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.