"American Idol" spoilers coming up just as soon as I properly credit Tommy Schlamme for directing the original version of "What's Alan Watching?"...
I know some people grumbled about this theme, but I've always found that the more specific themes tend to lead to better shows, because they push the contestants out of their comfort zones and make them challenge themselves. (Think Bon Jovi Night last year, for instance.) Unfortunately, the Dolly Parton theme didn't push anyone very far out of their respective box (with or without Chikezie, this is one of the series' more country-inflected casts), and while we only got one really bad performance, the only one that was close to goosebump-inducing came at the end.
Brooke White, "Jolene": Close your eyes, and this is vintage Brooke: sweet and raspy and sincere and pretty. Open them, and Brooke's overwhelmingly sunny disposition gets in the way of what's a sad, pleading song. Smiling through dark songs is an institutional "Idol" problem -- I'd wager only a handful of contestants in the show's history actually bother to figure out the meaning of the lyrics they're singing -- and I need to point it out for the singers I like just as I do for the singers I don't.
David Cook, "Little Sparrow": First, we have to grind the show to a halt so Seacrest can do one of his patented Damage Control Interviews, this one designed to make Chris Cornell and Doxology shut up about Big David using their arrangements of his song. In the main, I think the show learned its lesson well from Chris Daughtry's Live-gate, and for the most part tries to include references to covers of covers; really, the only they can do is to tell Randy to stop raving about the originality of this stuff, but I wonder if Randy would even understand the concept.
As to the actual performance, it's a solid, muscular (especially given the source material) rendition, other than a couple of sharp notes in the middle. If David were a borderline contestant, something stripped-down and understated like this might be a risk, but after the last few weeks, he's at least the presumptive runner-up, so he can afford to ease up on the throttle on occasion.
Ramiele Malubay, "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?": I've finally discovered something I hate even more than the rehearsed hand-swaying during the ballads, and it's the rehearsed hand-clapping during the mid-tempo numbers. Nigel, it's really okay if you let the crowd behave spontaneously. The ratings won't plummet. Honest.
Despite not yet making the bottom three, Ramiele has clearly outlived her usefulness or talent level. There are problems with her pitch, tempo and even breath control, with her voice all but disappearing in certain portions of the song. Even the good parts are dull. I note that both Randy and Simon tried to be as measured as possible in their criticism, so as not to rally her fanbase. If she doesn't go home tomorrow, I think we need to worry about her having a Jasmine Trias-like run.
Jason Castro, "Travelin' Thru": After his bottom three scare last week, Jason finally throws a tiny amount of passion into this performance, particularly in the second half. It's still basically above-average busking, but I think the ladies love him enough to keep him safe, particularly having been stirred to action last week.
Carly Smithson, "Here You Come Again": The arrangement plays to the most overtly Celine qualities in Carly's voice, and until the end, I like that she doesn't feel the need to strain for one of those power notes that always makes her look like she's being tortured by Jack Bauer. And then, of course, she has to throw one of them in, and not only does she seem more pained than ever, but it feels completely unconnected to the rest of the song. I know "Idol" tends to reward gratuitous belting, but usually there's at least an attempt to build up to it. Here, she went from 0 to Whitney in a half second.
David Archuleta, "Smoky Mountain Memories": Technically perfect -- great phrasing, tone, power, etc. -- and the best thing he's done since "Imagine," but the kid bores me. As long as he can throw in a performance like this ever two or three weeks, no one else has a chance of beating him.
Kristy Lee Cook, "Coat of Many Colors": The thing about Kristy is, she's not a bad singer. Even though she was involved in the worst performance of the season (the "Hee-Haw" version of "Eight Days a Week"), that fiasco was more a result of the arrangement and her being out of sync with the band than any actual problem with the vocal. She's always been competent, and that's exactly what she is here. She hits all the notes, but there's no emotional connection of any kind (even a wrong one, like Brooke's smiling), and I couldn't tell you at all how it sounded without going back to watch it again.
(Also, is it Seacrest that has the foot fetish or one of the "Idol" cameramen who he's trying to help out? Every time a female contestant performs without shoes, Ryan feels the need to point it out, so the camera can then pan down to show off the piddies.)
Syesha Mercado, "I Will Always Love You": Like Simon, I really wish anyone else (other than maybe Ramiele) had picked this. Jason or Brooke or even Big David doing a stripped-down take on the Dolly version could have been really cool. Even Syesha sticking with the Dolly version all the way through would have been good (though she was far flirtier than the song demands). But because she's this year's R&B diva, she can't resist breaking into the Whitney halfway through, and we all know how that one's gonna go. Whether you liked the big glory note or not (personally, it hurt my ears), it's going to inevitably suffer in comparison, and why put yourself in a position to be compared that way?
Michael Johns, "It's All Wrong, But It's All Right": Geez, it took him long enough! Here we have this very handsome guy with the rock star swagger and the great soul voice and the elaborate stage experience, and it somehow took him six weeks into the interactive portion of the competition to find a song that incorporates all those qualities? This performance is why I was so frustrated with him when he was half-assing it through the semis or trying to squeeze "A Day in the Life" into 90 seconds, because I could tell he had the ability to do something this good. Maybe not quite Moment-level, but far and away the best he's been (including last week's Queen medley) and one of this season's strongest performances. David Cook has already seized the rocker mantle, so if Michael wants to stay relevant, he needs to keep finding songs like this that allow him to show off both his inner Joe Cocker and his inner Michael Hutchence, if you know what I mean.
Best of the night: Michael, followed by the two Davids.
In danger: This is going to be interesting. Like I said, Ramiele's never hit the seal before, but she went pretty early, was boring and got lukewarm comments from Randy and Simon. This should be her turn to go. But if her fanbase is rabid and savvy, then who? Maybe Syesha, for getting halfway up a mountain she shouldn't have tried to climb. Maybe Kristy Lee, for being decent but nothing special in her alleged specialty genre. Or are we due for our first alleged shocking boot of the season? Up until tonight, I would have picked Michael as a candidate for that, but he went last and was terrific. Carly? Brooke for going first and giving the same performance she always gives?
What did everybody else think?