James was up first with the rocker, "Closer to the Edge" from the modern emo rock band 30 Seconds to Mars, combining strong vocals with an easy onstage presence, working the stage and the audience. "You're ready for stadiums," declared judge Jennifer Lopez, adding, "(The competition) is yours to take!" "He wants it!" echoed Randy Jackson.
Okay, the judges say that about all the kids these days; they pretty much stopped actually judging anything after the competition was whittled down to the Final 10. A more spontaneous take on James came from the week's guest mentor, Sheryl Crow, shown in the offstage clips trading licks of the song with him in rehearsal. "I got to sing with James," she giggled to the camera, later. "I feel like I can officially retire now!"
But for his second number, James came back with something completely different (as usual), the emotional, yet explosive ballad "Without You," from Harry Nilsson.( It was certainly emotional for James; he said he equates it with saying goodbye to his wife and son after a visit so he can go back to the competition; in the clips, he couldn't quite get through it in rehearsal without breaking down.) Onstage, he got through the whole song; he was in tears by the end, but he sang with plenty of heart and soul, even that acrobatic stretch in the middle where you have to sing the chorus a second time, an octave higher.
Of course, as most singers do, in order to stretch to that octave, he had to start in a slightly lower register than might have been comfortable for him. But he sang the tender opening so beautifully, and the entire performance was so honest, he made it all work in his favor. "It's yours to lose!" said Randy. "That's just as good as it gets," chimed in Steven Tyler. "You are a true, true, artist. You're serious about winning this thing," said La Lopez. "He's amazing, you guys!" she told the crowd.
The thing is, the judges have been spoiled by James; they expect him to be fabulous every single time, and he always is, so they're kind of used to it. Some of their more breathless responses last night came for contestants who have been kind of skimming along who suddenly got the idea they should do something a little more, you know, competitive. Scotty McCreery actually had a lot of fun onstage with the rollicking "Gone" from Montgomery Gentry; his performance incorporated a lot more jumping around than usual. Ditto country songbird Lauren Alaina, stamping around onstage to Carrie Underwood's "Flat on the Floor." (Hmmm, suddenly all these crooners are trying to "do" James and kick up some dust.)
But Scotty's vintage number, a twangy rendition of Elvis' "You Were Always On My Mind," plopped him back in the same old rut. (Although the judges heaped him with praise, natch.) Even less successful was Lauren's attempt on the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody." As producer Jimmy Iovine pointed out in the clip, "she's a young girl singing a very mature lyric," and while she hit all the notes with her big, pure voice, she communicated nothing of the anguish, or the soul of the song. So it was kind of a joke when the so-called judges got all orgasmic, and gushed there was "nothing to judge" in her performance. Oh, please.
(And while we're at it, can host Ryan Seacrest just shut up with that "Scotty the Body" stuff, awreddy? Where did that come from? Even Scotty seems embarrassed by it. Also, the next time Randy says someone is "in it to win it," can you please just shoot me?)
Only Jacob Lusk and Haley Reinhart got mixed reviews last night, Jacob for attempting both parts of the duet "No Air" by former Idol alumna Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown, and Haley for singing an unreleased Lady Gaga song, "You and I." (Gaga evidently sings it in concert.) Jacob came back to apply his big, walloping voice to the old Nazareth song, "Love Hurts," with plenty of power and finesse, but he boggled a note in the middle, which could be the deciding factor as the competition gets more cutthroat.
Haley, on the other hand, is getting more and more fun to watch. I thought she rocked the Lady Gaga song. (So what if the audience isn't familiar with it, as some of the judges carped? A vocalist's job is to sell a song, not lead a singalong.) I think she's doing a lot more interesting, jazzy, bluesy things with her voice since she started hanging out and singing with the late, lamented Casey—much more than when she used to flounder through "You Really Got a Hold On Me," or "Piece of My Heart" like she didn't have a clue what they were really about.
Last night, she closed with a pretty gutsy version of "House of the Rising Sun"—including a very cool, smoky part in the second verse after rising to a big crescendo at the end of the first verse. ("Best performance of the night!" raved Randy Jackson, with typical restraint.) My one word of advice: she should have opted for a female POV ("It's been the ruin of many a poor girl / Dear God, I know, I'm one..."), which wouldn't have altered the rest of the song at all, and been both gender- and historically-correct. But this is a small complaint for a performer who's learning to develop a little passion onstage.
As usual, James is the leader of the pack in this department. After his ardent "Without You," he confessed, "Every week, I leave everything on the stage." Let's see Scotty match that.
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