Because Beatles week went so well on American Idol last week, the producers decided to draw from the catalogue for a second week.
In retrospect, maybe not the best idea.
FOX Broadcasting, 2008
Kicking off the night, rock chick Amanda Overmyer slaughtered "Back in the USSR," clad in a dark denim vest and jeans. She launched the song in the wrong key but tried to make up for it with lots of energy. By the middle she looked more comfortable, and she knocked it out at the end, but she’d already lost me. She has the kind of talent that only comes through in bursts. If I’m right — and this is pure speculation —that her raspy voice is partly due to years of smoking, she may just lack the lung capacity to pull off a sustained performance. This is something that will improve if she stays off the cigs but perhaps not in enough time to help her chances on the show.
Judge Randy Jackson said that it was a perfect song choice but started pitchy and then picked up. He gave her a 7 out of 10. Nice judge Paula Abdul called it a "little sketchy at first" and observed she’d been ahead of the beat. She added, though, that when she connects she’s authentic and unique and that she’d like to see her do a ballad. Tough judge Simon Cowell called it predictable and "a mess in parts." He said that she’s been doing the same thing week after week and needs to do something that’s a surprise.
On her second chance to pick a Beatles song, Kristy Lee Cook chose "You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away," a song she chose by its title alone, having never heard it before. With an entire Beatles catalogue to choose from, certainly she could have chosen one where she’d at least know the melody! And youth is no excuse: I was born the year the Beatles broke up, and I knew this song. Fortunately for her, she looked better than she sounded, in a black sparkly dress with empire waist and V-neck that hit just above her knee. Lucky for her, I say, because it’s only looks and personality that might save her this week.
Randy called it one of his favorite songs and said it was an "interesting arrangement" but said that her performance needed more emotion. He pointed out, as I’d already written in my notes, that she wasn’t singing the melody right. Paula agreed that sometimes it’s best to just stay with the melody (unless, of course, you don’t know it!), but said it was the best she’s ever looked. Simon suggested that maybe she needs hypnosis to improve her performance abilities. He said that the last two seconds of the song were OK but that it was like musical wallpaper: you notice it but can’t remember it.
Determined to redeem himself for a shaky start to the finalist round, David Archuleta chose a song he knew he could handle, "The Long and Winding Road." This was actually a song I’d recommended in last week’s write-up, because it’s more of a singer’s song, and Archie did it proud. He pulled out all the pop ballad stops, beginning with a perfect-pitch opening and building in emotional intensity throughout. He was clearly more comfortable on-stage than he’d been last week, and he also ditched the ’60s-style mandarin collar for an outfit that seemed much more like him: a white patterned T-shirt with a wine-red blazer and jeans.
Randy complimented him for bringing "the hotness back," although he chided him for playing it a little safe and advised him to take more liberties with arrangements. Paula said that what excites her is "the perfect purity of who you are and your voice," and she praised him for rising above the adversity of last week’s performance. Simon said that last week was a complete mess and this week was amazing. He pointed out that David knows how to sell a song and added that the performance was "a master class."
I will say this about Michael Johns: he and I have very similar musical tastes. Almost every song he’s chosen to date has been one I truly loved. However, that can’t be the only factor when you choose a song to perform. He selected "A Day In the Life," one of the more experimental Beatles songs, from the Sergeant Pepper album. The song consists of several distinct sections, sung in parts by John Lennon and in parts by Paul McCartney, with varying musical styles and time signatures. For his one-and-a-half-minute rendition, Michael selected from two of those sections, but as The Gryphon puts it, he failed to capture the spirit of the original song, which combines qualities of lightness and sadness, almost like confessions sung right into your ear. Instead, he seemed lost, striving to hit the high note on the phrase "House of Lords" and then doing his patented dance-hop while launching into another section, as if trying to distract us from the bad note. In a black short-sleeved button-down shirt with dark tie, he also failed to stand out visually. If he sticks around, Michael really needs to think about what sort of song best shows off his vocal capabilities. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to smile once in a while, at least in his interviews.
Randy, in a class understatement, said it’s "not one of your best." He said it wasn’t the right song for him. Paula said that it was good at the dress rehearsal but wondered if he was having problems connecting with the audience because of the big stage and because of listening to the monitor in his ear. Even so, the other contestants also face the same conditions, so that’s hardly an excuse. Simon said that it was a mess and that he didn’g hit the right notes. He said that it was a very complicated song that doesn’t work cut down to one and a half minutes.
Wearing a ruffled yellow sundress that looked like something a 5-year-old might wear, perpetually sunny Brooke White launched into a bouncy version of "Here Comes the Sun." She might have been trying to evoke a light, fluffy feeling with the performance, but it came across as awkward. Still, Brooke at her worst is still echelons better than the best of Kristy Lee Cook.
Randy called the performance awkward and said that she’d never really connected to the song. Paula said that she can’t help but smile while listening to her and that she loved that she wore yellow to sing the song. She also said Brooke had some good low notes and that "you’re a lovable girl." Simon said that he just knew when she selected that song that she’d be wearing yellow. He called the performance terrible, especially her "horrible dancing," and reminded her, "It’s all about song choice."
Resident rocker David Cook pulled out all the stops for a blistering rendition of "Day Tripper," borrowing the arrangement from a 1970s Whitesnake cover. Finally, he found the right song for his style, giving him an opportunity to show off some soaring rock vocals as well as some impressive guitar work. To spice it up a little, he attempted to emulate Peter Frampton, using a voice box with his guitar. Fortunately, he’d already turned in an impressive enough performance that the strange experiment shouldn’t hurt him much.
Randy complimented him for keeping it interesting and said this song was a solid choice. Paula gushed, "You’re ready to go sell records." She complimented him for using the voicebox "in a cool way," at which point David C. jumped in to point out he’d only learned how to use it yesterday. In an aside, Simon remarked, "You can tell." He said that the performance wasn’t "as good as you thought it was" and remarked that he’d "looked smug throughout," which is a tendency I’ve noted before but which apparently never bothered Simon previously. He said that he’d lost the element of surprise and become predictable.
As Carly Smithson launched into an emotional rendition of "Blackbird," I was thinking, "This is uncanny. That’s another of the songs I recommended in last week’s write-up." Coincidence, I’m sure, but I was glad to see her take on the challenge. "Blackbird" is a deceptively simple song, yet Carly, who is clearly familiar with the lyrics, turned it into a tender evocation of strength. For much of the song, she stayed in her lower register, which gave it a Heart quality, and as she took it higher, she never lost her focus or her control. My one tiny criticism was that, for the first time in several weeks, she made a wardrobe mistake, wearing a red ruffled sleeveless shirt that made her look a bit like a sad clown. Still, the power of her song was enough to make me forget the sartorial misstep.
Randy called it another great performance and said it was very controlled. Paula said she has an amazing tone to her voice and called the arrangement beautiful. She gave her an "F" for "fantastic." Simon, though, disagreed, calling the song indulgent and chastising her for singing "a song about a blackbird." Carly leaped to her own defense, doing an excellent job, I thought, of explaining the true meaning of the song. It’s about rising above difficulties and finding your strength. Apparently, I was right in believing that she really understood the song she was singing and imbued it with the proper emotion deliberately.
Amusingly, Jason Castro selected the song "Michelle," not realizing that it was sung partly in French! I guess not everyone had a Beatles songbook like I did. He started off the song awkwardly, overemphasizing the long "e" sound in "Michelle," singing "Mee-shel," much like someone who’s just had a vocal coach work with them on vowel enunciation. After he got into the song, though, he loosened up, and the quality of his voice reminded me of Jim Croce. With him and Brooke still in the competition, does this mean America is ready for a folk rock resurgence? Jason even changed up his look a little bit, wearing a cream button-down shirt with denim trim and updating his pants, choosing dark jeans over his previously preferred faded jeans.
Randy called it a good choice of song and said that it was very subdued. He said he didn’t know if he really got it, at which point Jason chimed in to agree, although defending himself by saying that "this week came really fast." Yes, and they aren’t going to slow down, either! Buck up, Jason, and learn to cope, because something tells me you’ll be around a while longer. Paula noted that he has a distinct charm but said he’s a bit disconnected when he’s away from his guitar. She said that the song at parts sounded like a polka and he’d come off as awkward. Simon said, "You’re lucky this is a TV show, because your face sold that." He explained that Jason is very charming and that "his goofiness makes it work." Still, he said that if he’d heard the song on the radio, he’d have turned it off.
Wearing color for once, in a beautiful mint green dress with deep V-neck and empire waist, Syesha Mercado was hoping to get noticed. If the va-va-voom quality of her outfit didn’t do the trick, the vocal performance should have. She performed "Yesterday," sitting on-stage accompanied by a single guitar. After a haunting opening, she showed her vocal skills, injecting some runs where appropriate without losing the emotional connection. Although she had to change the gender again for this song, it worked much better than her previous such effort, with "Me and Mr. Jones." I was reminded of the potential I’d seen in her during the first weeks of competition.
Randy praised her for taking some liberties and it was "very, very, very good." Paula said it was great to see her let herself be vulnerable and said she needs to continue to work on connecting with the audience, especially through eye contact. Simon said it was probably her best so far, though he added it wasn’t incredible. He complimented her song choice and said he liked the arrangement, adding that she’d sold the song very well.
Chikezie was all about taking risks, first choosing the little known "I’ve Just Seen a Face," and then taking huge liberties with the arrangement, with a slow country ballad opening that picked up into an upbeat hootenanny. Of course, anyone who’s seen Across the Universe remembers their ebullient version of the song, which competed in my memory with this one, having just seen the film (do a search on YouTube, where you can find all three versions: The Beatles, the film’s and Chikezie’s, and compare). I would say that Chikezie’s somewhat uneven version falls short, but I did notice something about it that’s worth pursuing. At one point, he had almost a Ray Charles quality to his voice. He ought to listen to one of Ray Charles’ country albums for inspiration. Overall, it was fun if a bit bewildering. He faltered with his wardrobe choice, though, pairing an orange striped shirt with what looked like a dark-colored Dickies work shirt.
Randy said that there was some good and bad. He liked the fast part but didn’t get the slow part. He called it a strange arrangement. Paula praised him for "showing who you are" and for using the song to show the "whole scope of who you are." Simon said that it started OK and then he played harmonica, which was atrocious. I have to agree. Chikezie, by his own admission, had only learned to play harmonica this week. Given that previous American Idol winner Taylor Hicks plays a mean harmonica, probably not the best choice. Simon finished by saying that it was gimmicky and not as good as last week.
The title of Ramiele Malubay’s song choice said it all: "I Should Have Known Better." Why, Ramiele, why? The song simply wasn’t a good fit for her, but she probably chose it because she was trying to bring more energy to the stage, as she’d been advised by the judges. But dancing around to this early ’60s song, which doesn’t offer many opportunities to show off her vocal abilities, definitely didn’t do her justice. Plus, her outfit was so misguided that even Paula didn’t compliment it: a strange top that looked part black bustier and part buttercup yellow T-shirt, paired with black pants cut wrong for her curves, topped with a dove-gray fedora.
Randy said that while he "wasn’t jumping up and down," he liked it. He called the performance happy-go-lucky. Paula said it was better than last week but that ballads are better to "show your range." Simon said she has a fantastic personality but that the performance was amateurish and the song mediocre.
Kudos to David Cook, David Archuleta, Carly Smithson and Syesha Mercado. Jason Castro, Chikezie and Brooke White have done enough in previous weeks so that they’ll probably be safe, despite this week’s song choices.
So who does that leave us? Given that Kristy Lee Cook chose to remind us, during her backstage interview, of her three previous trips to the bottom two, will she finally be riding off into the sunset? Or will America rescue her again, offering up Amanda Overmyer, Michael Johns or even Ramiele Malubay, instead? Given that Michael Johns is probably splitting votes right now with David Cook, who’s been getting stronger every week as Michael falters, he might be the next to fall victim to the curse of standing in the bottom two next to Kristy. I certainly hope not, because Kristy’s horsies probably really miss her by now.
Taking liberties is good, but totally rewriting a classic Beatles song isn’t wise.