American Idol Top 9 Performance Recap: Such an Easy Game to Play [Updated]

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At first, I didn’t understand why American Idol needed to get Jimmy Iovine to endorse the John Lennon-Paul McCartney songbook at the top of tonight’s Top 9 performance telecast.

Then, as several contestants approached their ditties the way I might open an AP Calculus textbook — which is to say with bewildered ignorance and/or total indifference — I remembered: I’m an old man. Come to think of it, you’re probably old, too. And those Beatles songs? They’re history, like the Dead Sea Scrolls.

But who among us hasn’t scraped a little mold off an excellent cheddar or pricey Camembert from the back of the fridge, taken a taste and let out an expletive like an overexcited Nicki Minaj? “#@*% that’s good!” Every song on tonight’s set list may have been about three times older than Burnell Taylor, but the bulk of the Top 9 contestants proved at the very least enjoyable, if not utterly delightful, while tackling the Fab Four’s undeniable melodies.

So yeah, while it might’ve been nice to hear one or two or even eight more uptempo choices, I’m gonna put a lid on my kvetching and jump to assigning letter grades. Without further ado…

Kree Harrison: “With a Little Help From My Friends” | “What would you do if I sang out of tune?” asked Kree, delivering the night’s first lyric and making me chuckle a little bit. I mean, that’d be like me asking, “What would you do if I stopped production on Idology and forced Melinda Doolittle to do an entire YouTube series based around ABC’s celebrity diving competition Splash?” It’s simply not gonna happen. Still, while Kree looked gorgeous and her voice was as supple and pleasing as ever, there was something a little, er, low-impact about her performance (for me, for you). The notes were all there, but the energy was slightly muffled — to the point where, when the six-person chorus crashed the party on the opening refrain, I found myself sighing and thinking, “Isn’t it a little early in the season for dramatic choir reveals? And how come Kree’s not giving me 100 percent of the emotional abandon I need in my life right now?” Don’t get me wrong, Kree deserves to go directly to the Top 8 without passing go and without collecting $200, but it won’t exactly land her on Boardwalk or Park Place. Grade: B+

Burnell Taylor: “Let It Be” | Has everyone recovered from Burnell admitting he’d never before heard “Let It Be”? I mean, I’d have been less horrified if the kid had thought the tune was a Kris Allen original on account of our Pocket Idol’s Season 9 results-show cover. Nevertheless, you can’t judge a vocal based on its pre-performance package, and if I’m being honest, I kind of liked how Burnell’s gruffly soulful instrument sounded up against one of the Beatles’ church-ier anthems. What bugged me, though, was the blank grin that kept cropping up on Burnell’s face during the performance, an expression that left me wondering, “Does he have any idea what he’s singing about? Why am I getting the same vibe I got from “Flying Without Wings”? Where’s the electricity?” To keep the metaphor going, at this point in the competition, Burnell is a little like geothermal energy: A really good idea that hasn’t quite come to fruition yet. I’m interested in at least a few more weeks of research, though! Grade: B

Amber Holcomb: “She’s Leaving Home” | To my ears, Amber’s performance was so mesmerizing that I didn’t even notice her utterly random “industrial scenes” backdrop — not until she hit her last note and my husband asked, “What’s with those pictures of smokestacks?” (Maybe they were the source of all that white smoke that swirled around Amber and her chamber-music accompanists?) Far more vexing to me was the judges’ mixed feedback — Randy claiming the number started “slow and unsure,” Nicki demanding a change in lipstick color, Mariah admitting she’d never even heard “She’s Leaving Home” (!) — but no one giving Amber credit for a sophisticated arrangement that highlighted the soaring quality of her vocals, and gorgeous phrasing that brought to life the somberness of the lyrics. I wish Ryan Seacrest could’ve thrown a flag on the play and demanded the judges watch an instant replay (apologies for that possibly botched sports reference): Maybe a second listen would’ve opened their ears to the awesomeness they just weren’t appreciating. Or maybe they were just following instructions from Uncle Nigel in the first place? Grade: A-

Lazaro Arbos: “In My Life” | I appreciated Keith and Mariah offering some constructive criticism about Lazaro needing to start his songs in the right key, but the latter judge’s assessment that his merely “making it through the song” was “a big deal” would be as patronizing as telling Ms. Carey that she really earned that Golden Raspberry for remembering her lines and staying on set right through the very last scene of Glitter. Alas, Lazaro is so far behind the other eight runners in the field, it’s almost like he’s in his own race: Once his rivals pass the bleachers and cross the finish line, the likeable kid comes staggering down the straightaway all by himself and everyone feels the urge to cheer “Run, Lazaro, run!” And then he’s collapsing in tears and getting wrapped in a foil poncho (dyed canary yellow or hot pink) and you’re hoping Ryan will repeat his 866 number so you can throw some sympathy votes his way. The problem is that said sympathy votes will only serve to put Lazaro back on the track for another humiliating effort next week — which isn’t really very sympathetic, if you think about it. Grade: D-

Candice Glover: “Come Together” | Here come Miss Candice/ She come groovin’ up slowly/ She will throw you shank eye/ She will play with tempo/ Her voice makes you shake down to your knees/ “Muddy Water” low note/ Gives a case of the “squees!”

What bad production/ There be too much jump cut/ She works the stage but/ Where are the closeups?/ I say close your eyes, hear carefully/ A final jazzy run/ Has just been hit perfectly/ Come together, right now/ Girl can sing Grade: A-

Paul Jolley: “Eleanor Rigby” | If you can forgive the hinky falsetto notes that started and ended his performance, Paul achieved his personal best tonight. And if I sound a little like Paula Abdul trying to spin an Amtrak ticket out of a trainwreck — “Sweetheart, you have never sounded better on a song starting with the letter ‘E’!” — that’s not the case. I’ve consistently called out Paul for his lack of connection to the lyrics he’s sung in Season 12, but to me, he sounded vastly more at home as the narrator of “Eleanor Rigby” — painting pictures of fictional characters rather than baring his own heart and soul on stage. That comfort level and ease allowed us to hear Paul’s pretty natural tone rather than the strained, overdramatized version that made “Alone” and “Amazed” so unappealing. Alas, though, dude might find himself at risk mainly because he hasn’t met a Ryan Seacrest softball question he couldn’t fumble with an eagerness-to-please that always verges on desperation: Hint, even a scowl plays better on TV than a painfully forced smile. Grade: B+ B (upon second and third listen, methinks I was a tad too generous)

Angie Miller: “Yesterday” | Look, if Angie had been auditioning for a Broadway revival of Cats, then “Yesterday” was a rip-roaring success. But to my ears, her overwrought (albeit pitch-perfect) delivery was a triumph of staged, play-to-the-rafters acting over genuine gut feeling. And while the judges praised Angie as much as any contestant tonight, I felt like their comments were peppered with hidden caveats — Nicki mentioning how Angie could eventually sing “soundtracks for Disney movies,” Mariah daydreaming about hearing more “rock edge” from Ms. Miller, and Keith straight-up saying he could hear Angie’s focus drift in and out of the performance. Girlfriend has all the horsepower and accuracy an Idol contestant could want, but she needs to ugly-up some of the edges, worry less about celery-crisp enunciation and more about the meaning of the words coming out of her mouth. A shift back to the piano and a choice of uptempo — or heck, I’d even accept midtempo — number wouldn’t hurt girlfriend’s competitive trajectory, either. Grade: B-

Devin Velez: “The Long and Winding Road” | If you’ll allow a moment of Top Chef ridiculousness, it’s not enough for a chef to julienne veggies with machine-like precision, he’s also got to be a master of spice and flavor and the right temperature. And that’s why Devin — who continues to cut through every note with Ginsu-like accuracy — has yet to fully capture my imagination. Oh sure, I’m impressed by his technical merit, but where’s the artistic interpretation? Where’s the heat? Like Burnell, Devin’s facial expression is an issue: He often looks like he’s buffing the floors of his military high school rather than trying to become a pop star on America’s most venerable singing competition. Keith noted the disconnect tonight — asking for more heart and a little less “laid-backness” — while Randy actually asked for fewer runs. (Was that an Idol first?) Mariah’s get-out-the-vote campaign will probably keep Devin out of harm’s way, but I’ve got to be honest: While intellectually, it’ll confound me if Devin gets booted before Lazaro, emotionally I suspect such an offense won’t muster anything past a 2 or 3 on my Outrage-o-Meter. Grade: B-

Janelle Arthur: “I Will” | Janelle’s backdrop — a swirling heart-shaped Christmas-ornament projection — was tackier than Nicki’s attempts to get censored, but everything else about the night’s closing performance was sweetly subtle — and served to restore the Tennessee gal’s rep after several weeks of substandard vocals. It didn’t hurt that Janelle chose what was probably the night’s least-known track, allowing her to add some country instrumentation without conjuring up the vision of her pulling a flannel hood over the song’s head and throwing it into the back of an unmarked van. And Janelle’s lilting delivery — along with her avoidance of unnecessary glory notes — unearthed the hummingbird-delicate aspects of her tone. As Randy said, it wasn’t quite a yodel, but I don’t think I’d have called “foul!” if she’d taken it that far. Plus, that sensational white goddess gown with beaded top made her look like a seasoned star — and played right into Nicki’s ridiculous “be my bride” feedback arc. Now let’s get a second consecutive week of excellence and keep the Season 12 race exciting. Yeehaw! Grade: A-

Should Be Bottom 3: Angie (a scare would do her good), Devin, Lazaro (with Lazaro going home)
Will Be Bottom 3: Amber, Lazaro, Paul (with Paul going home)

Winner of “Idol Tour Fan Save”: Aubrey Cleland over Charlie Askew

And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of Season 12 Top 9 performance night? What did you think of the judges’ comments? Who was your favorite? Who’s going to be in trouble come Thursday? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol-related news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!




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