"American Idol" finals week two: a vast improvement over Stevie Wonder Night, though should that be much of a surprise? These decade themes always allow the finalists to stay in their comfort zones with their blanky and their favorite teddy and a cup of warm cocoa, but I heard at least five performances that had me thinking that singer could win and I wouldn't complain in the least. In order...
Mandisa ("I Don't Hurt Anymore"): Holy shit, that was sexy. Obviously, you look at Mandisa and that's not a word that automatically comes to mind, but that's how amazing that performance was. Vocally in command from first note to last, making love to both the camera and the audience (and not in a smarmy, Guarini/Constantine/Ace/Pickler way, but something authentic), just great all around. Best of the night by far, and one of my top 10 "Idol" performances ever. Usually, going first in a two-hour show can be trouble (see Ace in the bottom three last week), but I doubt anyone who watched is going to forget that one for a long long time.
Bucky Covington ("Oh Boy"): Mumbled lyrics and notes that disappeared somewhere inside his facial hair, redeemed only partially by an upbeat stage presence. Worst vocal of the night, though I don't think he's going home.
Paris Bennett ("Fever"): A 17-year-old shouldn't be able to pull this one off and make it feel as lived-in and sultry as Paris made it. I wasn't having inappropriate thoughts about her or anything, but I believed her performance in a way I usually don't when the teen queens try to sing grown-up love songs. Only quibble: the rendition would have been a lot more interesting if it had ended quiet instead of with that belty note, but this ain't a competition that rewards subtlety.
Chris Daughtry ("Walk the Line"): One of the things I really enjoyed about "Rock Star" was that the singers weren't just allowed to rearrange the songs, but encouraged to do it. The "Idol" judges always talk about not being karaoke and making it your own, but what they really want most of the time is a note-perfect copy of the original with the singer's personality injected a little bit. This is easily the most radical reinterpretation of a song anyone's done since at least John Stevens IV trying to croon "Lately," with one difference: this didn't suck. (Also, I think Chris probably could have done the original up right if they'd made him do it.) Yes, Chris is determined to stay in his little Creed/Nickelback/Live box as long as he possibly can, but this was a very cool version of Johnny, and considering the heavily-modified covers from the "American" albums, I think the Man in Black would have approved. (UPDATE: Matt Hunter pointed out in the comments section that this was a straight rendition of the Live cover of "Walk the Line." I listened to a sample on iTunes, and that's exactly what it was, in which case I'm much less impressed. Not a bad performance, but not much imagination.)
Katharine McPhee ("Come Rain or Come Shine"): Katharine, Paris and Mandisa wouldn't seem to have a lot in common other than being women with good singing voices, but that's three very sultry performances in a row by the ladies. Like Marian said last week, she looks like a cross between Katie Holmes and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and it's funny to see her transition from sweet, all-American Katie in her interviews to naughty sexpot Catherine when she sings. Maybe the second best of the night after Mandisa, though the last note wavered more than I think she wanted it to.
Taylor Hicks ("Not Fade Away"): An off night from one of my favorites. Yes, it's a repetitive song, but you can give it personality and variation within those lyrics. After Taylor finished, I fired up iTunes and played both the Buddy Holly version and a Rolling Stones cover from their "Stripped" album, both of which were much livelier and rougher than Taylor's Pat Boone performance (right down to the shoes). And while his dancing is entertaining, it's not exactly good, so when the vocals aren't there, he really does seem like the drunk dad at the wedding. I did appreciate Simon's first big verbal smackdown of Paula in this year's finals.
Lisa Tucker ("Why Do Fools Fall In Love?"): She's going home. She's going home. She's going home. Is there anything else to say? No, she wasn't the worst singer tonight (that would be Bucky), but the vocals were ordinary, the stage moves too pageanty, and I think whatever fan base she might have had jumped ship weeks ago to vote for Paris. The judges telling her to be "young" and "fun" was possibly the most misguided advice they've ever given to a promising finalist. As a torch singer, Lisa was at least interesting in the same "old soul" way that Gedeon was; as a peppy, smiling dance machine, she's a snooze. Nice knowing you, say hi to Melissa for me.
Kevin Covais ("When I Fall In Love"): Okay, I yield the floor to Fienberg on this one. He's not punking the show, he's not amusing himself, he's sincerely trying to win. If I heard this at a high school talent show -- say, after Meadow Soprano's solo -- I would have smiled and said that was pretty good. For a nationally televised singing contest, it was average at best. I do appreciate that he followed Manilow's advice about being understated, a quality you don't get very much of on this show.
Elliott Yamin ("Teach Me Tonight"): Even if he'd stunk, he'd get major brownie points for having the guts to say he didn't like Manilow before he met him. Fortunately, he didn't stink. Yes, he cheated the theme the same way Chris did last week by singing a much later cover version, but he has the most versatile, interesting voice of anybody this season, and he's slowly learning how to be a performer in addition to a great singer. The stylists are still struggling with what to do with him, and I don't think the goatee is it. Would it be too mid-'90s to dress him like a Rat Pack'er?
Kellie Pickler ("Walking After Midnight"): Her pronunciation of the phrase "searching for you" sounded like it was run through a vocoder by way of Inspector Clouseau trying to pronounce either "bomb" (Sellers) or "hamburger" (Martin). Other than that, it was a'ight-blah, but no more, and I don't know what the fuck Simon's talking about when he said how sexy it was. Wait, I know exactly what he's talking about, because in Simon's world, a skinny blonde in tight jeans will always be sexy no matter how sleepy-eyed and dull she seems while singing. Paula called it "a true authentic Kellie Pickler performance," which sounds about right. Considering how often Simon's called her a frontrunner in interviews, I have to assume she's getting tons of votes, which makes me sad but doesn't surprise me.
Ace Young ("In the Still of the Night"): Ah, the inevitable "Ace is back" storyline, in the tradition of "Bo is back" (and, I vaguely recall, "Ruben is back" and "Justin is back"), where an early frontrunner winds up in the bottom three, then gets the pimp slot at the end of the next episode, followed by a tongue bath from Randy and company. Only difference is, Bo was "back" the week he sang "Vehicle" and deservedly put distance between himself and everyone else but Carrie, whereas I don't think Ace was a hell of a lot better than he's been for the last three or four weeks. Yes, he's more comfortable when he doesn't have to move, and, yes, he's pretty, and yes, his falsetto sometimes doesn't make my ears bleed, but I was checking my watch through half that performance. (During the other half, I was noticing that, during parts of the song, his mouth looked like Hank Azaria when he plays Chief Wiggum.) The producers want him to do well because they think a non-threatening hunk will be good for the ratings and/or album sales, but Ace missed the boy band train by half a decade and he's not a good enough singer to stand on his own.
Bottom three: Lisa and Bucky for sure, with Lisa going home. The other member? I'm stumped. The other people who sucked either have strong fanbases (Covais, Pickler) or got favorable comments and placement (Ace). Maybe Elliott? I love his voice, but we all know that's not what most people vote on.