Tuesday, March 11, 2008

American Idol, top 12: Beatles Night

Spoilers for tonight's Beatles-themed "American Idol" coming up just as soon as I find out how easily I can retract this morning's column...

Boy, a lot to talk about with this one, huh? In aggregate, maybe the best "Idol" performance show in quite some time -- and certainly with this huge number of contestants -- with several really memorable performances. But there were also a few duds, and a few outright disasters -- one of them including the guy I just annointed as a mortal lock to win the thing.

Before getting into the song-by-song thing, I'll say this: for all of Nigel's boasting about what a coup it was to get the Lennon/McCartney catalog (which ignores the fact that at least one other Lennon/McCartney song, "Here, There and Everywhere," was sung by Clay in season two), Beatles songs aren't really singers' songs -- at least, not in the way we usually associate with "Idol." Paul was the only one of the four with above-average range, and so the songs depend either on harmonies (the early stuff) or on the band, or on the feeling that the performer brings to the song. So to impress in the "Idol" venue, the contestants either needed to find some kind of emotional hook, or they needed to change things up significantly. The best performances of the night did one of those two things.

In order...

Syesha Mercado, "Got To Get You Into My Life": Nigel told EW that the contestants got a list of only 25 Beatles songs to choose from, so I can't complain too much about song choice, but this wasn't a good call by Syesha. Her strength is her power, and there's nowhere for her to force in the belty notes, and so what we get is a very monotonous, somewhat pageant-y, competent but forgettable rendition. She wasn't the worst of the night, but she's in trouble, I think.

Chikezie, "She's A Woman": I could pick nits with the vocals (he began to sound strained late in the song), but I dug the arrangement way too much to care. Just a very smart reinterpretation of the song. Had he kept it on the Soggy Bottom Boys tip the whole way, I still would have enjoyed it, but once Chikezie's voice dropped down into its normal register and the band kicked in, I had an enormous smile on my face throughout. Chikezie! Who the hell knew he had this in him? The Roger Daltrey-esque stuttering alone might inspire me to vote for him if I actually voted. He's still cannon fodder, but the kind I'd like to see stick around for a while.

Ramiele Malubay, "In My Life": Like Syesha, competent but dull. It's a very beautiful song, but a lot of that comes from the original arrangement (the "Idol" band's version sounded very lounge act circa 1978) and from the wistfulness in John Lennon's voice that Ramiele couldn't quite find. I appreciate that she has a strong voice but doesn't feel the need to glory note her way through more subtle songs, but she brought nothing interesting to the table.

Jason Castro, "If I Fell": Not as good as some of the performances to follow -- very Sensitive Dreadlock Man, and often verging on goofball -- but pleasant, and the vocals were quite pretty in spots. His fanbase is going to eat that one up.

Carly Smithson, "Come Together": Automatically gets points for not making the "Hold you in his armchair" lyric mistake that everybody makes (particularly in light of what would happen at the end of the show), and was vastly more confident than we've seen previously. Her semi-finals performances, while showcasing a good vocal instrument, featured practically Albert Brooks-ian levels of flop sweat, as if you could see Carly overthinking every note and worrying that she's going to blow her second and final chance at this. Whatever nerves she had before were gone, and even though her "changing it up" was essentially the Aerosmith version, she knows what she's doing on stage, particularly in the way she brought things down after the power notes for "Over me." Very, very nice.

David Cook, "Eleanor Rigby": So if Cook could make a heinous song like "Hello" sound so good, what can he do with one of the best songs Paul McCartney ever wrote? I could do without the smirking on such a melancholy track -- Cook can't help but seem overly pleased with himself at all times -- but beyond that, I thought this was a terrific update of the song, a way to make it sound like a modern rock tune without in any way undermining its original intent. I just wish he had more than the usual 90 seconds so he could have worked in a second chorus at the very top of the song.

(Paula, meanwhile, has gotten the "Let's downplay the awesome might of Archuleta" memo with her "There's more than one horse in this race" comment.)

Brooke White, "Let It Be": Remember what I said above about either changing it up or finding an emotional hook? Brooke, as you would expect her to do, takes the latter route, doing a very simple version of the song and working herself into tears doing so. Wonderful. I still worry about her on some of the other themes, but this was just as much in her wheelhouse as the Carly Simon and Carole King songs she's done earlier in the season.

David Hernandez, "I Saw Her Standing There": Oh, and I was feeling so good about the show after those three performances (four, really, as Castro wasn't bad), and then David has to go and spoil the party. Again, I don't want to get on these people too much given the 25 song list, but the guy has taken a college course on The Beatles and this is the song he chooses? The one that's so simplistic that Tiffany covered it? Chikezie before him and Amanda after him show that it's possible to find an interesting approach to the group's more primitive tunes, but David's approach is to throw a lot of things at the wall and see what sticks: starting on the riser behind the judges, running around (and losing his breath doing so), throwing in runs, etc. No. Just no. (And, again, how does a guy who took a college course on the band mess up the lyrics? It's "way beyond compare," not "far beyond compare.") The first out-and-out mess of the evening.

Amanda Overmyer, "You Can't Do That": I know some people worried that this theme would kill Amanda, but keep in mind that the bands that influenced The Beatles' early stuff are the same kind of raunchy, honky-tonk R&B groups that influence whatever the hell it is Amanda does when she's on stage. Even when rebounding from the "Wayward Son" disaster with last week's Joan Jett number, Amanda kinda looked like she wanted to go home, but here she's enjoying herself, scatting and throwing in "Oh, Child"s and generally seeming not like a run of the mill bar band singer, but someone not out of place on this stage, on this show. That is why I still wanted her around even after the Kansas massacre.

Michael Johns, "Across the Universe": Like Brooke, he's obviously touched to be singing this song (which he implied in the clip package has personal meaning for him), and he shows greater passion and control of his instrument than he did in any of his lazy semi-finals performances. That said, I'm sort of in the middle between Pauler and the male judges on this one: I liked the emotion and sincerity, but I also think he's capable of being more memorable than this (albeit not by getting all glory note-y the way Randy obviously wants him to be). He still has a few more weeks before the obvious cannon fodder is gone to turn things around, but he has yet to kick ass the way he seemed so capable of in Hollywood week.

Kristy Lee Cook, "Eight Days a Week": Paula, shockingly cogent on this one, nailed it: it was like Kristy Lee heard all of Simon's pleading for her to be more country and chose the most literal translation of that, with the fiddles and the ripped jeans and the sparkly top and the yodeling and the twang in her voice that was never really there before tonight. It was like a parody of a Kellie Pickler performance. And, once again, I have no idea about the 13 songs that were available but weren't chosen, but The Beatles did a lot of songs that were either straight country or easily capable of being countrified, and this wasn't one of them -- at least, not that way.

David Archuleta, "We Can Work It Out": Ye gods! From the most inevitable winner in the show's history to complete catastrophe in the space of 90 seconds. It was almost like the producers had heard all the comments about how everybody else was competing for second, pulled young David aside and told him to screw up as many lyrics as possible. When it happened the first time, I winced almost as much as David did, but for it to happen three times? You want to talk about flop sweat, rabbits in headlights, etc. -- that was David by the end of that performance. In previous weeks, he seemed like he'd been training his entire life for a moment like this; here, he looked like he would give up everything to be anywhere but on that stage, botching the words and bouncing around awkwardly to the Stevie version of the song.

Best of the night: I'm almost tempted to make it a four-way tie between Chikezie, Carly, David Cook and Brooke. Gun to my head, I guess I take Chikezie just for the surprise factor of it, but I dug all four a lot.

Worst of the night: Davids Hernandez and Archuleta were pretty terrible, as was Kristy Lee.

In trouble: As always, it's better on "Idol" to be bad than to be mediocre. If you're mediocre, people forget to vote for you; if you're bad, your fans mobilize to save you. Keeping that in mind -- as well as the previously-unstoppable Archuleta juggernaut fanbase -- I'd say Syesha and Ramiele have just as much to worry about as Hernandez and Kristy Lee, if not more. One of those four is going home, and if you ask me to pick which one, I'd say Syesha. Going first in a two-hour show and being dull doing it can be the kiss of death.

What did everybody else think?


Mike Mac said...

Is it just me or does the talent seem legitimately better from the start this season? Even the 'bad' performances were not vocally off, for the most part, and I think the 'cannon-fodder' this year would easily bounce out any of the bottom 6 or 8 contestants from the last few seasons, which is making it almost enjoyable to watch this show in the absence of anything remotely scripted to compete for my attention.

Chikeze doing his best rendition of Carlton's dancing from Fresh Prince took me back a decade or so, but damn if that wasnt one of the brightest and more energetic performances this show has seen in a while.

All that said, I hold no doubt that the producers will find some way to fumble the talent at some point by playing too many games with the themes and mentors and all the other heavy-handed influence they've displayed in the past that makes this show a guilty pleasure more than something to openly enjoy week to week.

JakesAlterEgo said...

Wait...what's the lyric if not "Hold you in his armchair"? Everything I've ever seen has it listed as that. My mind is blown.

Bobman said...

pale writer, I thought you were kidding, but every lyric site really does have it as "hold you in his armchair". That's scary.

I always thought it was "Hold you in his arms, yeah, you can feel his disease."

Anonymous said...

Was it just me, or did anyone else have a lot of trouble watching this episode? I am a huge Beatles fan and though I warmed up to some of the performances (Chikeze and David Cook, just because they re-vamped their song choices), but watching Randy Jackson say at the beginning that The Beatles "really threw it down dog" and Paula Abdul's incoherent babble about them made me sick to my stomach. I enjoy American Idol for its pure entertainment value (and hey, I guess I'm supporting this by watching it), but I think exploiting classic songs like that (ugh, Kristy Lee, David A.) is just incredibly wrong.

Chrissie said...

Sorry for my Beatles ignorance, but what is the "hold you in his armchair" mistake?

Anonymous said...

"Chikezie! Who the hell knew he had this in him?"

I was thinking the same thing. I was doing the dishes in the other room and not even watching. When I heard Chikezie I had to come into the room to see who was making that wonderful noise. I had no idea he could be so thoroughly entertaining. Way to distinguish yourself, Chikezie!

I voted for Chikezie but I hope to see Carly, Amanda, Brooke, and David Cook for some weeks to come. This was the first time I have felt like I will be sorry if some people are voted off. Previously, I haven't really drawn any distinctions between the kids and I didn't care who left. They were much better tonight.

Nicole said...

I also feel that the Beatles catalogue was tainted by some of these performances. Kristy Lee was horrendous and was country karaokeing the crap out of that song. David H did a worse version than Tiffany. Yes, her version had more life.

I felt bad for David A because his lack of experience was really showing. However, it is inexcusable for a 17 year old living in North America to not be familiar with the Beatles. I was most certainly aware of them at 17, if not much earlier (My mom still had her original Sgt Pepper's record) and it's just kinda ignorant to not be aware of some of their major hits. This is where AI starts to bother me, because I would much rather support someone who understands music than a fame-seeking poser who can carry a tune.

I do think he's safe and that it's the other David that is gonna go. Although I would not be sad if Kristy left either.

David Cook was good, but I did fell like I was experiencing Daughtry flashbacks while watching the performance.

Undercover Black Man said...

Cheers to Paula Abdul for recognizing Lorrie Morgan’s arrangement of “Eight Days a Week” (streaming here), which Kristy Lee ripped off thoroughly.

Dang... is Paula’s reservoir of musical knowledge deeper than Simon’s?

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't write off Ramiele so quickly. She was boring tonight and her voice isn't up to the level of some of the others, but I think there are a lot of young guys voting the straight "she's purdy" ticket on this show.

Alan, David Archuleta bombed just to screw with the critics. Sorry! (Actually, I think he's just really young and froze out there.)

Am I the only one who thinks it's even more unfair that not only is Carly pretty much a professional singer, she performs the song she sang tonight on a regular basis?

And the real question of the night: What the heck was Ryan on? And did he get it from Paula?

Anonymous said...

I tune in for the first time this season to see what all the fuss over David Archuleta is about, and he flubs the lyrics 3x to a Beatles' song? Not impressed.

Nevertheless, I'd send Hernandez or Kristy Lee home.

Anonymous said...

I liked David Cook's "Hello," but the "Rigby" was as much a parody of alt-rock as the other Cook's country parody. The chorus was bearable, but the rest sounded like the hilarious metal "Love on the Rocks" from the Neil Diamond Jazz Singer.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Chikezie was all over the freakin' map, stylistically, tonally, and y'know, hooray. Throw yourself at the ground and miss. Second gutsy performance by him. He's a blast.

Taylor Hicks did "Something" a couple seasons back, prompting Randy to say, "We need a whole Beatles night."

And Emmy the Great was charming and funny and wonderful and tuneful at the Bowery Ballroom.

Anonymous said...

I went by iTunes this morning to see when I can buy Chikezie's song and I noticed that Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah is the number one selling song on iTunes right now and that must be because of Jason Castro. Jordin Sparks's No Air is number 4.

Alan Sepinwall said...

It's "hold you in his arms till you can feel his disease."

One of the most famous, and frequent, classic rock lyric screw-ups that everybody makes, up there with people thinking "Purple Haze" includes the line "Scuse me while I kiss this guy."

Anonymous said...

Did anyone catch the "aside" when Simon whispered in Paula's ear, "what is the name of that Irish girl?". I was dumbfounded. How can one of the judges not know the names of the finalists, specifically one of the favorites???

Alan Sepinwall said...

Am I the only one who thinks it's even more unfair that not only is Carly pretty much a professional singer, she performs the song she sang tonight on a regular basis?

If we're not going to allow people to sing stuff they've sung frequently in any kind of public setting (even something as minor as what sounds like an open mic night at the bar where they work), then we'd have to disqualify Archuleta's "Imagine" (there's archival footage of him performing that specific, Eva Cassidy-esque version years in the past), pretty much anything that wedding singers like Anwar Robinson and La Toya London did (Anwar's amazing "What a Wonderful World" is something he used to do weekly at people's weddings), pretty much everything that bar band singers like Bo and Taylor did, etc.

Pretty much from the first season on (with Tamyra in particular), there's usually at least one contestant who's spent a lot of time performing at small venues that wouldn't lead to fame and fortune but which did give them plenty of stage experience. This is just the most semi-pros we've ever had before, and Carly, Michael and Archuleta are among the most seasoned contestants the show's ever had.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I felt bad for David A because his lack of experience was really showing.

Again, he's one of the most experienced contestants on the show. He's been performing in front of audiences for basically his whole life, save the brief period where he suffered that vocal paralysis. He won "Star Search" and is basically a male version of Diana DeGarmo. Had Noriega or Alaina made it to top 12 and badly flubbed their lyrics, I would have written it off as a young rookie not quite ready for the big stage, but one of the points of Young David is that he's (usually) mature and poised beyond his years.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Oh, and if we're still remotely trusting Dial Idol, then Archuleta's fan base is so mighty that, even after the worst performance of his life, he's still the top-voted contestant and the only one of either gender to be out of the margin of error.

dark tyler said...

Cook "updated" Eleanor Rigby for the Good Charlotte generation. I respect him and everything, but I'm throwing up in my mouth a little bit right now.

I'm going to listen to Brooke's Let It Be for a full hour so that I can wash the emo-itis off of the Beatles. Loved her, by the way.

And between Saint David's disaster and Kristy Lee's Kelly Pickler parody, it's going to be sad to see neither of them in the bottom three tomorrow night. Sigh.

Amy said...

I wonder if, even though David A is really experienced, he is cracking..because he is SEVENTEEN. That is sooo young, no matter where you've preformed before. And the American Idol stage, for better or worse, is bigger than a lot of his past audiences combined.

I am sure he'll get right back on track and has nothing to worry about now, but I can easily see a 17 year old cracking under the presumptive winner role. Good thing it happened now not later if he still wants to win. Can't you already hear Paula rambling a "you're back baby" next week?

Anonymous said...

I wish that David A. would point a finger at his parents and say "I'm sick of being your performing seal!," stalk off the stage, and go to college.

I just feel sorry for him. He seems to have had such a stage-parented upbringing. I wish he could escape it. I really believe that if you gave him four years completely away from the performing circus, he could be quite a good singer.

KLE said...

David Cook is quickly becoming my favorite. I love that he's dragging these old songs into the new century and showing who he would be as a current recording artist. Isn't that what they're really supposed to be showing us each week? My only quibble is with the last BIG note - I would have liked him to pull it back, bring it down to a quiet, introspective moment. He might be a bit too smug for that, though.

I agree with the popular wisdom about the disastrous and weak performances, but some of the ones considered among the top, I just don't get.

Most everyone seems to agree last night was a breakthrough performance for Carly, but I still don't get who she is or what she's doing exactly. I thought she took Come Together way to seriously (the phrase "toe jam" is in the lyrics, for goodness sake)and her big notes are just yelling and yet somehow thin. She also has that chronic stiletto crouch they do to balance themselves when they're not used to the big shoes and I find it distracting and unattractive.

I also didn't really see the big deal about Brooke. She played and sang the song, nothing new, nothing different. It was nicely done, but hardly revelatory.

Nicole said...

If David A has that much experience, then it's actually inexcusable for him to have messed up the lyrics three times and not be able to hide it from the audience. He certainly came off as inexperienced.

It's too bad his parents have done this to him from an early age, because it sets him for the inevitable rebellion a few years down the road.

Anonymous said...

WTFWT Award Winner: Kristy. If AI were fair, she'd be going home. My memory of long ago performances may be fading, but this had to be the worst ever in AI history! I thought Brooke and Amanda were the best last night.

Anonymous said...

Alan, I was thinking about your column as David A not only got the pimp spot but also as he forgot his lyrics...

I really like Brooke, I find her to be very sincere and genuine, plus I like her voice.

David Cook irks me, I find him to be a bit full of himself and you just know he's half bald under that forward-swept hair. (Not that bald is bad, just own it!) He always has this self-satisfied look on his face, most particularly when he changes up some classic (this week and last) and puts his own stamp on it. I don't find him to be at all humble, which makes me disregard some of his talent.

Anonymous said...

Chikezie, Brooke, Carly, Jason, David Cook... some very good performances this week. With Chikezie and David, very good in fact.

I'm surprised at all the Kristy "hate." She was more pageant-like than she should have been, but vocally it wasn't bad. I just think so many people have such an aversion to country music that they write off anyone in that style that isn't Shania (who's more Celine than country). But because Idol is huge in the south and midwest, I think Kristy's performance, while nothing special, won't get her sent home. In fact, I predict it will earn her a bigger fanbase.

Unknown said...

I am for my part sincerely disappointed at the lack of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and "Why Don't We Just Do It In The Road"

Seriously though, where was Blackbird?

And I am in the camp that finds Amanda terrible no matter what she's doing.

K J Gillenwater said...

Jason Castro drives me nuts with his breathing into the mike all the time. Either back away a couple of inches, or stop with the funky breathing!

KLE, I agree with you 100%. David C. is the only one right now who is really modernizing the song choices in his own style (and I listened to the version of "Hello" one commenter point out last week...David was WAY better and did NOT sound similar at all). I also wanted a quieter note at the end. The chorus he did was just amazing, however! The lower stuff might not have been as exciting...but the chorus? Awesome.

I liked Chikezie, but what was that? Mountain man music mixed with this rock song? I sort of see him/ hear him as an R&B type. But maybe he's been faking that this whole time especially after hearing judges' comments? I rather would have had him stick with the old country stuff he started with, because that was cool and different.

And David A. (and all current and future Idol contestants) NEVER own up to the fact that you aren't familiar with a certain music or band (esp. the Beatles, for heaven's sake). PLEASE. It makes you look really ignorant...and I won't excuse a bad/so-so performance just because you aren't familiar with the music. So just DON'T mention it.

Anonymous said...

If we're listing great rock lyric screwups, don't forget: "There's a bathroom on the right."

Loved Chikezie, liked David Cook, didn't care much for Kristy Lee but give her props for trying. The others were all just kind of boring.

Here's the thing about Beatles songs: They're wonderful songs, very melodic, but the magic has always been in the performance. They're not the showpieces that we usually see on AI, like "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" or "All By Myself" or anything by Celine or Whitney. You have to have charisma and passion to pull them off. Just singing purty doesn't work.

I'll draw an analogy to one of my favorite AI performances of all time: Bo Bice doing "Whipping Post." Nothing against the song itself, which I love, but what made it such a great performance was Bo's passion -- the way he completely immersed himself. We didn't see much of that last night.

Anonymous said...

This is the problem using extremely well known and over-played songs -- if they are not personal favs we are just so bored with them that unless the singer is seasoned or talented enough to find the emotional hook or change it up considerably, we just tune out, or worse get really annoyed with them for screwing it up.

The downside with following the judges' often contradictory advice is that people like David A. get stuck trying not to be as Simon commented "too gloomy" on a week where he would have benefited with doing something simpler. Instead he knocks himself out trying to find something 'upbeat' and fails miserably. This was the week not follow Simon's advice.

Same with Kristy, she just didn't get what she should know inately, subtle country was the way to go girl not country hoe down.

Songs are story telling and emotional connection (think Fantasia) and it becomes obvious those who don't get the concept of 'selling it' so they might as well pack it in now.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Alan, I immediately thought of you the moment David A. botched his first lyric; his performance was like watching Michelle Kwan fall splat on the ice over and over and over again. Poor kid had the yips.

Of course, now's the best possible time to take a mulligan, and I don't disagree with your thesis at all. Archuleta is the boy of destiny, and so long as he doesn't succumb to nerves in the second half of competition-- when he'll have to be judged against the likes of Carly, Michael, and other reliable performers-- he'll be just fine.

That said, I hope you have Duke going all the way in the NCAA tournament. I need the Sepinwall Hex in full effect.

Nicole said...

Blackbird would have been great to hear... Sarah McLachlan does a version that would translate well on AI.

I totally agree with the singers having to know themselves to sing these songs well. That's the problem with a lot of the younger singers, they are put on stage at an early age to imitate, but don't understand the deeper meaning. I wish they would raise the age to 21, and then these kids could gain a bit more experience, and more importantly, learn a bit more about themselves rather than copycatting styles.

That was my biggest problem with Kristy. Real country, and not Shania, requires an emotional connection, and the hoe down just seemed silly. Also, I find she moves weirdly on stage.

Anonymous said...

After David A.'s horrendous performance that Dialidol.com page makes me sick. How a professional singer, even one who is 17, can not be familiar with The Beatles is hard to believe.

If I had only tuned into this season for the last two episodes I'd would have guessed it was David Cooks to lose.

Overall though one of the best nights they have ever had. It's great when nobody can do Whitney or Maria or Celine for one night.

KLE said...

As for why certain songs weren't used, I've read other places that they didn't have free reign but were given a very short list of songs from which to choose. Which seems pretty typical for how this program operates, and is to some extent prudent in that they don't want to have all the "best" songs used up in one shot. Also, some probably were reserved for a ridiculous medley we will hear open tonight's results show.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to disagree, but it is "hold you in his armchair..." I'm looking at the lyrics on the sheet music as published from Northern Songs Limited, copyright 1969.

Anonymous said...

If anyone wants to do a country Beatles song, the best choice is Rocky Racoon. It has great melodies, it tells a story and it is not iconic.

Anonymous said...

Performing Beatles songs as country isn't new. In addition to the Lorrie Morgan cover (among others), there was a country tribute album to them in 1995, called "Come Together." Among the performances, Tanya Tucker sang "Something" and Randy Travis did "Nowhere Man."

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Also, Rosanne Cash does a very good rendition of "I'm Only Sleeping." BAM!

Unknown said...

Sorry, but it "armchair." As someone stated, the Northern Songs published sheet music says armchair and of course you can just listen to the song. Nothing ambivalent about it.