photo: Michael Becker/Fox
But the duets were actually the weakest part of the show. If Simon, Kelly, Demi, and Paulina had been sitting in spinning red chairs, they probably wouldn't have turned around. The solos, though? They were, for the most part, pretty good — and sometimes pretty great. While Carlito Olivero, who sang in the tricky first spot, still seemed like the underdog, to quote Season 2 underdogs Fifth Harmony, anything could happen on Thursday's results show. This was a highly competitive week. Let's recap…
SOLO PERFORMANCES, ROUND 1
Carlito Olivero – America picked Justin Bieber's "Boyfriend" for Carlito, which at first seemed like some sort of cruel prank. Bieber isn't exactly the kind of artist one covers when trying to prove he/she has big vocal chops. But actually, in many ways, Carlito's Biebs performance worked. It let him be the loverman he wants to be, it comfortably fit his limited range, and his dancing was on point. Yes, the chair-dancing with random female audience members was a little too Magic Mike for my tastes (it was as cheesy as the fondue he was rapping about), and it may have been a risk for him to abandon his Latin roots. But this was a vivacious, racing-out-of-the-gate opening performance, and the judges were all impressed/intimidated. "OK, I get it. You're not going to be messing around tonight. You are here to get into the finale…I'm now feeling a little bit nervous," said Simon Cowell. "I am so incredibly proud of you. I have been waiting on that all season," said Kelly Rowland. "I'm so happy for you. That performance right there has star quality to it. You totally have the X-factor, and you really played the heartthrob role very, very well," said Demi Lovato.
Restless Road – America chose "That's My Kind of Night," the rousing party-hardy hit by Luke Bryan, for this country boy band, and it seemed like a good fit; Restless Road have done well in the past with uptempo numbers. But once again, only Colton Pack stood out vocally. As the season has gone on, I've often wondered if Colton would have been better off as a solo contestant. (Probably not, because then he would have been on the Boys team mentored by clueless Paulina Rubio, but you get my drift.) Colton sounded strong here, but the other two were drowned out by backing tracks and faded into the mix. Also, the guys didn't really do anything fresh (read: non-karaoke-ish) with the song. Kelly loved the performance and called it "fun," but Demi said, "I'm kind of going to be a buzzkill. Yes, it was fun, but it was awkward…It just wasn't a semifinals performance. It wasn't exciting enough. Carlito was a tough act to follow." Paulina added, "Colton is the main piece of this. I need Zach and Andrew to be in the same shape." So, mixed reviews all around. Would this be Restless Road's kind of night? Well, they had two more songs to go, but so far, the answer seemed to be no.
Alex & Sierra – Viewers chose "Little Talks" by Of Monsters and Men for Alex & Sierra, a song very much in their wheelhouse. Perhaps too much in their wheelhouse. I love me some Alex & Sierra, but I love them most when they're putting their own spin on songs from very different genres of music. An indie boy/girl duo doing this indie boy/girl duet was predictable, and they weren't really able to make it their own. It also wasn't their best vocal of the season. That being said, it was one of my favorite performances of the night, because these two crazy-in-love kids are just so frickin' charming. "Y'all make me mad, because you nailed that performance and now Jeff [Gutt] has to come out here," semi-joked avowed fan (and Jeff Gutt mentor) Kelly. "You have a huge space in the music industry," declared Paulina. "You're not performing songs, you're making records every time you come out here. You are one of the best contestants I've worked with in a long, long time," said Alex & Sierra's proud mentor, Simon. "I think we're looking at the winners, I really do," proclaimed Demi. I hope/believe Demi was right, but I'd seen more memorable performances from this duo than this one.
Jeff Gutt – For Jeff's first performance, America picked "Hallelujah," the song he sang at his first audition in Season 2 (arguably still his best "X Factor" performance ever). "In a way, I feel like I've been trying to live up to that ever since," Jeff admitted. It seemed like an unfair advantage to give him a song he'd already had great success with…and don't even get me started on how overdone this song is on every talent show ever, from "American Idol" to "The Voice" to probably even "The Next" (I didn't watch that one). But of course, Jeff killed this, just like he killed it last year. It was a very theatrical performance, starting with him on his knees and ending with him straddling the stage like an old-school jukebox hero. "That was one of the best versions I've ever heard. It had absolute sincerity and passion. You took the song and you owned it," said Simon. "I know I just said Alex & Sierra could be the winner, but honestly, I think it's going to be you two [in the end]. Everybody has heard so many renditions of this song, but this is my favorite," said Demi. Obviously neither Demi nor Simon watched "The Voice" this season and heard Matthew Schuler's excellent, excellent version of "Hallelujah." But Jeff's cover was almost as excellent, and it might've even been better than his Season 2 audition, which was tough to top.
Carlito Olivero vs. Alex & Sierra – If there was any ongoing conspiracy theory that Carlito was being set up, this cemented it. The Swell Season's "Falling Slowly" seemed like a slam-dunk song selection for Alex & Sierra, but a weird fit for Carlito. However, Carlito actually did a much better job than expected, while Sierra actually sounded a little sharp to me. Kelly thought Alex & Sierra were pitchy, and Paulina thought Carlito fared better. Simon thought Sierra "stole the song." Demi thought Carlito and Sierra gave their best vocal performances to date. Personally, I was not totally feeling this. It just didn't work. When these three sang, "You have suffered enough," the words unfortunately rang way too true for me.
Restless Road vs. Jeff Gutt – "Every Breath You Take" seemed to give classic rocker Jeff the advantage here. Jeff certainly went into the Battle Round duet with confidence, smugly noting that Restless Road are a brand-new prefab group, together for only four months, while he's been making music for as long as those boys have been taking breaths. I actually think both contestants did well here (Restless Road convincingly countrified the Police hit), and I liked this more than the previous duet. But it was Jeff who truly captured the dark menace of this oft-misunderstood stalker song. He clearly won this round. Paulina and of course Kelly thought Jeff did better as well. Simon sided with his Restless boys, naturally. Demi appreciated Restless Road's country take on the song, but thought Jeff "had better vocals and stole that performance."
SOLO PERFORMANCES, ROUND 2
Carlito Olivero – Carlito brought back the Latin flavor for a cover of Marc Anthony's "I Need to Know." Why he was flanked by bizarro Gaga-esque robot dancers who looked like they were from Mars, rather than from any part of Latin America, I do not know. Perhaps those fembots were onstage to distract from Carlito's just-all-right vocals. He sounded decent (actually more than decent when he sang in Spanish), but he felt flat for me. His performance was solid, but if this was his very last chance to get into the finale, I don't know if it was enough. Maybe it was, according to the judges' comments. "You are not playing with us tonight! You brought out the weapons. Where have you been hiding?" said Kelly. "Ay Dios mio! Muy caliente!" howled Demi. "That song was perfect for you. I don't know if you've done enough to get into the finale, but you've had without question your best week so far," said Simon. Perhaps Carlito will pull off an upset and skate into the finale after all — but at the expense of which other contestant? That's the big question.
Restless Road – "Wanted" by Hunter Hayes, a current country kid who actually wouldn't be out of place in a boy band, was a perfect choice for these guys. Colton sounded great on his solo (and he got lots of solo time; a smart move on Simon's part), and Andrew Scholz and Zach Beeken stepped it up. I could easily imagine loads of fans downloading this on iTunes; it had the same vibe as last week's chart success, "Wake Me Up." Raved Kelly, "I was not expecting Zach and Andrew's vocals to be so incredibly strong!" Said Demi, "This was comfortable. This was confident. This is what you need to continue to do. I think you just saved yourselves, because the other two performances weren't that great." "Finally you guys did an amazing vocal together!" exclaimed Paulina. "You saved the best till last," summed up Simon. With this, I think Restless Road made it into the finals.
Alex & Sierra – This duo was still trying to outdo their phenomenal, iTunes-topping "Say Something" from last week (no easy feat), and neither "Little Talks" nor "Falling Slowly" had quite done the trick. But their cover of Sara Bareilles's "Gravity" sure did. Of course, this song will forever be associated in my television-addled brain with Mia Michaels' amazing "Addiction" contemporary piece from "So You Think You Can Dance," but this was nearly as iconic. And I nearly cried, for real. Kelly and Demi actually did well up. "Sierra, you are such a flower, and I love watching women grow. I love watching you blossom," said Kelly. "That was so beautiful and captivating. I'm looking at stars," sighed Demi. "It was raw, it was subtle…I would like to bottle the last 10 seconds of that song and have it for the rest of my life," gushed Simon. Can I have a bottle of that stuff, too? Actually, a vat of it? I'd bathe in this performance, if I could.
Jeff Gutt – Jeff did a rare modern song, Imagine Dragons' "Demons." I thought he rocked the chorus and sort of turned it into an '80s metal power ballad (Jeff somehow manages to turn every song into an '80s metal power ballad). But the first verse was rough, with some slurry, guttural weirdness going on. I am glad that he was able to get past that quickly and finish strong. "It's amazing to watch you come so far since last season…It wasn't your time last season; it's your time now," assured Demi. "What an incredible song and incredible performance. This was the best episode we've had. This was great TV, but more importantly, your moment arrived this week," said Simon. Then Kelly sobbed a lot.
So now, it is prediction time. I'm sticking with my original prediction that Carlito will receive the fewest votes and go home this week (there will no "Save Me Song" sing-off on Thursday). Let's face it, anyone else getting cut would be a major upset. But hey, upsets do happen on singing shows, especially on "The X Factor"…so tune in Thursday to find out for sure!
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