Wednesday night's episode of "American Idol" offered definitive proof of what happens when you give the kids the keys to the Lambo: they crash and burn.
On an evening when the themes were as vague as any we can recall (California Dreamin? Songs You Wish You'd Written?), the top four either went obscure or doubled-down on the most obvious choices possible, which made for an uneven night.
A few things became crystal clear, though: based on the girl squeals, Phillip Phillips could win this thing in a walk-off without singing another note as long as he loses his razor, smiles and keeps clothes shopping at J.C. Penny. Similarly, Joshua Ledet pretty much has it in the bag, while Hollie Cavanagh has run out of luck and Jessica Sanchez should perfect her third-place finisher pageant smile and wave. It's also pretty clear at this point that the dream is over for some and just about to come true for others. But who will be packing up their clear heels and headed home and who should prep their awkward bro hug posture? Read on to find out!
Joshua Ledet: Of the thousands, maybe tens of thousands of "California Dreamin'" songs Josh could have picked, he picked a song that is the musical equivalent of a cardboard and mayonnaise sandwich: Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up." It felt overwrought, over serious, overcooked and just no fun. The kid can sing, but by the end I was just over it.
He more than made up for it with James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World." Yeah, it's another dusty, nearly 50-year-old oldie, but it's dead-center in his lane and his voice was made for this kind of gritty, throwback soul. We asked last week if that's what people really want to hear in 2012, but at the very least Ledet put on a showcase for his powerhouse soul simmer and shout. He sang it and he sold it. Sorry girls, it's gonna be Josh and Phil facing off in two weeks.A-
Phillip Phillips: It's always dicey when Phil puts down the guitar. Just like he doesn't know how to dress like anything other than the guy fixing your HVAC system, the pawn shop kid can't figure out what to do with his hands. His surf bum take on Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" was ... fine. It felt kind of like something you'd see in a San Diego beach bar on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The judges, as usual, were charmed, which makes me think he has incriminating photos or something. Hey, Randy, smiling isn't singing.
I've been writing about music longer than Jessica Sanchez has been alive and I can honestly say I've never heard of "Volcano" by Damien Rice. That's the song you wish you'd written, Phil? Frankly, it sounded like everything Phillips sings to me, which is to say that it came off like a pretty decent Dave Matthews cover. The grit and passion were there, but the song never achieved lift-off. Can you really imagine being mesmerized by scruff and a smile for 90 minutes? B-
Jessica Sanchez: Talk about overcorrecting. Sanchez was like a long-haul trucker snapping up out of deep sleep after hitting a guardrail and almost jackknifing the rig. She went from too sexy and grown up last week to just ... too old. Her cover of Etta James' "Steal Away" was, as the late, lamented Simon Cowell would say, "cabaret." The Cirque du Soleil-worthy two-tone pantsuit was weird and the song just made her seem like she was singing to her extended family in the living room while trying to make granny proud. The old soul and bluesy heart were there, but it felt more like an off-Broadway musical revue than a concert.
And, c'mon, Jessica. The "'Idol' slayer?" We should have added Jennifer Holliday's "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" to our list of songs that must be retired from the "Idol" repertoire. Jennifer Hudson crushed it in "Dreamgirls," Tamyra Gray and LaKisha Jones also made it their you-know what on the show. Despite all that, BeBe Chez gave it her all and did a good, but not great, job of it. She hit the notes, served up the emotion and got all angry with it, but it just felt a bit, well, obvious.B-
Hollie Cavanagh: The kid knows how to suck up to the judges, that's for sure. Picking Journey's "Faithfully" was a guarantee that Randy would be on board. Too bad HCav face-planted on the melody, losing the spark she showed last week and looking as bored and lost as we felt. The big notes at the end almost saved her. Almost. Jennifer called the performance "laid back," but to me it just felt like she was laid out. The bottom line is you can make someone look like a star, but you can't make them act like one.
You know what can make Hollie seem like a cool, contemporary star? A 22-year-old song by Bonnie Raitt! Between the baggy black Chicos pantsuit and the violins, "I Can't Make You Love Me" was another off-the-Vegas-Strip snoozer that most surely punched her ticket home. And the crocodile tears near the end were whatever the opposite of a nice touch is. Pip pip, little one! D
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