hirsute hillbilly who redeemed himself with his Phil vote).  Cyclops needs to apologize to Natalie and Natalie's mother for her nasty comments during the jury segment.  The girl is 19, away from home, playing a game for $1 million with people much older than her.  She made it to the end, which 15 others couldn't say.  Julie, go take your bitterness against the cute girl, oh, and your stealing Phillip's trunks, and show us just how classy you really are.  I'm sure your girls are really proud.

It would be easy to discount Rob's masterful play this season as "fourth-time's-the-charm."  But as anyone who watches Survivor knows, it does not get easier the more times you play, your vulnerability actually grows exponentially each time.  It is a testament to his brilliant social game that Rob overcame being the most obvious choice for an early boot to control almost every breath that his tribe took for 39 days.  I have not seen such blind obedience to a male authority figure since Jim Jones.  May not be the most flattering analogy, but it is the most apt.

I'd strongly urge Natalie and the rest of the Omatepe tribe to steer clear of Koolaid for a while.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

American Idol Season 10, Top 4 Results Show -- James Durbin Out??

What in the Daughtry just happened? 

I go out of town just once during the entire run of American Idol Season 10 and what do I miss?  Oh, just the most interesting, electrifying and, yes, talented contestant of the remaining four is sent packing.  No, not for a triumphant hometown parade as one of the Top 3 finalists.  Packing as in he's back to doing his own laundry.  What in the what??

In a typical post mortem, you look at every organ, every bodily system to see what failed.  Every so often, the medical examiner will determine that there is no clear cause of death and that might seem like the case here.  James Durbin was well-liked by fans, adored by the judges, treated well by the mentors and producers, had a great backstory and, oh, yeah, he could sing.  But dead he is, at least as far as American Idol is concerned, and so I will explain as best as I can my theory behind his sudden seemingly unexpected demise.

Geller, M.E.

Patient: Durbin, James

Cause of AI Death: Premature coronation combined with excessive, undeserved praise.  Secondary factors, judges' backlash and inconsistent later performances. 

James was a 22 year old white male without a guitar, typically not someone who would survive to the end of American Idol.  Thought he can play, for some unknown reason he did not wield the axe often enough to remind the voters that he fit the criteria for an AI winner.  Indeed, for the past three years, only a WGWG has made it to the end of the show.  His failure to remind viewers that he filled that stereotype was not helpful, but was not a major cause of his demise.

James started out strong, with some surprisingly vibrant, touching, and emotional performances.  But in the last two weeks, he showes signs of strain.  His vocals, especially on the 30 Seconds to Mars song during top 5 week, were shaky, off-key, and erratic.  He bounced back to some extent during his next song, but was overcome with unexpectedly strong emotions which detracted from the vocals.  In the previous few months, he almost never showed any tendency towards being "pitchy" or being anything but in full command of a strong, pure voice.

Some have noted his reliance on screaming and going for the big notes, but that had not shown any signs of injuring him in the past.  They were usually intermittent and had not lasting negative effects -- save for infuriating the Glambert obsessives who declared that there shall be no screamer but Adam and sent their negative mojo to work on James.

No, James appeared robust and able to make it to the end of the competition where he was expected to falter Adam Lambert-style when faced with the overpowering force of a cross-wearing, gramma-loving, God-and-country-singing, Southern-living, country-twanger.  So what killed James Durbin? 

The last two weeks, he was overcome with sure-thingitis.  He believed he was invincible, a lock to make it to the end.  So he stopped worrying about this vocals, stopped taking care that his performances please the audience first (and not just himself).  He went from obscure songs to overdone ones and ignored the fact that each week you have to give the home audience -- and not just your diehard fans -- a reason to support you.  His overconfidence mixed with inconsistent vocals and damaging song choices proved a fatal combination in the end.

While I would not suggest opening a criminal investigation into this matter, I would add that James' demise was not without some questionable circumstances.  Fans of a certain Madam have been supporting Haley Reinhart quite heavily these past few weeks and have been opposed to James taking the place of their dear Adam as the most successful American Idol shrieker.  I wonder whether and to what extent their dislike of James contributed to his early exit.

Footnote:  I should add that I was and still am a fan of James, but even I wrote less-than-stellar reviews of his last two weeks of performances.  I did not for a second believe he was vulnerable as I couldn't, and, frankly, still can't figure out who it is who is voting for Haley.  But I was disappointed with what I thought were subpar performances.  So while his exit was shocking at the time, in retrospect all the signs were there.

But, really, who is voting for Haley?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

American Idol Season 10, Top 4 Compete

This is the most important week ever.  Well, since the week where we thought we were picking the Top 10 who would make it on the American Idol Live Tour.  And, of course, there's next week when we'll narrow it down to the final two.  Oh, and the week after that where we crown a winner and Lee DeWyze no longer has to crumble under the weight of that title.  But whoever lasts this week will finally get to meet the deputy mayor of their town and get a newly created key to the city that was hastily glued together for the occasion.

Big, right?

We get two songs from each contestant -- no duets like last year at this time -- the first an inspirational song (please, Jeebus, no "You'll Never Walk Alone" or "My Heart Will Go On"), the second, one from the catalog of some old guys who wrote songs before I was born.  I did say old.

Tonight's show had drama (Haley talking back to the judges), comedy (Scotty worrying that hanging with Gaga was going to condemn him to Hell), tragedy (Haley's hair, Lauren's outfits) and horror (Casey Abrams and Paul McDonald back on my TV screen). 

First up tonight is James Durbin.  James is the most recent unfortunate beneficiary of the tabloid attack dogs who decided yesterday to put a salacious, and misleading, headline on their rag.  Did he know and did the pressure get to him?  Well, he certainly didn't look like he was stressing as he dragged out the most overplayed song of this and the last century, "Don't Stop Believing."  James did not let last week's vocal stumble shake his confidence and he was all cocky bravado and rock star moves as he took on the Journey classic.  He approached the song a la Paul McDonald, like we were popped into the middle of his concert (Cmon, James."Anyone know this song?"  Really?  There's cheesy and then there's taking a mozzarella stick, dipping it in Velvetta, then plunging it into a simmering fondue pot of Gruyere.)

At least his vocals were solid and he has enough youthful enthusiasm and unbridled joy at performing to almost make up for the silliness.  James doesn't need the shtick and I hope someone tells him that soon.  He actually has the best natural voice in the competition and the more stripped down it is, the better it sounds.  Anyone can scream, yell, shout, screech.  If that's all it took to make a good record, you'd lock your singer up in a room of wasps.  The power is in the sublety and there was nothing subtle about this performance.

James was followed by Haley Reinhart who has defied all expectations by making the final four.  I hate the judges' critique that a contestant doesn't know what kind of an artist they want to be, but it almost fits here.  Haley annoyed me when she was the growling sex kitten, yet the last few weeks I've found myself strangely impressed by her confident vocals.  But tonight, to quote my least favorite AI judge, she took two steps back.  Her take on the Michael Jackson weeper "Earth Song" was strained and weak. 

She had no breath to speak of and the only time you could hear her was when she was screaming tunelessly at the end.  She sounded like that nasty old codger in the neighborhood always yelling at the kids to get off the lawn.  That wasn't a vocal, it was an aural assault.  But when two of the judges pointed that out, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson, Miss Reinhart got all "oh no you didn't" and copped enough attitude that I wanted to send her to her room. 

He didn't sing the opening from Mighty Mouse ("Here I Come to Save the Day"), but Scotty McCreery might as well have, because his emotional, tender take on the Alan Jackson 9/11 tearjerker, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning") brought the show back on track.  He picked the perfect song (it had God AND Jesus in the lyrics -- score), was playing his guitar (so no awkward poses with the mic) and his voice was as pitch perfect as ever.  How he managed to get the Navy SEALS to take out Osama bin Laden to make this song even more timely is impressive! The only question lingering after this performance is how long before he is the next country music superstar.

Last up for the first round was the effervescent Lauren Alaina.  I'll admit it, I have a soft spot for this girl.  She's adorable, talented and totally unaware she possesses the first two traits.  She gave Scotty a little competition for the Bible-belt vote with "Anyway" by Martina McBride.   While I appreciate that Scotty is the real deal, I can't see myself ever buying one of his albums.  While I don't break out in hives when he sings, it could be because I take a Claritin ahead of time, just to be safe.  But Lauren is more current country than Scotty and I think she has great crossover potential.  She's a little bit Dolly, but also a little bit Carrie. 

After the break its time for Lady Gaga to mentor the Idols.  She dresses conservatively for her.  No pants, natch.  But at least she's not wearing food.  And none of her body parts appear more altered than normals.  If she goes outside, the black under the eyes will make it easier for her to catch a pop up, so it's nice to see she comes prepared.

Haley is up first this round and she's singing the rather intense Lieber and Stoller song "I (Who Have Nothing)".  She sounds amazing in rehearsal and the suggestions Gaga gives her (make it more dramatic...imagine that suggestion from the lady who goes on stage covered in blood!) are right on.  Haley does a great job on the show, though her voice was a tad too shaky and thus lacked the punch it could have had.  And she missed the last note by about a mile.  But the judges, feeling guilty or worrying that Haley may be armed this time, lavish her with praise.  I'm sure that won't confuse the young lady at all.

So what happened when Scotty met Gaga?  The queen of the monsters told seventeen-year-old Scotty McCreery to pretend his microphone is his girlfriend and "Put your mouth on that microphone or that... is going to leave you."  She also suggested sticking his tongue down the girlfriend's throat.  Well, that certainly wasn't awkward at all!  He later kisses his cross and says, lord, this is not my doing.  I'm sure God already got the memo on Gaga, kid.  No worries.  Scotty took a hokey song and had some fun, but it paled by comparison to his first song and seemed like a wasted opportunity.  But Scotty is golden, so he can afford a silly number like "Young Blood".

Lauren is getting down and dirty with the song "Trouble."  It didn't suit her.  I'm no prude, but I don't like seeing sweet, seventeen-year-old girls romp around the stage telling us how evil they are.  Lauren didn't even feel comfortable with the lyrics. Good lesson for your instincts!  Betty White exudes more naughty sexiness than Lauren.  It's just not who she is.  I'm starting to wonder whose idea Lieber and Stoller night was because we have one overwrought song and two silly ones -- not really the body of work you want to pin your entire future on.

The last performance of the night was James doing "Love Potion Number 9."  So Gaga was digging James' vocals, but not so much his lack of sexiness.  So, while his eyes are closed, she goes around behind him and plants a hand on each hip and starts showing him how it's done, Elvis style.  Well, that was less awkward than her moment with Scotty!

I'm not used to James being off key, but I had plenty of opportunities to experience that in the first minute of the song.  But I love the way he finished up the song, holding the audience in his hand and toying with us like we were his little plaything.  The guy can control a stage. 

I'd say Scotty and James are locks to make it to the final three and it's between the girls.  I worry that Lauren splits her votes with Scotty and that Haley fans would not likely be fans of anyone else still in the running.  But her feisty verbal altercation with Randy does not always sit well with the audience.  Conversely, after watching Haley batted around by the judges like Lenny playing with a puppy, the audience may actually come to her defense.  We'll see.  I'm still betting on a Haley ouster tonight.

Who do you think is going home...and not to homecoming?