American Idol Top 4 Recap: Back Home

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Jax Top 4 American Idol

Before I start this (slightly overdue) recap, a bit of sad news for anyone that actually still watches “American Idol”…Fox has announced that the show will end after its 15th season in 2016. It’s weird to think that the show, such a force of nature in the past, will be gone after next year…even though I didn’t watch it until season 8, it was always around, always making a pretty sizable cultural impact. And then when I did finally start watching it…I was completely drawn in. As many ups and downs as the show has had (I was perhaps lucky not to have to live through the Mariah-Nicki nonsense of season 12) since I’ve been watching, overall my viewing experience has been a fascinating, enjoyable one, full of great musical moments. Yes, it’s a TV show, and one that tries hard all too often to play up the drama and suspense and TV show-ness of the whole affair. But as much as the show’s producers have stumbled over the years trying to make it more relevant, or compete with the new kids on the block like “The Voice,” I can confidently say that through it all, “Idol” has still introduced us to some amazing artists…and I don’t use the term “artists” lightly…and some amazing music. As new and fresh as other shows of its kind can be, year after year, I think “American Idol,” despite all its many faults, does what it does the best of them all.

Well, enough reminiscing for now…we still have Season 14 to finish. Tuesday and Wednesday will be the finale already…it seems like the season’s gone by so fast. (Maybe that’s just me.) One singer was eliminated last Wednesday (more on that below), leaving us with a Final 3, and tomorrow night, one more will be eliminated at the top of the show to give us our Final 2, battling it out for the “Idol” crown. Things are as close as ever…it’s really anyone’s game as we head into Season 14’s final days. I can’t remember a recent “Idol” season where you could truly see any of the Final 3 winning, but that’s what we might just have on our hands. Starting off last Wednesday’s show? Round 1, with mentor Scott Borchetta’s choice for the Idols…

  • Rayvon Owen, “Want To Want Me” by Jason Derulo: I am not and probably never will be a Jason Derulo fan, so I wouldn’t have picked this song for anyone I like in a million years, but it turned out to be an astute choice by Scott for Rayvon. It was a great falsetto showcase for him, and Rayvon really seemed to put some nice swagger into his performance, which he hasn’t often been able to do in his uptempo stuff. It really seemed to fit him well. The judges were impressed and noted it was one of his best vocals on a faster song, and I definitely agree. This was the Rayvon we’d been wanting to see…the previous week really seemed to energize him, I think.
  • Clark Beckham, “Beautiful Day” by U2: In my notes, I was pretty surprised initially by this choice…and not in a good way. It just didn’t seem like a good fit on paper for Clark, and I commented that maybe Scott was trying to torpedo Clark’s chances just a little bit (after the awkward song-choice standoff that happened with “Your Man”). My fears were realized…sort of. Clark honestly didn’t do as badly with this song as I thought he would. His low range was all kinds of sketchy in the verses, but the choruses weren’t bad, and he had a good glory note towards the end. That said…this song just didn’t fit him at all.  At least he did it better, though, than Season 9 winner Lee DeWyze (sad, but true), who Clark said was “pretty good company,” if I recall correctly (Clark, you do know most people consider him the weakest “Idol” winner ever, right?)
  • Nick Fradiani, “Because The Night” by Patti Smith: (Not sure why they were saying it was by Springsteen. He co-wrote it with Patti Smith, but didn’t record it himself.) Scott rebounded with his song choices by doing pretty well with this song for Nick. It’s a great song and one that really played to a lot of Nick’s strengths. He owned the performance well, and though his notes heading into the chorus were a bit off (the “no-ow-ow-ow” moment), and he was a little shouty throughout (though that kind of goes with the territory when it comes to this song), he did a very nice job to start his night off.
  • Jax, “My Generation” by The Who: I was not sure about this choice at all for Jax…or for anyone, really…but wow, Scott knew what he was doing when he picked it, and Jax certainly knew what she was doing up there on stage. Quoting from my notes: “She OWNED that.” She had such cool attitude up there, including some awesome interplay with the drummer and the rest of the band. Previously, she’s had a bit of trouble keeping up her pitch and her tone in these kinds of performances, but both those things were incredibly improved this time around. It just worked so, so well. Well-done, Jax. Well-done.

J.Lo declared Round 1’s winner to be Jax, which I totally agreed with. Then, on to Round 2…”Hometown Dedications”…with the hometown visits for each of the 4 Idols. (Full disclosure: I took no notes and I won’t be commenting on the hometown visits, aside from saying that they were all pretty great. It’s always cool to see the impact that “Idol” has on these singers’ lives, and how much their family and their hometown stand behind them and treat them as, well, winners. You just don’t see stuff like that on other singing competitions.)

  • Nick, “Back Home” by Andy Grammer: Nick was a little pitchy at the beginning here in the verses, but he improved his notes in the chorus, and really had some nice energy there. This song fit him really well, and it was great to see a Nick that’s fighting for it, a Nick that’s committed, much improved from earlier in the season where he seemed to be just coasting. This is a Nick that, while he’s still not the top of the heap for me, I can see potentially winning the show…and what’s more, doing well after it too.
  • Clark, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding: Clark was back to doing some soul at the piano here, and I think that’s where he really shines…it was a solid return to form for him, for the most part. He had some very solid vocals, and seemed to have to less of the “dead eyes” he often has in performances. I could tell that he was feeling the song, and that extended nicely to me as a listener. The high note he put at the end worked well and fit the song. There couldn’t have been a better time for Clark to remind us why we enjoyed him in the first place, I think.
  • Rayvon, “As” by Stevie Wonder: I absolutely love this song, and Rayvon did a terrific job with it. He started with a cool slow jam-style opening (and probably gave most viewers who know this song a fright wondering if he was going to take the whole thing that tempo, which would have been awkward), and then went right into the song’s original, faster groove without breaking a sweat. The song really fit him like a glove…he had some terrific riffing, excellent vocals, and he seemed incredibly comfortable on stage. I love how Harry commented that Rayvon was able to marry great vocals here with “joy and physicality.” That’s something Rayvon’s struggled with for a while, but it was great to see him finally nail it.
  • Jax, “My Immortal” by Evanescence: I could have done without the excessive sequins and the split screen effect, but wow, this was a gorgeous vocal by Jax. She could have sung with a tiny bit more breath support at some of the soft parts (they veered towards getting too wispy), but overall, it was wonderful to hear just her and the piano, and it was a shrewd choice to go full-on acoustic after a rocking performance like “My Generation.” It was riveting, unique, and the kind of stuff that makes an “Idol” winner that I most certainly can get behind.

Keith called Round 2 for Rayvon, another excellent choice, I think. (Though everyone did quite well in Round 2…it helps when you have the motivation of watching your hometown video package, probably.) Round 3 was Judges’ Choice. This…well, it was a bit hit and miss:

  • Clark, “Earned It” by The Weeknd: This is by far the most current tune that Clark’s taken on (it’s off, of all places, the “Fifty Shades of Grey” soundtrack), and that was a wise move. This is the kind of song that Clark does quite well…but I can’t say that I was completely blown away by it. It just took him a while to get going. There was tons of drama in the arrangement and in the song, but he just stood stock-still, with lifeless eyes, and once again it took his eyes to be closed for him to get into the performance more. At the end, he finally broke out, absolutely owning things with some impressive high notes and much more commitment and energy, but it concerned me that he took so long to get to the good stuff. Sure, verses are verses and the chorus is the chorus, but there are ways to build drama, and make the soft, less flashy parts interesting and exciting (especially with this kind of song). This performance was emblematic for me of the good and bad of Clark…he has an incredible voice, but all too often he’s come up short on engaging us emotionally, and this was certainly one of those cases.
  • Rayvon, “You Are So Beautiful” by Joe Cocker: There was an interesting minor tone to this arrangement that I really liked (it saved this often-overwrought song from getting too treacly), and Rayvon, as he does with pretty much every ballad he sings, did an outstanding job here. It was just some good, pure singing. Interestingly enough, I agreed with J.Lo here that it could have used a bit more emotional variation, but I also agreed with Harry that the emotional connection worked nicely, and I also appreciated his praise of the reharmonizations in the arrangement (the “interesting minor tone” I noticed). Reharmonizations are terrific when used well, and it was used well here. I’m glad Harry took the time to explain that to viewers (that, unlike “arrangement” a few weeks ago, probably needed a bit of background) and point it out.
  • Jax, “Misery Business” by Paramore: One of my roommates was in and out of the room watching some of the performances, and he made a really good point about Jax’s take on Paramore…it would have been better to either go all acoustic, or all plugged-in (as the original is). The arrangement kind of ended up somewhere in the middle, and while Jax did her absolute best with it (the verses are tricky, as there’s such limited range, but she did alright there, and her vocals were soaring and beautiful on the choruses), that was kind of the main reason things just didn’t quite click. I think the judges came down a bit too hard on this performance…sure, it wasn’t one of Jax’s strongest, but hello, she killed her first two performances, and let’s not have viewers forgetting all that.
  • Nick, “I’ll Be” by Edwin McCain: A strange choice to end the show, a lackluster choice by the judges (I really, really hope Keith was joking when he said this is a lesser-known song…when it’s been performed who knows how many times on the show, and hit #5 on the Billboard charts, albeit in 1998 or so), but, not badly done by Nick, I’d have to say. It was too generic and bland to make much of an impact, but he was on pitch, he had a really strong glory note towards the end, and overall, he was able to make a bit of lemonade out of a lemon of a song choice. Not the strongest way to end the night, but it did help continue to prove that Nick has come a long way, if he was able to have me slightly on board with a performance/song like this.

Harry perplexing called Round 3 for Nick (really?), though he rightly took another chance to say that he really liked Rayvon’s reharmonizations in his song arrangement. After that, it was time for the night’s elimination…and going home in fourth place was Rayvon. It’s disappointing that he came up short, since he was on such a roll these past few weeks, but hey, he set some sort of record for surviving all those weeks in the bottom (most, including me at times, didn’t think he ever had all that in him), and I think he came out a much better, much more prepared artist for it, and it will serve him well in the post-“Idol” world. I’m excited to see where he goes next, like many who have gone home at not quite the right time this season.

Really quick to close, some last predictions:

Who should make it to the Top 2? My picks to advance would be, believe it or not, Nick and Jax. I’ve liked Clark better than Nick pretty much the entire season, but I feel like Clark’s stagnating where Nick is growing, and the latter contestant should be rewarded for that. He’s really turned things up a notch, and while I still don’t love him as a vocalist, and his song choices can be a bit too safe, he’s earned his place in the finale, I think. Jax, of course, is my favorite contestant remaining (after Rayvon’s departure), and she did a terrific job on Wednesday. I would love to see her in the finale, and getting a chance to become one of the few female winners to take the “Idol” crown.

Now, who will make it to the Top 2? That’s where things get more messy. I honestly fear for Jax, since as we know, women don’t stand much of a chance in the “Idol” world, especially when it gets to the finale and things get close. Clark and Nick have been favorites for a while. That said, Jax joins them in never being in the Bottom 2 or 3 (not even in weeks where she stumbled a bit), so although they appear to have the edge, I think she’s on a pretty level playing field with them. I’ve seen a lot of pros and cons for each singer pop up on comment boards and recaps and the like…so yeah. The cynic in me would say that Clark and Nick will be battling it out on Tuesday and Wednesday, but I really think that Jax has a very solid chance to make it to the Top 2. If that happens (I hope it does), I think Nick grabs the other spot, because Clark’s been the only one to really struggle these past few weeks, I feel like. We’ll see how it plays out tomorrow night, though…gosh, this is going to be a little nerve-wracking for me. Don’t let my favorite go, America (again)!

Thanks so much for reading and following these recaps, and make sure to check out other posts here on Harmony Avenue. I’ll be putting up some more Songs of the Day and other items in the coming week and beyond, and I’m also planning a list of the best performances of the “Idol” season soon after the finale this week. Stay tuned for all that…there’s always great music and commentary here. I’d love to hear your thoughts…make sure to comment!

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