Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Standard Fare

UPDATE: According to Access Hollywood, legendary crooner Tony Bennett, who turned 80 a few months ago, is not well enough to put his golden pipes on the air tonight. A spokesperson for the star said he has a cold. With just hours left until tonight's live show, Idol producers are working hard to find a stand in. Canadian singer Michael Buble will fill in.

Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington ... all greats for any generation. Composers of music and lyrics that have stood the test of time. The theme was standards and, unfortunately, so were many of the performances: A few shining lights, but mostly mediocre retellings of classic songs. The good news: No one was egregiously bad, but that's almost damning the group with faint praise. It was also a night when we again frequently found ourselves at odds with the judges.

Tony Bennett was the night's mentor, and not only does the he look good at 80, he offered some solid advice. Not surprising as he said he's been singing for 50 years -- and that means he started later in life than all of the contestants, making his resume even more impressive. Bennett's music has charted in every decade that he's been a singer; few others can make that claim. But once again, in spite of getting invaluable free guidance from one of the world's best crooners, most of these wet-behind-the-ears "artists" thought they knew better and chose to ignore critiques that would have enhanced their otherwise run-of-the-mill performances.

Blake Lewis took the stage first singing "Mack the Knife," nattily dressed in a suit and tie. Bennett had warned him to slow down the beat and concentrate on phrasing. Although this is not one of our favorite songs, we thought Bennett's criticism was spot on ... especially when Blake ignored it and glossed through the song without understanding the words. He carried it off because of his innate showmanship, but it also demonstrated that although he has a pleasant voice it is far from a great voice. Singing the standards not only made that more apparent, it also exposed a pitchiness in his singing. This wasn't the best genre for him. But, the judges generally praised his performance. Randy Jackson pointed out Blake's pitch problems, but said it was a good way to start the evening, and Paula Abdul agreed, saying that Blake personafied pizzazz. Simon Cowell brought things back to reality when he gave Blake a 7 out of 10 and even that, we felt, was a bit generous. But Cowell also, rightly, gave the band an 8 out of 10.

Between acts, Ryan announced that they've added a bunch more stars to the special "Idol Gives Back" event, including Keira Knightley, Hugh Grant, Helena Bonham Carter, Forest Whitaker, Pink, Gwen Stefani, Rowan Atkinson and Daniel Radcliffe (those Brit executive producers have no doubt been working overtime on getting their countrymen to appear). But the major coup was the announcement that the event will be held in two venues, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall, where Kelly Clarkson will perform live.

Phil Stacey was next up dressed like a, well, mortician. The dark suit and white shirt combined with his lanky stature and barren head made Phil look more like a cadaver. But we loved his choice of Cole Porter's "Night and Day," one of our favorites, whether it is sung by Sinatra or Doris Day. In this case, Bennett advised Stacey to pick up the beat a bit, and again, was ignored. Phil's version started out a little shakily, a common probem for him, as well as a bit too slow. But it picked up as it went along and he brought it home in the end with a really nice final note. Overall, we liked it, but the judges weren't as kind. Randy called it an interesting choice but said he didn't feel any connection or passion. When the audience began booing him, Randy, in a Cowellish moment, responded, "I know how you feel, I was listening, too." Paula started with "The good news is ..." which means bad news is coming. Well, Paula's good news was that she thought Phil was reminiscent of a young Frank Sinatra, but added that Phil needed to have more personality show through, something she tells him every week. Simon could barely wait for Paula to finish her critique before jumping in with "Which Frank Sinatra are you referring to?" then staked Nosferatu by telling him that the performance had "all the joy of someone singing in a funeral parlor," adding that it was really dark and gloomy. This could be Phil's Idol death knell, but he also might have saved himself when Ryan Seacrest asked him how he felt about Simon's comments, and Phil responded by saying that he was trying to focus on his wife while he sang, in a real "awwwwww" moment.

Our first reaction after watching Melinda Doolittle's performance was "Why is she even here? This woman doesn't need this competition. She should be performing on stages everywhere RIGHT NOW." Her rendition of "I've Got Rhythm," complete with at least two change ups in rhythm was nothing less than perfect. She deservedly received a standing O from the audience. For a second we even thought the judges would get on their feet as well. The only question is how Doolittle could have remained a backup singer as long as she did when there were professionals hearing her amazing voice constantly. Good for us, but shame on them for ignoring the treasure in front of their eyes and ears. If anyone was ever made to stand in front of a band or orchestra it is Melinda. Randy, a constant Melinda supporter, had to wait until the cheering calmed down then raved, "You gave everyone a lesson in singing. This is how you do it right here!" Paula added, "You're like a master's class for everyone here" and that each and every performance has a beginning, middle and end, cracking Simon up. Laughing, he told Paula, "Every song has a beginning, middle and end." He then said that he didn't like the first part of the song, calling it (all together now) a bit cabaret (cue the booing, to which Simon yelled, "Oh Shut Up!"). He added that the second half was fun and that he loved the last part, finshing with, "I don't think we're ever going to be able to criticize you. This is a problem." When Ryan asked why that was a problem, Simon said because they like being mean to people occasionally. Ryan answered that you can't be mean just for the sake of being mean, and, of course, Simon said, "I can."

Next up was MJ, er, JT, er KFed, er, oh, yeah, Chris Richardson, singing "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." In a very Michael Jackson move, Richardson opened in a vogued silhouette, then danced his way down some steps, and we had to admit it was effective. The staging got everyone's attention, even if it was, to borrow Simon's favorite phrase, "a bit cabaret" (which Simon strangely failed to notice). Even the wardrobe was very precise: Fedora hat, suspenders off the shoulders and hanging at waist, vest. But the singing was only adequate, and to our ears the pitch Richardson chose sounded either too high for his voice or the music. There was nothing inherently horrible about the performance, but nothing wonderful either. But not according to the judges. Randy gave him a "Yo baby" (does that mean it has the "yo" factor?) and told Chris that he came out with a vengeance, that it was very cool, young and hip and one of his best performances of the season (which doesn't say much, in our opinion, for the rest of Chris' performances). Paula Abdul purred, "You made it so hip and so cool," echoing Randy. Worst of all, Simon Cowell told Chris that he thought that it was very good and very believable. However, when he added that Chris had made it kinda hip and that it was one of the strongest [performances] tonight, we gagged. How could he even think that following Melinda? We really think, for whatever reasons, the producers are behind Chris, although most everyone we know, including us, can't stand him.

In total contrast, thank god, was Jordin Sparks, whose rendition of "On a Clear Day" wasn't hip enough for Simon. Proving once again what a great voice she has, Jordin's performance, if not her best (it would be hard to top her "I Who Have Nothing" night), was still delightful and radiant. Our only critcism was her outfit, whose long untucked white blouse over baggy black trousers topped by a short black vest looked more waitress at Legal Sea Foods than onstage Idol. As far as her performance, for once we were in sync with the majority of the judges (sorry Simon). Randy declared, "We got some heat up here ... That was da bomb again ... You're like a pro and you're like 17! Whoa!" Paula called her a magnet of joy (cracking Simon up, again), then told Jordin that she was "so frickin' proud" of her, that she loved her and that Jordin was sailing through to the next round. Parodying Paula, Simon opened with, "Well Magnet of Joy," then said, "I thought you sang it very well, but I don't think you accomplished what Chris did before you, making the song young and current," ultimately calling it "very old-fashioned."

Gina Glocksen chose to show her softer side with "Smile." Even Bennett got a bit choked up talking about the song, saying that it made him think about 9/11 and our soldiers in Iraq, two associations that certainly might win Gina votes. She may be known as Idol's rocker chick, but Gina seems to do well with ballads. (Her makeup and hairstyling made Gina look the prettiest we've seen her so far, though we think a softer outfit -- rather than the laced up dress and black knee boots -- would have suited the song better). She shined last week with The Pretenders' "I'll Stand by You" and this week's performance was nearly as strong as that one. Her voice faltered once or twice, but we thought she was much better than Blake or Chris who received more positive feedback from the judges. Randy called it a very nice, controlled performance adding "I actually kinda liked that" (nothing like commitment, Randy), while Paula called it flawless (not quite, but we'll take it), understated, beautiful and sentimental. Simon, however, was not impressed, saying, "I can’t rave about the vocals, sorry Gina ... Two girls came on before you and completely outsung you" ('tis true, but this isn't a sex-classed competition and Gina outsung Blake and Chris, yet you praised them). Gina tried to defend herself saying that there are all different kinds of vocals in the competition, but really what's the point? The audience is either going to buy into Simon's (wrong) opinion or be free thinkers.

Next up, Sanjaya Malakar. If you've been waiting to read us making fun of him, well, you've come to wrong blog. Was his version of "Cheek to Cheek" great? No. Was it terrible? No. It was OK, and that's a lot more than we've said about Sanjaya in the past. Sanjaya said his goal this week was to prove to America that he can really sing. Well, he can. Hell, we can. But what neither of us can do is sing great. Playing it straight, but with a lot of personality, Sanjaya took the floor in a white suit, black shirt and white and black shoes, with his hair, which appears to have been trimmed a bit, gelled back. You could really see what a good-looking kid he is. He strolled down to the judges' table as he sang, then took Paula for a couple of spins on the floor, before making his way back to the stage. He was pitchy now and then, but his biggest problem is a lightweight voice. It doesn't even have the depth and breadth of Kellie Pickler's last season, and hers was nothing to write home about. But like Kellie, he has a natural charisma, which will probably take him just as far in this year's competition (Kellie finished in sixth place, but since seven is Sanjaya's lucky number, that's what we're predicting for him). Randy told him, "You know what, I can't even comment on the vocals anymore ... What I like about you now is you've turned into a great entertainer." Paula told him he's charming and that his vocals were a little off at the beginning, then asked, "Is this 'Dancing With the Stars' or 'American Idol'? We laughed out loud at Simon's sarcastic "Let’s try a different tactic this week ... incredible." But that ain't gonna stop VFTW from dialing in.

It didn't start out well for Haley Scarnato. First she got one of those stupid viewer questions about what was more nerve-racking, singing or waiting for the judge's opinions, and told Ryan that waiting to hear what Simon will say is insane (Simon's face made it clear he didn't appreciate her comment). Then Tony Bennett said she was destroying the story of "Ain't Misbehavin' " by playing it as promiscuous by singing it to more than one person, rather than singing it romantically to just one. But it was another case of ignoring the expert, and Haley played it her way in what we thought was one of her weakest performances. Perhaps because of poor critiques last week she once again decided to try and rely on sex appeal rather than vocals. Her short, sparkly low-cut green dress gave great exposure to both her mile-long legs and cleavage. But even that and her vamping couldn't save her from her less than spectacular singing. And Randy and Paula, perhaps being petulant because they thought Haley only cared about what Simon said, or being cowardly because they didn't want to tell her how bad she was, let her have it by saying nearly nothing. In a cowardly beginning, Randy said he thought it would be a good week for her because the theme suited her "wheelhouse of songs" (huh?), but then trailed off into "What did you think, Paula? She also ducked the issue completely by only asking, "Did I mention green's a good color for you?" Then, encouraged by Randy, threw the ball to Simon who showed his annoyance with, "That's rude. You should say what you think about the performance." Paula answered, "She wants to know what you think," so Simon said, "I think you've got great legs." He added that he agreed with Randy that it was a good style of music for her but it was a little pageanty, which prompted Paula to suddenly develop an opinion and jump back in with, "No, Haley, you did your thing." Yeah, fine, Paula. Next time have the courage to speak your mind when it's your turn.

Last up, in the pimp spot, was LaKisha Jones, singing "Stormy Weather," which should have been a powerhouse for her. Bennett warned her to just sing and hold the last note, instead of adding her little improvised "Ain't no sunshine when he's gooooooooone." But did she listen? Why do you even ask? Just as the final note is reaching a goosebump-rising crescendo, she has to add that stupid "Ain't no" and kill the whole ending for us. However, she still received her standing O, with the camera panning executive producer Nigel Lythgoe and Simon's girlfriend, "Extra" correspondent Terri Seymour, in the audience, giving knowing "wasn't she great" smiles to each other. Guess we know who they voted for. One thing we will grant her: LaKisha looked gorgeous -- the best she's ever looked on the show. Even the low-cut (of course) gown didn't annoy us. Surprisingly, Randy said it was pitchy in the beginning (we didn't hear it), but also said he loved it and that it was the perfect song for her. Paula added that she did an amazing job and looked and sounded beautiful. Simon said, "Back on form, LaKisha," and that it was a sassy, great performance.

Our Top 3 in descending order: Melinda Doolittle, Gina Glocksen, LaKisha Jones

Our Bottom 4 in descending order: Haley Scarnato; Chris Richardson, Blake Lewis and Sanjaya Malakar (three-way tie)

Our Middle, in no particular order: Jordin Sparks, Phil Stacey

America's Bottom 3: Haley Scarnato, Phil Stacey, Chris Richardson
Voted off: Haley Scarnato or Phil Stacey (too close to call)

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© 2007

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