The Voice Recap: When Live Takes Over!

The inaugural live performance episode of NBC’s The Voice was like a mashup of Adam Levine’s magnetism, Cee Lo Green’s missing shades, Christina Aguilera’s cleavage, Blake Shelton’s ad-libs, and Carson Daly’s personality. Which is to say the two-hour telecast was alternately hot, confusing, ridiculous, adorable, and vague.

Indeed, while I was most certainly entertained by the show that describes itself as “the world’s most exciting singing competition,” I’m also left scratching my head about its basic skeleton. Over the last six weeks, The Voice has winnowed its field down to 16 contestants — four apiece for each of the show’s four vocal coaches — but from here on out, instead of booting one contestant a week (like American Idol) and giving us time to slowly build connections with multiple artists, The Voice will inexplicably eliminate eight singers over the next two weeks. Didn’t NBC get the memo that we’re just at the start of a long, hot summer? Why is the network so eager to conclude The Voice‘s first season by June 29, instead of letting this battle rage on through August? (Side note: Am I really advocating against network execs bringing a program to a swift and tidy conclusion? What is wrong with me?)

Either way, Tuesday night’s telecast found the four members of Team Blake and four members of Team Xtina giving largely competent if not totally spectacular performances: Viewer votes will save one singer per team, while their respective judges will also get to save one singer each. And next week’s performances by Teams Adam and Cee Lo will help chop the field to eight. Let’s review all eight solo performances — from the quite good to the not bad — in chronological order:

Raquel Castro: Ke$ha’s “Blow”
I’ve got to give credit where it’s due: Raquel’s decision to deliver a high-energy dance track complete with choreography, backup dancers, and a minidress made of materials mined from Superman’s ice palace gave her set a high degree of difficulty. And while the bright-eyed, big-haired teenager sounded a little winded on a few passages of “Blow,” she hit more notes per minute — and relied on backup singers far less aggressively — than anything I’ve seen in the last few years from Ke$ha, Rihanna, or Katy Perry. Still, like a lump of dough on the counter, there’s something a little unformed about the season’s youngest contestant, a sense that her mentor Xtina could wind up a crank in Raquel’s back and get her to give a competent but soulless rendition of whatever song Xtina’s heart desired. (Why am I suddenly having a horrific Whatever Happened to Baby Jane-themed nightmare of a heavily painted, ninetysomething Xtina holed up in a mansion and demanding that a seventysomething Raquel don her faded “Genie in a Bottle” costumes and perform medleys of her greatest hits?) I just wish Raquel could convey a deeper connection to the music, not just a longing to see her own name in lights.

Jared Blake: Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody”
I really wish Jake and Jared had settled on something a little more unexpected for the shiny-headed father of six than a track that made him sound like first runner-up in a Kings of Leon tribute-band contest. To be fair, Jared hit his notes like he was on Level One of a video game he’d played a million times before, but there was little sense a great artist lurked underneath a hideous folded bandana that resembled a flapper’s headband and cut his bald pate in two.

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Beverly McClellan: Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m the Only One”
Like Jared before her, I kinda wished Beverly had dug a little deeper in the song choice department instead of selecting the most obvious hit by the nation’s most popular lesbian rocker (who boldly went bald during her battle with breast cancer) — a song that, incidentally, has also been done to death on Idol (by Nikki McKibbin, Kellie Pickler, Nadia Turner, and just a few weeks ago, Lauren Alaina). Still, with her shiny noggin, her sassy kilt, and military jacket, Beverly managed to fill The Voice‘s cavernous soundstage better than any other contestant this week, and she took a couple minor twists and turns in the melody that separated her from Etheridge’s blueprint. I wish she’d tackled “Bring Me Some Water” instead, but Beverly’s signature shuffle-stepped jig was a total hoot. To quote crazy Blake Shelton, “daddy likey.”

Dia Frampton: Kris Allen’s Kanye West’s “Heartless”
Adam and Blake declared Dia’s performance their favorite moment on The Voice thus far, Cee Lo said it was the greatest rendition of “Heartless” he’d ever heard (ahem), and Xtina said she saw Dia’s “meat come out” (!). And on paper, I understand why: Dia’s piano-driven Kanye West cover was the boldest and most original reinterpretation of the night, the performance that elevated The Voice from kicky karaoke competition to a place where a unique artist might be able to emerge. That said, Dia still needs to work on stage presence and pitch. Blake put Dia behind the keys to help temper her nerves, but there were whole swatches of the song where Dia stopped playing her instrument and began to resemble the nervous kid at an elementary school assembly who may or may not get a case of the voms on stage. I wish Dia had ditched her frumpy white dress with giant black neck bow in favor of the slinky black dress she wore for the group number, and pressed the mute button on the full Voice band and opted for a stripped-down intimate arrangement. If she had, it would’ve been easier to focus on her somber delivery and extensive changes to the melody.

Xenia: Jessie J’s “Price Tag”
Xenia’s performance provides us with the central conundrum of The Voice‘s first voting round. Do we reward a shy teenager with a vocal tone so delectable she’s got Christina Aguilera jonesing for an album of full material, or do we send home a girl so clearly uncomfortable on the stage that she looked like she’d shown up simply because Blake Shelton was holding her pet kitten hostage? Xenia’s “Price Tag” was quiet and dreamy — less powerful but more wistful than Jessie J’s original — but there were times her voice disappeared behind the band, and her ending was more a white flag than an exclamation point. If we had 12 or 13 weeks of live performances ahead of us, I think Blake might be able to get Xenia where she needs to go, but I’m not sure America will get to see a star born by the end of the month. I will say this, though: Blake’s words of encouragement — “anytime you feel nervous, find me” — was the mentoring highlight of the night. Dude is a killer TV personality.

Lily Elise: Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry”
The night’s only disastrous performance featured hinky dancers (“was it your idea to have the mimes?” Blake asked Xtina), plenty of overwrought notes, a weird yelp at the midway point, and a jacket with lapels made of broken mirrors. The coaches — who wouldn’t know how to deliver negative feedback if a contestant hurled monkey dung into the audience — offered benign encouragement to Lily, and Xtina in particular seemed at a loss for words, finally settling on “control and restraint” when “melisma and miasma” might’ve said it better.

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Patrick Thomas: Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance”
Patrick seemed to secure a spot as Blake’s favorite based solely on the fact that he presented himself as a fresh-scrubbed country artist in a 10-gallon hat who did it all for his little sister, but I thought his vocals sounded quavery (bordering on the brink of tears) from start to finish. By the time Patrick hit the key change and went into full-fledged holleration, the performance fell apart like a sack of Doritos that get bagged beneath a bottle of laundry detergent. Side note to Carson Daly: Unless The Voice‘s producers invite you to the judges’ table, let’s not lob leading questions (i.e. “the guy’s a pro, right?”) at the panel, okay?

Frenchie Davis: David Guetta and Kelly Rowland’s “When Love Takes Over”
Okay, so I have to confess I’ve been a huge Frenchie fan since Idol‘s second season — where the feroculous (yeah, I just tragically morphed ferocious and fabulous into a new adjective) diva got DQ’d after Hollywood week when her racy photos popped up on a tawdry Web site. And I guess that’s why I got a surge of joy from the mere sight of Frenchie getting her shot at the voting rounds of a major network singing competition. Thankfully, Ms. Davis’ big, clear instrument was in fine shape on “When Love Takes Over” (embedded below), a soaring dance anthem that allowed Frenchie to trot out the most delicious pair of earrings I’ve seen in recent TV history, and a stage presence that would’ve drawn an “ooh, grrrl” from Ms. Jay had this been an episode of America’s Next Top Model. Frenchie needs to be careful not to let her voice get shrill when she reaches the outer limits of her upper register, but I’ve got to say it was nice to hear a modern dance track performed with emotional and vocal excellence in a live TV setting.

Oh, before we forget, there were also group performances by Team Xtina and Team Blake (coaches included). Let’s sum ’em up in 10 words or less:

Team Xtina, “Lady Marmalade”: Xtina’s boobs ride rollercoaster with no seatbelt. Hot vocals though.

Team Blake, “This Love”: Adam’s reaction to hearing own track better than actual performance?

And now, let’s get down to tonight’s letter grades and some predictions for next Tuesday’s eliminations…

Tonight’s Letter Grades
Frenchie Davis: B+
Dia Frampton: B+
Beverly McClellan: B
Xenia: B
Raquel Castro: B-
Jared Blake: B-
Patrick Thomas: C+
Lily Elise: C-

TEAM BLAKE
Will go through: Patrick Thomas, Xenia
Should go through: Dia Frampton, Xenia

TEAM XTINA
Will go through: Frenchie Davis, Raquel Castro
Should go through: Frenchie Davis, Beverly McClellan

What did you think of The Voice‘s initial set of live performances? Who was your favorite? Who will and should go home? Could the social media red room have been any more annoying? And would you like to see a more critical approach to critique from the judges? Sound off below, and for all my reality TV recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!