The X Factor Recap: Home Is Where the Start Is

Things we learned from the latest two-hour installment of The X Factor: Nicole Shirthanger realizes she’s not L.A. Reid or Simon Cowell — she’s sorry about that! — but she’s a really hard worker. Paula Abdul “represents everything a woman wants to be” (at least according to a spelling-challenged member of all-female vocal act 2SQUAR’D who has never heard of Marie Curie, Madeline Albright, Mother Teresa, or countless other powerful ladies who’ve graced our humble planet with their presence). And there’s nothing ominous — nothing ominous at all! — about a middle-aged man in a shirt unbuttoned down to South America reclining in the backyard of his French countryside mansion while lithe young women sing and dance for his pleasure.

Oh, and one more thing: The X Factor might seriously turn out to be appointment television — whether or not you’re resistant to the idea of devoting four hours per week at its altar from now through Christmas.

Indeed, after two weeks of surprisingly spotty auditions, followed by two Boot Camp episodes that were essentially the emu to the ostrich of American Idol‘s Hollywood Week, The X Factor is finally finding its voice. Night 1 of the “Judges’ Houses” round found our four panelists inviting to “their homes” the eight acts remaining in their respective categories, then asking them to perform songs on their impeccably manicured lawns, in the hopes that one more listen would help them winnow the overall X Factor field from 32 down to 16. (Bonus factoid: Judges choose which songs the contestants sing.)

Hang on one sec… We interrupt this recap for a promotional interlude with our lovely X Factor host. (Yes, X Factor has a host; dont be like that!)

Where in the world is Steve Jones? He’s visiting the Eiffel Tower! He’s a tall and chiseled form in a jaunty “NYC” t-shirt set against Manhattan skyline! He’s a comforting pillow to soak up bitter tears from former Skid Row resident Dexter Haygood! He is not, for perhaps the first time in seven episodes, hitching a ride across the United States in an 18-wheeler! Congratulations, Steve! Keep asking those Fox overlords to give you more to do — and I don’t just mean fetching coffee for L.A. and Paula while exchanging bitter, commiserating texts with Cheryl Cole.

But enough about all the ridiculata! Now that we’ve given you enough filler to pad a two-hour recap, let’s talk about the Talent (intentional upper-case). For Night 1 of “Judges’ Houses,” we saw performances from half of each judges’ eight remaining acts. Let’s take a closer look at each category from most- to least-promising:

Simon in France without Mariah Carey (Girls Under 30)
Attention, America! While Hurricane Irene unleashes her fury on your Eastern seaboard — and leaves Mariah Carey without transport to her X Factor debut — Simon Cowell is baking his torso on a yacht off the coast of France. Some stars are not just like you! And this star, in particular, has a bench so deep I kind of wish Fox would detonate the “Groups” category, split the eight “Girls Under 30” between Simon and Paula, and allow all eight to make the live shows.

Drew “Someone (in a Crisp White Shirt With Missing Buttons) Should Get Shanked if She Doesn’t Advance” Ryniewicz
Thursday, October 13, 9:55 pm ET: The precise moment at which The X Factor hooked me for the season. Or rather, the precise moment at which Drew (pictured, left) delivered a controlled, aching rendition of Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love” that outshone the original, and was without a doubt the best vocal performance ever given by a teenage girl sitting in a deck chair next to an inground pool. I don’t know how a 14-year-old had the emotional capacity to do what Drew did, but thanks to her devastating delivery, I can no longer rail against X Factor‘s under-16 age limit, nor can I mock Nicole for responding to any future performances with a single tear running down her cheek.

Simone “She’s Facing an Uphill…” Battle
If Simone makes the live shows — and based on her stripped-down, emotionally connected take on the Beatles’ “Help,” she just might — it’ll be interesting to see how far she can go. After all, her persona contains none of the “Oh I can’t believe this is happening to me/ Some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this” wide-eyedness that America values in female reality show competitors, but not so much in its pop stars. Plus, she’s inclined to wear outfits like a black bathing suit with sheer, black skirt by Spanish Brothel*. If nothing else, Simone might serve as a template for competitor Stacy Francis on how you can belt a note without beating it into submission. Simone’s rich, vibrato-free howl reminds me a little of ’90s dance diva Lonnie Gordon, and I mean that in the best possible way. (* not a real label)

Caitlin “Probably Too Subtle for Primetime” Koch
I’m worried that Caitlin — one of my faves from the audition rounds — only ranks No. 3 on my Thursday-night list, and there are still four more “Under 30 Girls” left to sing on Sunday night’s episode. Simon was right that this likable rugby player has amazing phrasing and tone, and I loved that you could see her emotions blazing in her eyes as she gave a languid, sensual take on “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” No matter which four ladies advance in this category, the cuts are going to be hard to accept.

Tora “Paging the Fashion Police” Woloshin
Tora was kidding about struggling with the lyrics to the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” right? I mean, it’s only got, like, 10 words. Either way, the sassy auto mechanic had to contend with the least organic track of any contestant in her category, which played a little jarringly in the scenic confides of Simon’s back yard. There’s no doubt the girl has a solid voice and a surplus of charisma, but if she hits the live shows, here’s hoping she encounters a stylist who can warn her against the dangers of matching a pair of red boxer briefs with a denim shrug-vest situation and a leather v-shaped cleavage cover that seemed to teleport directly from the set of Cher’s “if I Could Turn Back Time” video.

Nicole in Malibu with Enrique Iglesias (The Over 30s)
People over 30 apparently have a theme song, and believe it or not, it’s Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional.” Yes, the old and the weathered, the folks who like Julio Iglesis’ son have seen it all, faced rejection, and still have the courage to bailamos, are not afraid to cry. A lot. On national television.

Elaine “Throw a Gospel Hand” Gibbs
Elaine’s gotten precious little screen time over four weeks of X Factor — maybe because her backstory of becoming a wedding singer “for stability’s sake” doesn’t pair that well with “Fix You” or “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — but her voice creeps up on you like a lion in tall grass: Stalking, stalking, stalking, stalking…until suddenly it pounces and absolutely slays you. That satisfied mmm-hmm and head shake Elaine gave at the end of Oasis’ “Stop Crying Your Heart Out” said it all, and if you didn’t understand it, it loosely translates to “live rounds, here I come!”

Stacy “Oh No, She’s Crying Again” Francis
Stacy Francis (pictured, right) is a conundrum because she’s absolutely everything a reality competition contestant is supposed be: Incredibly hungry. Incredibly talented. Just waiting to finally catch a break in this damned and difficult world. Fighting such obstacles that she had to borrow her dress and shoes to go to the Judges’ Houses round. And yet, all of these things have to be used like a perfume: Just give us a hint, a subtle spray that lingers in our minds. Don’t trap us in the elevator with the wretched excess of an entire bottle beating down our nasal passages. At this point, Stacy’s shtick is 10 gallons of drug-store body spray: Impassioned speech. Tears. Rivulets of mascara. Note that lasts longer than a Lee DeWyze record contract. Yes, her take on “Purple Rain” was powerful and clear, but the only thing I felt during her “I just don’t want it to end right here” speech was annoyance. And I fear Nicole is not the kind of judge who’ll tell her to rein that nonsense in.

James “I’m Not Cannon Fodder, Really!” Kenney
I enjoyed his brief and rocky rendition of Rihanna’s “Russian Roulette,” but let’s face it, this dude is getting the “don’t get attached!” edit. Also, just for the record, you can’t say you “work five jobs” and then include being a husband and father on said list. Otherwise I’m updating my resume to include the title Chief Sauvignon Blanc Inspector.

Dexter “Oh No, Now He’s Crying Again, Too” Haygood
Nicole really needed a t-shirt to express her feelings about this audition: “I wanted to hear ‘Crazy in Love,’ but all I got was a full plate full of crazy.” I mean, I didn’t hear a single word of Beyonce’s R&B classic, just a wilted word salad delivered with James Brown-lite hoo-hah. Why do I get the feeling that X Factor producers have cast Dexter for the sole purpose of taking advantage of the meltdown that will happen when his “journey” comes to an end?

L.A. Reid in the Hamptons with Rihanna (Boys Under 30)
It’s not crazy that I’m convinced L.A. is the only judge who used his own estate as the setting for “Judges’ Houses,” is it?

Brian “Putting the ‘Ass’ in Astro” Bradley
Am I a terrible person for using profanity in my description of a bespectacled kid with an anti-bullying message and headphones around his neck who made Rihanna go “awww”? Yeah, probably. But if this kid makes it to the live shows, part of L.A.’s mentoring process has to include grounding him for two months without the use of his Playstation. I mean, really, you meet Rihanna and immediately boast you’ll be collaborating one day? (Reality check: delivering room service to Rihanna’s hotel will not technically count as a collaboration.) Still, objectionable personality aside, there’s no denying Brian showed incredible skill in his delivery of an age-appropriate version of Diddy’s “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down.” I may even have bopped my head a little, even if I understand L.A.’s question of whether the kid is just a novelty.

Phillip “Putting the ‘Feh’ in Affected” Lomax
Even as I type this, I’m having a hard time accepting that Phillip gave my second-favorite audition from L.A.’s group on Thursday. Or, rather, I should amend that to say he gave my third least-favorite performance from L.A.’s group Thursday night. I mean, yes, I appreciated that he tried something different with a jazz-ballad rendition of “Please Don’t Stop the Music,” but Phillip is ultimately a facsimile of what a crooner should be: There’s an artificiality to his delivery that makes it seem like he watched 100 hours of Sinatra and Martin and Connick and Buble to best assimilate all their mannerisms and define a market niche for himself. Plus, based on the rough patches he hit in his upper register, I’m not sure dude has all that much range, y’know?

Nick “I Can’t With That Eyebrow Situaysh” Voss
L.A. said he’d heard Nick give better performances than his sparse, mostly falsetto rendition of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” but I’d actually say this was his least terrible vocal to date. Nick was mostly in tune, and the verses were actually kind of pretty. And yet, at the same time, there’s something so contrived about Nick’s whole act — his pleading facial expressions, the overwrought way his voice swells when he’s trying to “get emotional,” the fact that he dresses like he’s auditioning to be an extra in a Duran Duran video — that I cannot imagine he’ll wind up being among the four best under-30 guys in The X Factor‘s inaugural season.

Skyelor “Why Does the Spelling of His Name Always Make Me Think of Skeletor?” Anderson
Awww, now this is the kind of polite, adorable teenager who should have his cheeks pinched by his aged aunties after he performs a song or three at family barbeques and holiday get-togethers. Which is my roundabout way of saying he’s no $5 million act.

Paula in Santa Barbara with Pharrell (Groups)
Oh dear. The groups. Let’s be brief about these, shall we? Also, was anyone waiting for Paula and Pharrell to suddenly interrupt their motivational speech to the groups and yell, “The ones eating the cupcakes are out!” No? Okay, just me.

The Brewer Boys (Who Could Potentially Sell a Lot of Records)
“Good is sometimes the most damn difficult place to be,” said Paula, trying to misdirect the audience at the end of the teenage brother act’s nifty rendition of “Only Girl in the World,” which felt like a peculiar (but not in a bad way) blend of folk, dance, and world music. But why try to create a false sense of “will they or won’t they make the live rounds” when these two kids — Nathan, 14, and Justin, 17 (pictured, center) — have more talent in their well-conditioned hair than the night’s other three groups have in all their bodies combined? After Paula and Pharrell questioned the Brewer Boys’ potential, a heated convo began in my living room:

Me: What? Come on! They were much better than those four country chicks!
Hubby: Um, they were much better than Rihanna, too.
Me: Indeed.

The Anser (Will Not Be Accepted Until It Is Spelled Correctly)
Their rendition of Pink’s “Perfect” went from “decent” to “kind of a mess” by the time this trio lost their way on the chorus, but while they’re no Vicci Martinez-Niki Dawson, they weren’t too bad, either. Which, in the groups category, will probably be enough to crack the live rounds.

Lakoda Rayne (Cherokee for “Four Chicks Secretly Plotting to Murder the Other Three”)
“We’ve grown like sisters who want nothing more than to be on TV,” said the one whose name I think is Dani of this band of wannabe solo acts glued together with tears, desperation, and a wardrobe resembling a quartet of streetwalking extras from Pretty Woman. Aside from the air-point choreography, there was nothing memorable about Lakota Rayne’s countrified take on “Born This Way,” and weirdly, while none of the four individual voices stood out in any way, none of them blended particularly well together, either.

4Shore (They Are Not Going to Win The X Factor)
Oh my word, this quartet’s booty-slapping-in-the-square choreography wasn’t just Color Me Badd, it was color me awful! Plus, dude with the long hair really needs to stop taking the lead vocal. But if there’s a positive to be found in 4Shore’s audition, let it be that everyone reading this article checks out the solo work of Kina Cosper, lead singer of one-hit wonder Brownstone, the act behind 4Shore’s track “If You Love Me.” (Hear Kina’s stuff here, here, and here.)

What did you think of Judges’ Houses round? Who’s your favorite so far? Which acts should be barred from the live rounds? Sound off in the comments, and for all my reality recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!