After last week's shocking bottom three (and the subsequent use of the judges' save on Jessica Sanchez), there seemed to be a shift in the dynamics on "American Idol" on April 18. The theme was "Now and Then," with the contestants tackling two songs each -- one modern and one soul classic.
The theme seemed to suit some performers more than others, and not necessarily those you'd expect. Hollie Cavanagh finally managed to get a compliment (or three) from the judges, while Joshua Ledet's confidence seemed a little shaken after last week's trip to the bottom three. Colton Dixon had one of his weakest weeks to date, and while Jessica Sanchez was once again in top form, is that enough to bring the voters back to her after last week's surprising results? Read on for our rundown of the Top 7's performances, which featured two Lady Gaga renditions, two from Alicia Keys, and, depending on who you ask, two picks by Marvin Gaye.
"Rolling in the Deep" by Adele
Finally, after weeks of overthinking, Hollie let loose with the kind of vocals we've all been waiting for since "Reflection." I'm not sure whether it was simply her escape from the bottom three or the psychological boost that came with the knowledge that, despite glowing reviews from the judges, Hollie's direct competition (Jessica Sanchez) isn't as untouchable as we've all assumed. But either way, Hollie took to the stage with far more poise and confidence than she's demonstrated in recent weeks. Considering it's such a big, bold song, her pitch was remarkably solid, and the unaccompanied opening paired with the understated final note helped give her a couple of stand-out moments that really illustrated the clarity of her tone. Probably her best performance of the competition so far.
The judges have been notoriously harsh with Hollie, especially in comparison with Jessica (although I usually agree with most of their criticisms when it comes to her tendency to overthink and general pitchiness). But this week, they had nothing but praise for her. "You finally came out of your shell -- I can't judge it, it was perfect," Steven Tyler enthused. Jennifer Lopez agreed, adding, "You forgot about everything and just sang that song; I'm so happy for you." Randy called it "close to perfect," and was equally pleased that he could finally feel her emotion, despite the pitchy moments.
"Son of A Preacher Man" by Dusty Springfield
A few of Hollie's bad habits crept in with her second song, since she's not great at walking and maintaining her tone at the same time. Her energy was definitely up from her last few mid/up-tempo numbers, and it's nice to see her gradually getting more comfortable on the stage; but she's still not owning it the way she could.
The judges were apparently firmly on the Hollie train this week, because Randy and Jennifer both preferred her second song to her first. "That was crazy -- you worked it out!" Randy exclaimed, while Jennifer said, "I think that you're showing a new composure and it really suits you." Steven told her that she can push it even more, and would like to see her moving around the stage more.
"Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga
It appears that "Idol" and Colton are still trying to make his long-suffering sister Schuyler happen next season (which is good, because I actually prefer her voice to Colton's). They trotted her out before his performance tonight to keep the audience from forgetting her. As for Colton's performance ... Adam Lambert, he ain't. I'm not sure his voice is suited for Gaga; it wasn't distinct enough to feel like Colton's usual style, nor was it close enough to the original to feel comfortable. Although the judges praised the concert-like atmosphere while he was on stage, that certainly didn't translate for me at home. It seemed uncharacteristically low-energy, and failed to showcase his fairly impressive range. Definitely a misfire for me tonight.
Naturally, the judges loved it. "You are so in the zone right now," Randy said, although he noticed that the key seemed too low. Jennifer thought it was an exciting performance and loved his character, even though she agreed that he lost the audience a little in the lower parts. "Keep taking chances and doing what you do," Steven advised.
"September" by Earth, Wind and Fire
Colton's second performance had a shockingly weak opening; it seemed out of key and shaky, which is unusual for him. He got into his groove more once he hit the chorus and could start utilizing his upper register, but there was a distinct lack of confidence throughout this rendition that seemed to suck the energy out of the room.
The judges weren't feeling it either, with Steven noting that his voice is a lot more powerful than it was in that song. "It's really about finding the perfect songs that fit into who you are ... I'm not sure it was the perfect performance," Jennifer agreed. "You sound good," Randy noted unconvincingly, "but it's not as exciting as we would've liked."
"No One" by Alicia Keys
During rehearsal, Jimmy Iovine astutely noted that for some baffling reason, Elise doesn't seem to have a loyal fanbase at home, so she tends to be judged "like an Etch-A-Sketch" every week, without voters taking her previous powerhouse vocals into account. She's certainly not going to win this show, and unlikely to even make it into the top four; but for me, she's probably the strongest vocalist behind Jessica and Joshua (which just goes to show how out of touch I am with the voters, judging on last week's bottom three). Regardless, it's hard to find fault with what she did this week, with a gorgeous opening and a restrained performance. I liked the fact that she took it slow, showing off her beautiful vibrato and that delicious huskiness on the bottom of the notes. She went a little flat in the chorus and not all of her ad-libs hit their mark, but when she focused and let the notes swell, it was gorgeous.
Jennifer got her first "goosies" of the night, but she advised Elise to smile more when she sings, since it makes her come alive. "I thought you sang it great. You stayed with the melody for a change -- it was a great lesson in restraint and I thought it was very good," Randy opined. Steven said she sang her tushy off and that it was "delish."
"Let's Get it On" by Marvin Gaye
Instead of belting the way she's capable of, Elise's second performance had a sweet, breathy quality that's a little different than what she's been doing in recent weeks, and that variety hooked me. Contrary to what the judges thought, I found it sultry and understated, and enjoyed the scatting and beautiful runs she pulled out towards the end of the song.
"You always sound so good; I have so much respect for your voice and everything you do," Jennifer praised, although she did tell Elise to try and make herself more vulnerable and let the audience connect with her in future performances. Steven thought that it showed her versatility, but said she needs to find six or seven more songs that are just out of the park. Randy agreed that she needs to show more emotion, and thought that Marvin Gaye's classic wasn't right for her. "You kind of over-sang that song," he said.
"You Got It Bad" by Usher
I would never have expected this song from Phil-Phil, which speaks to his versatility and fearlessness as an artist, which I admire. I loved the bluesy, jazzy arrangement and the percussion, but I do feel like the band was doing most of the hard work for him, giving a fascinating arrangement to draw us all in. It's certainly true that Phillip doesn't have the vocal range of some of the other contestants, but he has personality in spades, and often, that's far more important for a successful artist. It was original and unique enough to keep my interest, and probably one of Phillip's best performances yet.
Steven praised him for utilizing more of his melody than we've seen in the past, and admitted that he likes that "we never know what we're gonna get" when Phillip takes the stage. "That was so sexy," Jennifer swooned, calling him a "great singer." Randy was elated that "we have a true artist on stage. You know who you are, and dude, you are da bomb!"
"In The Midnight Hour" by Wilson Pickett
This bluesy, graveled number fit comfortably into Phillip's wheelhouse -- complete with all the twitching and growling -- so it didn't light a fire under me like his previous performance did. But the audience clearly felt his energy and personality as he shimmied and squirmed around the stage.
"You take your time with it. You let the song breathe. We feel your emotion every time," Randy enthused, while Jennifer was glad to see his spontaneity and soul. "Brilliantly awkward. I love your character," Steven said.
"Falling" by Alicia Keys
I'm still utterly baffled that Jessica was in the bottom three last week. I'm hoping it was just a case of the audience thinking that she was so good, they didn't need to bother voting for her. If that's not the case, she'll end up back at the bottom this week and the judges won't be able to save her this time around, so tomorrow night's results should be interesting. In any case, this was classic Jessica -- demonstrating the purity of her tone, her enviable control and the sultry depths of her range. For me, the song itself is so overplayed that I tend to get bored by it when it inevitably appears during every talent contest, but she knows exactly how to nail her notes.
"Everyone in America now knows how you can sing, as if they didn't already," Steven enthused. Jennifer admired her ability to "play with songs." Randy reiterated that he hoped America would show up and support her this week, and called her voice "otherworldly."
"Try a Little Tenderness" by Otis Redding
I didn't care so much for her second performance. Jessica went back to her overdone Beyoncé/Jennifer Hudson runs, which are my least favorite part of her vocals. Her choruses, while rushed, had a great grit and gravel that really made you feel her passion for the song.
"Good god almighty, bless my soul, you've done it again," Steven hollered, and I presume he meant that as a complement. As with Elise, Jennifer noted that she needed to start pushing her performances and connecting with the audience more. "You can sing like nobody's business," Randy observed. "Where you should grow now is just about connecting with the emotion."
"Born This Way" by Lady Gaga
The judges are high on Skylar Kool-Aid at this point; but for me, she's hit and miss. Though she has a big, belting voice, is it really unique compared to every other female country artist on the market right now? (Last year's runner-up, Lauren Alaina, springs to mind.) She always tends to lose control on up-tempo songs, but I liked her sassy, raspy notes during the verses. And, as usual, she nailed her final, belting note.
"A more perfect song for you does not exist," Jennifer insisted, telling her, "It was perfect for you again -- three weeks in a row." Steven noted that she's "giving all the other girls in this competition a run for their money." And Randy told her, "You put your own spin on it -- you're so beyond ready to me." Hmm.
"Heard it Through the Grapevine" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
I preferred Skylar's second song to the first, perhaps because it had a little more attitude and she seemed to be thinking about it less -- or maybe the arrangement just gave her a little more time to get the words out. She's undoubtedly brimming with personality, but she still doesn't seem natural or comfortable enough to be album-ready to me, no matter what Randy says.
"You're like a wild horse that refuses to be tamed," Steven observed, while Randy noted, "You and Phillip have no problem connecting; That was brilliant right there. Every time you're on stage, it's a party." Jennifer said she loved Skylar's "spunkiness," and told her that both songs tonight were great.
"I Believe" by Fantasia
Joshua's first song left me a little cold this week, since it skewed a little towards the OTT-Jacob-Lusk end of the spectrum. We know he can belt and ad-lib, but I wonder if his confidence was shaken by his stint in the bottom three last week. He once again nailed his high notes, but the ending felt abrupt, like he was cut off before he could really build to a fitting crescendo.
"You're truly one of the most gifted singers on this show," Randy said, admiring the fact that Joshua "pulled back" and let the audience feel the meaning of the lyrics. "You leave it all on the stage every single time. You give all of you -- it's amazing to watch," Jennifer agreed. Steven insisted, "You could sing the phone book. You're so good, there's nothing to say to you."
"A Change Is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke
Far better than his first performance to me. This classic was understated, soulful and meaningful in Joshua's capable hands. He seemed less tempted to measure up to Fantasia's fireworks and made the song his own this time around, growling and crooning in a more natural way.
Steven praised "the restraint in the beginning" and noted, "Your voice just climbs inside everybody and changes them in that moment." Jennifer, too, appreciated the way he held back, and implored the audience, "Please, America, don't send this boy home." Randy added, "This song was perfect for you. You took your time. You let it marinate." He also insisted that the talent on "Idol" was better than any other talent show on TV, in an obvious (and tired) jab at "The Voice."
Do you think that Jessica, Joshua and Elise have done enough to avoid the bottom three this week, or has the judges' enthusiasm for them turned voters off? Weigh in with your predictions below.
"American Idol" airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.