After weeks of tackling dated songs (and generally performing them poorly) all it took to give "American Idol" a shot of adrenaline was to allow the contestants to sing songs from their own musical idols. Finally, no more trying to fit their voices to Billy Joel's style, or forcing them to sing Stevie Wonder when all they want to do is Dave Matthews. This week saw most of the finalists truly bringing their A-game, resulting in an eclectic array of musical choices that actually offered some modicum of entertainment value.
Unfortunately, with only 9 contestants left and two hours to fill, we were also subjected to three trio numbers -- only one of which was actually worth listening to -- but such is life, since Fox apparently remains resistant to shortening the Wednesday night show to 90 minutes.
Here's the rundown of this week's performances -- feel free to weigh in with your favorites in the comments.
Colton Dixon: "Everything" by Lifehouse
This is one of my favorite songs, so I'm certain I'm judging it a little more harshly than most, but I wasn't all that impressed with Colton's take on Lifehouse's soft, nuanced ballad. He prefaced it by telling Jimmy Iovine and mentor Stevie Nicks that it's one of his favorite worship songs, and I'm all for a performer picking songs that resonate with them or take on particular significance because of their faith, but somehow, it all seemed too calculated here. Later on in the show, Joshua Ledet would literally break down at the end of his song because of the emotional impact of the lyrics, but here, Colton seemed like he was faking that emotional connection -- repeatedly pointing at the sky and ending the performance kneeling, as if in prayer. It felt tacky and unnecessary, but that's just me. Vocally, he kept good control, though I would've liked to see him hold the notes in the chorus a little longer to give them room to breathe, since his phrasing seemed abrupt. Technically, it was fine, but to me, everything going on around the vocals felt contrived.
Naturally, the judges loved it, as they love everything Colton does, because he's a competent, inoffensive and attractive pop-rock singer who is almost certain to win the competition, since he doesn't have the less-marketable individuality that Phillip Phillips displays every week. (Randy Jackson practically said so, while somehow managing to restrain himself from uttering "in it to win it," for once.) Steven Tyler called him a judge's dream come true and insisted that he has perfect pitch (hmm), while Jennifer Lopez admitted she was "honestly moved," and Randy praised his believability.
Skylar Laine: "Gunpowder and Lead" by Miranda Lambert
Talk about tonal whiplash, to go from a song as measured and methodical as "Everything" to this. We heard Skylar sing it during the audition rounds and there wasn't anything different here; nor was it particularly distinct from some of her other live show performances, which isn't going to cut it when she's going up against powerhouses like Jessica, Joshua and Hollie. It all had a vague air of karaoke, with Skylar once again rushing through the lyrics without having time to really showcase her range, although no-one could fault her attitude or enthusiasm. But when all you can really say about a performance was that it was "energetic," there's definitely something missing.
Jennifer called it "the perfect song for you," and praised ... you guessed it, her energy; Steven called it "over the top," which I guess he meant as a compliment; and Randy called her a "great performer" and actually had the cojones to compare her to Carrie Underwood in terms of range. Hyperbole, thy name is Randy.
We were then treated to our first trio performance of the night, courtesy of the dream team of Elise, Colton and Phillip, who harmonized deliciously on a Fleetwood Mac medley. To me, Colton's rendition of "Landslide" actually had a lot more emotion and passion in it than his solo performance, and Elise knocked "Edge of 17" right out of the ballpark. Phillip couldn't quite keep up with the vocal acrobatics of his teammates on "Don't Stop," but it was an enjoyable enough mix that suited their voices.
Heejun Han: "A Song For You" by Donny Hathaway (yes, we know Leon Russell did it first)
After last week's surrealistic performance, I was half expecting Heejun to tear his clothes off again, but it appears that he's finally got the kookiness out of his system -- on stage, at least -- and wants to prove that he should stick around. He did that admirably with "A Song For You," which had a beautiful, pure tone that seemed utterly natural. His enunciation is improving and when he's pouring all his focus into the vocal, it's one of the nicest voices to listen to in the competition -- not overly showy, but impressive nonetheless.
Steven gushed that with a voice as "deep and beautiful" as Heejun's, he "[made] the song come alive in a way no-one else can." Jennifer enthused that he displayed "the most beautiful tone, the most beautiful vibrato," and Randy was just glad to see that the Heejun they selected finally came back to them.
Hollie Cavanagh: "Jesus Take The Wheel" by Carrie Underwood
Hollie seems to be pulling a Melanie Amaro and letting her British accent grow stronger every week, but in terms of performances, I actually think she's been backsliding. Her rehearsal with Stevie Nicks moved the experienced artist to tears, but I failed to feel that emotional resonance during Hollie's actual performance. I'm not sure whether the key was pitched too low for her or whether her crisp enunciation was distracting, but since I cry every single time I listen to Carrie's version -- even after all these years -- I was a little disappointed that Hollie couldn't connect for me. She seemed to miss more notes than she hit, and was holding back on the sweet, clear vocals she demonstrated with such maturity on "Reflection."
Randy opined that, although there were "a couple pitchy moments, mostly in the lower range," she did a really good job with the song. Jennifer felt connected to it emotionally, while Steven (thankfully) said that he wished she'd sang a different song, and that it was "just okay" for him. Steven Tyler as the voice of reason, who'd have thunk?
DeAndre Brackensick: "Sometimes I Cry" by Eric Benet
At this point, DeAndre is comfortable in his soulful, R&B niche and there's likely no getting him out of it, so if you like what he does, you'll be satisfied week-to-week, and if you don't, every performance will alternate between snooze-worthy and grating. I generally fall into the latter camp, although this wasn't quite as irritating as I find most of his performances. He was evidently trying to shatter some windows with his falsetto this week, but if you closed your eyes and took a couple of tequila shots, he could've passed for Prince. It's a unique sound, although I'm not sure it's terribly marketable as-is, and he sang it competently enough, so I actually had less to complain about with this performance than I did with Skylar's.
Steven offered the Prince comparison too, praising "the passion it took to do those runs," while Jennifer noted that his voice is something you don't hear every day. Randy was glad he's honed in on who he wants to be as an artist, calling it "beautiful."
Jessica Sanchez: "Sweet Dreams" by Beyoncé
At this point, I agree with the judges -- the girl is beyond critique. She's confident in her notes, capable of pulling off dazzling runs, knows exactly the right amount of vibrato to use, and has a crystal clarity to her voice. And yet, the judges gave standing ovations to DeAndre and Heejun, but not Jessica -- I think they've started to take her talent for granted, perhaps because they know that a guy's going to win this whole thing. I think Jessica's major problem is the same as Pia's last season: she doesn't really have a personality. She can sing the hell out of a song, belting like Mariah or Whitney, but she's lacking the stage presence and charisma of someone like Elise or Phillip, and I think that's her biggest obstacle right now (aside from her ladyparts). I would love to see her win the competition, as a true testament to talent, but the judges repeatedly hammer home that they're looking for the whole package, and as "teachable" as Jessica might be in rehearsals, I think she needs a few more years and a few hard knocks before she's ready to graduate to superstar status. Still, she was the most technically accomplished of the night, hands down.
Our second trio performance was a Michael Jackson medley, courtesy of Joshua, Heejun and DeAndre (racial profiling, much?), who, as expected, didn't gel so well together. "Hot mess" pretty much sums it up.
Phillip Phillips: "Still Raining" by Johnny Lang
As I've mentioned before, Phillip's style isn't something I'd willingly choose to listen to if I was buying an album, but I know there are plenty out there who dig his graveled, bluesy vibe, and he does what he does very well. He seemed to be more engaged with this performance than some of his previous appearances, and you could tell from his expression that he was straight-up enjoying the song. That enthusiasm was infectious (and something missing from a number of other performances this week) and I respect his authenticity and his determination to follow his own path.
"You make everything go away and we're just riding the rhythm," Jennifer enthused, noting that he always makes them feel the music and forget they're judging (too easy). "Every song you sing, you own," Steven agreed, while Randy jumped straight to the "I love you," telling him that he loves who Phillip is as an artist and that he has big things ahead of him.
Joshua Ledet: "Without You" by Mariah Carey
Jimmy Iovine called this one of the five most challenging songs anyone could possibly attempt, and with good reason, but Joshua nailed it. He made it look effortless, laying on the vibrato thick but not overdoing it too much -- until the second chorus, at least, when he threw in everything but the kitchen sink, with wild runs and belting high notes that pretty much epitomize the overused phrase, "he took us to church." It had that emotional connection that Hollie and Colton were missing, since Joshua actually broke towards the end of the song, finishing with tears in his eyes. He, like Jessica, often tries too hard, but that's not always a bad thing. Yes, I got goosies.
"When you have a voice this big, you need to sing big songs," Randy said reasonably, before calling it "flawless." Steven agreed that it was beautiful, while Jennifer was almost verklempt, calling him a "phenom," "an absolute angel from heaven," and that his voice was "God sent."
Hollie, Skylar and Jessica then teamed up for a Madonna medley, which was generally forgettable, despite the talent in the trio, although they were far better than the bumbling Michael Jackson team who preceded them.
Elise Testone: "Whole Lotta Love" by Led Zeppelin
The producers truly did save the best for last this week, because even though Jessica and Joshua pulled out the most technically proficient performances, no-one can sing Zeppelin, let alone with all the swagger and growl that Elise put into this rousing rendition. She ate the song up, prowling around the stage like a star and snarling, wailing and roaring her way through the choruses like a bona fide rock star. Female rockers have a poor track record on the show, and because Elise is slightly older and a woman, I'm sure the majority of the "Idol" audience doesn't "get" her, but that doesn't alter the passion and power she brought to this performance.
After another standing ovation, Steven validated her (since he's the only qualified rocker on the panel) by insisting, "nobody can pull that song off -- you made Robert Plant proud." Jennifer agreed, "that was some real rock star stuff, that was crazy," while Randy praised her performance too, saying, "that's the hardest song in the world to sing, congrats!"
Who do you think were the best and worst performers of the night, and who do you think will go home this week? Weigh in below!
"American Idol" airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.