Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Voice Season 7 Final Battle Rounds: Some surprises, some predictability

After tonight's episode we can say goodbye to the steal, the inaccurately named second chance button that gives contestants another shot at making it to the live rounds.  Going in, Gwen Stefani was the last judge who could hit her button and give one of the losing contestants another shot.  For all the judges, that meant that when they picked a winner, in all likelihood, that was the end of the line for the other contestant.  So, not much at stake.  Just the hopes and dreams of the remaining contestants who all believe that this show is their big chance to have a career in the music business, not realizing that the seventh place finisher of Nashville Star is doing better than any of the Voice winners.

Team Pharrell: Ricky Manning v. Brittany Butler
The first battle of the night was Joaquin Phoenix lookalike Ricky Manning and "weirdo" Brittany Butler.  Brittany had grabbed Pharrell Williams' attention during the blind auditions with both her strange song choice, the kitschy "Girl from Ipanema," as well as her oddball, retro jazzy style.  When he turned his chair, he must have been pleased to discover that the possessor of such unusual musical instincts was quite the looker.  Ricky Manning had a more current, relevant song choice and did an okay job with "Love Me Again," benefiting more from a good song than soaring vocals.  When the judges turned around, they might have been a little surprised to see Commodus from Gladiator standing there. 

Pharrell put the jazzy scary singer against the R&B scary singer and gave them a song that split the difference between the two, "On Broadway."  The George Benson version of this song is beboppy and scatty and can be a good showcase for improv.  If you're not familiar with that version, maybe you remember the instrumental version that was in American Beauty.  Ricky sounds good in the rehearsal, right on pitch, solid in the lower register.  But he's less comfortable improvising. Brittany has a more idiosyncratic sound and punches up the song with her own melodic choices.  She shines when given the chance to go off page.  Pharrell gives her permission to jazz it up even more and now I'm worried.

Ricky sounds great as he opens the song, and even earns a "Damn" from Blake Shelton.  Then Brittany comes in with her deep voice and attitude and mops the floor with him.  They are completely different, and every time it seems like Ricky will take this, Brittany just comes in and wrecks it.  Both Adam Levine and Blake seem to agree with me that Ricky was far better this time around and really showed something special tonight.  He took chances and changed up the song in what seemed like an effortless, spontaneous moment.  It's going to be so sad to see him go....and then Pharrell picks Ricky!  Okay, I'm surprised.  I thought he'd go for the cool, unique, jazzy girl with the rich deep tones but he went for "most improved" which clearly was Ricky.  Nice choice!  That Pharrell guy may have a future in music.

Team Blake: Kensington Moore v. Reagan James
The next pairing was between Kensington Moore, a high school senior who we'd only seen in a brief montage during the blind auditions, and fifteen-year-old Reagan James who shined in an impassioned performance of Ed Sheeran's "Give Me Love."  Kensington is a fresh-faced guitar playing country girl, Reagan is a preternaturally self-possessed indie singer who hails from the same small town as Kelly Clarkson. Blake gave them Lorde's "Team" to tackle and if we know anything about how Reality TV show editing works, Kensington will be back to school in time for midterms.

Kensington was tickled pink to meet her idols, Little Big Town and I was happy for them that someone recognized them and were happy to meet them.  Reagan was a lot more excited about the song choice and she immediately took to the Lorde hit.  She has the same sound as Lorde, which can be both a blessing and a curse and she's expected to nail this performance.  Kensington has lowered expectations and could sneak in with a stellar vocal.  Reagan sounded great during rehearsals, though Blake warned her about pitch problems.  Kensington was concerned that the high notes were slightly beyond her reach and her new BFFs LBT told her to go up to the falsetto and once she did it sounded amazing.

For the final rehearsal, Kensington was a no show.  She was laid up with a bout of kidney stones and so a last minute sub (the poodle haired Kimberly from LBT) stepped in to take over her part during Reagan's rehearsal.  But they did have one final chance to work together and get Blake's last minute coaching (Reagan, enunciate!).  When they started, Reagan forgot about that piece of advice.  But Kensington seemed to forget the melody. I felt for Reagan, bravely trying to get the song back on track as Kensington kept trying to slow it down. But by the end, they sounded beautiful together.  Blake wisely took Reagan who has a much cooler sound while the Jewel lookalike Kensington was good but not particularly special.

We saw a montage of battles with Blake picking Alison Bray over Fernanda Bosch and Gwen choosing Anita Antoinette over Mayra Alvarez as well as Bryanna Salaz over Gianna Salvato.

Team Adam: Beth Spangler v. Mia Pfirrman
This is a battle of the four-chair turn arounds with Beth Spangler going up against Mia Pfirrman.  Being two of the strongest vocalists, Adam gave them quite the challenge - Christina Aguilera's "I Turn to You."  Beth had impressed during the auditions with a powerful performance of "Best Thing I Never Had." Mia showed great range and control with her take on "Unconditionally." The two have the potential for nailing the big moments and giving them a Xtina song is risky as they can easily fall into  oversinging.

During rehearsals, exercising restraint and building to the big moments, is the focus.  What Adam and his guest mentor Stevie Nicks doesn't want the girls doing is getting into a scream fest of who can sing the loudest or hit the highest notes and I hope they take that advice or my thumb will be hitting the skip button.  Both girls sing well and mostly keep the histrionics out of the song, but Beth is a bit blander to me, a bit more calculated.  I'd pick Mia who seems more natural.  Blake agrees with me, Pharrell chooses Beth which causes me to question myself, and then Gwen picks Mia and I stop worrying knowing that there's still a steal save and Gwen has it.  So if Adam picks Beth, Mia should be okay.

But Adam picks Mia and it looks like Beth is on her way out of the competition except, we know there's a steal lifeline left, there's only a few minutes left in the show, and the producers would of course save the steal rescue to the end.  So as Beth goes in for her goodbye hug from Gwen, Gwen hits her button and keeps her in the competition. Shocker!

Next week the knockout rounds begin but there's a twist.  The steal is still in play??  Stay tuned.

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