Spoilers for last night's "American Idol" Motown Night coming up just as soon as I give my wife a crayon mustache...
First of all, before I get into the song-by-song breakdown, I want to express my displeasure with doing this as a two-hour episode. I understand (sort of) the need to do it when you have more than 10 singers, but isn't this traditionally the point in the season where the performance show finally contracts down to an hour -- or, at least, 90 minutes? Traditionally, the show gets away with two different episodes a year (Top 9 and Top 3) where 9 songs are sung in an hour(*), so why can't they do it here instead of padding it out? And, yes, I know the answer to that is ratings/money/because they can/etc.
(*) Just checked the schedule for next week, and it looks like they're going to let the Top 9 show run an hour and 20 minutes. Sigh... Are they gonna do that again at Top 3? Or is "Osbournes Reloaded" so genuinely terrible that Fox didn't want to unleash more than 40 minutes of it on the world?
Matt Giraud, "Let's Get It On": Just as I was wondering if, like Scott, he was going to stay glued to the piano bench for the rest of the competition, he spends 20 seconds there and then gets up to dance for the rest of the song. The Mr. Rogers sweater looks goofy, but this was very much in Matt's faux-Timberlake wheelhouse, albeit not in a class with Marvin Gaye (or even Jack Black). I still doubt I'm going to win any money off him in the office pool, but I'm feeling more confident that he'll be around a while.
Kris Allen, "How Sweet It Is": Putting him back-to-back with Matt makes it more obvious that they're basically the same contestant: more comfortable with an instrument than without it, heavily modeling themselves after a contemporary artist (in this case, Jason Mraz, with a touch of John Mayer), non-threateningly handsome, etc. Where Adam and Danny are the more obvious favorites to win the show, these two sound much more like something you'd actually hear on the radio today. A solid performance, leaning more towards the James Taylor version than Marvin's.
Scott MacIntyre, "You Can't Hurry Love": I actually liked what he did with the arrangement, but I'm tired of hearing Scott smack up against the limits of his very modest vocal range. He was off-key several times, again strained to hit notes, etc. And unlike Matt in some previous weeks, his piano playing isn't so impressive as to make up for his other shortcomings. I'm ready to see him go.
Megan Joy, "For Once In My Life": This is two weeks in a row now where the snippet we heard of her rehearsing with the mentor sounded much more interesting than the actual performance -- and this time she can't blame it on the flu. I continue to believe that there's an interesting modern cabaret voice in there (again, ala Zooey Deschanel), but her nerves really seem to be getting the best of her on stage, even though she kept the spastic arm waves to a minimum. (She still wiggled, but it seemed more in the beat this time.) She has no shot at winning, but I'm hoping she sticks around long enough to find a theme/song that suits her, and that's able to stay calm enough to do it justice.
Anoop Desai, "Oooh, Baby Baby": This is two weeks in a row of Anoop slowing it down to show that he can really sing and isn't just the likable guy with the great name. And he can absolutely sing. His falsetto isn't quite as good as the one Adam will trot out later in the show, but it's better than Matt's, and most of the previous "Idol" men who think they can go up that high, and his a cappella group experience comes in very handy when it comes to blending in with the backup singers. It's not quite as passionate as last week's "Always On My Mind" (the studio version of which is awesome), but it should hopefully give him enough musical street cred with the judges that he can go back to being fun for a few weeks.
Michael Sarver, "Ain't Too Proud to Beg": When mentor Smokey Robinson, who effusively praised every other contestant, couldn't come up with anything good to say about Michael's interpretation, you knew this was going to be problematic. And, sure enough, Michael's attempt to "church it up" meant mostly that he plastered a huge smile on his face and stripped all the edge out of a song that Smokey tried to explain was a desperate final attempt to hold onto a departing lover. He has a better voice than Scott, but Simon was dead on when saying that Michael has no shot to win.
Lil Rounds, "(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave": Has this song ever served any "Idol" contestant well? It put Kimberley Locke in the bottom three and put Jennifer Hudson in the bottom two. A quick trip through Wiki says that Vonzell Solomon got away with singing it during the season four semis without anyone complaining, but for the most part, the song seems like a trap on this show, as it encourages a singer like Lil to shout too much and race to keep up with the tempo. This reminded me very much of the performance snippets we heard of Lil in Hollywood, when I was baffled by why the judges loved what sounded like yelling. Cool flapper outfit, bad performance.
Adam Lambert, "The Tracks of My Tears": Nice. Very nice. I've been saying for a few weeks that Adam's clearly the most talented singer this year, but that I haven't yet liked anything he's chosen to do with that talent. Not anymore. After the beating he took for last week's sitar-inflected "Ring of Fire" cover (and shame on me for not pointing out how similar it was to Dilana's version on "Rock Star") and for his dismissal of the country theme, Adam goes into hero-worship mode with Smokey, then slicks back his hair and does a terrific, largely faithful cover of one of Smokey's greatest hits. Where that "Ring of Fire" arrangement largely amounted to ripping up the song and starting over from scratch, what he did here was to keep the basic framework intact and playing around with it in smaller ways (a tweak on the melody, a quieter and more introspective finish) to keep it from sounding like karaoke. Delicate, beautiful falsetto, and the kind of performance that's going to be remembered for a while. The only reason I can fathom for it not getting the pimp spot is that the producers are desperate to hold onto Allison so the last two months of the competition won't be Lil and a bunch of dudes.
Danny Gokey, "Get Ready": This is the version of Danny I prefer, him doing what the Thing Throwers have dubbed his "Robert Down Jr. Jr." thing instead of turning into Inspirational Ballad Man. Not a home run, but a solid double, and the sort of thing he needs to do every few performances so he doesn't become boring.
Allison Iraheta, "Papa Was a Rolling Stone": This is one of those seven-minute epics that seems weird squeezed into a 90-second "Idol" slot, though at least this is one where a good chunk of that extra time is instrumentals (as opposed to Michael Johns trying to do "all the good parts" of "A Day in the Life" in a minute and a half). I wasn't nearly as on board with this as the judges were, as I think Allison stumbled several times in the middle, either trying to remember the lyrics or trying to keep up with all the tempo changes, and that she just powered through it at the end to make up for that. Now, when Allison powers through, it doesn't sound like shouting in the way that Lil sometimes does -- after Adam, she's in that next tier of this season's stronger singers, alongside Anoop and Danny -- but it did feel more like showing off than trying to fit her voice to the song.
Best of the night: Adam, and it wasn't close, even though there were a number of other very good performances (Anoop, Matt, Kris, Danny).
In trouble: I'm hoping that either Michael or Scott's time is up, but I'm worried about Megan.
What did everybody else think?