American Idol Top 8 Recap: Stronger

Clark Beckham Top 8 American Idol

Wednesday night’s installment of “American Idol” went back to the beginning, quite literally, for a night of Kelly Clarkson tunes. It’s a sign of how far the very first “Idol” winner has come when you can easily fill an evening of standout covers of hers, and it ended up being one of the strongest nights of “American Idol” I think we’ve seen this season. The cherry on top? Well, it has to do with who went home this week . I think I’ll quote a little Kelly for a moment to express my feelings about that, with some rather pertinent song lyrics I could croon about this week’s departing contestant:

“Since U been gone…

I can breathe for the first time.

I’m so movin’ on, yeah, yeah…

Thanks to you, now I get what I want.”

Perhaps that’s a bit excessive and harsh, and also a huge spoiler (but who reads my recaps to find out who was eliminated, anyhow?), but yes. Suffice it to say for now that this week was much, much better than last week’s up-and-down 80s Night. Let’s head right to it!

  • Season 2 winner Ruben Studdard sadly won’t be seeing a night of “Idol” performances devoted to his catalog anytime soon, but he at least got to hand over the official results envelope to Ryan Seacrest. That’s at least something, I suppose. (I just thought, however…last week David Hasselhoff, who we shall try not to speak of more, had the envelope, and they gave him a chance to ‘sing.’ Yet Ruben did it this week, can actually sing, and they gave him no such performance slot. Sigh. The logic of the “Idol” producers sometimes.)
  • They announced a new twist this week…the Bottom 2 would be officially announced, and then one of them saved by fans on Twitter…the “Idol Fan Save.” My reaction in the notes was succinct: “Whaaat?”
  • Nick Fradiani, “Catch My Breath”: Nick noted in the rehearsal video that he had done an acoustic cover of this song before, and his performance/arrangement was kind of based on that. Kelly Clarkson herself (who was a terrific mentor, by the way) noted this one of her bigger songs, and counseled Nick to open his eyes. He started off in his lower range, which I thought was both a strength and a weakness for him. He was up and down throughout that part. He did sound like the song was a bit too big for him at certain points, like he was out of breath perhaps, but he did seem to own the performance more than he does in the past, and letting go more than he has. His tone still isn’t quite working for me…it’s just kind of grating at points, and I don’t know what Nick could do to change that. With the renewed level of commitment Nick showed, his pitch kind of went a bit south, but I thought he improved in a few key ways. I think Harry was rather on the nose afterwards noting that he looked more comfortable on stage, even if it wasn’t his favorite vocal. I’m glad Nick is taking notice of the things he needs to work on, and I did see a good amount of improvement, but he still remains in my bottom tier of the contestants still left, and he’ll need to break out of there soon if he wants to take it all the way.
  • Jax, “Beautiful Disaster”: For quite a few of this season’s performances, Jax has started off on the piano, and given us an absolutely entrancing vocal…after which she typically proceeds to rock things out with the full band, leaving us wanting more. It’s not that she can’t rock things out beautifully, but there’s something special that happens when she goes completely acoustic. She wisely chose to do so this week with “Beautiful Disaster,” and the result was absolutely gorgeous. I can see why Kelly had no notes to give Jax…her distinctive tone was wonderfully showcased (a tiny bit too breathy at points, but nothing too distracting), and the whole thing was stunning. Just Jax, a piano (not played by her this time, in fact), and a cello. That’s the stuff “Idol” dreams are made of, folks. I’d have to say this was my favorite of Jax’s performances so far, and that’s saying something. The judges were similarly on board, though J.Lo oddly thought the arrangement was a bit static. I thought it had a lovely rise and fall myself, so I don’t know what she was going on about, but yeah. Jax is doing quite well for herself lately. Let’s keep it up.
  • Oh, “Idol,” you keep trying to make these group performances happen. (For 14 seasons now.) They’re not going to happen. Singing perhaps 10% live, the Top 9 performed “People Like Us,” which was a previously unreleased song off Kelly’s Greatest Hits album. Even though the harmonies were completely and utterly processed/pre-recorded, the whole thing didn’t sound too bad at all…but what is the point of these things, honestly?
  • Tyanna Jones, “Mr. Know It All”: Continuing the female trend (there’s only 3 girls left, y’all), Tyanna was next, and Kelly was very impressed with her loud, booming voice. She advised her to act more “pissed off” while performing and really bring in the emotion, and Tyanna took the chance to explain why she picked “Mr. Know It All” in the first place…she was bullied in the past, and wanted to take the chance to give a message of self-empowerment. (Amen, girl.) Now did that all come off well in the performance? I think in the first half, Tyanna didn’t really convey any of that…she seemed a little static. However, when she left the mic stand and took over more of the stage, her emotional connection level really skyrocketed, and she seemed to be much more engaged. Her vocals were strong, as usual. Her voice can handle big songs like this. I just wish it wouldn’t have taken until the second half for things to really take off. The judges were encouraging and complimentary, which I think was in order. I worry, though, that Tyanna is getting too much inside her head. She really needs to just let it shine these next few weeks. (I refuse to say that her time with us will be any less than that.)
  • Who knew Gordon Ramsay actually smiles and laughs? Also, more “Idol” alum sightings (all from seasons I didn’t watch, but whatever) in the audience, from Ruben again, Vonzell Solomon from Season 4 (Carrie’s season), and Season 12 champ Candice Glover (whose songs I have heard on YouTube, and man, does that woman have an INCREDIBLE voice).
  • Joey Cook, “Miss Independent”: Joey very much needed a rebound this week, and she certainly rose to the occasion. I was grateful the viewers gave her a pass on last week’s misstep…after all, like Kelly told Joey, we all have our good and bad days. Speaking of Kelly, she was rather floored by Joey’s new take on her old hit “Miss Independent,” and for good reason. Joey did an incredible job reworking the song and performing the heck out of the whole thing. She was cool, but confident, and really kept the lyrical message shining through. Her vocal was incredibly strong, one of her best of the season. This is the Joey we know and love. The judges were quite impressed, though Harry took the time to get on his soapbox a bit related to jazz music today:

“Jazz is as modern as any other kind of music […] It’s OK to sing jazz without going back 50 years.”

  • Now, I’m quite on board with that sentiment. The whole “jazz equals the 20s” mindset, I’m not terribly a fan of either. That said, I’m not sure that dinging Joey on that was quite the best move or the most appropriate venue to express that viewpoint…it wasn’t quite fair to her, especially after giving such an outstanding performance, and giving jazz the spotlight, on “American Idol,” no less. Nevertheless, Joey agreed wholeheartedly with his critique, and regardless of the circumstance in which it was said, I’m glad in the end that Harry took the time to highlight the relevance of jazz music today. On that front, I would say, preach it, Harry! Also, Joey is my favorite. Yes, I just said it.
  • Kelly Clarkson. “Heartbeat Song.” She nailed it live, because it’s Kelly Clarkson and she has a terrific voice and a natural gift for performing. (I mean, she didn’t win that one “American Idol” show all those years ago for nothing.) I will never tire of hearing/watching her.
  • Quentin Alexander, “Dark Side”: Last week, Harry suggested Quentin try a little more uptempo stuff in the future, and while this choice cut from Kelly’s “Stronger” album is still most decidedly a ballad, it is a bit more driving than some of Quentin’s previous song choices, so I guess we’re making progress on that front. As far as the performance goes? He stepped it up very nicely in the vocals. It was strong and confident, and I really enjoyed it. J.Lo had us thinking she was going for a Paula Abdul moment for a second when she said she was glad that they “saved” Quentin…then clarified that she was referring to him being a Wild Card pick, not that she was confusing him with Qaasim, the Judges’ Save two weeks back. Whew. Harry came down a little hard on Quentin and advised him to work on the technical aspects of his performance. That advice can’t hurt, I suppose. Quentin is doing quite well already, but he still has even more room for improvement, and continuing to work on his pitch and vocal technique will add even more to his ever-growing arsenal, I think. (Then again, Kelly Clarkson said she wants to “make sweet love to those amazing eyes,” so perhaps Quentin may not need too much more in his arsenal. Also, Kelly Clarkson should be on every TV show ever, I’ve decided.)
  • Qaasim Middleton, “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”: Qaasim went stripped down this week, focusing even more than he has previously on his vocals. I thought there were some really good vocal moments in there, but admittedly, a lot of really shaky ones as well. I thought his energy came through great, despite any setbacks in his voice, and that the arrangement was terrific. (I particularly loved the call-and-response part at the end.) Keith rightly pointed out that the transitions and the chorus were a bit rough, and both Harry and J.Lo pointed out that he needed more practice with his runs (Harry using the jazz term “shedding” like the boss that he is). Qaasim himself said this wasn’t his best. I’m not sure this will be enough to carry him through past next week, but the kid has energy in spades, and while the field is so stacked right now that I’m not sure I can get too attached to him anymore, I wouldn’t mind seeing him stick around at least a week longer. He hasn’t overstayed his welcome with me just yet.
  • Kelly Clarkson returned to the stage to sing “At Last,” which was her audition song as well. Not being a viewer of “Idol” in that very first season (or, if we’re being technical, for the 6 seasons that followed either), it was great to see her first moment with the judges, and then to see her nail the song yet again all these 13 years later. Even more impressive was that she apparently did it without being able to hear herself properly through her in-ear monitor. OK, Kelly, just start showing off, no problem. Starstruck Harry Connick, Jr. got to meet her for the first time after the performance, and said his daughters would be quite jealous, prompting to her to throw him this hilarious response: “Why didn’t you bring them? You’re kind of a crap dad!” She was kidding, folks. Also, give her a sitcom deal or something, please. She’s a real keeper.
  • Clark Beckham, “The Trouble With Love Is”: Our last guaranteed safe performer of the night, and kind of a no-brainer after last week’s stunning “Every Breath You Take.” I feel Clark continued his momentum nicely this week, tearing into the soul elements of “The Trouble With Love Is” with panache. Kelly advised him to let go and connect, and focus on his vulnerability. (She also said, “I think I’m pregnant!” after he sang in rehearsal, but that’s a whole other story.) I don’t know if Clark quite showcased an emotional connection, and that’s something he still needs to work on, at least in his facial expressions, but but he had a very solid vocal, and as I put it in my notes, “really took it to church at the end.” And that’s enough for now. Still, wake up your face and your energy a little, Clark. It will take you from ‘great’ to ‘star’ in no time.
  • That meant our Bottom 2 this week consisted of Daniel (hallelujah!) and Rayvon (hmmph). My reaction at the time? “Please say Daniel’s Twitter fans have gone to bed…”
  • Daniel Seavey, “Breakaway”: Ouch, Daniel had laryngitis this week. That’s got to be rough for anyone. I liked how Kelly gave him some vocal warmups to do, like the lip bubble (that’s always a good one), but in the end…yeah. It was shaky vocally, as always. Daniel couldn’t really stay on the notes very well. It had to be tough with laryngitis, and I feel for him there. I was about to say in my notes that he wasn’t terrible, per se, on the big parts of the song, but then came that glory note at the end that was anything but glorious. Yeah. This wasn’t quite a performance worthy of saving, I’d have to say. The judges, while gentle, seemed to agree.
  • Ravyon Owen, “Since U Been Gone”: I’ve been a bit underwhelmed by Rayvon the past few weeks, as much as I love him. That changed Wednesday night. I loved the strings that started it all out, and it was a great, gorgeous arrangement in general. More importantly, though, Rayvon gave a really, really powerful vocal. He connected beautifully to the song, flipping it from power-pop to a ballad, and while this is far from the first song I would change to a downtempo ballad (it’s pretty darn catchy in its original form), he sold it so well that I didn’t really mind the shift at all. I love where he took us, and I honestly got a few chills. It’s the same high level of vocal artistry that he’s been giving us, and the same general vibe, but he just seemed much more in command this week. It moved me, and that’s something I haven’t always been able to say about Rayvon in the competition thus far. Not everyone agreed, however. Harry asked, “Where is your gravy?,” feeling like he lacks something still, and J.Lo counseled him to keep digging and keep pushing. Keith, though, is who I stand with, when he said that this was one of Rayvon’s best turns on the “Idol” stage.
  • Then came a 5-minute window for fans to vote on Twitter to save either Rayvon or Daniel. Being a West Coast viewer, I was unable to vote, so I had to leave it all in the hands of the East/Central time zones. Shudder. The clock ticked and tocked, the commercial break came and went, and I was steeling myself for the possibility of defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory (AKA Daniel triumphing over Rayvon, when we had come so close to getting him out), and then…to my great surprise, Rayvon was saved by the Twitter vote! That meant Daniel Seavey headed home this week.

Partly because I don’t want to look like a cranky, mean little twit who picks on 15-year-olds, and partly because this recap is already late getting out and I’d like to finish already, I won’t spend too much time gloating about Daniel’s long-awaited elimination. I will point out my joy in having Rayvon stick around…I literally took up an entire page with my joyful reaction to Rayvon’s save in large, scrawling block letters (culminating in “We have conquered!,” suggesting I may be getting a bit too carried away sometimes). But yeah. I won’t dwell on what we don’t have anymore, but instead on what we do have…arguably one of the strongest groups of “Idol” finalists in the show’s history. I like everyone. EVERYONE. Granted, in the course of the past few weeks I’ve gained some favorites and some that I wouldn’t mind heading home, but I can say with a high degree of confidence that we will have quite a worthy winner this season, whoever it may be, and that’s something I haven’t been able to say (with no reservations, at least) about an “Idol” season ever. I’m very, very excited for the rest of the season now, and however it shakes out, I know it will be a treat. If you’re not watching already (and you’ve inexplicably read to the end of this recap), check it out…there’s no better time, now that all 8 finalists are top-notch, even though they’ve all had their bad days. To close it all off, my weekly ratings:

My favorites this week: Joey (!!!), Rayvon, Jax, Quentin, Clark, and Tyanna (don’t make me trim this down here…)

Step it up a bit: Qaasim and Nick.

Who may go home next week? I’d say Qaasim and Nick are in danger. It’s going to be a bit more painful now that we don’t have that one obvious weak link…

See you next week with another “Idol” recap, hopefully delivered with a bit more timeliness, and see you even sooner than that with great music here on Harmony Avenue. Thanks as always for reading! Respond away in the comment section below.

Song Sampler of the Day: “Make A Child,” “Gimme All Your Love,” & “Same To You”

It’s been a while since I’ve shared a Song or Song Sampler of the Day, and there’s been lots of terrific new music I’ve wanted to share. Here we go. First off…

“Make a Child” by Yael Naim!

The name Yael Naim may not ring a bell for you right off the bat, but you probably know her 2007 hit “New Soul,” which was notably featured in a MacBook Air commercial at the time. I became a fan of not just that song, but her entire debut album thanks to that, and while I was gone when her second album came out in 2012 and haven’t gotten the chance to listen to it in full yet, her latest album “Older,” I have been able to check out, and it’s outstanding. She’s evolved wonderfully as an artist, and while her music hasn’t changed too much, it’s matured and grown in wonderful ways. Lead single “Coward,” a bit of a darker tune and one of my favorites on the album, was released as a fascinating EP with three different versions (the original, one with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, and one with the Metropole Orkestra), and I highly recommend it. However, I wanted to share this particular song, “Make A Child,” because of its infectious, buoyant, addicting quality that has really made it a standout for me. (“Walk Walk” is another choice album cut that has been stuck on repeat…really, you’ll be well off just listening to the album in general. As you can see here, it’s available on Spotify.) Next up…

“Gimme All Your Love” by Alabama Shakes!

A month or so ago, Alabama Shakes, led by firecracker vocalist/guitarist Brittany Howard, sang on “Saturday Night Live.” I actually didn’t watch it then, but I had heard their name, and more recently, I saw their new album was coming out soon, and got curious and decided to check them out. (Oh dang, I just noticed why their name sounds familiar. I got a free single from iTunes by them, “Hold On,” back in 2012. This always seems to happen.) I was floored by the two singles they have, and while the other, “Don’t Wanna Fight,” is a definite keeper (there’s a sort of trend in these songs I’m sharing today, isn’t there?), this one has grabbed me the most. Brittany’s vocals are jaw-droppingly stunning. She doesn’t just ‘have soul,’ she embodies it. This song is a blistering, crunchy, yet gorgeous and heartbreaking ballad, yet it ends with a funk-soul-type instrumental jam that ramps things up, because that’s just how Alabama Shakes rolls. Can’t wait for the album…I’m really happy I finally discovered their music (it’s like my second chance, since I never really listened to that iTunes single).

Last but not least…

“Same To You” by Melody Gardot!

Melody Gardot is an outstanding jazz-based singer/songwriter that you may already be well acquainted with. This is the new single from her upcoming album, “Currency of Man,” and it’s a thrilling departure from her previous work. It’s gritty, incredibly catchy (I could honestly see this on the radio, and I mean that in the best way), and full of soul (another theme kind of building here in this post). For lack of a better term, I’d call it…well, incredibly sexy. (I can’t think of a more succinct way to put it, really.) If you’re already a fan of Melody, you’ll love this new direction, and if you haven’t heard her stuff yet, get around to that now, I’d say…but this single will definitely whet your whistle. It’s good. It’s really, really good.

Thanks for reading and listening! Stay tuned, as always, for more Harmony Avenue goodness. If you liked any of these, be sure to let me know in the comments.

American Idol Top 9 Recap: In The Air Tonight

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Last night while watching “American Idol,” I was admittedly very tired. I was running on precious little sleep due to a paper I had to do the night before, etc. Thus I can be forgiven in thinking that the following things that began last night’s “Idol” 80s Week telecast were just a very, very bad dream:

  • David Hasselhoff singing a horrid medley of 80s hits (“617 songs” according to Harry) to us, as only the Hoff can. (Just because he can, though, doesn’t mean he should…)
  • The return of the dreaded group performance (apparently they did one last week?), a questionable take on “Karma Chameleon” with this week’s mentor Boy George in tow.
  • By far the weakest finalist of the group being declared safe first, then giving a substandard performance as usual.

Yeah. I presume that Fox and “American Idol” want more people to watch their show. They want to reclaim a bit of their former glory, they want some more cultural relevance again. Starting off your program, however, with David Hasselhoff’s off-key, awkward warbling, a group performance that no one ever wants, and your weakest contestant, will do none of those things, “Idol.” Thankfully things get better from there…but I think I’m safe in saying it wasn’t the most consistent night last night. There were some great moments, though, and we’ll get to those. After David Hasselhoff’s series of unfortunate events performance interminable torture whatever the heck he did, and a group performance in which the solos were thankfully live, but the harmonies most certainly weren’t, we started off with:

  • Daniel Seavey, “You Make My Dreams” (Hall & Oates): My notes were rather optimistic here: “And…Daniel starts. This is going to be a very rough night.” OK, I was kidding about that optimism thing. I’m getting increasingly worried each week that Daniel is unsinkable. He gave probably his worst performance to date last week (and that’s saying something), went pretty early in the show to boot, and yet last night he lived to sing again just fine. I don’t know what to say about this that I haven’t said before, but yeah. I will repeat one thing, that this all needs to stop. Yes, he did much better this week than he did with “Lost Stars,” but the thing about Daniel is that “much better” still means a pretty below-par performance. The whole song felt like a glove that didn’t quite fit for him. He once again tried to “show off” his falsetto notes, and they sounded just as wimpy and off-key as they have before. His voice actually cracked at one point. (Nitpicky, but that’s what you get when you don’t give a 15-year-old time for his voice to settle.) His choreography was awkward…that whole bending to meet the screaming girls in the audience thing was just painful. The judges ended up commending Daniel for his improvement over his last outing, but advising him to loosen up and look more natural. Nothing about his voice, but maybe they’ve just run out of things to say. I’m hoping that going first, combined with the kinder comments from the judges, will put Daniel in danger (heavy criticism tends to activate the fanbase more), but at this point, I’m getting a bit beaten down by all this, and thinking we may need a miracle for that to happen.
  • Quentin Alexander, “In The Air Tonight” (Phil Collins): Ah, Quentin. Just what the doctor ordered after, you know, all that happened previously. Boy George and Scott Borchetta offered some great advice for Quentin in the mentoring session (by the way, Boy George, despite my misgivings, proved to an outstanding mentor, very involved and funny with lots of spot-on coaching for the contestants), to work on breath support to improve his pitch. A very logical thing, but very important as well, and I feel it really helped Quentin last night, as his pitch was improved. The arrangement wasn’t as adventurous as some of them have been in the past for Quentin, but his vocals were terrific, and he really worked to create an excellent mood for the song, one that brought it out of the doldrums the original finds itself in (sorry, but it’s kinda true). He definitely brought it last night. I was quite in agreement with the judges, who said things like Quentin having the “cool factor on 1000″ (J.Lo), and also that more uptempo stuff might be a nice change of pace for Quentin, even though these songs are great as well (Harry). I’m also concur heavily with Boy George’s assessment, relayed by Ryan, that “he’s workin’ it up there!” I wouldn’t have put it quite that way, but I dig the sentiment.
  • Joey Cook, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” (Cyndi Lauper): Oh, Joey. What happened here? The pieces were all together nicely…Joey, albeit dressed as (her words, not mine) “Madonna in space,” picked a song that seemed to play to her strengths…playful, energetic, a bit quirky. But from the beginning, it just wasn’t working at all, and it seemed like “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” wasn’t such a great choice at all, at least the way she did it. The pace was too frenetic, her pitch and tone was wonky, and it all just felt very off. She had a few good moments here and there, but for the most part, this was quite the misstep for Joey, and it was sad. The judges echoed my sentiments, with comments that she seemed distracted and that it was inconsistent. I thought J.Lo made a very salient point when she advised Joey to make sure she looks at whether a song fits her voice first. Joey seems to have done well at that so far, but it appears she needs some reminding. I hope Joey’s built up enough goodwill the past few weeks to be able to get past this setback, but seeing how the voting’s gone so far…OK, let’s just stop that thought now, shall we?
  • Tyanna Jones, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (Whitney Houston): The reality show cover of this song dearest to my heart is still this gem from the third season of “The Sing-Off,” but Tyanna did quite a nice job with it, and the fact that she can take on Whitney Houston without breaking much of a sweat is pretty darn impressive. I felt this was a great comeback for her. She had excellent vocals, stayed on pitch for the most part (there were some sharp moments, but they didn’t distract too much), and she seemed much more confident up there than she did last week. I also liked the arrangement…it made the song a bit more current, but in a good way. “There we go,” I said in relief afterwards. The judges reminded her to get out of her head, and not let the critiques she received last week rattle her too much. I have faith that Tyanna can indeed keep climbing up in the competition, and I’m glad the voters were smart enough to keep her around despite last week’s misstep.
  • Jax, “You Give Love A Bad Name” (Bon Jovi): One of my favorites of the night. It’s always a treat when Jax is at the piano…she really excels there. I do wish she’d stay there for the whole time, because when the full band kicks in, things are still great, but the magic always seems to dissipate a tiny bit. Her vocals were outstanding, though I do agree with the judges in that she got a bit drowned out by the band towards the middle. I commented in my notes about her dynamic shading…that really made a nice effect, along with her excellent riffs on the melody. And that part where she kicked the piano bench? Nice. I’m lovin’ me some Jax right now, for sure…it’s nice to see she’s back on track.
  • Nick Fradiani, “Man In The Mirror” (Michael Jackson): On 80s night, Nick was the only one actually born in the decade, though he appeared not to remember much from it (he was a toddler, after all), judging from his video package in which he marveled along with the rest of them at the 80s gadgets they had for them to play with. The mentors had good reminders for Nick about connecting with the audience more. I don’t know if that quite happened last night, though, until the latter half of the song. For some reason, I was comparing this performance to Kris Allen’s rendition from Season 8 (despite the fact that at the time I saw that, I wasn’t a fan of him yet), and it didn’t quite match up to that standard, but…I don’t know. Nick probably has it in him to give more fire and more passion in his performance (like Kris did, if we’re staying with the comparison). That it took him until the breakdown at the end to start breaking out of his shell more is a bit of a concern, though it does also signal that there is potential there. He’s in tune, he has the experience, but his voice always seems tentative and that seems to make his tone a bit unappealing. I want to root for Nick again, I really do, but he’s still on that lower tier for me, and it will take a true standout performance by him to change that.
  • Salt-N-Pepa came. (To be bracingly honest, I didn’t actually know they were women. I need to pay more attention, I guess?) They performed “Push It,” of course, and while their two backup dancers were a bit perplexing and distracting, it wasn’t a bad few minutes. There were a few shots of the contestants and the judges dancing…Rayvon was painfully awkward, hopefully on purpose. Harry was hilarious. And then J.Lo slapped his rear end. So that happened.
  • Clark Beckham, “Every Breath You Take” (The Police): Now this was the performance of the night. Heck, it was one of the best of the season. I noted last week that Clark might have not had much to do with the decision to take “Sunday Morning” all-acoustic, but judging from the fact that he kept it to just piano and voice this week, maybe he was more in the driver’s seat arrangement-wise than I thought. This was absolutely stunning. Like the judges noted, he really brought the pain out in the song, a different take than the lyrics imply. Keith said it was a “journey chordally, meodically, and emotionally,” which was quite spot-on. He had some gorgeous reharmonizations in the piano line, his vocal choices were superb, and while I could hear a tiny bit of strain in his upper range, this was all so fully realized and committed that I was completely drawn in. Clark hit it out of the park, last night, without question, and while he still has things to work on, after last night, I’m very much looking forward to what he does next. (Fun aside from my notes: “I would buy this. Heck, I will buy this.” That I did on iTunes just now.)
  • Qaasim Middleton, “Addicted To Love” (Robert Palmer): It was up in the air whether last week’s Judges Save would keep Qaasim in the competition a bit longer, but he ended up staying around one week more, and I’m happy about that. I thought this was a solid song choice for Qaasim. His vocals were quite good, an improvement on the past, and towards the latter half of the song he brought in some more of his trademark movement and energy without compromising those vocals. I loved the breakdown towards the end. Really, I just dug it, and thought it was a nice way for Qaasim to show off a bit of a different side. The judges agreed. We’ll see how this fares with America next week, and I’m hoping the news will be good.
  • Breaking with precedent, Ryan announced an “official” Bottom 3 this week, with Rayvon, Maddie, and Adanna landing there. Sniffle. Not cool, America. Not cool. The last one to perform?
  • Rayvon Owen, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” (Tears for Fears): Rayvon is unarguably one of the best voices still in the finals, let’s put that out there right now. That said…I agree wholeheartedly with what the judges and mentors are trying to get out of him. He’s been too safe for quite some time now, even as I’ve really enjoyed his performances. Boy George and Scott tried to get him to break out of his shell more and not make everything so ‘pretty,’ but Rayvon (somewhat worringly) decided to bypass all that and give…a very nice performance, a very strong vocal as always, but it didn’t quite pop for me. The arrangement was too straightforward to do Rayvon any favors, and while Harry rightly noted that he dug into the lyric more this week, it never really completely soared. J.Lo was quite on point to urge Rayvon to leave his comfort zone, as that’s how he’ll grow. I want him to grow. I want him to grow quite badly. I hope there’s time enough for him to do so, and that he does it fast, because he’s not going to be able to coast like this much longer, not with Daniel on the loose (sorry) and quite a bit more talent besides him left in the competition.

That means that we had to (rather unceremoniously) say goodbye to Maddie Walker and Adanna Duru, without getting to hear them sing (lame). Maddie, I have to admit, had kind of run her course with me, but I wouldn’t have minded seeing her a bit longer. Adanna, on the other hand, it seems like she’s gone too soon. She was really improving each and every week and grabbing me more and more, and she did a really solid job last week, so it’s perplexing as to why the voters booted her. I wanted to see her keep growing, and although I love Rayvon a lot, she might have been a better choice to stay because of him (though I hate having to choose between the two in the first place), since she’s had such a compelling arc over the last few weeks. Sigh. Except for the blessed week where Daniel goes home (I’m a horrible person, aren’t I?), this is going to be quite painful this next month or two, isn’t it? Keith was right on when he said last night’s eliminations were “like a javelin to the heart.” Also, America, please stop voting out all the girls. I’d rather like to see a female winner again here, thank you very much. (And we have three excellent candidates for that still left…hello, Joey, Tyanna, and Jax.)

My favorites: Clark, Jax, Quentin, Tyanna, and Qaasim.

My pick to go home: Oh, you know who already…Daniel, of course, or Nick (sorry) if we can’t get what we all really want.

They’re still keepers: Joey (don’t do it, America, don’t you DARE think about it) and Rayvon (who still needs a chance to step it up)

See you next week with another fresh recap, and see you even sooner than that with more great music here on Harmony Avenue. (I’m hoping to get a nice Song Sampler of the Day up today, or perhaps a Throwback Thursday post. Watch this space.) Thanks as always for reading, and be sure to comment!

American Idol Top 10 Recap: Stayin’ Alive

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In a 2-hour telecast of “American Idol,” many things can happen. Quite a few things, really. And when said telecast includes results as well, as will be the case for every episode this season, even more stuff can happen. Thursday night’s outing included Jeff Gordon, dripping ice cream cones, a dress whose size and scope comes second only to Bjork’s mammoth frock at the 2004 Olympics (it became a literal covering for the entire field of athletes, because it’s Bjork), an incredibly random appearance by an aged Kenny Loggins…well, I’m getting ahead of myself a bit here. Point is, things were a bit crazy. But that’s “Idol” for you, of course. What went down, exactly? If you’ve somehow navigated the minefield of Internet spoilers and this is your first chance to know what happened on Thursday night’s telecast, I won’t spoil it for you, yet. We’ll get to all that…

  • Adanna Duru, “Love You I Do” (by Jennifer Hudson; from Dreamgirls): In the mentoring session with Nile Rodgers (he of…Chic fame?) and in-house mentor Scott Borchetta, they told her to work on the bridge. (I like how they take time to be specific on things this season. It kind of shows to me that they’re invested and paying attention.) She indeed seemed to have taken their advice…and really, I felt like Adanna nailed the notes very, very well. She is coming a long, long way from her lack-of-vocal-control past. She really keeps impressing me with how much she improves week to week. I may have had the stunning Jessica Sanchez performance of this song from Season 11 on my mind, and Adanna wasn’t quite up to that incredibly high standard if I’m being brutally honest, but she most certainly came to play, with some really nice energy to add to her very fine vocals. The judges seemed to mainly focus on little things she can work on, which I thought really indicated the level of quality she’s settling at…they’re pointing out those little things because they know that she can handle them, and if she does work on all that, she can really continue soaring. I’m definitely loving Adanna more and more every week. Good job, America, on keeping her in.
  • Daniel Seavey, “Lost Stars” (by Adam Levine; from Begin Again): OK, good feelings gone. I take any kind words back, America, because…what the heck? Moving on from the voters’ perplexing decision to keep Daniel in the competition in the first place, I…well…yeah. I am quite a fan of “Lost Stars.” It’s a gorgeous song, Adam Levine sounds great on it (Keira Knightley’s version is terrific as well), and I suppose I made at least some attempt to be optimistic that Daniel had chosen it, because a fresh, well-written song like that could only help him, right? Nope. Nope, nope, nope. Last week, I responded (vocally) with a hearty “I shall not!” to Daniel’s “I want America to dance with me.” This week, his opening falsetto notes of “oh oh” prompted an audible “oh no” right on cue. (These moments just happen, I guess.) That falsetto was just…ouch. He’s 15. I can understand perfectly well why that would be an issue for him. But that doesn’t mean we can give it a pass, or let him stay any longer on this show when he’s clearly not ready for prime time. (And yeesh, Daniel actually pointed out after that he wanted to “show off” his falsetto. I wouldn’t want to show off that kind of weakness, buddy.) That wasn’t his only issue. His loud parts were incredibly strained…when he held a note and had to belt it, his tone just withered and died. He was under pitch at times. One place I can give him credit (I have to find something good about this) is something Keith noted, where he replaced Adam’s big high falsetto part in the bridge with his own melodic adaptation, which worked much better for him than using the original notes would. (I think that part would have been the stuff of my nightmares had he tried to do Adam’s version. Shudder.) So…there was that. Ugh, I feel like I’m piling on him too much, but yeah. He’s clearly out of his depth. This does not need to go on much longer. Girls, just stop it. (I’m talking to the squealing ones on the broadcast that Daniel went over to greet, at Ryan’s behest, but I might as well be talking to everyone voting for Daniel.) He needs more time. Not on this program, mind you, but off letting his voice settle, finding his way as an artist, and just growing. Having it all try to happen on live television, in the space of a month or two, in the pressure-cooker “Idol” environment, will not work. There are too many other talented singers this season for this to go on.
  • Rayvon Owen, “Stayin’ Alive” (by the Bee Gees; from Saturday Night Fever): OK, I spent too long on that. I get into it sometimes, I guess. So…this is how you do a falsetto, people. I’m still quite a fan of Rayvon’s tone and voice. He is incredibly, incredibly talented, and one of the best pure vocalists we have left in this competition (Sarina-Joi, may your “Idol” dreams rest in peace). Seeing as I’m such a fan, you wouldn’t be surprised to discover that I really enjoyed this performance. It was a bit of a rebound after last week, and I really dug the groove that Rayvon had going. It was a nice little shift from the original, and it fit his voice well. I noticed some fleeting pitch issues, in particular on his downward runs (that shift from falsetto has to be tricky), but I didn’t mind those too much, and there was some excellent riffing on that “I’m going nowhere” part. (He was jamming nicely with bandleader Rickey Minor, who Rayvon gave props to, all classy-like, afterwards.) The judges had some good points to make. Harry noted that Rayvon’s rearrangement of the song was cool…but that he needs to find some lyrics to really chew on. (This theme came up throughout the night with Harry.) Keith and J.Lo pointed out that he needs to work on engaging the audience even more. As big of a Ravyon fan I am, I will admit he hasn’t exactly stood out and really caught fire yet in the finals, and with a field this deep, he really needs to do so. But I am really enjoying his performances, and he’s making progress, and that’s reason enough for him to stick around for quite a bit yet.
  • Nick Fradiani, “Danger Zone” (by Kenny Loggins; from Top Gun): It’s probably not the best sign for me and Nick that when he was declared safe, I was a bit disappointed and knew that there would be voting-related carnage later. I still do like Nick…but he’s become quite expendable for me at this point. He just hasn’t managed to break out yet, and last night certainly didn’t do him too many favors. It’s never a bad performance that he gives, but it’s never one of my favorites either. “Danger Zone” was a better song choice for him than last week, and he did alright, sure, but the bridge was a bit sketchy and muddled, and he seemed to be getting lost somewhat, for the latter part of the performance. On top of that, I think I’m becoming less and less of a fan of his vocal tone. It’s just not working for me as much as it used to. Keith advised Nick afterwards to be more comfortable and keep loosening up, and J.Lo kind of echoed that by saying he’s still in his head a bit too much. Harry pointed out that “Danger Zone” isn’t great shakes lyrically (thank you!), and that Nick should pick something he can dig into more. All good things that Nick can work on, I agree…but it’s worrying me that at this point, while I don’t mind if he stays, I also don’t mind if he goes. Yikes.
  • Joey Cook, “Mad World” (by Michael Andrews & Gary Jules; from Donnie Darko): I will start this very directly. Joey has become my absolute favorite. She’s had a few weeks of stellar performances, and this one was no exception. Now, to some, the very mention of this song on “Idol” brings back sharp memories of Adam Lambert’s landmark performance of it in Season 8. I remember that performance quite well (Season 8 was the first season I watched “Idol”), and I agree it was one of Adam’s best…but I was never, ever a fan of Adam that season, and thus I was never that attached to his version of “Mad World” as his followers are. Whether you worship his performance or not though, you’ve got to give it to Joey…she really did a terrific job with it. Her voice fit the song so well, her emotional commitment was powerful and beautifully done (I really saw the song in a new light thanks to her interpretation), and it was just…ahhh. Gorgeous. There wasn’t much rearrangement going on, but she did what “Idol” contestants always want to do…make the song her own. I really liked J.Lo’s comparison of Joey to the incredible Sia…I can really see the similarities there, and that gets me excited. As Keith said so charmingly in his Australian accent, Joey is a real “ahhh-tist,” and I can’t wait to see what she does next…both on the show, and (I’m going here, y’all), post-“Idol” in what’s sure to be a very exciting recording career.
  • Tyanna Jones, “Circle of Life” (by Lebo M & Carmen Twillie; from The Lion King): I feel like I’m referencing a lot of ghosts of “Idol” seasons past in this recap, so apologies about that little crutch I seem to be resorting to, but indulge me in at least one more flashback. Season 13, Majesty Rose. She was good. Really good. Nice song choices, good voice, fun vibe. Considered a frontrunner. Then came Top 11 Week…Songs from the Movies. (Yeesh, these parallels are scaring even me…) She sang “Let It Go” from Frozen (using the exact arrangement and style from the movie). And it did not go well at all. She didn’t get eliminated that week, but she never fully recovered from that debacle, and was gone a few weeks later. What does this all have to do with Tyanna? She, too, took on a straightforward rendition of a Disney song, in this case “Circle of Life.” She, too, has quite the frontrunner status. And, I’m really sad to say, she, too, had a bit of a stumble Thursday night. For the first time since her audition, she experienced serious pitch issues. Rather uncharacteristically for Tyanna, she was flat a good chunk of the performance. As Harry noted, she seemed to be trying too hard. There were some good moments, sure, but for the most part…ouch. Now, I really, really hope the parallels to Majesty Rose’s journey don’t keep going on, because Tyanna has proven to be incredibly talented, versatile, and engaging, and we simply can’t afford to lose her yet. (You took away Sarina-Joi, America, don’t you take away Tyanna too.) But I do admit, this performance has me worried that there could be danger up ahead if Tyanna doesn’t have a really strong rebound next week.
  • Jennifer Lopez was the big guest performance this week, singing a song from the upcoming film “Home” (hello, tie-in) called “Feel the Light.” The whole thing was rather obviously pre-taped, and I was never entirely sure if she was singing live, but I’ll be darned, she sounded much better than she usually does. The song wasn’t amazing, but she did alright, and it was a rather classy affair for J.Lo. And her dress…very trippy. It changed colors. It served as a screen for scenes from the movie. And it…well, it covered what it needed to, thank heavens. (As for what she wore at the judging table, on the other hand, I’ll just quote Harry’s brutal but funny and true joke earlier on in the night: “It’s Movie Night, and Jennifer’s dress is rated NC-17!” Ouch, Harry.)
  • Quentin Alexander, “You’re The One That I Want” (by Olivia Newton-John & John Travolta; from Grease): His video package involved llamas. Just wanted to put that out there. Moving on from that…Quentin certainly changed up this song quite a lot. Nile and Scott’s observation was astute: “He made it important.” I love Grease, and “You’re The One That I Want” is one of the film/musical’s showstoppers. But although Quentin’s take on it stripped all its glitz and glamour away, he kept the song’s power intact. That opening was 1-800-Totally Riveting…I wrote in my notes (don’t judge me), “I’ve certainly got chills that are multiplyin’.” (Ba dum cha.) I do admit when Quentin got louder, his pitch went slightly off the rails, but those softer, more intimate moments…wow. Incredibly captivating. You go, Quentin. You go on and keep doing your thing.
  • Maddie Walker, “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” (by Deniece Williams; from Footloose)(I’m fairly positive that Maddie was going more off the country cover by Jana Kramer, from the 2011 Footloose remake, than off the original.) I was admittedly somewhat distracted during Maddie’s song, because my signal kept cutting in and out, but I really didn’t think it was too bad. But…I will say it wasn’t too great either. Maddie is another one of those middle-to-bottom-of-the-pack players, and this performance kept her there. Still, I thought she stayed on pitch fairly well, though she went flat on the ends of phrases, and her final notes were off-key as well. I thought she had a good energy. Considering she couldn’t rehearse for most of this week (or attend the mentoring session with Scott and Nile) due to illness, she didn’t acquit herself too badly. That said…she always does kind of seem underwhelming. The judges agreed, with Harry going with particularly pointed criticisms, saying Maddie isn’t demonstrating a clear identity, and that the performance seemed “pageant-y.” Keith called her out a bit on song choice. With a double elimination looming next week, Maddie could be in real trouble, but if she’s lucky enough to stick around, I still see a lot of potential here, potential that I hope she’ll have the chance to fulfill.
  • Kenny Loggins’ radar must have picked up on all the talk of him Thursday night (“Danger Zone” AND Footloose), and he stopped by to perform the title song from the latter film. And…wow, his voice has not aged terribly well. It was a bit painful. I couldn’t hear most of the latter half well because my signal was acting up again, but yikes. His teasing of Harry afterwards about Harry’s earlier comment that “Danger Zone” was lyrically lacking did give me a chuckle, though.
  • Clark Beckham, “Sunday Morning” (by Maroon 5; from the Cheaper By The Dozen 2 soundtrack): Cheaper By The Dozen 2? Really? Quite a stretch, I must say. Some quick research let me know that the acoustic version of “Sunday Morning” was included on said soundtrack, which makes sense why Clark went unplugged on us. (At least he didn’t regale us with another song from that soundtrack, like “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” or the “Bridal Chorus” by Wagner.) Yeah…Clark is back. It was a wise, wise choice to stay without the band for the whole song (even if it probably wasn’t an entirely original idea). I feel often like the band must feel sad or complain or something when a singer wants to do a song without them, because so many end up starting acoustic and it’s amazing, then the band kicks in and it’s pedestrian. Clark kept it just to him and his guitar, and reminded us all why we like him so much. Terrific vocals. Excellent shift of the groove (again, not Clark’s doing, but still). That high note wasn’t entirely necessary at the end, but he nailed it all the same. Good job, Clark, by picking something remotely contemporary for once, and doing it well. Keep this momentum up, boy.
  • Jax, “Grow Old With You” (by Adam Sandler; from The Wedding Singer): The final performance slot before somebody had to sing for their life was between Jax and Qaasim, a tough break if there ever was one. Jax scored the last guaranteed ticket to next week, and she rebounded nicely from last week’s performance with a very unconventional choice…a lilting ballad from an Adam Sandler comedy (sung by Sandler himself, of all people). I hadn’t heard this song before, but it was a surprisingly solid choice for Jax, and a good idea to go a bit low-key. Her vocals were a bit breathy, I’d have to say, but very good for the most part. It was all a bit too cutesy at points, but there were quite a few incredibly lovely moments. Who knew you could wring pathos out of a song from The Wedding Singer? The judges really appreciated Jax’s performance as well…Keith was concise with a hearty “oh yeah!,” J.Lo said it played well into her “vocal quirkiness,” and Harry said her risk paid off, and that it was lovely, sweet, and personal. He advised her to be careful not to rush on notes, which was sound advice, though being the last one safe, I can totally give Jax a pass on any rushing through the song she might have done. It looks like Jax is back on track, and that’s very comforting to see.
  • That all meant that Qaasim Middleton had to sing for his life. Hmmph. My notes upon realizing he was the lowest vote-getter (but that Jax was safe) read like this: “Jax! Whew. But crap. Qaasim. Aargh! Emotions.” Yeah. I was conflicted. I’m a big fan of Qaasim and his high-energy brand of performing, and even though he wasn’t the greatest last week, I think he can cut it vocally much more than people give him credit for. His song choice for this week was “Come Together,” by the Beatles (from Across the Universe). It was a much better song for him, I think, than “Jet.” (Funny how he’s gone McCartney two weeks in a row. Didn’t realize that until now.) And…wow. I don’t know what he didn’t do during his save-me performance. He strutted around the stage. Went up to the judges. Pulled out an actual joker card (I kid you not) during the line “Got to be a joker/He just do what he please.” Basically, Qaasim put in everything, plus the kitchen sink, plus another for good measure. Behind all that craziness, though, was a solid vocal, and heck, I was most certainly not sure what I had just witnessed, but it was assuredly entertaining and compelling. I wasn’t sure at all if that would be enough to save him, though, and this is Top 11 Week after all. Harry started out saying it was the “best performance of the night” (interesting), and then faking us out a bit, before he announced that…Qaasim would be their Judges’ Save! Wow. I didn’t expect that. I did recommend last week that they should use their Save early since there’s so many good people this season and they’d have to watch good people go home anyhow, but I honestly didn’t think they’ll play that card, that early. Did Qaasim deserve the Save? My notes sum it all up pretty…succinctly? “He got the Save? Whaaat? Nice. But whaaat? Well, that happened quickly.” I’m fine with him getting it. Really, I am. (Sarina-Joi would have been a better choice, but you can’t really use it on Top 12 Week, so…fine. #stillmourning) But it’s still a major curveball, and will make things much more interesting from now on. (Hopefully it’s the good kind of interesting.)

I’ll change up my predictions/etc. this week a bit, partly because it appears they won’t be doing a Bottom 3 this year, due to the elimination format.

My favorites: Joey, Clark, Jax, Adanna, Quentin, Rayvon, and Qaasim.

My picks to go home: Daniel (duh) and…I’d have to say either Nick or Maddie.

America, don’t you dare let her go: Tyanna. (Hey, she was the only one left out. And just reminding everyone how we need to treasure her talent and keep her around.)

Whew. And that’s it for this week on “American Idol.” Next week brings us a double elimination (yikes!), 80s Week (meh), and mentor Boy George (oh…kay). Should be a party, that’s for sure. Sorry for getting this recap up so late, but I doubt it’s your primary source of “Idol” information, so you were probably doing just fine anyhow. Thanks so much for reading, and I’ll see you quite soon with more Harmony Avenue music goodness.

Throwback Thursday: Nightbirds

Every Thursday, I consider doing a Throwback Thursday post, and I often have quite a few good ideas about one. However, every Thursday seems to turn out quite busy for me, or I don’t get around to posting, or something or other gets in the way. Today, I’ll change that with a quick post about not just a song (as has happened in previous Throwback Thursday features), but an album that I’ve recently fallen in love with…and that came out just a few years ago. 41, to be exact.

“Nightbirds” by LaBelle!

Labelle Nightbirds

Yesterday, I was catching up on this week’s “Dancing With The Stars” premiere, and saw the legendary Patti LaBelle dance a foxtrot to “Lady Marmalade,” which is of course her namesake group LaBelle’s biggest hit. I’ve heard the song before, and I’m of course very familiar with what the infamous French phrase in the chorus means.* That said, for some reason it really caught my attention, and I decided to take a listen on Spotify to the original tune. I kept listening after that to the rest of LaBelle’s landmark 1974 album, “Nightbirds,” and maybe I was just in a good mood, or something, but I was quite hooked. “Lady Marmalade,” while its lyrics are a bit…interesting…is a terrific song with a killer groove and absolutely incredible vocals. (It also has a certain authenticity that I prefer to later covers like the well-known version from “Moulin Rouge,” fronted by Christina Aguilera, that tend to strip away a bit of the soul, and add a bit too much of the risque.) The songs that follow it on the album? A bit more lyrically safe, you may be happy to discover, and just as on point vocally and musically. The three gals of LaBelle were certainly firing on all cylinders when they made “Nightbirds,” and aided by the terrific production of New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, they truly gave us a funk/soul/all kinds of good stuff-style masterpiece. Clocking in at only 36 minutes, the album’s a real treat, and I’m glad that I was able to discover it, albeit in a somewhat roundabout way. Here’s the legendary “Lady Marmalade” in case you need an excuse to check it out again if you’ve previously dismissed it (or, if it’s one of your favorites, an excuse to listen to it for the first time in a while), along with another standout cut from the album, “Somebody Somewhere.”

(*On my mission in Peru, I boasted that I knew how to say “Will you come to church with me” in French, since i just replaced “bed” with the word I knew for church, “eglise.”)

Thanks as always for reading, and look out either tonight or tomorrow for an American Idol Top 10 recap, along with much more great music.

American Idol Top 11 Recap: Blank Space

Tyanna Jones Top 11 American Idol

Oh, “American Idol.” It giveth and it taketh away. Last night’s Top 11 show, built around a (fairly tenuous) “Let’s Get This Party Started” theme, was full of some really great moments. However, at the same time, there were a few not-so-great moments, culminating in quite possibly the most devastating first elimination we’ve had in “Idol” history. That may sound like needless hyperbole. But I’m sticking to it. This was a mistake, America. A full-on mistake. We’ll get to that in a moment, though. There’s quite a bit of consolation to be found in the rest of the proceedings. Here are how the performances went:

  • Rayvon Owen, “Burn” (Ellie Goulding): The night started out quite cheerfully with Rayvon being safe first. Mentor Scott Borchetta noted that he needs to push himself more, and step up his game. Did he do that with this song, a bit more uptempo than what he’s usually gone to? Well, yes and no. I noticed some slight pitch issues (very uncharacteristic for Rayvon, but still, very slight), and that he was a bit out of breath at certain points, but I also liked the different side of him that he showed, and I think his impeccable tone, for the most part, was able to shine through. He needed a bit of a change of pace like this, I thought, and while it wasn’t completely strong (I was a bit perplexed by the judges saying it was his best performance), it was nowhere near a stumble for me.
  • Maddie Walker, “She’s Country” (Jason Aldean): Proclaimed a “future country siren” by Scott, Maddie seemed to going very country last night. (Cue a paraphrased Alan Jackson: “She’s gone country! Here she comes…” OK, just me? Just me.) I thought she had a good energy in her performance, and her vocals were fairly well-done, though her tone was somewhat thin at times, and she went a bit off the rails at her high note at the end. Harry made a nice point to her about the difference between emulation and imitation. She’d do well to heed his advice about that, about not just copying the original artist. Ryan pointed out afterwards that she hasn’t been feeling well (instead of going back to her lighted-green seat, she went off stage to receive medical attention…yikes), so in hindsight it’s impressive that she was able to improve and progress in this performance, despite a medical setback.
  • Joey Cook, “Fancy” (Iggy Azalea/Charli XCX): Wow. I could just end this paragraph with that, really, but since I’ve never been one to miss a good chance to gush, and you probably would like me to expound that, let’s keep going. This was outstanding. Truly outstanding. I mentioned yesterday that I’ve been a Joey fan from the very start, but even I couldn’t see something so terrific like this coming, at least not in this way. Taking cues from the jazzy, brilliant Postmodern Jukebox version (kudos to her for promptly crediting them for the arrangement, by the way), Joey, with the best vocal performance she’s given so far, and a remarkable amount of composure and class, was absolutely on fire with her reinvention of “Fancy.” Scott Borchetta talked about how Joey has been pushed to different places, and discovered more of her voice. We are definitely seeing the fruits of that process. I loved how Harry commented that “somebody out there believes that you’re a star.” I certainly do, and I think after this performance, many more people will feel the same if Joey keeps firing on all cylinders like this. I venture to say this was one of the best performances of the season so far…and we’ve had quite a few stunners already.
  • At this point, we had a guest performance by Jussie Smollett, from the cast of “Empire,” and…Yazz? I think that’s his name. Anyways, this wasn’t my cup of tea (I’m not a big hip-hop/rap person, as you may have noticed), but for a lot of people, I’m sure it is. Seeing as “Empire” has gained viewers each week since its premiere nearly 2 months ago, apparently a lot of people are fans, so, well, good for “Empire,” and good for them. Moving on…
  • Clark Beckham, “Takin’ It To The Streets” (Doobie Brothers): I came to the “Idol” party relatively late, during Season 8 in 2009, so I did not see Taylor Hicks’ season, but a few years ago while looking at past seasons on YouTube, I watched his performance of “Takin’ It To The Streets.” It was…interesting, to put it succinctly. (So no, I am not part of the Soul Patrol.) Clark took it on tonight, and I would say it was definitely better than Taylor’s take. Clark gave a solid vocal, though I could have done without him imitating Michael McDonald a bit too much on the louder parts. The piano was nice at the end, too. That said…Scott made a really good point that Clark tends to lean on comfortable songs. This was a comfortable song, and sure, it fit him well, but it seemed too safe. Clark is a talented vocalist, but he does need to work on song choice. These songs are great. But it would be very, very intriguing to see what Clark could do with a more modern hit. Not that he needs to go singing “Fancy” or “Burn” or something like that. That’s not who he is, I’ll grant you that. But something released a bit more recently could fit him like a glove, and I’d like to see just a bit more of that in the future.
  • Jax, “Blank Space” (Taylor Swift): Scott’s assertion that Jax is “the epitome of all the great things about the 80s mashed up into 2015″ was a bit odd. This performance, granted, was also a bit odd, and not necessarily in a great way, but I enjoyed it. In retrospect, I do see a few of its flaws. My notes talk about how the arrangement was very straightforward, just a little rockier with some added guitars and whatnot. I noted that it was a strong vocal, with nice change-ups to the melody. I also wondered in my notes who the heck the random audience member was that Jax sang to/briefly stole a hat from (it turns out, just a random audience member, nothing more). Looking back…yeah, it was a bit of a carbon copy, like the judges pointed out. I see Harry’s point that she seemed “lost at sea” in the groove. I was pleased that her fine voice still was able to come through, but yes, she has done much better, artistically, in the past. I think she’ll be fine, but as we learned tonight (more on that below), no one is safe. Shudder.
  • Qaasim Middleton, “Jet” (Paul McCartney & Wings): Very interesting song choice, with quite a change of pace for Qaasim. He concentrated on the vocal this week, and was armed with a guitar for quite possibly the first time this season. His trademark crazy energy kicked in a bit for the second half of the song, but the first half was him actually standing, playing guitar, and singing. A novelty where Qaasim is concerned, for sure. I thought his vocal was good, though for some reason, I noted a major lack of enunciation/diction that kind of distracted me at times. Harry came down hard on the performance, saying Qaasim might be a one-trick pony, and that he didn’t connect lyrically. (Ouch.) Keith and J.Lo enjoyed it (Keith noted the guitar enhanced his vocal, which I agreed with). Also, Qaasim’s mom, who they talked with afterwards, is the best. I appreciated Qaasim paying heed to the advice to showcase his vocals more, and I thought he came off pretty well, but I could definitely see people not quite getting on board with this performance.
  • Adanna Duru, “Runaway Baby” (Bruno Mars): I would not have picked this song in a million years for Adanna, but I’ll be darned, she really did well with it. She seemed to have worked a great deal on her vocal control, and it paid off in spades. This was her best vocal of the season, but she was able to keep her passion, commitment, and fire, the kind of stuff that will really take her far in the competition. They are right when they say she’s out for blood. If she keeps her newfound control going strong, and keeps her stage presence up there as well, she’s going to grow to be a greater and greater contender for the “Idol” crown, which seeing as I had no idea who Adanna was a few weeks ago, will be a major achievement in itself. Keep fighting, Adanna. Thank goodness the judges used one of their Wild Card picks on you.
  • Tyanna Jones, “Tightrope” (Janelle Monae): The first time Tyanna appeared on our TV screens, at her audition, she reminded me of Janelle Monae (both vocally and looks-wise), so this choice of “Tightrope” was kind of a given at some point during the season, seeing as Tyanna apparently also counts Monae as a major musical influence (impeccable taste there). I’ve seen Janelle kill this song live. I’ve seen a fine version by Majesty Rose of this song on the previous season of “Idol.” (Both thanks to YouTube, of course.) But during these 90-120 seconds, I didn’t care who the heck I’d seen sing it before. OK, maybe a little. The comparisons did creep through a smidge. But by and large…Tyanna owned that stage and owned that song. (My notes very aptly have a big “Yeah!” underlined and written very large among them.) It’s not an easy song. The rhythm, the presence, the vocal stamina required for it can be very, very tricky. But this is Tyanna Jones we’re talking about, and she has wisdom and artistry and presence beyond her years. I loved Harry’s critique, where he said if she was in the Olympics, he wouldn’t clap, he wouldn’t stand…he’d just silently give her a perfect 10. I’m with you, Harry. I’m with you all the way on that one.
  • Daniel Seavey, “Happy” (Pharrell Williams): Sigh. This didn’t need to happen, America. It really didn’t. Once Daniel was announced as moving on, I knew we were headed for a bit of carnage down the road. He didn’t deserve to go through to the Top 11, and tonight didn’t do him too many more favors, though I admit it was a slight improvement on his recent performances. Scott was good to point out that vocally, Daniel needs to step it up (though unfortunately, that was countered with talk about his smile lights up the room…as if). Daniel himself prefaced his performance by saying to us all, “I want you dancing with me.” (My knee-jerk response, which I literally said out loud: “I shall not.”) As I was thus free from any distracting urge to dance along, I was able to notice a bit of a goat-like vibrato on the ends of Daniel’s phrases (nit-picky, I know), and his usual lack of polish and whatnot. He did, however, stay largely on pitch, which…works, I suppose. I can’t say I hated his performance, but once again, it was clearly well below the standard of any of the other contestants. The judges were fairly kind to Daniel last night, with Harry saying he was a bit more comfortable (I suppose), but may not be able to compete with experience (I hope that’s the case), and Keith saying we’ll see him next week (no, stop it, Keith), and J.Lo saying it’s impossible not to root for Daniel (I submit that it is quite possible, Jennifer). On top of it all, Daniel made us all feel old by stating he started watching “Idol” at the age of 3. Oh dear…
  • Quentin Alexander, “Rolling In The Deep” (Adele): Quentin had braces?!?! I never noticed. Weird. Anyways, Scott Borchetta prefaced Quentin’s performance by talking about his “really cool vibe” and “piercing eyes.” I can work with this. I really dug Quentin’s arrangement of Adele’s mega-hit “Rolling In The Deep.” I think Keith was on to something noting it was “spiritual” in a way. There was a very cool feel at work there, and Quentin brought some nice vocals into the mix (fleeting pitch issues, but nothing major). Was a bit of the point of the song lost, as Harry brought up in his critique? Perhaps. But Quentin really sold it all to me…he handled the song quite well, I thought. He really took it in a different way, gave it a “different flow” as J.Lo pointed out, and it worked for me. I’m glad Quentin made it through despite being a Wild Card, and I hope that America catches on to his vibe more and more as we go on.
  • Nick Fradiani, “Wake Me Up” (inspired by Aloe Blacc’s acoustic version): In my notes, I started off each performance’s section with the contestant name. Nick’s section begins with the following: “NIck (No, Sarina!!!!)” Yeah, I admittedly couldn’t enjoy this performance as much, because I knew it meant my dear Sarina-Joi subsequently would have to sing for her life. (When it comes down to it, I would have taken Sarina-Joi over Nick any day. Sorry.) That all aside, he did do a solid job. He has never really had any pitch problems or anything, so that’s good. I think it was a very good song choice for him, but I do think he lacked a bit of fire and drive. Scott made some interesting pre-performance observations about Nick, that he is indeed very driven and hard-working (I think that does show), but he’s very used to being in a band, and not too used to being a solo artist. He needs to bring himself out more, like Harry said, “crack open for us.” As it stands now, he’s very proficient, he’s indeed very experienced, but he’s not standing out, and that will eventually come back to bite him if he’s not careful.
  • This all meant that Sarina-Joi Crowe had to sing for her life, unfortunately with her song choice for this week, “Neon Lights” by Demi Lovato. She was back to her typical pitch domination for the most part (she was a bit flat on her first glory note towards the end, but recovered just fine afterwards), and sold it as best she could given the circumstances…the song wasn’t quite the best showcase for her otherworldly abilities, plus she was, oh, I don’t know, at the very brink of elimination…but for the judges, it sadly wasn’t enough last night. The judges decided not to use their Save.

Ugh. Ugh, ugh, ugh. I do understand why the judges wouldn’t pull out their Save so early (though I hope they’re not too skittish to use it this season…talented people are going to go home no matter what, so you might as well use it early on someone who just had a bad week, and then let the chips fall where they may after that), but ugh. Sarina-Joi was easily one of this season’s best vocalists. She had a bad night on Wednesday, sure. But so did Daniel. A few others were slightly expendable as well, as much as I like everyone else. Just thinking of Sarina-Joi Crowe as Season 14’s last-place finalist…it just does not make any sense. There have been good vocalists that have gone home first off the bat in the past, but none quite on this level. It’s quite frustrating and disappointing.

That said…we have 10 out of 11 finalists left that are still quite good. Joey, Tyanna, Adanna, and Quentin did excellently last night (those were my favorites) and the rest, aside from Daniel (sorry) weren’t bad. We still have the potential for a good season, and as soon as we can get out Daniel (I seem to be singling him out here quite a bit), we will have the strongest group of finalists, without exception, that “Idol” has ever seen. I really believe that.

My Bottom 3: Daniel, Nick, and (being objective for a moment) Jax. (Based on last night’s performances here.)

Predictions: I’ll stick with those for my predictions, because why not? I will still maintain that Daniel will go home. I’ll keep wishing it until it’s a reality…

See you all next week with more “Idol” recap goodness, and sooner than that with more music posts here on Harmony Avenue. Make sure to comment like the wind, and thanks as always for reading.

American Idol Top 12 Recap: Royals

Joey Cook Top 12 American Idol

For quite some time now, I’ve been considering expanding my recapping game. My experience doing recaps for the third season of a cappella competition “The Sing-Off,” back in 2011, was extremely positive, and since this past outing of the show was only one episode, I’ve been wanting to try out another full season of recapping something else. That said, it’s always somewhat time-consuming, so that’s held me back a bit in the past. I’m going to start experimenting, though, with recapping this current season of “American Idol,” now that they’ve gotten down to the Top 12, and starting next week, the show will just be a once-a-week commitment. I say “experimenting” because I am going to school, I do have other things to worry about, and it’s possible this may end up not working out down the road. However, I’m willing to try it, because I’m a huge “American Idol” fan, and this season is really exciting, and as always, I have quite a few thoughts and opinions and it’s always great to share them.

As of late, many have been renewing the calls that “American Idol” is tired, done, not relevant anymore, etc. Its ratings are certainly not even half of what they used to be, but I feel like the show is really experiencing a creative revival, all three of the judges are excellent (I dare say that Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick, Jr. are the best, most consistent judging trio we’ve had), and this season’s crop of contestants is better than ever. The last season I was able to watch, Season 11, had a very strong group of talent, but there were still a few contestants I could have done without. This season, however, out of the Top 12 that made it, I either like or love a whopping 11 of them. (You’ll see pretty clearly below the one who I don’t quite think belongs.) In my years of Idol watching (and looking over seasons I missed), that’s never happened. True, this means the eliminations will be nail-biters every week for me, and might sting a bit on occasion. However, I’m excited because it means watching every week should be quite a treat. Now, let’s begin the festivities, and talk about all the Top 12 performances, by the 5 from each gender who made it based on the public vote, and the 2 Wild Cards at the end that the judges selected:

  • Sarina-Joi Crowe, “Love Runs Out”: Sarina-Joi has been absolutely on fire up until now in the competition. Impeccable pitch. Incredible stage presence. A wonderful sense of artistry. So that’s why her Top 12 take on “Love Runs Out” was all the more disappointing…it appears the excitement of being the first to make the Top 12, combined with some sort of issue with her monitors, possibly, really tripped her up. It’s just not like Sarina-Joi to start a song completely off-key, but that’s what happened last night. She recovered for the rest of it, and I hope that, combined with her stellar previous track record, keeps her safe tonight for the Top 11 cuts. Despite such a talented group this season, she simply cannot go home this early. (If the unthinkable happens tonight, I don’t care if it’s the Top 12, judges, you break out that Save, and you use it.)
  • Rayvon Owen, “Wide Awake”: Last week, the judges advised Rayvon to explore some other sides of his artistry, but since the contestants were shackled to their audition tunes this week, he couldn’t really follow through with that, and thus this performance ended up being pretty close genre-wise to what he’s been doing so far. Quite frankly, though, I didn’t mind in the slightest. His vocal, as always, was terrifically on point, and that glory note at the end was both impressive and very well-sung. (Seeing as Rayvon has a background as a vocal coach, his excellent technique makes perfect sense.) I, like the judges noted previously, would like to see Rayvon get out of his comfort zone a little more, but like them tonight, I was perfectly thrilled with what he did give us. Keep voting for this guy, America. He deserves it all.
  • Daniel Seavey, “Straight Up”: Yeah. So this happened. I actually liked Daniel’s audition of this song when he was with his guitar, but here, for some reason, he went without it, and it ended up being pretty uncomfortable. I really appreciated Harry’s critique of Daniel’s lack of experience and how it is really starting to show (though you get to this conclusion just now, Harry?), because I feel like it really got to the heart of why I don’t think Daniel belongs in the Top 12. In a few years, his voice will settle down a bit. He’ll have had more performing experience and time to learn and grow. He hopefully won’t look like he’s 12 so much anymore. (Sorry. But it’s the truth.) But right now, he’s just not ready for this, and it’s slightly painful to watch at times. That he’s somehow become the designated heartthrob for the season is a bit frustrating, and I hope it doesn’t mean that Daniel becomes this season’s punching bag, and keeps moving on in the competition at the expense of other, more talented singers, even while he gives awkward, substandard performances like this.
  • Maddie Walker, “Suitcase”: Maddie has never been one of my absolute favorites, and this performance didn’t quite change that, but I like her and think she does deserve to go further in this competition. There were a few wonky notes and tone issues on “Suitcase,” her audition tune (why were the judges talking about song choice, by the way, when the theme last night was “audition songs”? It’s not like she could have chosen something else now), but when she gets it right, she really starts to shine, and there were quite a few moments vocally that I enjoyed. Stage presence-wise, she could have used a little more fire, but I think she’s one of those contestants that has the potential to keep improving that with time. She may overstay her welcome a bit down the road, but for now, I’m fine with Maddie sticking around.
  • Tyanna Jones, “Wings”: This girl, man. She’s good. She’s REALLY good. The gap between her and the other teenage contestants in terms of vocal power, stage presence, and even polish is a little mind-boggling. I feel like Randy Jackson (ugh) when I say this, but she’s only 16! And yet she already seems incredibly experienced, and like the judges noted, very comfortable and composed on stage. To have those qualities at any age is a great credit, but to have them at her age is pretty darn impressive and exciting. She had some tiny, tiny pitch issues on “Wings” at maybe one or two points, but besides that…top-notch. (It was even better than her already-terrific audition take on it.) May Tyanna keep rolling on in the competition…she is most definitely one of my favorites.
  • Nick Fradiani, “In Your Eyes”: Nick is always pretty solid, and he did well last night, but I can’t say it was a performance that really grabbed me. Once again, I note that song choice wasn’t quite a valid critique last night seeing as the contestants really couldn’t pick anything else besides the song they auditioned with, but I agreed with Jennifer that in the future, Nick should stick to songs that really fit his voice and work for him. This Peter Gabriel tune was alright for him, but for the first time in a while, he seemed a bit strained and off at some points, and his tone started to grate on me by the end, which doesn’t usually happen with Nick. He’s good, and like the judges keep reminding us, he’s got tons of experience, but this wasn’t quite the night for him to break out, I’d have to say. He’s not near the top of my list, but I’d like to see him stick around longer, so I hope America gives him the chance to do so.
  • Clark Beckham, “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World”: Gosh, is that title a lot to type out. Anywho, Clark has been a bit under par these past few weeks, even though he started out strong. Not anywhere nearly enough to completely fall off the wagon, but he could have done better. Last night, he certainly did do much better. There have been, to my memory, more than a few covers of this song (don’t make me type it out again) on TV singing competitions over the years, and it’s rather up for debate which is the best, but Clark’s version certainly can play with the best of them. He was confident, his vocal was very on-point, and it just really worked nicely for him overall. Based on this, it should be smooth sailing to the Top 11 for Clark, and with good reason.
  • Qaasim Middleton, “Sir Duke”: Qaasim has energy in spades and in droves. That once again showed tonight. The concern I’ve kind of seen rise up the past few weeks is, apart from his seemingly endless amount of stage presence, whether he has the vocals to back it up. His slowed-down intro certainly made some good progress in proving that…for a moment, he just sang, and it worked very nicely. Then he launched once again into full-on crazy mode, as usual, and I think that worked very well too. I may eventually get tired of all this stuff coming at me, but for now, it’s still a treat to see Qaasim work that stage every week. I noticed he responded with a thoughtful “definitely” to Harry’s critique of maybe not giving us quite an “explosion of energy” every week, so it’s possible he may start to pull things back a bit more on occasion, which I think will also be very intriguing to see.
  • Jax, “I Want To Hold Your Hand”: I’m with Harry and Keith on this one…I would have loved to have seen Jax stay at the piano for the entire number. That was gorgeous. She did quite fine, too, though, on this Beatles tune (the one she auditioned with, of course) when she got up and the band kicked in, though…her vocal was as great as ever, even if musically it wasn’t as distinctive as the first part, with just her and the keys. Jax, no matter what she does, is remarkably consistent and powerful week after week, and this week was certainly no exception.
  • Joey Cook, “King of Spain”: I’ve been a big fan of Joey since the beginning, and to see her in the Top 12…it’s exciting. She really brought her A-game last night, I think. The judges made a good point that she seemed to show a bit more of her range, beyond the stylized, kind of “cute” performances she’s been giving lately. Her vocal was strong, she seemed incredibly composed and confident, and she really just nailed it. If there was any doubt why she belongs in the Top 12, this performance certainly did wonders to dispel any of that. I hope this is a sign of even greater things to come from Joey, because I really, really love having her around.
  • Quentin Alexander, “Royals”: Perplexing why this had to be a Wild Card pick and that America didn’t vote him in outright (perhaps he was a close sixth?), but at least the judges righted the wrong, and put him through just fine. He’s had some pretty compelling vocals the past few weeks, and this one was definitely pretty darn exceptional. (Harry hit it right on the nose when he noted that there were fleeting pitch issues, but they didn’t matter.) His visible emotion (he broke into genuine tears at the end), the cool way in which he rearranged the song and changed up the melody a bit, and, as always, his high level of commitment to his performances, really sealed the whole deal. America, the judges bailed you out this time when it came to Quentin. Don’t make them do it again.
  • Adanna Duru, “You & I”: Another sensible Wild Card pick by the judges. Adanna’s really been stepping it up the last few weeks, and I really thought this performance continued that trend. The judges were very astute in advising her to work on her control a bit more and make sure her vocals don’t run away from her when she ramps the energy up. That energy, though…she seems to bring tons and tons of passion to her performances. There’s a lot of fire there and it really works for me. If she does indeed work on her pitch issues in those loud moments, she could be a major dark horse in this competition. I’m certainly glad she gets to stick around at least one more time, and hopefully, she’ll be here much longer if she keeps improving.

My Bottom Three: Daniel, Maddie, and Nick, with Daniel going home.

Predictions: I acknowledge that Daniel may overstay his welcome, but I’m going to go out on a limb and predict he’ll at least land in the Bottom 3. Sarina-Joi (aargh!) and either Maddie, Nick, or even Adanna might join him. As for who goes home, I’ll stick with Daniel, because I’m going for the wishful-thinking angle here.

Thanks for reading, and watch for a recap of tonight’s Top 11 performances sometime tomorrow. Any comments and feedback are, as always, incredibly encouraged. I want to make this a party, and you’re all most certainly invited.