Recap: 'American Idol' Top 4 Performances - California Dreamin' & Songs You Wish You Wrote
Final 4 madness, baby!
It's another multi-theme episode, with Jessica, Joshua, Hollie and Phillip singing songs from the meaningless themes of California Dreamin' and Songs You Wish You Wrote. Please note that I got the specific phrasing of the second theme from the song spoilers bandleader Ray Chew tweets each week. You don't need to explain to me that it's a faulty use of the conditional tense and that it should probably be Songs You Wish You'd Written. Or something. [Seacrest did a better job of articulating the second theme than Ray Chew's list did.]
Anyway, let's not spend too much time worrying about grammar. Instead, can't we ponder what strange things are happening in the official "Idol" Top 4 photo? Why is it all about Hollie Cavanagh? And why is she holding Jessica Sanchez's hand? These are things that keep me up at night...
Anyway, let's get down to recapping...
Singer: Phillip Phillips
Song: "Have You Ever Seen The Rain?"
My Take: Skylar Laine butchered CCR last week and got sent home for her trouble. But Phil-Phil knows that there's nothing he can do to get America to send him home. Heck, he's got an arrangement that includes an ultra cheesy jazz sax player literally upstaging him through the entire performance. [She's not untalented. I'm just not sure this is a song which, ideally, should have a sax playing delivering its primary melody.] Phil-Phil delivers the entire performance with the exact same eyes-and-jaw-clenched head-voice. It's one-note and not awful, but it's definitely not one of his more adventurous or interesting performances. This is also, like "Fortunate Son," another song that used to have a meaning, once upon a time, but has ceased to have any meaning in this mumbled, nasally rendition. I hope Phil-Phil finds something good in Round 2, because I'd hate to have to turn on my early favorite.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: "You're living proof that the road to success is always under construction," Steven Tyler says. Jennifer Lopez thought his vocal quality was perfect and she compares him to Joe Cocker. It started off a little rough for Randy, clad in a candy cane-colored blazer. Randy loved it when Phil-Phil started smiling and loosened up.
Singer: Hollie Cavanagh
My Take: Oh, "Idol." Just because the first word of a song is "Highway" doesn't mean you have to put a highway on the screen behind Hollie. I mean, aren't the faux candles and mist and the wind machine enough? The billowing of Hollie's hair is possibly even more distracting than the road. With all of this corny external stimulus, how am I supposed to pay attention to Hollie's vocals? The arrangement takes way, way, way too slow to build. I mean, what's the point of doing Journey if you aren't going to do any acrobatics until the very end? The over-vibratoed closing notes are powerful and sturdy, but the overall performance felt like the build-up to an even better performance if she were given enough time. This performance also finds Hollie in a middle ground between the nervous discomfort she exhibited earlier in the season and the more genuine emotion she was displaying last week and the week before. This is confident, but it's a blank, robotic confidence that I would have thought was a huge improvement a month ago, but isn't moving me tonight.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Randy mentions his time with Journey and says she's "right in the zone." "Hollie wants to have the whole thing, dawg," Randy adds. J-Lo's feeling emotional and she's so proud of how much Hollie has grown. Steven says that Hollie's creativity has been blooming. Oh, Steven. Button your top. Please.
Singer: Joshua Ledet
Song: "You Lift Me Up"
My Take: I don't care where Joshua Groban is from. This song has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with any definable California Dreamin' theme. How could we possibly not have found any song that wasn't such a blatant dodge of the theme? Yes. Joshua is very fine in church, inspirational mode. I mean, he can sing. We know this. And he can sing songs like this. We know that. It just happens that this is the most boring of Joshua's vocal modes and standing unmoving at the top of a platform, this is the least intriguing of his performance modes. Like Phil-Phil with the sax player, Joshua is totally upstaged by the full choir. That's our third straight lackluster performance to start the night. I'm really concerned.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: J-Lo natters for a while. She loved the "drama," which she pronounces like it's a drug to prevent motion-sickness. Tyler rambles positively. Randy babbles enthusiastically. This is what happens when we have time to kill in an episode. Nobody tells the judges to get to their points and to get there fast.
Singer: Jessica Sanchez
Song: "Steal Away"
My Take: It's a great song and a great vocal opportunity for Jessica. I never fully buy Jessica when she tries to be soulful or sassy, at least not when I'm watching her. But after the night's first three performances, Jessica is an utterly welcome dose of well-executed pyrotechnics. She's no Etta James -- all of the emotion in this performance feels ersatz, rather than earned -- but she's a precocious kid with a world of singing talent and this showcases a lot of it. I don't get why they even pretended to give a theme name to these first four songs. That was as much about "California Dreamin'" as a trip through the Taco Bell drive-thru is like Cinco de Mayo. Possibly even less.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: J-Lo wants to know how old Jessica was when she started growling and calls her one of the best vocal talents in her age range or something. Tyler loved it. Randy loved the whole vibe of it and praises her for her ability to tape into the blues.
Singer: Phillip Phillips and Joshua Ledet
Song: "This Love"
My Take: I love that after last week's epic duet awkwardness, Joshua and Phil-Phil have been paired again. They're just not a great vocal match. Their eccentricities don't blend appealingly, no matter how hard they try. At least there's no hugging at the end of the performance.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say:Tyler, however, calls it "perfect." J-Lo found it to be an unexpected treat. Randy thought it sounded amazing. So there you go! I must be wrong.
Singer: Jessica Sanchez and Hollie Cavanagh
Song: "Eternal Flame"
My Take: They're swinging. Why are they swinging? Please. Make them stop swinging. Whew. They stopped swinging. I have nothing to say about this performance other than that they were swinging. A lot. SWINGING.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: "That was a little strange for me," Randy says. You know why? THE SWINGING. Now Jessica and Hollie are up front and Phil-Phil and Joshua are SWINGING. "I didn't get the best of either of you," Randy adds, correctly. "You both have sweetness and you both have power," J-Lo says pointlessly. "Four months in LA and you turn into our favorite swingers," Tyler says. Jessica and Hollie have no idea what he's talking about. SWINGING.
Singer: The Top 4
Song: "Waiting For a Girl Like You"
My Take: Wow. That was a 10-minute "Rock of Ages" commercial co-mingled with a 10-minute commercial for Ryan Seacrest's heterosexuality. I'm not sure whether the most awkward part was Adam Shankman skipping around the "Idol" mansion or Seacrest's faux proposal to Julianne Hough that ended with him asking her to take a love letter to Tom Cruise. Ugh. And then a mediocre quartet performance of Foreigner? Ugh.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Nothing. Whew.
Singer: Phillip Phillips
My Take: I really like the Damien Rice original, but it's hard to do a singer-songwriter track as a cover and still make it seems genuine. Phil-Phil has the advantage, then, of doing a song that most of the "Idol" core has probably never heard. They don't know that the backing female vocal and the cello accompaniment are completely Rice's. What Phil-Phil has to do is sell it as his own and he does. It feels genuine and thoroughly emotional and with a huge assist from his duet partner, this is one of Phil-Phil's very best pieces of "singing" on the "American Idol" stage. Definitely bounce-back performance of the highest order.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Tyler lurved it. "Very few people could have pulled that off on a competition show like this," J-Lo says. She calls it "one of the most beautiful, poignant moment that a constant has ever had." High praise. "So yo, that's what's up," Randy says.
Singer: Hollie Cavanagh
Song: "I Can't Make You Love Me"
My Take: Hollie doesn't have a Bonnie Raitt-y voice. Bonnie Raitt's voice is all about the texture and feeling and the range is decidedly secondary. Hollie's voice is almost completely texture-less. The result is that she's making a rich, passionate Bonnie Raitt song sound like Celine Dion karaoke. It's a weird sensation, especially since Hollie really does look to be connecting with the song. So I guess that's what counts for "making the song your own." I sure as heck prefer the original. This is almost the opposite of what Phil-Phil did. Phil-Phil did a song that was very close to its original form, but made it seem entirely plausible as his own. Hollie made this song much more her own, but I didn't believe a bit of it.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: Tyler says the performance fell short in terms of the dynamic range of how she can sing. J-Lo wishes that Hollie had sung the song to America. She also criticizes Hollie's excess of vibrato. Randy wishes that Hollie could have had more "moments," calling it the wrong choice at the wrong moment.
Singer: Joshua Ledet
Song: "It's A Man's Man's Man's World"
My Take: Joshua sings songs that I like. This Joshua doing yet another of my absolutely favorites. He disappointed me with "Change Is Gonna Come," but this is much, much, much better. He's gotta his swagger in full effect and he just tears into this sucker, complete with the James Brown-appropriate sense that the emotions of the song are ripping themselves out of his body. I really would pay money to watch Joshua go through the Motown songbook at a midsized venue. When he does the right songs, he's totally incomparable on an "Idol" scale. This is a right song. If that's not the performance of the season, it's Top 3.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: The judges stand. As damn well they'd better. Tyler says nobody on the show has ever sung with that much compassion. J-Lo can only respond in happy Spanish. "You delivered us and America tonight," Randy says. Randy adds that it was one of the best performances on any singing show ever.
Singer: Jessica Sanchez
Song: "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going"
My Take: OK. Let's pause here. If we're talking about songs that the contests wish they'd written, maybe we should credit the people who DID write the songs? For example, we should note that Betty Jean Newsome wrote "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" with James Brown, right? But Jennifer Holliday did NOT write this song. Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger did. That out of the way, can we just say this: Jessica can freaking sing. It's another song that's way too big for Jessica emotionally, but she has absolutely no limitations to her range. I'd love to see Jessica come back to this song in 10 or 15 years when she can put some of herself into it, because for most singers the mere notes in this song are insurmountable. Jessica barely blinks at the notes.
Steven, J-Lo and Randy Say: The judges stand, a little bit dutifully, if you ask me. Tyler calls it another winning performance. "With a performance like that, there's nothing to say," J-Lo says. Randy loves it and, for absolutely no reason, he tells Julian Lennon, in the audience, that this is what "American Idol" is about.
TONIGHT'S BEST: We'll pretend the first group of songs didn't happen. Jessica and Phil-Phil had very, very good second songs and as good as they were, Joshua blew 'em away.
TONIGHT'S WORST: Only Jessica's first song wouldn't go in my "worst" category. Those were all bad. And Hollie's second song was so far below the other three...
IN DANGER: I've just gotta assume that Hollie is done, right? She's cheated death for long enough and should be extremely proud of her "Idol" run, but if anybody other than Hollie goes home, it'll be a major shocker.
What'd you think?