Tuesday, April 01, 2008

American Idol, Top 9: Dolly Parton Night

"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.

In order...

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?


Nicole said...

I too am bored with Archuleta. Someone like David Cook, who thinks about his song, and has the ability to arrange it in a different way is far more interesting and has longer staying power than a kid who is stage managed to the hilt. Although I am not the target audience, I just don't see Archuleta being able to sell a great deal of albums beyond the initial Idol single, because he isn't a hunk, and he doesn't seem as multifaceted as a Justin Timberlake or Usher, who are the types of male solo acts that are really successful at the moment.

Even Clay Aiken, who is the closest thing to Archuleta, only lasted for an album. Idol fans have a short memory.

I am glad that Carly and Michael picked it up this week, and this should keep them safe for another few weeks.

Ramiele is in trouble and unless she has a big fanbase, she will be gone.

Anonymous said...

I love Dolly! These were great songs. Wish the Idol kids were better.

Weird but I thought Castro and Kristy Lee gave their best performances and I don't like either of them. Jason was almost memorable! With Kristy it is possible I'm just biased because I love that song and she did a pretty good job.

Is it possible Michael could give Archuleta a run for his money? Seems like he should be just as crush worthy as Archuleta among the teenage girls.

It is so simple: don't sing Whitney, Celine, or Mariah. Just don't do it. Ever. Why do they persist?

h said...

Our recaps were nearly identical. Are you copying my copy, asshat?

K J Gillenwater said...

Michael Johns, really? I was kinda bored. And distracted by that weird ascot thing he had going on.

David A....was I the only one who noticed his voice sounding rather thin in some spots? He walked through the song. I saw none of the emotion Simon was raving about.

I liked Brooke. For once. But you are right Alan, she was smiling through what is a very heart-wrenching song.

David C. was my fave again. I thought he did some interesting things with the melody. Loved the understated ending. I am definitely going to iTunes to listen/buy the studio recorded version. Just like I did with "Billie Jean." If that isn't a case for this guy winning, I don't know what is. I *never* buy those dorky American Idol albums. Never. Even Kelly Clarkson...I waited until her 2nd, much better album before I bought any of her music.

Jason Castro did his first bearable performance with some real emotion in there. It was nice to see that. But I still don't like him much.

Anonymous said...

I suggest bagging the singing celeb mentors and hiring an acting coach. Really. Look, if you can't manage to call up enough emotion to wipe away at least one fake tear (on a Dolly Parton ballad, no less!) you don't deserve to win.

My strategy for all these soulful singer wannabes is to just cry at the end of every other performance, or at least fake it.

I think the best advice ever given on this show was by Barry Manilow (not a great singer by any means)but who can pull off a good show. He tried to get the kiddies to figure out a way to connect with the song no matter how corny, tell a story, and sell it to the audience. This ain't rocket science folks.

Archuleta & Cook can pull it off, and Brooke has once, maybe twice, but smiling, even once, during what is suppose to be a sad or heartfelt ballad is the killer and marks you as an amateur in my book.

Undercover Black Man said...

David Cook will win the whole shootin' match. He is intriguing.

K J Gillenwater said...

Lord, did you read the TMZ report about David Cook? I can't believe he's been able to perform like he has with his brother's health problems. I'm worried about him....

Alan Sepinwall said...

Just saw the report. (For those who don't want to patronize TMZ, the short version is that Big David's brother had a setback in his cancer treatments, and David last night experienced heart palpitations and very high blood pressure and was treated and released by a local hospital.)

That's rough, what both brothers are going through, but sometimes performing can be an escape. I remember one of the championship Yankee teams of the Torre era (I want to say '99) where a bunch of the players all suffered family tragedies in the same season, and they all talked about what a comfort it was to come to the ballpark and play the game and not think about all that other stuff for a few hours.

Hopefully, this was just stress-induced, and David's able to stay in the contest.

Dan Jameson said...

I think Michael Johns may just be a genius. True, he coasted through the first however many rounds until last week. However, he knew he was good and knew he had a solid fan base. So why not coast, and then kick it into high gear come top-10 time?

Think about it. How many times have we seen a contestant rock the first few weeks, build a great fan base, and then slowly get boring and eventually bow out in the top 10 - early. (think Brooke and Jason this year).

So, I think Michael may be on to something. He's just hitting his stride now, he's inevitably pulling votes away from the lesser performers (Ramiele, Kristy, Syesha, Jason, Brooke and Carly) and in my opinion will now coast into the top 3 or 4.

Here is the question: Will Idol allow the final 3 contestants to be all guys? At this point, it will be a crying shame if the final 3 aren't David, David and Micahel.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment of David A's song being his best since "Imagine" (I said as much on my one blog moments ago).

And I LOVED Michael Johns. I've never been a fan of his, but I'll be downloading his song off iTunes tonight.

Anonymous said...

I was waiting for the judges to say to Jason Castro, "hey, isn't that the song from Transamerica?" (Felicity H. fabulous as ever, as a man). But haven't seen a single reference to it. And Jason may pick up some of Kristie Lee's votes from last week with the song's Jesus references. Hilarious! (It is one of Dolly's better songs anyway).


KrisMrsBBradley said...

Michael Johns looked like the fourth Jonas Brother last night. Ditch the ascot, pronto!

I actually thought David A. was bearable last night, for the first time. None of the women really brought it last night. Jason Castro was decent, but still coffee house decent.

David Cook has proven once again that he's the only one really worthy.

Anonymous said...

Agree with your entire assessment, Alan.

And I literally laughed out loud when Seacrest complimented Kristy Lee on her French pedi. Way to convince us you're straight, Ryan!

I predict Ramiele takes Kristy Lee's bullet like Chikezie did last week.

Anonymous said...

My DVR cut off the last minute or two of the show (in the middle of Paula's rambling praise of Michael). What did Simon say about the performance?

Anonymous said...

I loved Carly's version of "here you come again". That was a song that I would have actually purchased on ITunes after the show. Simon gives her zero respect for some reason.
David A. reminds me of a kid in a grammer school glee club who's voice hasn't changed yet. So boooring..
Dolly night turned out OK.