Tuesday, March 18, 2008

American Idol Top 11 Perform:
Don't Let Me Down

Lesson learned we hope. The next time the producers of "Idol" get the brilliant idea to repeat a theme two weeks in a row because a) The public loved week one (true, but that's wasn't the real reason) or b) They paid a friggin' fortune for the artist's songbook (much more the real reason), they need to remember this trite expression: Leave well enough alone. Ryan Seacrest may have called it a spinoff, saying that last week it was Lennon-McCartney, this week it's The Beatles, but let's call a Liverpudlian a Liverpudlian.

And whereas the performances last week -- with a few exceptions -- sparkled, this week they fell flat. There was almost a weird Sgt. Pepper-ish carnival-like atmosphere going on onstage, from the outfits costumes (especially the ladies') to the odd arrangements to the slight smugness the contestants seemed to have acquired since last they performed. The judges' critiquing period became more of a dialogue between the reviewer and the reviewee, with most of the singers answering back or explaining themselves (mainly to Simon) immediately. Although some of the contestant-to-judge comments had a bit of a Danny Noriega *snap* to them (ahem, Amanda), the singers smartly chose not to cross the line into nastiness or rudeness. Overall, the two-hour show was the worst in weeks.

First up was Amanda Overmyer, who said she chose because "Back in the U.S.S.R." because it's upbeat. Thankfully, she lost last week's "Beetlejuice" black-and-white stripped pants, looking more like a rocker in jeans and a snap-button vest. Somewhere in the past couple of weeks she has found her confidence, and unlike some of her competitors, she badly needed it. No more are her shoulders slumped and eyes downcast, looking so uncomfortable onstage that it was painful for viewers to watch. She's found her 'tude. Her raspiness suited the song well, but she was definitely pitchy and still has a lot of trouble with melody. We were conflicted about the performance. She's previously sung much better than this but her new-found cockiness makes her onstage presence more enjoyable than it's ever been. But was it good to keep her in the competition? We say her odds of being eliminated tonight are at least 50-50.

Randy Jackson called it a perfect song choice but thought it was pitchy at the beginning and gave it a 7 out of 10. Paula Abdul also said the beginning "was a little sketchy" and also mentioned Amanda's pitchiness and pointed out that her timing was off -- she was a little ahead of the beat. She also told Amanda that she'd love to see her do a vulnerable ballad at some point. Simon Cowell, saying it was what it was, called it predictable and a bit of a mess in parts, adding, "I think you've got to, at least one week, do what David [Cook] did a couple weeks ago with the Lionel Richie song, and actually do something which is a bit of a surprise. Otherwise, you are in danger of becoming a little bit boring." Amanda said, "ballads are boring," then added that she has a minute and a half to show the audience what they would see if they bought a ticket to see her. She wants them to say, "Hey, that chick looks like fun, I wanna go see that show!" The audience went wild, Amanda raised her arms triumphantly and screamed "Yeah!" Simon, laughing, answered "Amanda, your tickets aren't on sale yet, right? So we might be jumping the gun a little bit here," which led to her response, "Even if I need to sell out a local bar in Lafayette, that's all I'm saying." It was the beginning of a very tiresome trend.

Watch video of Amanda Overmyer singing "Back is the U.S.S.R.":

After last week's fiasco, if we were a bettor, we would have said that Kristy Lee Cook coming back like gangbusters because she wants to stay in the competition was a sure thing. Good thing we kept our money in our pocket. Though not nearly the disaster that her countrified "Eight Days a Week" was, her "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" was tepid and immediately forgettable. Except for the money note she hit at the end, her performance had all the excitement and charisma of a three-day-old dead fish. We're sure it didn't help that, as she told us in her video, she picked the song on the basis of its title. (She hadn't heard it before.) Although her dress had a very low V-cut neckline, she kept the "girls" mostly hidden. Paula thought she never looked prettier; we thought the sparkly black dress with sheer long sleeves was horribly matronly. Paired with black cowboy boots it looked like something you'd wear to a Grand Ole Opry funeral. Who dressed this girl? But her outfit was the least of her problems. She ought to go home. She needs to go home. But will she go home? We won't bet on that, either.

Randy said the arrangement was interesting (we thought not), but that the whole song should have been a little bit more emotional, adding that it felt a little boring and a little safe. Paula agreed that it was a little safe and advised that sometimes it's better to stick to the song's original melody. She like the final high note and said, "If you could take those liberties a little more it'd be a little more interesting." Simon was deliciously cruel (sorry!), with "I think you need something like hypnosis or something, because the problem is that you're not a good performer." He then went on to compare her to "musical wallpaper" ("You notice it, but you can't remember it") and told her, "You're making no impact, apart from when you were terrible last week." (ouch!) She answered him, "Hey! Some people liked it." Answering a question by Ryan, Kristy Lee finished by saying, "hopefully I'm here next week because (turning to Simon and pointing), I can blow you out of your socks and you know it!" Uh-huh. This led to a lot of guffawing, "Whoas" by Randy and redness on both Simon's and Kristy's faces. Ryan, trying to give Kristy's call-in numbers, cracked up and said, "It's hot, turn on the air." We're not even going to touch that comment.

Watch video of Kristy Lee Cook singing "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away":

We hate even commenting on David Archuleta because we're so far from the mainstream on him. The more Simon idolizes and reveres him, the more we detest him. He's even beginning to look weird to us now, so much younger than his 16 years. They followed a shot of him with a shot of Michael Johns, and the age contrast was startling. Johns looked old enough to be Archuleta's father. Totally creeped us out. Archuleta did a very respectable version of Paul McCartney's "The Long and Winding Road." He didn't appear nervous like last week, forgot no lyrics. It was mellow and on pitch, and, well, boring. We wound up listening and playing with the dog rather than looking at the TV screen. Though he sings a song technically very well, he demonstrates no connection with the lyrics. Archuleta could never do "I Who Have Nothing" the way Jordin Sparks did, because he focuses on how to sing a song perfectly, not on what the lyrics are saying. Scoring him, he would get 9 on technique and 2 on emotional connection to the lyrics. Why is it that the judges never comment on that?

Randy said that David "brought the hotness back to his game," but added that he could have sung a couple runs. "So you played it a little safe. Take the liberties on joints like that. Very nice, though." Paula said, "This probably, for me, is the most exciting and wonderful performance because the purity of who you are and what your sound is is very identifiable (English translation please). And the fact that you can rise above adversity, come back strong. That challenge doesn't build character, it reveals character, and you're wonderful." Ugh! If Randy and Paula gave David his robe and sceptre, Simon placed the crown on his head with, "Last week was a complete mess. This week, I thought you were amazing ... that was a master class."

Watch video of David Archuleta singing "The Long and Winding Road":

Michael Johns is a conundrum for us. There is so much good about him, but something continues to misfire every week. He was much improved this week on his connection with the audience and sang relatively well, but picked a song -- "A Day in the Life" -- that was impossible to sing in his allotted time. He tried to pick out the best pieces and meld them together. It started out OK and even the middle worked, but, for us, it all fell apart in the end and trashed the better parts of his performance. Simon has been right, week after week, telling Johns that he still hasn't found the right song to give him a "moment" on the show. At this rate, he'll be lucky to finish 7th or 8th.

Randy thought it wasn't one of Johns best performances, and (surprise!) said "I still don't think you've chosen the right song ... You can just sing and let your voice do your thing, but you haven't found that vehicle to do that yet. It wasn't one of your good ones, baby." Paula tried to excuse the flaws in Johns' performance with the earpiece that many of the contestants were using for the first time this week. She then found out that he wasn't wearing one, and quickly backpedalled with, "Now there's no excuse, you're a phenomenal performer but you've got to raise the game." Simon, never at a loss for criticism, said, "The long and short if it was, it was a mess," adding "You didn't hit the right notes, the song went all over the place." He advised Johns that "You've got to start sorting yourself out. If you want to do well in this competition, you have got to nail the song ... That was not good enough." Uh-oh. Will Johns be in the Bottom 3 this week? Well, he might have saved himself by telling Ryan that the song was dedicated to a friend of his who died last year, and it was the friend's favorite song.

Watch video of Michael Johns singing "A Day in the Life":

Brooke White has so much charisma, the camera doesn't just adore her, it makes love to her. So what does it matter it her performance is kind of sucky. And it was. Though playfully sucky and because of the aforementioned charisma really hard to hate too much. If you think about, she's far from the best singer in the competition, but then again, Madonna isn't a great singer, either. Both of them skate by, quite successfully, largely on their charisma. Dressed like a human banana, with pretty happy yellow lighting behind her, she sang "Here Comes the Sun," not accompanying herself on either piano or guitar. She did a little swaying and dancing. It was all like watching a silly grown-up in kindergarten. She readily agreed with the judges that it wasn't her best performance and that she would have preferred to sing "Let It Be" again, because she knew she couldn't top the reception she got for that number last week.

Randy said, "That performance was really awkward for me," and that Brooke never really connected to the song. "You were kind of moving awkward there ... It was not hot." Paula commented, "What was hot for me is that you can't help but smile when you watch you and listen to you sing (very true)." She also said the song showed the low notes of Brooke's voice and those low notes showed a different side of Brooke. But, Paula added, "It could have been a little more challenging." Simon cracked us up with "I just knew ... that you'd be dressed in yellow and the lighting would be yellow. I thought the performance was terrible. From the horrible dancing to the absolute lack of conviction ... It was wet. (huh?) It was forgettable. That's what it's all about: song choice." But it won't hurt Brooke. Not one bit. Partially because she has this disingenuous way of deflecting the judge's criticism by constantly interrupting them and turning it into a discussion. It might appear genuine, but it's beginning to carry the stink of premeditation. Like David Archuleta, right now she's absolutely untouchable.

Watch video of Brooke White singing "Here Comes the Sun":

We've liked David Cook since the beginning of the competition and he's by far our favorite performer. This week Simon called his performance smug and perhaps that is true. Cook needs to be careful with that (Chris Daughtry fell prey to it as well), but honestly, he has reason to be smug. For us, he's far and above the rest of the crowd. Although it will be hard to ever top his performance of "Hello" two weeks back, he again scored with his creative rendition of "Day Tripper," even employing a Voxbox to alter his voice near the end of the song. It was a clever, if unnecessary, stunt. Certainly better than Chikezie's use of the harmonica (more on that later). We feel confident that Cook will make it to the final 5 and perhaps even the final 3. We actually don't want him to win because, like Chris Daughtry, he'll make a much better album if left alone creativity, and TPTB like to interfere too much with the winner's CD. So we're hoping for a second or third place finish for David.

Randy told Cook that he kept it interesting and that listening to him was "like going to another song at a David Cook concert." Jackson added that he didn't know if it was Cook's best performance, but it was another solid performance. Paula paid him the ultimate compliment with, "There's really not much else anyone can say because you're ready to go sell records." She also remarked that he used the voice box in a very cool way and that GEICO commercials were next. (er, think he'd rather be recording than doing GEICO commercials, but the commercials probably pay better.) Simon said, "I don't think that was as good as you thought it was. You looked a bit smug throughout." He also told Cook that, "You've lost your element of surprise a little bit," calling the performance a bit predictable and saying that he didn't like that version. No, Simon, we think you just don't like anyone being more smug than you are. When Ryan asked David what he thought about Simon's criticism, Cook smartly sidestepped any wise-cracking and answered, "As Simon said, it's an opinion" and that he listens to everything the judges say and tries to work on it.

Watch video of David Cook singing "Day Tripper":

Although many people don't care for her, for our money Carly Smithson has never given a bad vocal performance. We loved her arrangement and vocals on "Blackbird," one of the evening's top three performances. We did have issues with that incredibly ugly blouse with the red rose ruffle neckline. Wearing more makeup again and with the tattoos, the combined effect of adding in the rose ruffle made her look like, well, a clown. It was very distracting trying to listen to her while having to look at that stylist's nightmare.

Randy called it another great performance and said it was very controlled. He proclaimed it "cooliosis!" Paula told Carly that she had an amazing tone to her voice and that the arrangement was beautiful. We kind of cringed when she added, You stand right in there with a capital F, for fantastic." We wondered where that one was going for a second. Simon, who has been hating on Carly on and off for weeks, said, "I thought the song was indulgent. I didn't like the song at all." Carly then cut off his critique with her explanation of why she chose the song, saying she related to the lyrics because they reminded her of all the contestants who have been struggling to make it in the recording industry, getting beaten down but forging ahead anyway. Simon answered, "Carly, well now you've made me feel very uncomfortable, because I now think that you're all broken birds." She explained, "No, we're not anymore, but we were." "You're now free?" he asked. "Yeah, I'm able to sing," she said. "OK," he answered. Oh Puleeze, no more, we begged.

Watch video of Carly Smithson singing "Blackbird":

The only time Jason Castro should open his mouth is to sing. And last night he should have kept it closed even for that. With his stoner speech and apparent lack of intellect, he's beginning to make Kellie Pickler (tonight's guest performer, BTW), look smart. It would be like a meeting of the nonminds if the two of them chat after the show. Combined together they're not smarter than a fifth grader. Castro chose "Michelle," then told us that he didn't know "ma belle" was French. He thought it was "my bell." Uh-huh. Enuf said. His rendition was almost comical. It started out OK, but as the song progressed it became sing-songy and ridiculous. It's hard to imagine that just a couple of weeks ago he sang "Hallelujah" so hauntingly.

Randy said it was "I don't know if I really, really got it. It was just alright for me. I didn't feel like you were really connected with it." Paula added, "I feel like you get a little disconnected when you're away from your guitar. It was a little uncomfortable for me. It was an intimate song that became more like a polka." Simon, saying he didn't think it was such a good idea to do The beatles two weeks in a row (ya think?), added "This is all getting a little bit strange. Where you're lucky is this is a TV show and not a radio show, because your face sold that. What you have, Jason, and I like you a lot, is that you're very charming and you're not obnoxious. And it's your kind of goofiness that makes it work. Because if I just listening to that French-English version of the song on the radio, it would be [turning his hand as if it were on a dial] off."

Watch video of Jason Castro singing "Michelle":

Well, finally! We've loved Syesha Mercado since hearing her sing Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools" during Hollywood week, but she has failed to really impress ever since. She took falling into the Bottom 3 last week as a challenge to up her game, and up it she did. The potential to blow a song as well-known and frequently covered as "Yesterday" was huge. And yet, she pulled it off, giving an emotionally touching performance, mostly subdued and underplayed with a few money notes. It probably didn't hurt that she brought out the "girls" for this performance. Her dress absolutely accentuated her assets, but it was a beautiful dress and she looked the prettiest we've ever seen her look. She was hot all around.

Randy said that she took some liberties, worked on the melody and changed some things around a little bit. "In my estimation, very, very good performance tonight," he concluded. Paula said that it was great to see how Syesha let herself be very vulnerable and that "The only thing I would work on is connecting more with your eyes and really connecting with the audience. Other than that, you've got a beautiful instrument." Simon helped her with, "I thought that was probably your best performance so far. It wasn't incredible, but you chose the best song. You chose the song Brooke should have sung ... I thought you sold the song very, very well. I think that song and that performance should keep you in this competition." Yea!

Watch video of Syesha Mercado singing "Yesterday":

Another long-time favorite of ours who faltered terribly at the beginning of the competition is Chikezie. But the past few weeks he has been a wonderful surprise, showing creative versatility with his song choices and arrangements. Whereas Kristy Lee Cook was a disaster trying to turn "Eight Day a Week" into a country song, Chikezie's country version of "I've Just Seen a Face" was a ridiculously pleasant success that started out slow then built up speed. Except for the harmonica playing. Oh, yes, that. You see, Chikezie never played the harmonica before this week, but feeling pressured to perform instrumentally like some of the other contestants, he tried to do a Taylor Hicks on his song. It not only didn't work well, it almost ruined it. Gimmicks should be left in the dressing room unless they both add something to the song and can be pulled off successfully. Chikezie's harmonica playing did neither. Dressed nattily in jeans and a brown jacket, we didn't miss that the shirt under the jacket was the same orange as the suit that Simon hated. Good thing Cowell didn't notice it.

Randy said, "It sounded like it could make a good country song. I liked it when it went to the fast part. The slow part I didn't quite get, but you need all that up-tempo stuff to use all that energy you got, so I like that. The harmonica was a very weird strange arrangement." Paula said, "I disagree. I think you're showing who you are." She said when he sang it was pure, on pitch and beautiful, and then he showed a whole different side of himself. Simon felt "It started off okay and then you played the harmonica which was, literally atrocious, and then it turned into "Achy Breaky Heart" at the end ... I actually thought it was ... gimmicky." Yes, it was.

Watch video of Chikezie singing "I've Just Seen a Face":

Last up, in what no longer can rightly be called the "pimp" spot -- because the performances more often suck than don't -- was Ramiele Malubay, whose light was shining brightly at the beginning of the season but has been slowly dimming ever since. Fortunately she is very cute, or she might have been gone by now. Which is really a shame, as she has proved on more than one occasion that she has an incredible vocal instrument. She really didn't impress much "I Should Have Known Better," not a great song for a solo. It sounds much better sung by a group. It wasn't terrible, it just wasn't anything to care much about. The only thing we remembered about the performance this morning was that she looked cute in the hat. And she won't win the competition on that.

Randy said he wasn't jumping up and down, that she showed that confidence he knows is in there, that is was just alright. Paula proclaimed it "Definitely better than last week (actually we liked her better last week). There is something about your voice when you sing ballads that allows you to really show your range. I want very much for you to get back in that zone ... and show people what you got and pick the right song." Simon added, "I like you a lot. You've got a fantastic personality. You're lots of fun. The track sounded terrible. It sounded very amateurish, the whole thing." He also said she chose a mediocre song that didn't show the best of her ability, "so it is what it is."

Watch video of Ramiele Malubay singing "I Should Have Known Better":

Top 3 performances: David Cook, Syesha Mercado, Carly Smithson
Bottom 3 performances: Kristy Lee Cook, Amanda Overmyer, Ramiele Malubay

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