American Idol, It's Anyone's Race

And they're off...

The top 12 contestants went head-to-head for the first time this week on American Idol, and if you're going to compare it to a horse race, I'd say don't bet on anyone to win it just yet. Two of the odds-on favorites, David Archuleta and Carly Smithson, both stumbled slightly this week, while a couple of presumed also-rans charged to the front of the field.

More on the performances in a sec. First, I must comment on Idol's new look. Ryan has been making a big deal of this for weeks, and Tuesday night he proudly unveiled the show's long-awaited brand new set.

Meet the new set, same as the old set.

Seriously, the "whole new look" didn't look that different to me. The stage might be bigger. I'm not sure. The band is up in the balcony. So is part of the audience. But that's about it. Ryan eagerly tried to show off all the new features. Like how the lights... shine. Oooh! And how the judges have... a table. Double oooh!!

Okay, back to the reviews: This week, contestants got to pick songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. We learned that after years and years, Idol has finally gained rights to the Lennon-McCartney songbook. What, is Paul getting another divorce or something and needs some quick cash?

Before the singing, Paula gave a little speech about how these are all beautiful songs and how if anyone takes any risks, she hopes the rewards are "rewardier" than the risks are riskier, or something equally incoherent. But I got her drift. Listening to Paula these days is a little like listening to President Bush try to make an offhand joke. You understand what he was

trying to say, but you just feel sorry for him and the Texas education system.

So how'd everyone do? Here's my take.

TOP THREE:

Chikezie Eze: Chikezie must think he's on American Idol and Biggest Loser cause he just keeps shedding pounds. Not that that has anything to do with his singing, which was terrific. Chikezie sang "She's a Woman" putting a bluegrass spin on it to start, then transitioning into a rock arrangement. He had tons of energy and a great stage performance. Randy was thoroughly entertained and said he smashed it. Paula said his reward had paid off. Simon found himself surprised to agree with both Randy and Paula and loved it saying Chikezie owned the stage. That's twice in the last four weeks that he's blown everyone away.

David Cook: David dared to sing "Eleanor Rigby," one of my all-time favorite songs. I had high expectations and he delivered. With good vocals, he started slow, then really brought the tempo up and the house down. He looked as much like a rock star on stage as anyone I've seen this season. Randy loved it. Paula called him the dark horse of the competition. Simon said he thought it was brilliant and said David could win it all.

Amanda Overmyer: The so-called Rock & Roll Nurse sang "You Can't Do That" even though she'd never heard it before this week. Like Chikezie, she ruled the stage. Amanda was comfortable and in control while rocking out. I'm still not in love with her uber-husky voice, and down the road I think that will hurt her, but for now she's putting some of the other Idol favorites to shame. Randy said he loved it and that she rocked it out. Paula called her a star. Simon didn't think it was as good as last week, but thinks Amanda is a breath of fresh air.

MIDDLE OF THE PACK:

Brooke White: Brooke was in my top two the last two weeks, and a lot of people might put her in the top group this week too, but I think Amanda just edged her out. Playing piano, Brooke sang "Let It Be." She definitely has the whole Carly Simon thing going on. It started slow, but picked up tempo about half way through. And while she didn't add much new to the arrangement, she was absolutely dripping with emotion. Randy called it heartfelt. Paula said America could "feel her heart." Simon thought it was one of the best of the night and a brilliant song choice.

Syesha Mercado: Syesha was first up, which is almost always a disadvantage if you ask me. She sang "Got To Get You Into My Life," and it sounded like she missed a couple of notes in the beginning. She tried to jazz it up, but didn't change much about the song and I wasn't that impressed. Randy called it pitchy but "alright." Paula mimicked Randy

almost word for word. Simon thought it was better than "alright" but thought Syesha looked nervous.

Jason Castro: Jason sang "If I Fell," although he told us his favorite Beatles song is "Yesterday." So why didn't you sing "Yesterday?" Jason was back playing guitar again, despite the fact that his best performance hands down was the one and only time he didn't play guitar last week. His vocals were just fine, but after Chikezie's amazing

performance, it felt a little lackluster. Randy said he liked it but didn't love it. Paula thought people could feel his heart in the song (the exact same thing she'd later tell Brooke). Simon thought it was boring, but that Jason would probably be safe this week.

Carly Smithson: Being a "favorite" isn't easy because everyone's expecting a home run week after week. This one didn't quite make it out of the park. Carly sang "Come Together," an ambitious song to say the least. Before the performance, she promised she was going to "change it up," but she never really did. Frankly, I thought it sounded a lot like Aerosmith's version from the 1978 movie of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The vocals were fine, but it didn't blow me away at all. The judges completely disagreed. Randy called it stellar. Paula said she's already a star. Simon said she chose the right song and that she reminds him of Kelly Clarkson.

Michael Johns: Mr. Down Under brought the tempo down by singing "Across the Universe." It was a nice song, and the vocals were fine. But that's it. Just... fine. Not great. It started slow and I kept waiting for a big crescendo of some kind that never arrived. Just like Jason, Michael suffered from picking a slower song on a night when Chikezie, David Cook and

Amanda all rocked out. Randy called it sleepy. Paula said he's quietly confident. Simon said it was monotonous.

David Archuleta: If being a favorite isn't easy, being a 17-year-old nervous-under-pressure favorite is even harder. David sang the only Beatles song he knew, "We Can Work It Out," which he recognized because Stevie Wonder covered it. And right out of the gate David tripped, forgetting the lyrics and awkwardly humming half a line or so. He recovered well enough, but you can't forget the lyrics and expect us to forgive. Also, David has this weird lip-licking thing going on that's really distracting to me. Randy kindly said this song was not his vibe. Paula even kindlier said this was not his best week. Simon was the only honest one and called it a mess.

BOTTOM THREE:

Ramiele Malubay: Ramiele had the bad luck of following Chikezie. But even if she hadn't, she'd still be in my bottom three. Ramiele sang "In My Life." Very sweet vocals, but very low-key and boring. I kept waiting and waiting and waiting for something to happen. Anything. Nope. A very forgettable performance overall. Randy said it was kind of boring for him. Paula called it safe. Simon said he was bored to tears. I think Ramiele should go, but she has that pouty "I'm sad so please stop saying mean things about me" look down pat, which might get her a few sympathy votes and texts.

David Hernandez: David is another of the odds-on favorites in my mind who really fell short this week. Plus, he still hasn't admitted he was a lap dancer at a male strip club. (C'mon dude, we just want to hear you say it.) Seriously, David sang "I Saw Her Standing There" and it just didn't work. I think the song lends itself to a karaoke-esque performance, which we know doesn't earn any points with the judges. He tried to change the arrangement a tad, but didn't make the song any better. Give him points for playing to the girls in the audience and mingling with the crowd, something he probably learned at his previous job.

Randy thought he tried to do too much. Paula said he overdid it. Simon called it corny and verging on desperate.

Kristy Lee Cook: Kristy sang "Eight Days a Week" and, taking advice from Simon last week, decided to give it a country edge. Note to Kristy: putting it to steel guitars and fiddles doesn't automatically change it to a country song. Wow, this really didn't work at all. The melody didn't fit the song and it felt like Kristy was off beat for most of the performance. Randy said he half liked it and half didn't. Paula gave a rare bad review and said she didn't enjoy it at all. Simon thought it was horrendous and called it a brave but foolish song choice.

Wednesday night we find out who stays and who goes.

Ethan Morris: "Not always right, but never in doubt." Go ahead and write me.