Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"American Idol": Top 5 Channel the Rat Pack

Idol contestants: your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to take *the* dustiest theme the show could possibly throw at you, sing a song that may be older than your parents, and in so doing, somehow convince a bunch of voters you are "current" and "relevant" to today's music scene.

That challenge is enough to make anyone tremble. Personally, though, I tend to like the older themes "American Idol" turns out. I don't know how much, if anything, they reveal about how viable a pop star any of the contestants might be, but what they do reveal a lot about is their musical depth and versatility. And it's a credit to this year's top five, I think, that this week's jazz standards theme mostly brought out the best in them.

"Ray" connection aside, Jamie Foxx was a bit of a "wtf" mentor at first blush, but not so much when one considers the guy's a classically trained pianist and a legitimately successful recording artist. He wasn't the best mentor they've had this season, but he seemed to know what he was doing, and came across as very cool - if not quite Rat Pack cool - and charismatic in the clips. (Good thing this isn't the week Miley Cyrus was scheduled to perform on results night, though.)

As for the performances, I didn't really have one favorite tonight, as I thought everyone ranged from decent to excellent. I also enjoyed seeing them all dressed up.

KRIS went first with "The Way You Look Tonight." I love this kid, and I love that Foxx loved him, too. Interesting that Kris himself is so modest about his own vocal skills. It's true he doesn't have the strongest voice in the competition, but Foxx's comments were dead on: this ain't the "throat Olympics" for Kris, it's just him expressing his soul through his music. He makes everything intimate, brings it down to his scale. And his vocals were still pretty damn good tonight - smooth, caressing, and heartfelt. While Simon seemed to be suggesting the overall effect was too safe and tame, I found it pleasant to hear Kris do the song straight-up. He's already demonstrated plenty of originality in his arrangements thus far in this competition; what this rendition showed is, as Randy might put it, "you can sing!"

ALLISON finally showed her vulnerable side in "Someone to Watch Over Me." Foxx is right - she's too young to be singing this song (or really any song in this genre). But she did beautifully, softening those killer vocals to a riveting husky pensiveness and wrapping them around the phrases like she's been doing this for years. She still sounds to me like she's swallowing the notes sometimes, but this, for me, was her best performance of the season, and possibly the best of the night. Why is Simon picking on her again? And why is Kara trying to sound like Randy? (Though props to her for calling Simon crazy. He was a little, tonight.)

MATT, I have to admit I'm biased against you because had it not been for the judges' save a couple of weeks ago (which I admit is not your fault), Anoop would be there in your place. (And he outsang you last week, no doubt about it.) And you brought back the hat. HATE. Setting all that aside, your take on "My Funny Valentine" was a mixed bag, as usual - some pitchy moments (TM Randy, whom I actually found myself agreeing with the most tonight), some nice ones too, but overall not nearly as solid as the others'. Simon's being contrarian tonight. Brilliant this wasn't.

DANNY did a nice job with "Come Rain Come Shine." LOL at Jamie Foxx all up in his face and telling him "your breath is fresh!" Despite his discomfort, he seems to have benefited from Foxx's mentoring. He overmuscled the end, but it was otherwise a very good performance. It was also, unfortunately, once again overhyped, though not as much as usual. This kind of music suits his voice, a point I think Randy was trying to make with his usual limited vocabulary; Simon went even further with his praise. That's his prerogative - still, why did he have to slag on Kris and Allison in the same breath that he was building up Danny? Simon clearly has a vested interest in seeing a Danny-Adam finale...everybody else, get outta the way!!!

ADAM closed out the night (again?!) with "Feeling Good." Flamboyant as usual, vocally competent as usual, and as usual I can't seem to get as excited about him as the judges and audience seem to be. To me, Adam's exactly the opposite of Kris: his whole style screams "look at me" rather than quietly asking to "LISTEN to me and what I have to say." Not that Adam doesn't command one's listening attention, too - there's no question he has an impressive range and dynamic control - though a couple of patches sounded off key to me, and I thought he sounded better in rehearsal. Not that the judges would ever admit that. I laughed at Randy calling himself a broken record (though at least he called Adam on the theatricality) and Kara calling Adam "sleazy" as if it were a compliment.

Don't get me wrong, Adam is undeniably talented and will probably win this thing. And I'm not saying he doesn't deserve it. I just wish the result didn't feel so overdetermined by things like his placement at the end of most shows (like he's the climax), his lighting, his press coverage, and, above all, his judging.

Anyway, in the more immediate run, I predict Matt will leave us this week, and this is as it should be. He has promise, but he hasn't ever fully delivered on it or stepped up his game as the remaining four have.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

No AI Recap This Week

Got caught at work again, and even though I have the episode DVR'd, I don't think I'll have time to recap it before the results show tomorrow night.

From what I hear, against all odds Disco Week wasn't a complete disaster. Actually, that isn't so surprising to me - it's often the weeks you think will be iffy that turn out to be good, and vice versa.

I'm not too happy about the impending double elimination. I wish Lil and Danny would go away - I'm tired of them both - but while Lil is possible, I'm pretty sure Danny's around for the long haul. All I can say is if Kris and Anoop are the ones to go, I'll lose a lot of motivation to watch the rest of the season. I just don't care that much about the other contestants, even as I recognize Adam's and Allison's talent (and Matt's too, for that matter, though I still don't like his voice).

For me, Kris has hands down the best musical instincts, tastes, and sensibilities of the group, and in his own quiet, low-key way is right up there with Adam and Allison for confidence and stage presence. Anoop isn't, but I think I like the pure tone of his *voice* - as well as his musical phrasing - the best of this bunch, and his post-college persona appeals to me. He can't win, but I would like him to make top five. Unfortunately, if the past few weeks are any indicator, he's not likely to survive this week. Which makes me sad.

We'll see what happens. Fingers crossed for the top 5 I want: Kris, Adam, Allison, Anoop, and Matt. Especially Kris.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"American Idol": At the Movies With Quentin and the Top 7

Ok, before I say anything else about tonight's show, I have to say these three things:

1. If you have not seen the movie "Once," see it stat. It's available on Netflix.

2. Having seen it, you will understand why Kris Allen chose the song he did.

3. Simply by virtue of choosing that song ("Falling Slowly"), Kris Allen has officially become my favorite contestant this season. Know how I know? I actually voted for him tonight - yes, I did, even though there are others I like, too, and even though I'd previously sworn David Cook would be the only "Idol" contestant who would ever inspire me to vote.

So back to this week's theme. At first I thought it was going to be all songs from Quentin Tarantino flicks, which might have been more interesting than what we got. Say what you like about the man's movies, there's no question he knows how to use music in them. Not sure that really qualifies him to be a musical mentor (or for that matter a guest judge, which I missed in season 3), but turns out he had some pretty sound advice for most of the kids. And he wasn't at all harsh on any of them, somewhat to my surprise. Frankly, some of them could have used a little more tough love before going in front of the judges.

Speaking of which, what is with this judging in sets of two? To save time? Couldn't they just all talk a little less? Couldn't they just not have hired Kara?

The contestants overall were a bit blah this week, though arguably no more than usual or than might be expected from having to sing such a cliched bunch of songs. Don't believe for a minute that they had much of a choice - I wouldn't be surprised if they had a list of only 20 or so songs from which they were allowed to select. The result was predictably uninspired.

ALLISON, "I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing" (Aerosmith/Diane Warren) from "Armageddon": The girls' "only hope," eh, Simon? Losing faith in your Lil? Ironically, this was one of the rare weeks that I didn't think Allison was that much better than Lil. Not bad, but not fantastic - the song seems to have been keyed too low for her, and she got pitchy towards the end. Still, based on past performances she does deserve to be the last girl standing - not that that's saying much with this year's crowd.

ANOOP, "Everything I Do" (Bryan Adams) from "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves": I confess I have a soft spot for (1) this cheesy song, (2) the cheesy movie it's from, which I was obsessed with in 8th grade, (3) 'Noop Dawg, both for the tone of his voice and for his geeky-cute college boy persona. But even setting all that aside, I thought Anoop did a really nice job. While he didn't exactly "rough it up" as QT suggested, he did sing with feeling and great control. Thought this was one of his stronger performances, as well as one of the strongest of the night.

ADAM, "Born to Be Wild" from "Easy Rider": Always the showman, that Adam, and this was no exception. But as I've said before, I prefer dialed-back Adam. He was a little too wail-y for me tonight, even though I know that's his thing. I thought Simon's comments were fair.

MATT, "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman" (Bryan Adams again) from "Don Juan de Marco": Aw, another song I loved as a teenager (what can I say, I was never cool). Some shaky parts, but I actually thought this was pretty good, though not spectacular. Judges were back to being too harsh on him, after being too nice to him last week. Whatever.

DANNY, "Endless Love" (Lionel Richie): Ha ha, love that QT told him to cool it with the come-to-church hand gestures. Vocally solid, but he lacks finesse and originality. At least Simon called him on the latter by referring to - wait for it - David Cook! Still, there's not a doubt in my mind Danny did well enough to keep himself around for another week.

KRIS, "Falling Slowly" (Glen Hansard/Markéta Irglová), from "Once": I nearly squealed when I first heard Kris was doing this song (again, folks, please rent "Once" if you haven't seen it already), though I think of it so much as a duet I wasn't sure he'd be able to pull it off. But, with the help of a backup singer, he did. No, Randy, it was not pitchy - it was tender, tentative, and pensive, just as it should be. Sure, there was a note here or there that wasn't perfect, but it hardly mattered because Kris put his soul into it. I do worry, though, that the subtle nature of the song (and his delivery), and the fact that it isn't as well known as the others, might hurt him among voters.

LIL, "The Rose" (Bette Midler): Another resoundingly mediocre turn from Lil. Very gaspy, and she couldn't hold that last note. Talking back to Simon may win her some sympathy, but it might also cost her some. Here's hoping there's enough of the latter to give her the boot.

BEST OF THE NIGHT: Kris, followed by Anoop


BOTTOM 2-3: Sadly, I still think Kris, Anoop, and Matt are splitting votes, so I have a feeling at least 2 of them may be in the bottom 3. Beyond that I don't know - could be Lil, could be Allison. I'm betting Danny and Adam have nothing to worry about.

GOING HOME TOMORROW: I *hope* it's Lil, but I'm afraid it might be Matt. It could also be Anoop; Kris is somewhat less likely, but far from impossible. Oh hell, I have no idea; all I know is it *shouldn't* be any of those boys!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

"American Idol" Top 8: Songs from the Year You Were Born

Ok, I've held off saying this until now, but I can't keep it back any longer: Season 8, I'm just not that into you.

I know I'm not the only one who feels this way, and it's probably due to a number of factors. The main one, in my opinion, isn't the talent - it's the judges. They have too much power, and they've been exercising it far too arbitrarily. Too often (certainly more often than any year I can remember), their comments - whether good or bad - seem way out of proportion to the relative merits of the performances. The result is an extremely staged feel, as if nothing the contestants actually *do* on stage matters nearly as much as what the judges and/or producers have designated as their scripted roles for the night. To be sure, there's always some of this deck-stacking on "Idol," but this year it's eclipsed everything else.

It doesn't help that the contestants this year have been mostly hitting it down the middle - there haven't been that many train wrecks, but there also haven't been many spontaneous "wow" moments. This week was no exception. The theme was "songs from the year you were born," aka the week calculated to make all thirtysomethings & up feel older than dirt. My quick thoughts on the performances - overall, I wasn't enthusiastic enough about any of them to have much to say:

DANNY (1980, "Stand By Me" - not the original version): It was ok. Liked it better once the tempo picked up. Overpraised as usual.

KRIS (1985, Don Henley, "All She Wants to Do is Dance"): I liked it. I thought the judges undersold it as much as they overpraised Danny's performance. Not one of his more memorable efforts, but still very easy on the ears - and eyes. Mosh pit looked like it was going to eat him alive.

LIL (1984, Tina Turner, "What's Love Got to Do With It"): Meh. Out of tune half the time, and obviously came nowhere near the original. At least the judges recognized this for once - the second part, anyway. I still don't see how she's a "brilliant vocalist." She's not.

ANOOP (1986, Cyndi Lauper, "True Colors"): Cutest baby ever. He shares a birthday with David Cook!! No wonder I like him. :-) Love the song, didn't love the arrangement, but the vocal was solid. And his phrasing really is lovely. That said, the judges were unusually kind to him; I'm starting to wonder if they've decided they can only be nice to either Kris *or* Anoop on a given night. I'm surprised none of them commented on that hideous sweater he was wearing.

SCOTT (1985, "The Search is Over"): Sappy, sappy, sappy, which is par for the course for Scott, and vocally unremarkable - he strained for the high notes (and Paula actually called him on it!). As a singer he's out of his depth here, and yet he's so personable I think he may be around for another week or two.

ALLISON (1992(!!!), Bonnie Raitt, "I Can't Make You Love Me"): Very nice, though at one point her diction made it sound like "I Can't Pake You Love Me." This kid, and NOT Lil Rounds, has some of the best pipes in the competition. As for her likability, I don't know what Simon and Randy are talking about - I think she's adorable. Though the fact that she's been in the bottom 3 a couple of times suggests they're not completely off base.

MATT (1985, Stevie Wonder, "Part Time Lover"): Ugh, that damn hat is back. On the plus side, he showed more ease on the stage than I've seen before from him, and he did sing well. Yet again, though, I just don't care all that much for the tone of his voice - it's kind of bleaty. And the judges were too lavish in their praise, as if to make up for being too hard on him last week.

ADAM (1982, "Mad World"): Adam liked to dress up as a kid - "sports, not so much." Heh, why does that not surprise me. Is it just me, or do they seem to close the show every week with Adam? But seriously...there's a reason for that. Adam is a pro in a sea of amateurs, and IMO this competition is his to lose. I really prefer it when he dials back, like he did tonight, though it wasn't quite as sublime as "Tracks of My Tears."

Elimination predictions: I have no idea. If it were up to me, I'd boot either Lil or Scott - but I don't think they're going anywhere. I'm worried about both Kris and Anoop - I suspect they may be sharing/splitting voters with each other, and perhaps also with Matt. Well, the good news is only one of them can go. The bad news is I don't believe the judges care enough about Kris or Anoop to "save" either of them if they end up being the lowest vote-getters. (Now if it were Danny Gokey, OTOH...)

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

"American Idol": Top 9 sing...a random bunch of songs

I had to work late tonight, and I have a filing first thing tomorrow morning - so while I managed to watch tonight's show on DVR, I won't be able to write a full recap. However, here are some assorted thoughts about the episode.

THEME: ??? Sounds like any song that was ever popular at any time in the last 40 years or so. I also love how after all the talk about finally being able to do more "current" one did anything current except Anoop and Matt, neither of whom fared particularly well with their choices (at least according to the judges...more on that presently). Then again, as Danny pointed out, the range of actual song choices the contestants get is a lot more limited than what the broad themes would suggest. I think copyright clearances, etc., can be an issue.

BEST OF THE NIGHT: Pretty Kris, "by a country mile," as Simon might say - one of the few compelling moments of an extremely lackluster night. I know I speculated last week that Matt might have David Cook-esque come-from-behind potential, but in fact it's becoming increasingly clear that if anyone's following that dark horse arc, it's Kris Allen. He started out with solid if somewhat inconspicuous performances, and is now emerging as one of this season's most musically self-assured and surefooted performers, as evidenced by his beautiful, heartfelt interpretation of "Ain't No Sunshine."

WORST OF THE NIGHT: Megan, for the second week in a row. That was painfully amateurish. It's too bad, because she does have an interesting tone of voice - she just hasn't been using it to good effect lately.

MOST UNDESERVED PRAISE: Danny and Lil Rounds. I don't understand the judges' overweening love for them - they both sounded really vocally strained and really, really "pitchy" to me. Unlike Simon, I actually thought that Danny was much better last week - though I'm glad he listened to me about the dancing.

MOST UNDESERVED CRITICISM: Matt and Anoop, esp. Matt. While Matt had rough patches (he should stay AWAY from falsetto, no matter what Paula or Kara says) and seemed strung up by nerves, I rather liked his take on the Fray - who are not exactly known for killer vocals anyway - and thought the judges were too harsh on him. Or maybe they're trying reverse psychology to motivate voters who like Matt? As for Anoop, yes, his "Caught Up" was pretty karaoke, but he still sang better than several other contestants whom the judges were falling all over (COUGHdannyCOUGHlilCOUGHscott).

BOTTOM 3 PREDICTION: Megan, Anoop, and Allison. Megan because she sucked (though her looks might save her); Anoop because he went first, wasn't that great, and got lukewarm comments from the judges; and Allison because she's not a hot babe, a cute guy, a mother of adorable kids, an evangelical widower, or a blind sweetheart, and because rocker chicks usually don't have a very long life span on the "Idol" finals. Personally, I'd rather have Lil and Danny (or maybe Scott, likable though he is) in the bottom 3 than Anoop or Allison, but that is highly unlikely to happen.

ELIMINATION PREDICTION: ??? Probably one of the girls; Anoop seems more popular than his performances sometimes warrant. And I have to admit I hope he stays cause I still like him, even though I'm starting to doubt he can pull it together and fully realize his potential.


Kara's delivery and mannerisms seriously bug. And by the way, Kara, it's Studio 54, not 57.

Paula sounded like she was reading off a teleprompter. Not necessarily a bad idea for her.

Adam looks like a cross between Ewan McGregor and Emile Hirsch. And sounds like Steven Tyler.

What was Allison wearing?

Finally, I don't think they announced it, but tomorrow night's results show will feature a performance by last year's winner DAVID COOK! Although I make a point of not watching results shows, I may have to make an exception in this case. Contestants, take notice: David Cook will show you how it's done.

Edited 4/1/09: Post-elimination thoughts

Hmm, not one of DC's better performances. Rather flat, for him. Part of the problem is that song ("Come Back To Me") is so drippy - definitely not one of the stronger tracks off his album, and one of the few he had no hand in writing. But it's pretty enough, and DC is still awesome. Congrats on reaching platinum, Cookie! Here's hoping CBTM is a hit and helps sell you a million more records!

As for the other guest star of the evening, I've never seen Lady Gaga live before and I have to say I can't decide whether that was batshit crazy or kind of brilliant. Maybe both. All's I know is she made Adam's "Ring of Fire" look positively sedate and staid by comparison.

As for the rest of the show, I fast-forwarded through all the judges' comments and Ryan's playing mind games with the contestants because that sort of thing makes me deeply uncomfortable, but I see that Megan, aka Lady Bird, is finally gone. Good - it was time. Girl had potential but needs some serious training before she can even aspire to any kind of musical career.