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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pia, Casey and (surprise!) Haley dominate on a strong Elton John night

After a week that saw one of the wildest elimination nights in Idol history, the Top 11 got the chance to make their case with the Elton John catalog. Once again, this season's cast proved that it is at least one of the strongest in the series' history, if not the best overall. That doesn't mean there weren't some clunkers on this lot. While some of this year's model were zooming down the road toward their goal of winning, a few picked up a nail or two in their tires, and are now in danger of being towed off to the junkyard.

Still, this was an extremely strong night that will only help rebuild the show's reputation and potentially increase its ratings. If you hadn't already figured it out, this will probably be the most competitive year American Idol has ever seen. As much as I'd love to proclaim one of the Idols as the probable winner, there's simply no way to know, because as Casey proved last week, even a favorite is at risk if the fans take a week off.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the music took center stage. Here are my thoughts, followed by a few predictions:

Scotty McCreery, "Country Comfort." I'll admit, I don't know this song. With so many great Elton John numbers, I was a little surprised that Scotty chose this one. It turns out it was a pretty savvy choice, considering that Keith Urban covered it in 2004. The problem is that Scotty has gotten a little lazy with his pitch. One reader commented that it's a lazy song, but listen to Keith's cover and you'll hear spot-on pitch. It wasn't bad, but it also wasn't excellent. At least Scotty had his guitar well in hand so that he wasn't able to dance and mug for the fans. I really like Scotty and I think he'll have no trouble getting a recording deal, but in this season of strong singers, he's starting to reveal that he's a step or so behind some of the others. Even so, he'll be more than safe in spite of singing in the dreaded first slot. (7.5/10)

Naima Adedapo, "I'm Still Standing." The second slot is only slightly less dreaded than the first, so Naima needed a strong performance. It didn't happen. Somehow, she got the bright idea to turn this song into a reggae number. Last week it was African dancing. This week it was Elton John on ganja. If Karen Rodriguez has taught us anything, it's that forcing cultural nuances on the public isn't a recipe for sticking around. Every week, Karen turned every song into a bilingual mess. She got the boot. Naima is following suit. There's nothing wrong with singing in Spanish or heralding your heritage -- but you can't expect fans to embrace it. It's like a guy going to a steakhouse and being forced to eat tofu. Don't expect him to be a repeat customer. Elton-gone-reggae was received tepidly by the judges and audience. My guess is that it will also be received poorly by the fans at home, which puts Naima squarely in the elimination crosshairs. (5.5/10)

Paul McDonald, "Rocket Man." Even though I've never been in Paul's camp, I can understand (slightly) why some people might be. At times, he sounds a little like Rod Stewart, and that sort of raspy voice definitely has a fan base. What about a raspy voice wearing a rose-emblazoned suit? That remains to be seen. Paul's a really unusual (read strange) performer, so it was was wise for him to park at the mike stand playing his guitar. That move kept him from his patented move where he seems to beckon the crowd with a ghostly gesture. The pitch wasn't great, and the song was a little boring. But it still seemed like an improvement for Paul, which isn't exactly the greatest of praise. He may be safe ... but if he is, it will be just barely. Unfortunately for Paul, a lot of factors are weighing against him, and he needed a huge performance to make a move up. I'm not sure this one got it done. (7/10)

Pia Toscano, "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." This Elton John standard is one of the most-performed songs in Idol's history. After tonight, it's tied for the most renditions on the Idol stage with seven. Of course, the judges have asked Pia to steer away from the ballads and go up-tempo. That's a little hard to do when virtually all of Elton's biggest hits are slow numbers, aside from quirky songs like "Honky Cat" and "Crocodile Rock," which aren't really suited for her. So it was back to the ballad for Pia, and she once again shot the arrow into the heart of the target. This performance could have been in the Top Two. Performance wise, Pia needs to hone her skills, but vocally, this was flawless. (9.5/10)

Stefano Langone, "Tiny Dancer." Given how much this song was anticipated, it's amazing that it's never been performed in the finals. Only Jon Peter Lewis has done this on Idol in the Top 32 of Season 3. It didn't go too well. In spite of a bum first note and an uninspiring beginning, Stefano rebounded and built the song consistently. He ended up with a performance that wasn't incredible, but was extremely solid. (At least the "waving hands of hell" in the mosh pit seemed to think so.) It should send him from last week's Bottom Three to safety this week. Unfortunately, there's only room in the Idol fans' hearts for one resurrection, and that goes to Casey. Stefano will still likely be flirting with elimination from now until he goes. (8/10)

Lauren Alaina, "Candle in the Wind." While it's unusual that Stefano's performance introduced a song to the Idol finals stage, it's not unusual that this song hasn't been performed. It's a very difficult song to pull off because there's such a starstruck sense of longing to it. Conveying that emotion convincingly isn't an easy thing -- unless you're a starstruck 16-year-old kid. Without really trying, Lauren hit exactly the right emotional tone. She also added a country feel to the song, which suited her perfectly. The drawback for her were a number of notes that were a bit off-target. Overall, it was a really strong performance and maybe her best in the finals. It wasn't the best of the night, but should be strong enough to carry her through to the top nine. (8.5/10)

James Durbin, "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting." This was a bit too obvious a choice for James, and one I wouldn't have made for him. A better choice would have been something like "Burn Down the Mission," which would have given James the chance to build a bit. Instead, he moved recklessly through "Saturday Night," including a few reckless off-pitch sections. Even his signature high-pitch scream went too far afield and missed its target. It wasn't really bad; it just wasn't the level of performance we've come to expect out of a frontrunner like James. This won't endanger him in the slightest, especially because James will continue to win over people with his sense of humor. (Such as his comment about being worried about a "Pepsi moment," ala Michael Jackson. The sponsors at Coke probably had a conniption over that one.) (7.5/10)

Thia Megia, "Daniel." 

Thia's strong suit right now is a devoted fan base that isn't willing to let her go quietly. She could burb her next song and they'd still vote for her because they've really identified with her. Tonight, she didn't even come close to burping, and it was almost a step up. Almost. Yes, Thia said she missed her brother and wanted to use those emotions as fuel for the song. She said that a lot. But it didn't really seem to translate into a greatly improved performance. Her voice continues to be sweet and lovely, but only when she's hitting the notes, and that's not often enough. At one point she closed her eyes tightly, and while that might have been to show how much she missed her brother (did I mention that she misses him?), it seemed to me like she was trying to get control of her pitch. Honestly, the more I hear her, the more I think that Jessica Cunningham should have gotten the last slot and Thia should have waited a year or two until both she and her voice matured. Her "Daniel" wasn't exactly bad, but it also wasn't exactly good, and it may have her flirting again with the Bottom Three. 


Casey Abrams, "Your Song." After three years of the judges' save, no Idol is likely to benefit from it as much as Casey. His emotion-laden escape from elimination won him more fans than anyone could have imagined, enough so that he really might have turned into a real contender. He smartly used the new life to get a new look. (The beard is still there, but it's no longer reminiscent of Grizzly Adams.) He also lost the Angry Idol approach, at least for a week. This week the sensitive side of Casey came out as he serenaded America with "Your Song" (which was the first time it had ever been performed on Idol). Toward the end, the raw edge of his voice came out for a second, but other than that it was tender, moving and probably the most memorable moment of the night. It was more than just his best performance of the season -- it was a star turn for a guy who just moved from the bottom to the top. (9/10)

Jacob Lusk, "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word."
Jacob might have the best male voice in the competition. Unfortunately, he just can't stop himself from being over-dramatic. He's constantly told that by Idol judges and producers ... but then they fill the stage with smoke around his feet. The entire song was a production, both by Jacob and the powers-that-be, so I'm beginning to wonder if they're playing to his weak suit to speed up his exit. However, even with the drama (and some very odd things Jacob did with his mouth), he again built the impact of the song and hit just about every note dead-on. If he could ever get to a point where he looked like he was having fun -- or at least wasn't in extreme emotional anguish -- he might start to win people over. The time for that, however, is running out quickly. Jacob will probably survive tonight, but after that all bets are off. (8/10)

Haley Reinhart, "Bennie and the Jets."
Haley is definitely trying hard to stay around for a while longer. While Naima has taken the approach that she's going to push the limits, Haley is making smart moves in her look and performance. Last week she showed us the straightened hair and a sexy new look. This week, she started by singing from on top of the piano in a way that made me think of Michelle Pfeiffer in "The Fabulous Baker Boys." The song choice made me do a double-take, because "Bennie and the Jets" isn't a song that would make much sense for anyone. The surprise is that the song really played into the her naturally raw, smoky tones. Aside from a few clunky dance moves and arm swings, this was a really great number to end the night with. It might even be enough to spare her another week. If there's any justice, a performance of this level will be rewarded with safety on the sofas. (9/10)

Tonight's Rankings
1) Pia Toscano (9.5)
2) Casey Abrams (9)
3) Haley Reinhart (9)
4) Lauren Alaina (8.5)
5) Stefano Langone (8)
6) Jacob Lusk (8)
7) Scotty McCreery (7.5)
8) James Durbin (7.5)
9) Thia Megia (7)
10) Paul McDonald (7)

11) Naima Adedapo (5.5)

Initial Predicted Bottom Three: Naima, Paul, Stefano
Initial Predicted Eliminations: Naima, Paul

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