The season's first "American Idol" semi-final group seemed packed with stars and several very good singers didn't make it through. The second group was pretty top-to-bottom average, but that meant some solid singers were sent packing.
On Tuesday (March 3), "American Idol" unleashed a motley Group Three that contained some really rough performances. Were there any diamonds in the rough?
Recap after the bump...
Singer: VON SMITH
Song: "You're All I Need to Get By"
My Take: Von's lost about 25 pounds since the Hollywood Round. He also professes his desire to atone for the notorious shouting audition in did in Hollywood. It starts off quiet, but when it gets toward the chorus, the yelling begins. Von knows when he's about to shout, because he opens his mouth extra wide and drops the microphone by a foot. So when the arm starts to go down, press mute. He wears his technique on his face, cutting off words with his teeth, steering the melody with his lips. These are, of course, things that every singer does, but most of them have learned to control the external manifestations of what's really an internal process. I suspect Von is also a pretty poor poker player. I'd say it's a cruise ship performance, but if you were on a cruise ship, he'd be too loud. So it has to be an outdoor venue. Theme park? Sure.
Pestilence, Famine, War and Simon Say: You know what's funny about tonight for Randy? Randy thinks this is the right way to kick off a show, calling it a "hot performance," that his finding himself. [Oh Randy, why must things always be so funny for you? And why do you refuse to let that humor just speak for itself. I can imagine going to a comedy club with Randy and having him go, "Yo, Dan, you know what's funny about Dane Cook?" Actually, if he said that, I'd be really curious and I'd let him continue.] Kara also thinks Von is coming into his own, telling him "It's about doing it when it has meaning." Paula's sure that America's going to remember Von and that he knows how to control himself. "You remind me of Clay Aiken," Simon says. He adds, "You've got the same dress sense," telling him he looks appalling, but says his voice reminds him of Clay's. I'm not just saying this because the Claymates scare me, but Von's voice isn't in the same league as Clay's and just because he's "theatrical" doesn't mean he needs to be compared to Mr. Aiken.
Singer: TAYLOR VAIFANUA
Song: "If I Ain't Got You"
My Take: Taylor's really 24, right? I'm not buying the 17 part. This Alicia Keys track is much too deep for her. Sure, you sound great on the chorus, but if you don't have the range to sing the entire song, you should pick something different. It's a familiar song choice error that speaks to how limited most "Idol" contestants are compared to the true superstars. Is Taylor wearing a skirt over leather pants? Rubber pants? There was a season every female contestant did this as an audition song and they all did it the exact same way, right down to the wobbly falsetto grace note at the end.
Pestilence, Famine, War and Simon Say: It's obvious to Kara that Taylor has a voice, but she wants more of Taylor's personality. She has no insight into what it's like going shopping with Taylor. Paula likes Taylor's beautiful instrument, but she wishes she'd had sung something she didn't sing in Hollywood. But Paula, the producers never showed us that performance and she's singing for me. Simon is confused by Kara's shopping comment. "It wasn't terrible, it wasn't great," he says, blaming her for trying to be too old. The music plays before Randy can comment. Randy repeats what the other judges said. Taylor, who appears to be eight-feet-tall standing next to Ryan, cries tears of happiness as Ryan and Simon talk clothing.
Singer: ALEX WAGNER-TRUGMAN
Song: "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues"
My Take: Alex reads what we say about him on the Internet and he's been going to the gym to try to become less dorky. He also volunteers to be America's boyfriend for the night. He's taken Randy's audition-round Joe Cocker comparison to heart, lurching around the microphone and emitting constipated growls at seemingly random intervals. There are one or two times where he briefly sounds good, but he kills the notes with his grunts. At one point, he either kicks over the mic stand or trips over it. He's trying to give himself an edge that he so totally doesn't have. Alex is funny. Or charming. But charming like an unruly puppy who just knocked over upset a bookstand and devoured the Michael Chabon paperback you've been meaning to get to. I mean, you can't be mad at the puppy, can you?
Pestilence, Famine, War and Simon Say: "Alex, you certainly are the showman," Paula says. "You gave us our money's worth, but I just don't know how much will be spent." What does that mean? She pats him on the head. "Well, we had fun watching you, just not listening to you," Simon says, adding "You're like a little hamster trying to be a tiger." Randy dubs it "Buckwild," which is different from "Buck," if you're a "So You Think You Can Dance" fan. Kara correctly identifies that Alex is Alex.
Singer: ARIANNA AFSAR
Song: "The Winner Takes It All"
My Take: This is our first ABBA song! The band and Arianna appear to be doing two different songs at first. She's off on the rhythm. She's off on the melody. The process of making the song her own seems to have been the addition of unnecessary flourishes and trills at the end of every other line. There are also protracted moments of sharpness and, seemingly sensing that the song is getting away from her, she starts to push and yell toward the end. The look on her face as she turns to the judges says it all. This performance is Stevie Wright-esque.
Pestilence, Famine, War and Simon Say: "There was a certain irony to that lyrics, wasn't there?" Simon says, calling it "mostly terrible" and compares it to a funeral. Randy says she tried to do too much and it wasn't the right song choice. Kara misses Arriana's beam of sunshine and her button-esque cuteness. "Be young... Touch people," is Kara's rather dirty advice. Paula found bright moments in the song, but she may just have been staring into the lights to avoid concentrating on the performance.
Singer: JU'NOT JOYNER
Song: "Hey There, Delilah"
My Take: There's a difference between Taylor repeating a Hollywood performance we didn't see and Ju'Not repeating a Hollywood performance we actually heard. There's also a difference between being really good and being so-so. Ju'Not is really good, but I hope viewers don't penalize him for having heard a variation on the performance previously. It's controlled, nuanced, connected and given the night's first four singers, it's quite excellent. It's also a reminder that the Judges sent Jamar Rogers, another Plain White Ts performer in Hollywood, packing. Bring him back for the Wild Card, judges!
Pestilence, Famine, War and Simon Say: Ju'not what's really cool about what he just did? Randy appreciated that Ju'Not pulled back. Kara thought it was smooth and fluid, but she wants to see him bust it out next time. Paula thinks that Ju'Not changed the song up after hearing her complaints about Taylor. It was better than Simon thought it would be. Ju'Not's banter with the judges, largely about the cortisone shot he got in his rear, is candid and funny and I'm really liking him right now.
Singer: Kristen McNamara
Song: "Given Me One Reason"
My Take: Kristen, a karaoke host, is a goofball, conveying all manner of crazy without any effort, though her vividly orangey-red Dorothy Gale dress helps. It's an interesting song choice for the former "Nashville Star" contestant, mostly eschewing any sort of country twang. Since she doesn't have Tracy Chapman's purity of tone, Kristen gussies the song up a bit. Did she need the growls, whoops and falsetto squeal? I don't know. It's an improvement over the night's first two women.
Pestilence, Famine, War and Simon Say: Kara thinks Kristen is a great singer, but she wanted something with more of a rock edge. Paula agrees that a Kelly Clarkson song would have been a better idea, but that she still has great range and vocals. Simon can't figure Kristen out, puzzled by her personal style, but impressed by her voice. You know what the funny thing is about the song she chose? She tried to do too much, Randy says. Kristen admits she could use a new stylist.
Singer: NATHANIEL MARSHALL
Song: "I Would Do Anything For Love"
My Take: Wow. Is America ready for a male Idol who seems to be getting fashion tips from Pat Benatar? Singing Meatloaf is ridiculous, because his songs are simultaneously tremendously cheesy and also impossibly hard to sing properly. My man Loaf has mad vocal skills. Nathaniel does not. He takes the easiest arrangement possible and sings it flatly. Didn't he say he wanted to have fun? At least he doesn't cry, which is a relief.
Pestilence, Famine, War and Simon Say: "I think you probably would," Simon cracks on the song title. Simon says the minority will like it, but the majority will find it nearly excruciating. Simon, who felt uncomfortable, also acknowledges that Nate is fun and memorable. Randy doesn't get the song choice, but it turns out that he picked it because he and his mother used to dance around the house singing it. For the second time tonight, Kara notices that a contestant has a voice. She's verging on Paula-esque, calling Nathaniel her karaoke buddy. Paula's showing off her memory tonight, instantly ticking off what everybody sang in Hollywood. We've entered bizarro-"Idol." To make Simon more comfortable with Nathaniel, Ryan brings the singer over to meet the judge. Nathaniel ends up sitting on Paula's lap. It's a lot of humanizing screentime which will doubtlessly help Nathaniel with a few voters. Plus, his grandma likes him.
Singer: FELICIA BARTON
Song: "No One"
My Take: Felicia is yet another Hot "Idol" Mom. Boy, talk about a trend piece. Stiffed on screentime through the audition and Hollywood rounds in favor of uber-ringer Little Orphaned Annie, Felicia has a lot of work to do tonight. I'm feeling pretty good about her at first, but she mangles a note in the first chorus and it takes her a while to recover. It's not quite there, but unlike Taylor, Felicia actually has the pipes to sing Alicia Keys.
Pestilence, Famine, War and Simon Say: Paula is amused how the universe works, that Felicia got this second chance, calling her unbelievable. Simon thought the first half was better than the second part. Randy's happy she's back and he thought it was hot. Kara likes her attitude and presence. Kara calls her on the missed notes and Felicia agrees.
Singer: SCOTT MACINTYRE
Song: "Mandolin Rain"
My Take: A Bruce Hornsby song? Interesting. Scott is a great story, but his voice is a bit too slight and unsteady for me. I like him more without the piano than what we saw from Hollywood. He's better on the big notes than the little notes. Y'all don't know this, but if you'd seen the Bobcat Goldthwait-directed Sundance film "World's Worst Dad," this is absolutely hilarious.
Pestilence, Famine, War and Simon Say: Check it out... You know what's amazing about Scott? This wasn't the most perfect vocal for Randy, but the parts that were great were great for Randy. You know what he loves? He loves that he can pretend to feel Scott's emotion (because he's blind). Kara says Scott moves mountains and he's passionate and it comes from his heart (because he's blind). Paula also celebrates him as a blessing (because he's blind). Good gracious, y'all. None of this has a thing to do with his freaking voice. Simon wasn't crazy about the song, but Scott is growing on him. Simon says he's memorable in a sea of forgettable people and that he'll be amazed if Scott doesn't sail through (because he's blind). Ryan and Scott reprise their blind high-five. Me, I'm feeling bad for Ju'Not, who's a far superior singer to Scott, but all he's got going for him is his cute son and he had to go and leave the kid at home. Darnit, Ju'Not, next time bring a prop!
Singer: KENDALL BEARD
Song: "This One's For the Girls"
My Take: Kendall is Kristen, only wouldn't the crazy-eyes. Since Ms McNamara abdicated the country throne, Kendall picks it right up. The song's message is admirable, but as music it's pretty pitiful and Kendall's Sandra Dee-perky interpretation makes it worse. I think Kristen will come to regret her song choice, because the "Idol" audience is very welcoming to perky blonde country singers, whether they can sing (Carrie Underwood) or they're still works-in-progress (Kristy Lee Cook or Kellie Pickler). Kendall isn't as good as any of those three, but she fills a slot.
Pestilence, Famine, War and Simon Say: Kara thinks Kendall has a big personality and picked the right song, but she didn't hit the notes. Paula loves Kendall's outfit and then avoids saying anything about the performance. Simon thinks it was the right choice, but that he found it shrill toward the end. Randy loves country music and her outfit, but says it wasn't her best vocal.
Singer: JORGE NUNEZ
Song: "Don't Let The Son Go Down on Me"
My Take: Yes, his enunciation is a little odd (a problem that plagues plenty of "Idol" contestants for whom English is a first language), but Jorge has nice pipes. But was he dreamy enough this week? Yes, Paula and Kara both get squishy over him, but will that translate through the TV?
Pestilence, Famine, War and Simon Say: Will Kara call Jorge "George" again? Paula is so proud of Jorge. His work with a dialect coach has her on the verge of tears. "You heart him, don't you?" Simon tells Paula. Simon's impressed and tells Jorge that there's nothing wrong with him speaking with his accent. It's fascinating that Simon cuts down Paula and Kara for being condescending about Jorge's accent, but he's right there with the rest condescending to Scott's blindness. Randy thinks it was a great vocal. Kara says Jorge's a singer. That's three, Kara. Three stupid repeated comments in one episode and you're done. Jorge starts to cry. The ladies start to cry. Will America start to cry?
Singer: LIL ROUNDS
Song: "Be Without You"
My Take: Every time we've heard Lil Rounds, she's been shouting. After a full makeover, the mother of three (Octo-Mom by "American Idol" standards) looks tremendous and, by mostly keeping the singing under control, she's in a totally different league. It's been a night of amateurs and she's a pro. Period. She isn't an original vocal stylist (and she, like Jorge, has enunciation problems), but she standd far above tonight's competition
Pestilence, Famine, War and Simon Say: Simon wants her to show what she sounds like, but he also calls her "brilliant." Randy calls her one of the best of the season and that she kept her swagga on. Kara calls her a powerhouse. Paula says we're going to see her for many more lil rounds.
TONIGHT'S BEST: It was a bad night on "American Idol," kids. Several people who got cut from earlier rounds could have coasted. Lil was the best, but Ju'Not and Jorge were also pretty good.
TONIGHT'S WORST: It's hard to pick, really. Arianna, Nathaniel and Alex were probably at the bottom, though.
LIKELY TO ADVANCE: Lil ought to be a lock. The excessive praise for Scott will probably put him through as well. Jorge will be an interesting test case. He has the voice and the looks and he was so nicely weepy. He deserves to advance, though Kendall is probably the dark horse.
What'd y'all think? Who should advance to the Top 12?