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First up was Desai, singing one of the night's most contemporary numbers, Usher's "Caught Up," which allowed the lanky vocalist to get back to his up-tempo stage moves. With a lip-curling snarl, some Michael Jackson-esque hand motions and a bit of flirting with judge Paula Abdul, 'Noop Dogg brought plenty of attitude, but was a bit low-key for the song's dance-ready pace.
Randy Jackson thought he picked up his swagger and liked the vocals, but didn't think the song was right because it required more dancing. Kara DioGuardi said she just didn't hear enough dynamics in Anoop's voice. "I'm getting the feeling like a bunch of frat guys ... dared you to get up and sing Usher," she quipped. Simon Cowell was also not kind, labeling it a complete, utter mess, adding that the performance gave him a headache and that Desai came over like a "wannabe."
The news was also not good for Megan Joy, who chose the Bob Marley song popularized again most recently by Lauryn Hill, "Turn Your Lights Down Low." Trying to rebound from a week in which the judges lost their fascination with her quirky vocals, Joy seemed a bit nervous or distracted as she awkwardly waved her arms, while again employing her patented jazz yodel vocal on the reggae classic.
"I really like you, but I think you're in trouble," Kara warned, suggesting once again that Joy, whose vocals she said were starting to get irritating, should be picking songs that suit her style, like something by Adele or Amy Winehouse. Paula recommended switching it up and maybe sitting on a stool singing a ballad. Simon didn't mince words, telling her, "The problem was the song was boring, it was indulgent, it was monotonous, and all the things we liked about you are disappearing." Randy compared it to watching paint dry.
When Danny Gokey took his turn, he surprised the judges by picking Rascal Flatts' "What Hurts the Most," an unusual choice for a singer who has established a reputation for his soulful, gospel style. He transformed the tender, string-laden country ballad into a pseudo R&B weeper, turning it into a showcase for his mix of raw and polished vocals.
Paula, not surprisingly, loved it, saying, "This is where you thrive." Simon agreed, calling it his best performance to date in the finals. "It was so much better than the first two. It was like two snails competing with a race horse," he said, complimenting Gokey for making the song his own. "What you did tonight, you moved everyone in this room emotionally," Kara said, admitting to having goose bumps. No mention was made of the fact that Gokey had returned home to Wisconsin over the weekend for his grandfather's funeral.
Teenager Allison Iraheta was especially psyched this week, strapping on her guitar for the first time on the show and playing one of her favorite songs, No Doubt's "Don't Speak." Switching the tune up and playing it as a slightly slowed-down bossa nova, Iraheta struggled at times to hit the song's tricky notes, but punched some bluesy grit into the tune by the end.
Randy liked that she played the guitar, but blasted Iraheta's flashy-trashy 1950s-style new-wave look. Kara called the Valley Girl getup distracting, counseling Iraheta to use her powerful voice and not rely on visual gimmicks. Paula urged her to forget the fashion advice and focus on her powerful vocals. Simon warned that the outfit felt like a kid playing dress-up trying to be a pop star, which distracted from Iraheta's identity.
What would Scott MacIntyre choose a week after hitting the bottom three for the first time? A song by one of his piano-playing heroes, Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are," which he played in a fairly straightforward, reverent fashion, elongating the upper-range vocals in a way that actually brought to mind another classic balladeer, Barry Manilow.
Kara called the pick smart and liked how Mac stripped it down, singing to the audience and coming from an honest place. She also complimented his new, streamlined hair and black leather jacket.
"I have to say that out of all the contestants that have graced the stage, I'm most proud of you, and I want the audience to know it has nothing to do about your challenge but everything to do [with what] makes me forget about that challenge," Paula said. Simon added that he thought it was Mac's best performance "by a country mile."
For Matt Giraud, who also hit the bottom three for the first time last week, the choice was simple, the Fray's "You Found Me," which he said was close to his heart. Standing at a keyboard in the middle of the crowd, Giraud started out a bit shaky, but appeared to turn it around by mid-song, putting a slightly harder edge to his typically smooth vocals and tossing in a sky-high falsetto note for good measure.
Paula appreciated the contemporary song, but said he sidestepped all the things the judges loved and sounded too much like the recorded tune, comparing it to his disastrous take on Coldplay earlier in the competition. "I didn't get it at all ... again, it was somebody trying to be somebody else," Simon said, calling his performance uncomfortable and a wrong song choice. Randy said he should have stuck with his Justin Timberlake/ OneRepublic range and not tried to be a rock singer.
Trying to redeem herself after a so-so Motown week, Lil Rounds thought long and hard about her tune this week, choosing Celine Dion's lung-busting "I Surrender." With a new down hairdo and a formal ball gown, Rounds pulled out her diva hand moves and bombastic vocals and performed the song in all its Dion-esque powerful glory, layering on a healthy dose of soul.
Randy and Kara again didn't love the song choice, but said she sang it very well and showed great range, suggesting she young it up a bit and choose Keyshia Cole or Mary J. Blige next time. "This was, for me, you singing to stay in the competition with a safe song. I found it quite similar to a wedding performance," Simon said, calling it too old-fashioned and fearing Rounds' personality was being sucked out of her.
And what would Adam Lambert pull out after wowing the crowd last week with a soft, subtle "Tracks of My Tears."? With his pompadour in place again, Lambert boogied to the Wild Cherry disco classic "Play That Funky Music," throwing in some nimble spins, giving the song a slower, more soulful vibe and, of course, laying down some of his tongue-baring banshee wails for another crowd-pleaser.
The verdict? Paula was on her feet. "True genius does not fulfill expectations; true genius shatters it," she said, comparing him to Mick Jagger and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. Simon called it "brave" and original, and said it showed that he had a good time.
Last up was Kris Allen with Bill Withers' soul classic "Ain't No Sunshine," trading his guitar for a piano in search of a signature moment. Allen's stripped-down arrangement, which started with just his emotion-filled voice and piano, later abetted by a string quartet and subtle drumming, made for some of his most touching and nuanced vocals so far.
Randy said Allen is back in the zone and had provided one of the night's most creative moments. "I've got three words for you: That is artistry!" Kara shouted, and both Paula and Simon dubbed it his best performance.
The contestants are back tonight for the elimination show, which will also feature performances from last season's winner, David Cook, and dancing queen Lady Gaga.
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