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‘The Voice’ Live Playoffs, Pt. 1: Adam Has the A-Team, Usher is Against All Odds

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

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Michelle Chamuel is Team Usher's only standout

"The Voice" Season 4 finally went live this week, as the contestants competed for the public vote and for coveted spots in the top 12 semifinals. Once the show is down to that all-important top 12, team quotas will no longer matter, and it'll be every singer for him- or herself. But this week, such quotas still applied. And the members of one of the teams were probably very relieved that that was the case, because they would have been screwed otherwise.

So this week, three contestants from each team will ultimately advance: two voted through by America, and one saved by each coach. On Monday, it was time for the eight contestants comprising Team Adam and Team Usher to compete, and honestly, Adam Levine made Usher look like a chump.

Adam is already a seasoned pro on this show, having starred in all three past seasons and coached the series' first-ever winner, Javier Colon. Usher, on the other hand, is a newbie. And Usher's lack of experience, compared to Adam, was glaringly obvious this week. Adam not only proved once again that his team is the team to beat this season, but he also strategized brilliantly, selecting the perfect songs for all four of his contestants. Usher, conversely, went with horrible, dated song choices that did three of his four contestants absolutely no favors. Honestly, if the team quotas weren't still in effect this week, almost everyone on Team Usher would be at risk, due to their coach's perplexing choices.

Here's how Monday's eight singers fared:

TEAM ADAM

Amber Carrington - Amber went from a little girl to a red-blooded woman with this stunning, show-opening performance. Rihanna's "Stay" was a song that required her to dig deep and draw from real emotion--something younger contestants often have trouble doing--but this 19-year-old's performance was pure womanly sophistication. The only things that weren't sophisticated or classy about this number were those bizarre contrasting-tone hair extensions that some stylist made poor Amber wear. But her vocal was exquisite. This was a real breakout moment for Amber. I'd been on the fence about her after she beat out my boys Midas Whale during last week's Knockout Rounds, but I had to admit that she was a total knockout tonight. "That's setting the bar pretty high," said Blake Shelton of Amber's performance, openly pitying the seven contestants who'd have to follow her. Blake should have been pitying himself for not having Amber on his own team.

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Sarah Simmons - Adam picked Sarah McLachlan's "Angel," a tearjerker associated in most viewers' minds with sad-eyed rescue dogs, for this particular Sarah. What a fantastic song choice. The ethereal ballad coaxed out the keening, yearning tone in Sarah's raw and vulnerable voice, and an eerie hush fell over the studio audience as she sang. It was so quiet, I could practically hear the electrical hum of the stage lights faintly accompanying her vocals. Adam looked positively awestruck, like even he'd had no idea how truly amazing Sarah was until this magical moment. Said Adam: "I've never heard this room so quiet…everybody was so completely enamored with what you were doing that they just couldn't speak. I really believe that." I believed it, too. I believed everything about Sarah's performance. It was the real deal. And I was so focused on her, I never even thought about stray pound puppies once.

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Caroline Glaser - "I'm not a big powerhouse singer," Caroline admitted sheepishly/obviously during her rehearsal. "It's scary to go against these three girls!" Caroline had reason to be skerred: Her vocal shortcomings were really apparent when she later did a group number of Florence + The Machine's "Shake It Out" alongside the belty Amber, Sarah, and Season 4 chosen one Judith Hill. But Adam chose Caroline's solo song very wisely, going with Ed Sheeran's "The A Team." Caroline still didn't wow me--I really don't get what the fuss is about her and her distracting hipster glasses--but this song suited her and worked with her many vocal quirks. Blake described Caroline's performance as something he might see at her old St. Louis coffeehouse hangout, which he apparently meant as a compliment. Usher described her performance as "soothing." Adam declared his unflagging confidence in Caroline (who seems to think she's some sort of underdog, despite her huge online fanbase), saying: "A powerhouse vocalist is someone who can capture your attention. It doesn't have to be big and dramatic. You're one of the more unique-sounding people in this competition, and you should be so proud of what you did."

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Judith Hill - Of course, Adam saved his true "powerhouse vocalist" for last. At first I thought he'd finally blown it with the song choices by giving Judith "Feeling Good," a song with a cursed track record on reality shows and a song that's just plain overdone. "Feeling Good," along with "Hallelujah" and "Unchained Melody," is a song I thought I'd be thrilled to never hear any contestant ever sing again. But I guess I should not have doubted a pro like Judith's ability to make even this tired singing-show staple feel fresh again. It started off dramatically, totally a cappella, and Judith experienced a real diva moment. Then she added some jazzy adlibs, some interesting phrasing, and a whole bunch of really killer glory-notes. And she oozed glamour, with her topiary up-do and fierce gown. "You're such a freaking diva!" shouted Blake, while Usher verbally flagellated himself for not fighting harder to recruit Judith for his team when he had the chance. Considering how much weaker his team was this evening, compared to Adam's, it was understandable why Usher was beating himself up.

TEAM USHER

Josiah Hawley - While Adam made smart song choices for his contestants across the board, Usher made a lot of missteps--starting with Josiah--that showed what an amateur he still is at this game. Muse's "Starlight"? For Josiah? Really? Josiah is no Matt Bellamy--nor is he an Adam Lambert type, and that's the type of contestant one needs to be to nail this very difficult, operatic, falsetto-laden song. Josiah was just totally out of his depth here. He did his best, but he couldn't rise up to the song's highest highs, and his pitch was all over the place even in the lower registers. The song showcased all of his vocal shortcomings and none of his strengths. (I always had Josiah pegged as more of a blue-eyed-soul type.) The performance was generic at best. Either Usher just made a really bad call here, or he was singling out Josiah to be the fodder/fall guy this week. (My guess is the former, but the end result could be the same.) Anyway, Usher gave Josiah a standing ovation. No one else stood up. Ha. But the other judges did like this. Shakira told Josiah that he "rocked it" and said this was his best performance so far, and Blake called this "haunting." Oh, I'll be haunted by this, all right…but not in a good way.

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Cathia - Usher gave this Latin pop singer "I Have Nothing." Yes, the Whitney Houston song. What was Usher thinking??? Covering Whitney is never a good idea on any singing show; even host Carson Daly had to remark, "What a BEAST of a song to have to do!" All in all, Cathia did okay with this. She didn't ruin it or anything, and it wasn't a disaster or embarrassment. But there was nothing special or memorable about this performance; it was merely competent. Shakira scolded Usher for "setting the bar too high" for Cathia, because singing a Whitney song is "like stepping on holy ground." Even Usher admitted this wasn't Cathia's greatest performance, which was a bad sign. That was when I started to suspect that Usher was trying to sabotage Cathia, not Josiah. We shall see.

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Vedo - Okay, Usher should never be allowed to choose a contestant's song ever again. His entire team should mutiny. Poor Vedo also got a lame, boring, overdone song: "Against All Odds" by Phil Collins. Seriously? I thought "The Voice" was supposed to be all about hipness, newness, freshness. But "Against All Odds" is a song that even "American Idol" retired from its songbook back around 2004. And the song did nothing for Vedo. Since he sang Bryan Adams's "Everything I Do, I Do It For You" last week, this should have been the week for him to flip it and do something upbeat and current, to prove he can be a contemporary artist in the real world. "Against All Odds" also forced Vedo to stay mostly in his upper register, so he sounded strained and shrill throughout the song. Usher acknowledged that this was a "bit of a hill" for Vedo, but still claimed he was "100 percent pleased" with this performance. "I look forward to seeing you in the next round," Usher confidently told Vedo. I just hope if Vedo does make it to the next round, he gets to do a cooler song than this.

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Michelle Chamuel - Finally, Usher got one right. He gave his nerdy-girl, the Liz Lemon of "The Voice," a signature outsider anthem: "True Colors" by Cyndi Lauper. Up until now, Michelle had always been the show's class clown, a goofball doing high-kicking calisthenics onstage, but with this gentle ballad, she got to reveal a more serious, more vulnerable side of herself. She was even tearing up in rehearsal, when Usher made her practice the song while staring at her unguarded reflection in a full-length mirror. I'm not sure what technical issues she had once she got onstage, as she yanked out her earpiece, but thankfully, those issues didn't hurt her performance. Everything about it was raw, real, and riveting. And rad! And she didn't let her shaky emotional state hurt her voice, either: She sounded pure and perfectly imperfect, and her true, glorious colors came shining through indeed. "This is one of those moments, and you should be really proud. Enjoy it," said Adam. "Thank you, Adam, for recognizing that, and thank you, America, for seeing it," Usher said, telling Michelle, "Tonight, you made a connection to the world that you'll never forget…This was an opportunity for them to see the [more serious] vocalist that you are."

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So now, it is prediction time. On Wednesday's special results show, after Teams Blake and Shakira perform on Tuesday, all four teams will be whittled down to three members each: as I said earlier, two voted through by America, and one saved by each coach. For Adam's team, I think Judith and Sarah will be the top two shoo-ins, and then I am hoping that Adam will pick Amber for his third contestant, but I have a nagging feeling that he'll foolishly save Caroline instead. As for Team Usher, I think Michelle and Josiah will be the top two, and that Usher will save Vedo.

Come back Wednesday to find out if I'm right, and come back Tuesday to watch the other two teams compete (and to find out if Blake and Shakira make better song choices than Usher did). See you then!

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