“This may be the best episode of The Voice we’ve ever had,” Blake Shelton said tonight, in that homespun drawl of his that never seems anything less than genuine. And try as I might, I’m not sure I can find a way to disagree with him.
Sure, I could poke fun at the show’s enthusiastic-to-the-point-of-frenzied audience. (Is everyone in the studio required to pound a can of Red Bull, or maybe Red! Hyena!, in between every performance?). Or I could mock the crazy hyperbole of the “gold stars for everyone!” coaches. (Did Cee Lo really tell Nicholas David that his voice made him feel like “a child in the presence of my creator”?) I could even quibble with NBC’s decision to bring in guest mentors for the sole purpose of hyping Jennifer Hudson’s role in Season 2 of Smash (of course, if I did, I’d have to worry about my Gay Card getting revoked.)
So instead, I’ll just rise to my feet and give The Voice‘s Season 3 finalists the slow clap they deserve. Indeed, there wasn’t a full-fledged disaster at any point during the Top 10 performance telecast, and the very best numbers could’ve easily fit in during Sunday night’s American Music Awards. Yeah, I said it, and I’m not under the influence of a berry-flavored energy drink.
Let’s get to the grades for the Top 10, shall we? But before we do, a game of “Word Salad” with Christina Milian: “Our boy and our girl Blaketina, they’re performing on the show with live!” Um, okay then…
Amanda Brown: Grace Potter and the Nocturnals’ “Stars” | “That performance is the way I want to be introduced to that song,” said Blake, who along with Christina, admitted to never before having heard “Stars.” (That makes three of us.) But that’s the beauty of Amanda Brown: She eschews standard-operating reality-competition covers — not to mention the conventions of what pop radio expects from a black female artist — and takes things in an infinitely more interesting direction. The fact that she’s note perfect, incredibly nuanced, and as powerful as tropical-storm winds, ranks her as my favorite Voice contestant ever. Grade: A
Cassadee Pope: Miranda Lambert’s “Over You” | Regular TVLine readers know I’ve been throwing pebbles as Cassadee’s bandwagon all season, but I climbed aboard it at least for the duration of her haunting rendition of “Over You.” For the first time this season, the former Hey Monday singer nailed every note like an Army sharpshooter playing Duck Hunt at the county fair, and better still, she infused the tune with honest, aching emotion. Do I wish the cameras hadn’t spent half the performance in an over-Cassadee’s-shoulder shot of her mentor Blake, resting his head on his hand and gazing wistfully up at the stage? Um, yeah. Because while it was touching that the country star allowed Cassadee to cover a song he’d cowritten about the loss of his brother, putting the focus (literally) on him took focus off what his protégé was doing. At the end of the day, the performance worked because of Cassadee’s interpretive powers, not because of Blake’s personal connection to the material. Grade: A
Dez Duron: Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” | This was an ambitious number for Dez — and not just because Adam Lambert and Melanie Amaro have turned in devastating versions on Idol and X Factor respectively in recent years. Sure, the dashing former football player has had some solid moments in Season 3, but nothing from his oeuvre suggested he’d be able to slay a dragon the size of this big, jazzy ditty. And yet for the second straight week, Dez served notice that he can’t merely be dismissed as a pretty face — no matter how many times the coaches or Christina Milian undermine his credibility with their “ladies love Dez” remarks. Bringing a powerful physicality to the performance, Dez tamed “Feeling Good” with outstretched arms and punches to the air — barely breaking a sweat as he scaled the high notes. Grade: A-
Bryan Keith: Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” | There’s something a little sleepy about Bryan’s delivery, an almost inebriated languidness that recounts smoke-filled, basement jazz clubs rendered in black and white. And that made “New York State of Mind” a perfect song choice, especially with the appealing way the dude’s voice begins to shred when he reaches the ends of certain lines. I’ll admit I had absolutely no clue what Cee Lo and Adam were talking about when they droned on about how one needs to “have a pair” to properly interpret the song — Billy Joel ain’t exactly White Zombie — and now I’m just left hoping the strange sidebar didn’t distract viewers from picking up their phones and voting. Grade: A-
Nicholas David: Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” | Xtina declared that Nicholas’ smooth, rich tone is like chicken soup for her soul, and I can’t disagree. That home-cooked warmth infuses every part of his persona, too, from the loss of control of his left leg while he sat at the keyboards right down to his declaration of “holy buckets!” when he first saw J.Hud was going to be part of his mentoring session. If I had one complaint, though, I felt like the choice of “Lean on Me” — with a full Gospel choir from start to finish — was the slightest bit pedestrian. I’d love to hear Nicholas cover something more off-kilter (how about some Gnarls Barkley or Franz Ferdinand or even Macy Gray?). Grade: B+
Melanie Martinez: The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” | I’m not entirely sure why, but the judges never really come out and give Melanie full credit for the fact that she always goes beyond serving up good karaoke to a mass audience. And considering she’s the youngest person in the competition, that’s pretty heady stuff. To my ears, “Seven Nation Army” wasn’t quite as emotionally potent as last week’s “Cough Syrup,” but the plinky arrangement was an incredibly cool approach to a song that’s typically full of rumbly aggression. The kid’s magic is oftentimes found in the tension she manages to build with her voice, that innate ability to whisper when you’re expecting a scream, but I can’t say I disagreed with Adam and Xtina, who respectively wanted to hear the bomb go off and for Melanie to “jump off the cliff.” Indeed, just like peanut butter needs jam, vocal restraint usually goes down easier with a few bars of reckless abandon. Grade: B
Terry McDermott: Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69″ | I can’t criticize Terry’s vocal this week — dude packs enough power to blow a bank vault door off its hinges — but I do wonder why his mentor is content to leave him stranded at the corner of Classic Rock and Lite FM, or why he never pushes Terry to switch up an arrangement or scale back his performances to something more sparse and intimate. Instead, the only thing “new” about Terry’s set this week was seeing him climb halfway up the stairs for some staged interaction with his guitarist. That might be enough to make him a Top 6 or Top 8 finisher, but the old dog will have to do more than catch a frisbee if he wants to inherit Jermaine Paul’s crown and sash. Grade: B
Sylvia Yacoub: Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” | “You have to sing it in tune or game over.” That warning from Xtina’s mentor Ron Fair hung heavy in the air during Sylvia’s performance. Because while she probably hit eight out of every 10 notes on the square, it was the remaining 15 or 20 percent of the time where her voice got pushed to the point of uncomfortable, where she seemed to be clinging to notes for dear life rather than effortlessly delivering them. And that obvious strain made it feel like Sylvia was merely trying to survive “Girl on Fire” rather than conquer it, which is probably not the best way to win over voters. (Side note: Props to Carson Daly for calling Sylvia a “pre-law” student; because the whole pre-performance package talking about the 19-year-old giving up law school for The Voice rang crazy false — unless of course she’s a Doogie Howser type who completed her Bachelor’s degree at 17.) Grade: B-
Cody Belew: Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” | Jennifer Hudson pretty much summed it up during rehearsals when she noted Cody’s personality was more memorable than his vocal. And she hadn’t even gotten the full effect of seeing the Arkansas cowboy’s son decked out in an insane one-sleeved leather jacket with tons of fringe and zippers doing Beyonce’s patented “uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, oh-no-no” dance. Strangely, though, Cody eschewed most of the fast and furious wordplay on the chorus and bridge, choosing instead to riff over the top with some middling ad-libs that were often drowned out by the wall of sound coming from the band and backup singers behind him. Was it arguably the most amusing performance of the night? Sure. But the show is called “The Voice,” and seeing how “Bam Bam” hasn’t showcased his since his George Michael cover on Top 20 night, he might be in trouble during Tuesday’s results show. Grade: C+
Trevin Hunte: Usher’s “Scream” | Ahh, how this fairytale might’ve ended more happily if Cee Lo had spent less time trying to dissuade Trevin from going uptempo — and let’s be honest, after five straight Big Bombast Ballads, the kid was long overdue — and more time trying to find a more suitable dance track than “Scream.” Heck, I’d have been content it if Mr. Green had at least guided Trevin past the “acid washed denim with leather sleeves” rack and toward an outfit that wasn’t so aggressively unflattering. But left to his own devices, Trevin flopped around the stage as tragically as a tuna on a dock, going sharp more often than a Ginsu assembly line, all while sporting a bewildered expression that conveyed little of the celebratory spirit J.Hud had been pushing toward. The crowd went crazy anyway, leaving Cee Lo to make the cryptic remark that “apparently it paid off,” but if Mr. Hunte survives to Top 8 week, it’ll be on the basis of his prior efforts, not from what screeched through the TV speakers this Monday night. Grade: C+
And with that, let me turn things over to you:
Who were your favorites from The Voice‘s Top 10 performance telecast? Who’s most likely to get booted come Tuesday night? Hit the comments with your thoughts!