‘American Idol’ Report Card: James Durbin Is King!

The rocker surprises us with his soft side on Carole King night, while Jacob Lusk fails to make the grade.

This far into the “American Idol” season, it’s nice to know we can still be surprised. Look at that — James Durbin, sans flaming piano, marching band or guitar god, crooning like a vulnerable pop-rock star. And wow, Randy Jackson is arguing that we hadn’t actually heard Jacob Lusk sing up until now, but now he’s sung, and that’s a good thing because “we like to hear you sing!” And watch Miley Cyrus pop into the frame long enough to dis Jimmy Iovine, who for once just sits there and (unhappily) takes it.

Oh, did we mention the night’s theme was the songbook of Carole King? There were surprises aplenty on Wednesday’s show, but one thing is for certain: At the end of the night, everyone’s got to stand up and be judged. That’s where our “Idol” report card comes into play. (And tune in to this week’s “Idol Party Live” right here for even more judgment!

Excellent

James Durbin: Is it really happening? Is James winning us over? Truth is, his take on “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” was easily his best performance since “Maybe I’m Amazed” in early March. As we’ve said again and again, broken record-like, James is at his best when he slips into sensitive rocker mode rather than when, for example, he tries to butt metalheads with big boys like Zakk Wylde. The arrangement was stellar, slowly building but never fully exploding. Kudos to James for keeping his urge to wail under control. Kudos to James, period. We don’t think unseated Scotty McCreery as the one to beat, but at least he’s part of the conversation.

Good

Scotty McCreery: In the night’s most predictable turn, the judges welcomed Scotty back into the ranks of “Idol” contenders, as if he ever left. But even a highly rated reality shows need some artificial drama every so often, and so it was Scotty’s lot this week to become some phoenix rising from the ashes of nearly dashed “Idol” dreams. He brought more emotion into his cover of “You’ve Got a Friend” than perhaps any other this season. Was this tune demonstrably better than his previous ones? Perhaps by a little, but that just goes to show how consistently strong Scotty’s been. While Randy howled that the country kid is in it to win it, we have to say he’s been on a winning track for a long, long time.

Haley Reinhart: We’ve lamented it before and we’ll lament it again: Why did it take this long for Haley to find her bluesy form? If the 20-year-old had come out like this from the get-go, she’d have been able to build up a fanbase. Now, however, lines have been drawn, sides have been taken, and Haley finds herself a consistent member of the bottom three. That just ain’t right! Her take on “Beautiful” offered a soft and sweet center sandwiched between some fierce, growly goodness. Like her take on Adele last week, the song had some verve, yet left her vocals room to explore. Still, we’d don’t see how she avoids another trip to the bottom-three.

Satisfactory

Lauren Alaina: And so the ongoing saga of Lauren and Miley beats on, as “Idol” producers went so far as to haul the Disney princess into the studio in a transparent, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt at damage control stemming from Jimmy’s insult a few weeks ago. Who needs these distractions? Lauren has had trouble enough building up her confidence. Up on stage during “Where You Lead,” her sass was, if not back, then at least present. Her little jig with a boy in the audience was nothing compared to her Steven Tyler lap dance back in Hollywood. The problem for Lauren was that her voice just seemed tired, perhaps from stretching to hit those high notes in rehearsals. Her vocals came off as shouty. Her post-performance composure, or lack thereof, made us sad. She hasn’t found a way to insulate herself from the craziness of reality-show life.

Casey Abrams: The Casey we know, and sometimes love — a blues brother with attitude aplenty, rather than some educational jazz cat — was back on Wednesday with “Hi-De-Ho,” though this particular performance didn’t leave us feeling very devoted to the guy. He growled like Haley, he shouted like Lauren, and the result was a mess. It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens to Casey on elimination night. Has he re-solidified his fanbase? Can he avoid the bottom three now that there are only six contestants left? We doubt he’s going home, so what happens on Thursday will give us a big clue as to Casey fate’s going forward.

Unsatisfactory

Jacob Lusk: Since when is it Jimmy’s job to carry out the judges’ (misguided) wishes? For some reason, Jimmy decided he needed to help Jacob soar and riff to his heart’s content. It didn’t work out so well. (As if we couldn’t have predicted that, based on the way Jacob collapsed in rehearsals and moaned, “Whoa that ain’t it!”) Exactly. What else is there to say? The rendition was cheesy, the vocals were all over the place, the neck snaps were right out of the Diva 101 playbook. This just might be the end of the road for Jacob.

Don’t miss “Idol Party Live” every Thursday at noon on MTV.com for analysis, celebrity guests and even some karaoke — get in the conversation by tweeting with the hashtag #idolparty! In the meantime, get your “Idol” fix on MTV News’ “American Idol” page, where you’ll find all the latest news, interviews and opinions.