The crowd was extra screamy on American Idol Wednesday night (May 9); they wanted a spectacle. And early in the episode we got the sense we’d get one, as the final four Idols seemed to be in that rare phase where competitors push each other to new heights. We’re not saying it was The Beatles vs. the Beach Boys, but let us enjoy the moment, ok?
We had two themes last night: songs about California or from California-based artists, and songs that the contestants wish they had written. But when the singing’s good enough, you forget about categories and rules and genres. And last night, the singing was good enough to toss that crap to the side. Both Joshua Ledet and Jessica Sanchez treated us to seething, passionate, otherworldly second performances. The kind of vocal displays that pulverize the thick leaden shell surrounding our cynical hearts and cause us to get all overwhelmed and verklempt. Let’s get to it.
THE JAW-DROPPING, LARYNX-SHREDDING, OTHER-LEVEL FILTHINESS
So here’s the scenario: Joshua Ledet had just unleashed his triumphant second performance on the world (which we’ll get to in a sec). It was a bring-the-house-down, cannot-be-topped affair. So Jessica Sanchez comes out immediately after and has the tall order of singing Jennifer Hudson’s version of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” by Jennifer Holliday. And, my God was it good. She had this new fierceness in her eyes, and we learned she has the killer instinct, delivering fatal blow after fatal blow. There was no time to recover or process what you were hearing, but you knew it was special. We basically reacted the same way this My Little Pony did.
As for Josh, he did his part in turning the stage into a slaughterhouse with “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” by James Brown and Betty Jean Newsome. Josh was born to perform this song on this show, and he gave what will end up being one of the most enduring Idol performances ever. Not only that, but he showed some rare growling ‘tude, proving he’s not just a robot who can wail, but that he can channel all that soul. You know that new Lee Fields song, “Faithful Man“? That’s what it was like. Most predictable standing ovation of the season.
first song warm-up, he did Josh Groban‘s “You Raise Me Up” and turned the trad-style vocal into a slow-build gospel hymn. He still has some issues with the lower registers, but his rough style inherently distracts from any weaknesses.
Like her second song, Jessica’s warm-up was a mammoth dragon-slayer of a song: Etta James‘ version of “Steal Away” by Jimmy Hughes. She peppered it with a little too much vibrato throughout (triggering our Josh Alarms), but underneath that was a handful of undeniable, killer moments. As we found out in her later song, she can hold out a strong note without the warbling — so like Josh, she’s learning to control her weapons.
Phillip Phillips‘ second song was the lovely “Volcano” by Damien Rice. Jimmy Iovine said with this song Phil shook the Dave Matthews comparisons and became his own performer. We’re not so sure about that, but we still thoroughly enjoyed this raw, intimate display. In one of Jennifer Lopez‘s increasingly common bouts of hyperbole, she said it was “one of the most beautiful, poignant moments” of the show’s history. (Keep in mind, she’s only been on for two seasons.)
Phil’s second song was the standout, but his rendition of “Have You Ever Seen The Rain” by Creedence Clearwater Revival was solid as well. He managed to stick to the melody while still dabbling in some of his improvisational Phil-isms, showing some nice balancing skills that were missing earlier in the competition.
Hollie Cavanagh chose one of the ultimate singer’s songs from the ’80s: Journey‘s “Faithfully.” She threw us for a loop, seeming almost nonchalant to start, before letting the song jolt her to the high heavens. Randy Jackson, who performed with Journey, said she did Steve Perry proud. Of the first round, her song choice was the most vocal-centric, and she thrived under that microscope.
Phil and Josh teamed up again, this time for “This Love” by Maroon 5. (Um, doesn’t The Voice have an embargo on the Levine songbook?) And their rendition was the best “This Love” has sounded since, oh, 2003.
Hollie was the only performer last night who came up short the second time around. Her cover of Bonnie Raitt‘s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” was technically sound, but didn’t leave a visceral impact on the listener. Sometimes with ballads, Hollie turns out a “wake me up at the 90-second mark” performance. This was one such performance.
Jessica and Hollie paired up for The Bangles‘ “Eternal Flame” and both were a little pitchy on their first verses. The harmonies in the middle sounded excellent, but they found themselves searching for the pitch again by the big finish.
The Top 4 also teamed up to sing “Waiting For A Girl Like You” by Foreigner and it was…odd. We don’t know if it was the arrangement, or lack of rehearsing, but everyone seemed to be singing in weirdly low registers. Sure, they each got a growly run in, but it was too late at that point.
BEST OF THE NIGHT: Jessica Sanchez and Joshua Ledet closed out the show with stunning performances. But if we had to pick, we’d give Jessica the edge because the song she chose is relentless. There’s no tension and release, no slow build; it’s all climax. And she sustained it for the whole thing.
WORST OF THE NIGHT: The quartet’s throwaway interpretation of Foreigner.
TONIGHT: Jennifer Lopez and Season 7′s David Cook perform (separately) on the live results show.