This oddball season of American Idol continues to confound expectations at every turn. This past week was a brutal one in the Idolverse, as the show's ratings decline kept attracting gawkers like those you'd see at a head-on collision, and the departure of Siobhan Magnus became a metaphor for a season that once looked so promising and now seemed to be running on fumes.
To make matters worse, the theme for this week was the most old-skewing yet: Frank Sinatra. The greatness of the Chairman of the Board is beyond question, but his favored sound hasn't been considered "popular music" since before the parents of today's Idol contenders were born. And with the final five including three singers who rarely perform without guitars and a fourth who uses one frequently, the prospects for another night of musical gruesomeness appeared all too high.
But credit the kids for digging deep, overcoming an unfamiliar style, and bringing forth a decent night with the standards. And credit must also go to Harry Connick Jr., who may go down as the best mentor in Idol history. He was certainly the most involved, as he not only gave stellar vocal advice, but also arranged the performances, loaned out several members of his band, and even provided piano and organ accompaniment. The crooner reminded the younger singers that while Sinatra might not have had the biggest voice, his instincts for song interpretation were perhaps the best ever, and that's a skill anyone can learn.
Something that the Idol producers could stand to learn themselves: how to bring a show with just five performances in under an hour. The night ran a minute long, even though once upon a time, the contestants actually used to do two songs each once we got to the top five. The first singer didn't hit the stage until fifteen minutes had elapsed. With pacing like that, it's a shock that I managed to stay awake long enough to rank them:
1. Crystal Bowersox ("Summer Wind"): She cleans up rather nicely, doesn't she? On a few occasions this season, Crystal has indeed proven that she's not just attitude -- that there's a really strong voice in there too. She easily has the best song interpreting chops of anyone in this season's cast, and that skill came in handy on Tuesday. Ellen DeGeneres was correct to point out that the performance began in a shaky fashion, as if Crystal was fumbling for a lyric or simply sounded tentative with her phrasing. But she kicked it into gear with the second verse and showed her ability to warble before bringing it back down for a lovely ending. The judges seemed puzzled by the performance and by the decision to not go for a big finish, although why they thought they would get vintage Crystal on Sinatra Night is a good question. This did not deserve to be the second-most criticized performance of the night. B
2. Michael Lynche ("The Way You Look Tonight"): Big Mike is the one singer who should have been expected to have a strong night. He doesn't need his guitar, and unlike Aaron looks perfectly at home in a fedora and crooning about mature love. But while he looked great and hit all the notes he wanted to hit, there was still something a bit off here. As the season goes on, Michael seems to be morphing into more of a traditional soul singer, for better and for worse. Not all of the melodic decisions he made here were solid ones. Connick impressed upon him that the original melody was strong enough to need no embellishment, but Michael took the song to new places anyway, especially in the second half, and I can't say he improved it. I don't think Michael can win this season by reminding us too much of Idol contestants gone by. B-
3. Lee Dewyze ("That's Life"): It was a good idea for a singer who has often been accused of being too diffident to win to choose this classic of macho defiance. His frequent pitch issues were almost completely kept under wraps, and he brought the right attitude, especially for the final verse. But the body language was still a little weird, as he performed in a stumbly crouch that gave him the appearance of someone who got up the nerve to sing karaoke after his fifth gin-and-tonic. Lee has given one performance all season that looked like it would fit into the resume of a winner ("Treat Her Like a Lady"), but since he got to anchor Sinatra Night, the judges, who have been ridiculously enthusiastic about him all along, fell all over themselves to declare this an instant classic. It was solid for someone extending his genre range, but hardly worthy of these kudos. B-
4. Aaron Kelly ("Fly Me to the Moon"): What is it with this kid and songs about flying? Connick didn't inspire a lot of confidence when he introduced Aaron by saying "I wish him the best." But I have to give him credit: he really doesn't belong in the competition at this stage, and can't help but look like someone whose parents made him play dress-up at the photography studio when it comes to doing Sinatra. But after a few bars that were downright scary, he managed to almost sound believable, toning down the bleaty quality in his voice and managing to get viewers to forget that he's the teenager who had to change a lyrical reference to "making love" last week. Aaron had to lead off the night and Idol is probably ready for him to go home, but he might just overcome the theme that seemed destined to end his run at last. C+
5. Casey James ("Blue Skies"): Oh, poor Casey. I had come close to a 180 on this guy, who I totally dismissed when he auditioned shirtless but has ended up bringing a welcome dose of blues-rock attitude to the season. But he's been the one contestant all along who seemed the most dependent on his guitar, and without that life preserver on Tuesday, he sank beneath the waves and probably won't resurface until one of the losers' medleys on Finale Night. It was startling how uncomfortable he appeared. Casey was shouty on the bridge, and while his inability to totally control his vibrato doesn't hurt him on rockers, it's a major problem on songs like this. Casey barely survived last week after one of his best efforts of the season, so that's not a good sign for his viability after Wednesday. At least he won't have to explain to any more of his friends that he's been on television for the last four months. D+
Casey is the odds-on favorite to have one more for the road on Wednesday, but could this be the week for a "shocking" Crystal appearance in the bottom two? It was this week last season when the voters decided to throw a scare into Adam Lambert.