Last night was Grand Ole Opry week on American Idol. I guess the producers decided to get country out of the way early, since it's always a challenge for the contestants.
Randy Travis served as a mentor and singing coach for the finalists.
First up was Texas native Michael Sarver, who seemed to have an advantage, since his voice seems made for country. He chose the Garth Brooks song, "Ain't Going Down 'Till the Sun Comes Up." Randy Travis warned him to be careful to get the words right, since it was packed full of words. As he performed, in a T-shirt, tan jacket and jeans, a harmonica player sat on-stage. Michael tried to work the audience, and his voice was perfect for the song, but his performance was weak. He seemed uncomfortable.
Judge Randy Jackson called it a cool song choice that showed his fun side but said he wasn't sure it brought out Michae's vocal capabilities. Fourth wheel Kara DioGuardi liked that it showed his personality, "But it's the big notes that I miss from you this week," to which Michael replied that "Country music is about having some fun. I'm having a blast." Nice judge Paula Abdul called the performance fun and Michael charming. She said the genre suits him well. Tough judge Simon Cowell complained that he couldn't understand a single word and Michael "could have been singing in Norwegian." He called the performance a bit clumsy and hit on his Achilles heel: "This is about you coming over as a star: you came over as a likable guy who liked country music, who's a bit clumsy, and this could have been karaoke night at any country-western club."
Michael made the mistake of answering back, saying, "If we were all perfect, we wouldn't need this show." Yes, he'll be in the bottom two for sure.
Next up, Allison Iraheta sang "Blame it on the Heart" by Patty Loveless. Randy Travis praised her, saying he wasn't sure he's ever heard quite the maturity in a voice at 16 as he's heard in Allison. She performed wearing a leather jacket, a blousy white patterned shirt, jeans, and boots, her most put-together look yet. She actually added a little twang to her voice for this one, and the rocker-country chick vibe worked. I could actually see this song getting airplay on the country stations. I would have liked to see her do a ballad, just to change it up, but maybe next time.
Kara said, "You could sing the alphabet and sing it well." She praised her for making the song her own. Paula called it "another rock-solid performance." She advised her to "experiment with all sides of your vocals" and strive to "be vulnerable." Simon thought it was good, although he said it was "a little tuneless in parts." He observed that it seemed like she was struggling to remember the words, but Allison countered that she's known the song since she was 8 years old. Simon added that it was "verging on precocious" but added that's a good thing. Randy was succinct: "I didn't think it was precocious at all; I thought it was dope."
Resident heartthrob Kris Allen chose the Garth Brooks song "To Make You Feel My Love." Randy Travis called Kris a strong ballad singer. Kris sang a subdued performance, without his guitar, sitting on a stool, wearing a black button-down and jeans. In his opening phrase, he had some trouble with his mike technique, blowing extra air into the mike, which always bothers me. I found the performance to be nice but forgettable, with a few strained notes and a hesitant last note. I had wanted wanted to see him do something a little smokier, a little sexier, to make more of an impression.
Paula said she was pleasantly surprised, finding the performance "honest, pure and vulnerable." She warned him to be careful of low notes being on pitch. Simon thought it was terrific, saying Kris was "completely in control of the song." He said it was the first time he'd heard him perform where he thought he'd have a shot of doing well. Randy praised him for going out on a limb to showcase vocals: "Tender moments from our dawg Kris. Who knew?" Kara said it "wasn't even country," that it was "just beautiful."
This season's diva, Lil Rounds, eschewed the obvious choices, like "I Will Always Love You" by Dolly Parton, and took on Martina McBride's"Independence Day." Randy Travis advised her to slow it down a little bit to focus on the vocals. She wore a strapless rose-colored cocktail dress with a ruffled neckline and a big cubic zirconia necklace, an outfit that looked very out of place for this song. She said she wanted to honor the spirit of country music, but the song didn't feel like country or much of anything, really, until the chorus, which she powered through. She can do that sort of singing in her sleep, and I think that's the problem. People want to see her do something that blows them away.
Randy noted that she'd struggled in the beginning but was better in the chorus. He noted she didn't feel comfortable and it was "just all right." Lil defended herself, saying she'd wanted to do something different, to "show that R&B is not the only thing I can sing." Randy suggested she could have chosen "I'll Always Love You." Lil said that she'd thought about it, but felt this song is relevant. Kara said, "We all know you're a great singer. You did what you felt." She also thought the second half was better. Paula found the vocals to be spot on. She also thought Lil's hair, makeup and clothing were beautiful (read, horrendous). She said the song would have worked better if she hadn't sung two verses but only sang one and went straight to the chorus. She called Lil "one of the obvious favorites this season." Simon called her "Little," assuming that Lil was short for that. Randy corrected him, saying it was Lily, but Simon ignored him. He said that Lil "came over like you were one of those girls forced to sing at the wedding," to sing a song somebody requested. He said she looked uncomfortable and it just wasn't her.
When Ryan asked her afterward about the judges' comments, Lil said she understood them. If America puts her through, she promised, "You will always get Lil Rounds."
The Johnny Cash song "Ring of Fire" seemed like an obvious choice for Adam Lambert. What he did with it, though, was not so obvious. He chose to do a Middle Eastern arrangement, complete with sitar, which left Randy Travis speechless: "I don't even know what to say of this boy. I give you points for uniqueness." I thought Adam sounded kind of Goth, although in the beginning he seemed ahead of the accompaniment. He looked fab in a brown leather jacket, black fingerless gloves, a black V-neck T-shirt, and tight leather pants. His performance showed he's got range, and it was certainly an interesting arrangement. I found it a compelling, almost hypnotic performance. This week, he sounded less like Axl Rose, more like Freddie Mercury of Queen.
Kara called it all a little strange and said she didn't know what to make of it. She liked the drama of it but said it "left me confused and sort of happy." Paula said, "You are really someone who stands out who is true to who you are." She said the choice was great and said she loved the sitar. To her, it sounded like "Kashmir" from Led Zeppelin. Simon, referring to the video showing Randy Travis as his mentor, said, "I think what Randy was trying to say was, 'What the hell was that?'" He added that "lots of people are throwing their televisions out the window at this point." In a reaction shot, Randy Travis was shown shaking his head. Simon went further, calling it "indulgent rubbish," which made Randy Travis look downright angry. Randy characterized it as "Nine Inch Nails doing a country song." Furthermore, he called it current, young, fresh, and hot.
It's always difficult to follow Adam Lambert, and this week Scott MacIntyre was in that unenviable position, choosing "Wild Angels" by Martina McBride, which Randy Travis thought was a bad choice for him. Randy Travis warmed up to it, though, when he heard Scott's version. Wearing a brown leather jacket and a black polo shirt, Scott performed yet another ballad while playing the piano. The song was a little low for him in the verse, and I found it a little odd to hear him sing lyrics about "watching you," knowing that he's visually impaired. On the chorus, he came into his own and was much stronger, but it was not his best. He struggled noticeably with some of the higher notes.
Paula labeled it "another impressive, lovely performance." She observed that the piano may be a bit of a crutch, since it "separates you from the audience." To this, Scott jokingly suggested, "We can move it closer." She advised him to "mix it up a little bit." Simon said, "What do you expect him to do?", calling the suggestion stupid. He said that Scott is very comfortable behind the piano, which is perfectly fine for Elton John and Billy Joel, as well as fellow blind musician Ray Charles. Instead, Simon put his finger on the problem, that Scott's song choice for the last two weeks was mediocre. Scott said that he'd lost a lot of hat picks, which indicates that he had chosen the same song as another finalist and had lost the hat draw. Hopefully, he'll have better luck soon. Randy said he's not as concerned about the song, that he's "looking for those hot, unbelievable vocals." So far, Scott's singing was "just nice." Kara advised him to "keep up your game a little bit" and "really deliver it." She added, "You bring class and poise to that stage."
Ryan noted that Scott works hard on his performance, and Scott agreed that he works very hard on the arrangements.
Single mom Alexis Grace sang the Dolly Parton song "Jolene," which had been a standout performance last season for Brooke White during country week. Wearing a black sparkly dress that looked like an evening version of a farm-girl dress, Alexis played with the tempo of the song, speeding it up at points and slowing it down at others, which made the song feel uneven. Her high notes this week were also not her best. Frankly, I preferred Brooke White's version of it, which felt more authentic.
Randy called it a great song but noted pitch problems, saying she "tried to bend it too much." He said it wasn't a great performance. Kara said, "You lost your edge a bit." She wanted to see Alexis perform "Before He Cheats" and called the performance "a little flat." Paula said it was more effective than the others think. She complimented Alexis for taking an artistic approach and showing different sides of her vocals, saying she enjoyed "the vulnerable, soft side of you." Simon thought it was OK but "a little sound-alike," adding that he didn't hear a lot of originality. He called the performance forgettable.
Danny Gokey opted against obvious choices such as "More Than a Memory" or "The Dance," both of which talk about losing someone you love. Instead, he sang the Carrie Underwood song "Jesus Take the Wheel." He wore a white windbreaker with a blue button-down shirt, which was not his best look, adding a little weight around the midsection. Despite the fact that he had trouble remembering the lyrics during his rehearsal, the song actually worked very well for his voice, especially in the chorus. I think it was easier for him to do this song than for any of the women, since he didn't need to worry about a direct comparison.
Kara said, "When you hit your stride, it's like none other." She said the front half of the song was "not spectacular" but that halfway through, she thought, "Here comes Danny." She gushed, "When you hit those powerful notes, it's a connection unlike anything." Paula disagreed about Kara's advice to cut down the intro in order to get to the chorus faster, saying that she loves when artists build a story. She told Danny, "You were brilliant. Carrie Underwood would not only approve; she'd go out and buy that record." Simon said he didn't think Carrie would rush out to buy it but agreed with Paula that you "can't start that song full on," that you've "got to have light and shade." His only criticism was about what Danny was wearing: "It's like you're going on a polar expedition, and it's 80 in Los Angeles." Danny joked that someone backstage said he looked like he was ready to jump out of an airplane. Randy pointed out the finer points of the performance, saying the verses have to be supported, noting they were "a little pitchy." But he concluded, "You're a great singer."
Anoop Desai had a lot to prove this week, as one more questionable performance would almost certainly put him on the chopping block. He made a smart choice, singing the Willie Nelson song, "You're Always on My Mind." Randy Travis predicted that it would make people reassess Anoop. Dressed in a multicolored hoody with a black T-shirt under a charcoal jacket, Anoop started strong with a controlled opening phrase. He still has problems with his mike technique, breathing into the mike a lot, but it was definitely his best so far. It was a very subdued performance, and he was right on pitch for most of the song. This just goes to show that when he focuses on the vocals, he's much better. He needs to remember that, instead of always trying to be the showman.
Paula proclaimed, "Anoop is back!" She was proud of him for picking a song that allowed his own interpretation, saying that he touched her heart. Simon said he'd "managed to go from zero to hero." He praised the song choice and added, "In a way, that was one of my favorite performances of the whole night." He complimented him for taking "a bit of a kicking last week," then coming back and showing he definitely deserves to be on this show. Randy said, "This is the reason we wanted you in this competition. You showed your vocal skills." He also liked the arrangement. Kara said that this is a classic song, "untouchable almost." She said it was the "best of the night because it's the biggest surprise."
Megan Joy Corkrey did the Patsy Cline song "I Go Walking After Midnight," a choice that Randy was initially unsure about. He then said he was impressed with her original take on it. Megan looked like she was ready for the beach in a halter dress with fields of rust and aqua. In addition to flapping her arms like a baby penguin, she added some other arm movements, seemingly doing her interpretation of a hula dance. The arrangement was very her: a little jazzy and quirky. The first part of the song was better than the second half, where she reached for a high note and fell flat.
Randy noted that Megan was ill, and Megan coughed throughout the judges' comments. He said he thought it would be a train wreck but was quite impressed, liking the "rocky, bluesy, country soul." Kara called it the perfect song and the perfect look. She added that Megan is a winner "because not a lot of people with the flu could get up ... and do what you did tonight." Paula added further details, that Megan had been in the hospital and had to miss the run-through. "You're a fighter," she said, calling the performance "fantastic." Simon joked, "You should have flu every week," saying the performance was better this week than last week. He also thought she looked gorgeous but that the stylists were "sucking away some of the quirkiness which we liked about you." Randy agreed that she was a little too made up. If the only negative comment you get from Simon is a fashion dig, that's a good thing.
In the pimp spot was dueling piano player Matt Giraud, who also chose a Carrie Underwood, "So Small," another song choice that gave Randy Travis pause, though he said he was surprised by his soulfulness. Matt played at the piano, wearing a white button-down shirt, tie, and gray jacket, like he was on a lunch break from the office. Still, it was a better look for him than some he's tried. I wasn't feeling it until the chorus, where he was a little stronger. I've finally put my finger on what bothers me about Matt. His enunciation is sloppy, with a "Sh" sound everywhere there should be an "S" sound. I have difficulty making out the words, even after listening to the song three or four times. Still, this rendition sounded very current, and I think he's safe.
Kara said, "You're an artist," a true talent. She found the performance "amazing." Paula lauded his authenticity and honesty, saying that he's "piercing through people's hearts." Simon wryly added, "You are a heart-piercer." He said that Matt doesn't get enough credit for his vocals, saying, "You're quite similar to Danny. Tonight I think you outsang him." He said Matt reminds him of Michael Buble. Randy called it his favorite performance of the night, saying he loved the vocals. He concluded, "You have mad skills. You've got it going on."
Kudos to Allison Iraheta, Danny Gokey, and (I can't believe I'm saying this) Anoop Desai. Adam's performance was odd but intriguing, and he's almost definitely safe.
The bottom three are most likely to be Michael Sarver, Kris Allen and either Scott MacIntyre or Megan Joy Corkrey. Megan should be safe, due to a sympathy vote, and viewers may want to see what happens when Scott choses a more exciting song. But it was supposed to Michael Sarver's night, and he didn't bring it. His first-place position in the lineup didn't do him any favors, so I think he'll be singing under the closing credits tonight.
All video clips come from mjsbigblog.