Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Voice Season 7: Battle Rounds

The first battle round episode of this season's The Voice managed to stretch a mere fifteen minutes of musical performances over a fast-paced, engaging two-hour show.  The show has certainly hit its stride with its best combination of judges yet, a impressive array of special guest mentors, and a talented diverse group of performers.  While the first battle of the night was one of the weakest, the rest had unexpectedly strong performances by underdogs, close contests that were tough to call and a few worth re-watching moments.

Let's break them down.

My favorite battle of the night pit Team Gwen members Amanda Lee Peers against Taylor John Williams singing Dolly Parton's "Jolene."  The fact that neither singer was in any danger of some woman taking away their man made the simmering emotion of their duet even that much more impactful.  Amanda, the underdog coming into the round, gave the best technical performance.  She may have been just a one-chair turnaround in the blind auditions, but she belted and emoted the hell out of that song, dropping to her knees at one point as her voice raged with passion.

Taylor took a more restrained approach to the song, a la The White Stripes, and was in danger of being buried beneath Amanda's thunder.  But a simple yodel (at 1:49) and his clear angelic voice, which had earned a four-chair turnaround with his Heartless blind audition, gave him the narrow victory.  While Adam praised Amanda's engaging, believable performance and Blake said he'd pick her the winner for her heart-felt performance, neither picked her up when Gwen let her go, choosing to keep Taylor on her team.

Two questions.  One, does Amanda get to keep her Team Gwen tee shirt now that she's been cut?  Two, does it bother anyone else (besides my husband) that when a judge lets one of their players go and another judge picks that person up it's called a steal?  He gets apoplectic each time the button is pushed and Carson Daly shouts that there is a "STEAL."  My husband, like me an attorney (unlike me, wildly successful and actually still practicing) will tell you that stealing involves someone taking without permission the property of another.  Saving someone's cast off from obscurity (or a life slinging grande frappuccinos) is not a steal.  It's a save, a rescue, an adoption, a reclamation but not a steal.

The second best battle of the night had Team Pharrell's Griffin taking on Luke Wade.  Luke was an four-chair favorite with extensive on stage experience as a blues singer.  Griffin was a Michael Buble sound alike who looked like an extra on the Sopranos.  During their rehearsal, Team Pharrell guest mentor Alicia Keys proved herself to be more than a stunningly beautiful face by giving some great advice as the two men squared off on the Paul McCartney classic "Maybe I'm Amazed" from way before either of them was born.  Sing the "Aretha Franklin" version she told them.  Their soulful take on the pop classic elevated it from karaoke to inspired.

On stage, it was another close race.  Luke has a gravelly voice that is bluesy and soulful and unexpectedly zigs and zags around a melody.  Griffin is more direct, but where in his audition he was a Frank Sinatra-era throwback, last night he had grit and power channeling Adam Lambert more than Tony Bennett.  His performance was so unexpected, bold and powerful it was a difficult choice for Pharrell.  He went for experience and a more broken-in sound, taking Luke, but it was no surprise that someone picked up Griffin.  The only surprise was that it was country bumpkin Blake who took the Jersey Boy looking, high note piercing, crooner. 

What do you get when a mediocre song is sung by two guys with solid pipes?  You have the battle between Craig Wayne Boyd and James David Carter of Team Blake.  Craig has a heavy country twang and sounds like he has the dog in the back of his truck next to the gun rack while James is more new country with a crossover voice that could fit nicely in the LA and NY markets as well as Nashville.  They were lucky to have Lady Antebellum as celebrity guest mentors as those four know how to blend their voices and make the weak sauce they're forced to record actually sound pretty good.

Craig, with his distractingly perky hair, has a more traditionally country look and sound.  James could pass for former American Idol David Cook (after a hair transplant).  They had a nice duet going until near the end (1:57) when James put a Vulcan death grip on his rival.  The song went on wave on wave and it was a toss up whether Blake would go old school or new wave (on wave).  "How do you choose," Pharrell noncommittally and asked as he declined to weigh in.  Gwen and Adam called it a tie as well. It was forcefulness versus melodic, flouncy golden hair versus closely coiffed, and ultimately Blake went for the more mainstream James.

Being such a twangy, blue-grassy, old school country guy, of course none of the other judges took him on their teams and he went off stage to a life of disappointment and regret...but wait!  Gwen hit her button and Craig was given a second change.  We didn't see it, but I'm sure he ran backstage and grabbed the Team Gwen shirt from Amanda.

Team Gwen's other match-up was between curly-haired cutie Jean Kelley and Elvira tousled Sugar Joans (not her stripper name, surprisingly).  Jean has a strong, if uninteresting, voice while Sugar is a cookie-cutter Christina who has never met a note she didn't want to beat into submission.  They yelled and screamed at each other to the tune of Survivor.  This was another battle that was evenly matched, but more because neither was exceptional.  Jean has a better natural voice, Sugar is a stronger performer.

Gwen went for the "effortless, natural" performance of Sugar and I was disappointed to see Jean go, not just because I love hearing Carson Daly introduce her ass Jean Kelley (and her not being a deceased famous movie star) but because I thought she has a more versatile voice that, if given the right coaching, could really work.  As Carson is starting to chat with Jean, as the other judges decide whether or not to choo choo choose her, Adam has his funniest moment of the show, interrupting Carson with "blah blah blah" while hitting his button.  Only, Pharrell has other ideas of where Jean belongs and he hits his button too.  She wisely chooses the producing genius and let's hope he can help her find her Voice.

One of the least difficult battle to choose was the first of the night, when Team Pharrell put be-braced teenager Elyjuh Rene against the Maiya Sykes.  There was enough scenery chewing between the two of them to make Kirsten Wiig's Mindy Elise Grayson character seem subdued.  Elyjuh has a great natural voice and if someone can get him to tone down the facial expressions and the urge to do more runs than a running back at the NFL Scouting Combine, he could go far.  Maiya has a great voice but her age and style are out of sync with what's on the radio today.

Pharrell compliments to two for making his job hard and acknowledges there are significant differences in where they are in their lives and what that brings to the stage.  In the end, he takes the younger singer who he will be more able to mold over the long haul than the more polished, but also more stuck in her style, Maiya.  Sadly, for those of us who love her pluck and personality if not her genre of music, Maiya is not taken, picked up, salvaged, retrieved or rescued (and certainly not stolen) and her run on the show is as short as Elyjuh's runs in the song were long.

The most uninspired pairing was from Team Adam.  Despite both being four chair turn-arounds, neither Chris Jamison nor Jonathan Wyndham could do much with the song Adam picked for them, Young Girls by Bruno Mars.  Chris had more trouble with the notes and his mouth couldn't seem to get around most of the vowel sounds in the song very well.  But Jonathan, who had sparkled in the blind audition, was absolutely lackluster on stage. 

During their meeting with guest mentor Stevie Nicks, Chris had been warned about being too timid, Jonathan told not to come on too strong.  So, of course, it was Chris who blew out the speakers and Jonathan who faded into the background, his powerful, pristine voice seeming weaker and less bell-like than the first time we heard it.  Chris out-performed him and seemed to care more and perception being reality, Adam surprised even himself by picking Chris to move on.

For me, the standouts from tonight were Taylor, who has both the look and the sound to make a deep run, Griffin, who was a surprise, and former front runner Luke.  I'm also keeping my eye out for Jean to sneak her way to the top if Pharrell is the miracle worker I think he is. 

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