The X Factor Recap: Open House Party

Things I never anticipated seeing on The X Factor‘s second set of “Judges’ Houses” episodes: A microphone stand crashing against elegant pool tiles without making the slightest sound. A ragtag group of 10 children gleefully laying waste to the legacy of beloved music duo Hall & Oates. And a scene set in an elaborately staged junk yard featuring a quaint, handpainted sign with the word “Garbage” leaning against a dumpster.

But there were predictable aspects of X Factor’s latest telecast as well: A carefully groomed and gussied Nicole Sherbetzingy kept her face in a perpetual mask of squinted eye, quivering lip, and set jaw — part sensual, part empathetic, part “Did Enrique Iglesias just cut the cheese?” The sound of Coldplay’s “Fix You” unsubtly signaled Chris Rene’s battle with addiction. And acts from the “Groups” category were uniformly atrocious.

Anyhow, “Judges’ Houses” concluded with performances from half of each judges’ eight acts (the ones we hadn’t seen last Thursday), plus a whole bunch of “what you’ve already seen” and “what you’re going to see in future episodes” that served as so much rice to fill out the two-hour burrito. Let’s take a closer look at each category from most- to least-promising:

Simon in France without Mariah Carey (Girls Under 30)
Simon’s got a beastly job ahead of him, seeing as how every one of the eight ladies he’s mentoring would be strong enough to crack the Top 4 in any of the competing categories. Too bad Hurricane Irene trapped Mariah in New York, though; a diva presence on the divan might’ve reduced the Ick Factor of Simon and His Steadily Unraveling Shirt sitting barefoot and lecherous while a steady stream of young women shimmied and sang before him. I wonder how Pepsi feels about sponsoring these April-December moments?

Melanie “Doesn’t She Almost Have It All” Amaro
I don’t understand how Simon and his team of advisors can question Melanie’s ability to tackle current material when it was Simon — and not the likable young lady in question — who chose Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There” for her final audition song. I mean, seriously, I was half-expecting Free Willy to perform an aerial in Simon’s swimming pool as Melanie went to town on the bridge. (Why didn’t the good people at Fox make this happen?) Still, let’s be honest, even if you’re not a member of the Whatever Happened to Huge Diva Voices on Radio movement, you’ve got to admit Melanie’s got tremendous vocal firepower — and enough restraint that she doesn’t turn every note of every song into a vibrato-heavy, hand-throwing fireworks display. As a result, she’s right at the top of the “Must Have” list for next week’s live shows.

Tiah “A Mighty Wind” Tolliver
It’s probably not great news for Tiah that producers kicked off her performance package by showing her having a tantrum because, um, that unbearable French countryside zephyr (smelling of baguettes, brie, and a high-quality bordeaux) was making her eyes water. (Um, girlfriend might want to check herself while reviewing footage of the legendary Diana Ross performing in a torrential downpour in New York’s Central Park back in 1983.) Still, while Tiah’s rendition of Blackstreet’s underrated classic “No Diggity” had some pitch problems toward the end (that “hey-oh hey-oh hey-oh hey-oh” interlude quickly devolved into “hey no, hey no, hey no, hey noooo!”), I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t exciting to see a contestant get a little funky amidst the sea of stripped-down and sentimental ballads. If Simon’s ultimate goal is to populate the live shows with diamonds in the rough — as opposed to those behind the counter at Zales — he could do worse than the intriguing Ms. Tolliver.

Rachel “America’s Next Top Annie” Crow
She wants a wall of mirrors and a big TV and her own bathroom. I want her to get a new shtick — which is a not entirely encouraging only four weeks into the competition. But the bigger conundrum with Rachel is that while she’s got as much natural ability as anyone in the competition, for the first time this week, her lack of life experience got exposed on a powerfully sung but emotionally hollow rendition of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” Rachel, young and moppety as she is, definitely doesn’t know what way she wants it, and she may not even know what “it” is in the first place. And alas, there are just some things that can’t (and shouldn’t) be taught to her by a middle-aged, male reality-show mentor.

Jazzlyn “Probably Going Down…in the Judges’ Houses Round” Little
Maybe it’s because she auditioned to the tune of “I’m Going Down,” but I can’t shake the feeling that Jazzlyn has the potential to be the Mary J. Blige of her generation. There’s a pain and world-weariness to Jazzlyn’s vocals that transcends her nervousness, not to mention the occasional bum notes that nervousness causes. Her smooth-jazz rendition of “I Will Survive” was no exception, but it also highlighted the concern that Jazzlyn may need a year or two more of singing in her living room before she’s ready for an opportunity as overwhelming as X Factor.

Nicole in Malibu with Enrique Iglesias (The Over 30s)
Congrats to Nicole and Enrique for achieving that dewy fresh look that can only be achieved by having a team of stylists on hand to enthusiastically primp, spray, and mist you every second you’re not on camera! I just wish these two had more interesting critiques than “but is he/she a star?”

Leroy “Dude Has Grandkids, For God’s Sake!” Bell
“All of America knows I’m an old man,” said 60-year-old Leroy, but I don’t think that’s true. A recent Gallup poll that took place only in my mind found that 53 percent of myself remains unconvinced that Leroy isn’t actually 29, and merely lying about his age so he doesn’t have to share a mentor with obnoxious child rapper Brian Bradley. All kidding aside, though, I thought Leroy’s cover of “To Make You Feel My Love” was a thing of restrained beauty. What Nicole interpreted as nerves, I took as the most tender kind of pleading from a man who understood Bob Dylan’s lyrics about a relationship still on wobbly young legs. There’s no way he doesn’t sail right into the live shows over Dexter and Tiger and that one dude they’ve barely shown, right?

Josh “There Are Probably Worse Ways to Earn a Living Than Making Burritos” Krajcik
Paging Mike Rowe: The X Factor would like you to devote an entire episode of Dirty Jobs to the art of stuffing beef, beans, and sour cream inside a flour tortilla. It is brutal work, and it’s what America is forcing Josh Krajcik to do instead of fulfilling his dreams as a burly-sensitive interpreter of soulful ballads. Yep, chalk it up to just one more sign this country is going to hell in a nacho basket. In all seriousness, though, Josh is one of the more intriguing contestants in the Top 32, and while I thought “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was a bit of a sleepy fit for him, I’m hoping he’ll get a chance to show us a harder edge if he makes it to the live rounds.

Christa “One Catholic-Schoolgirl Outfit Away from Spawning ‘Popozao‘” Collins
Talk about an interesting backstory that’s been buried beneath a pile of Simon’s discarded t-shirts! Christa was the first solo artist signed to Disney Records, and apparently helped move the company from Shirley Temple niceness to bared-midriff naughtiness. (Or at least that’s the 1,000 words I got from Christa’s totally innocent promo shots from back in the day.) Christa’s giant button-and-feathers headpiece almost upstaged her passionate but imperfect rendition of Radiohead’s “No Surprises,” but somehow our carefully coiffed mentor ignored the occasional flat notes and instead critiqued the one area Christa really excelled. “I wanted more pain and emotion,” said Nicole, who probably wouldn’t recognize pain and emotion even if she tumbled over the edge of the cliff where she had her contestants performing. (Side note: Anyone else notice Christa’s mic stand falling to the ground but not even making the tiniest noise? I know the show appears to be editing the sound down to only the contestants’ vocals and backing instruments, but it’s disconcerting to have a total absence of environmental noise during these outdoor performances, is it not?)

Tiger “Might Want to Consider Fronting a Wedding Band Instead of Being a Wedding DJ” Budbill
It’s hard not to feel for a guy on the brink of losing his house, and it’s impossible to say he didn’t showcase some decent vocal ability covering Solomon Burke’s “Don’t Give Up on Me,” but if Nicole is serious about wanting to win the battle to find a $5 million act, she cannot take Tiger to the live shows.

L.A. Reid in the Hamptons with Rihanna (Boys Under 30)
Burning question: Is L.A. genuinely excited to be mentoring the ho-hum boys, or is he secretly seething that Simon got the strongest category with the under-30 girls? Discuss!

Brennin “Don’t Hate Him Because He’s Beautiful, Hate Him Because He Openly Admits He’s Beautiful” Hunt
He wants to be “bigger than Gaga” and is already talking about his musical “legacy”? Rated PP…for Prettyboy, Please! Still, from a vocal perspective, I thought Brennin’s version of “Just Like a Star” showed off a distinctive, gravely tone, even if Rihanna may have had a point that dude gives off a “corny” ’90s boy-band vibe with his facial expressions.

Chris “X Factor Will Try to Fix Him” Rene
I don’t doubt Chris hauls trash for a living, but I’m also pretty sure that an enterprising production assistant was responsible for the hand-painted “Garbage” sign that was the focal point of Chris’ pre-performance package. Now, as for the performance itself…who knows, really? The backing track was so overpowering, I could only make out drips and drabs of Chris’ interpretation of Arrested Development’s “People Everyday.” But it seemed like Chris embraced some of the humor in the song’s lyrics, and there’s an organic, Macy Gray-ish quality to his instrument that could help him stand out at radio.

Marcus “Likes to Sit on a Giant Rock and Contemplate L.A.’s Koi Pond” Canty
Marcus definitely has natural talent — but making convincing sexytimes expressions at female judges is not one of them. (Dude needs to carefully study Stefano Langone’s facial seduction of J.Lo on Season 10 of American Idol if he wants to take his “hey, baby” game to the next level.) Still, while L.A. will have his work cut out for him in reducing this kid’s cheese factor, there’s no denying his rendition of K-Ci & Jojo’s “All My Life” proved he’s got power and pitch in his back pocket — and that gives him a definite edge over Boys Under 30 opponents like Skyelor, Nick, and Phillip.

Tim “What’s a Windmill Got to Do, Got to Do With Him?” Cifers
Tim’s twangy take on “Dance With My Father” was pretty and heartfelt, but ultimately not very exciting. Was that what the show’s editing team was trying to tell us by cutting to a shot of an old-fashioned windmill after Tim completed his performance? (Like, yes this is a quaint little device, but it’s couldn’t even power all the lights in L.A.’s guest house, people!) Here’s hoping that if Tim he doesn’t make the live rounds, though, he’ll realize that his dream of teaching his kids to fish and hunt can still come true. Unless, of course, the price of hooks, fishing line, and nightcrawlers has increased exponentially since I was a kid.

Paula in Santa Barbara with Pharrell (Groups)
Gack. This entire category makes me feel like I’m watching Paula’s short-lived CBS series Live to Dance: Why get attached when you know the relationship isn’t going to last more than a few weeks?

Stereo Hogzz (Five Guys Who’ve Mastered the Art of Simultaneously Cupping Their Man-Goods)
Oh how I hoped that opening pose with all five guys holding up a hand meant they were about to sing 702’s legendary “Where My Girls At” (featuring the lyric “Where my girls at/ From the front to back/ Well is you feelin’ that/ Put one hand up”). Alas, though, it was a decently sung but hideously choreographed version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” with a charismatic lead vocal definitely good enough to get these cats to the live shows.

2Squar’d (Four Ladies Sponsored by the American Federation of White Lycra Lovers)
Strike one: Paula choosing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” for this R&B-Dance quartet. Strike two: A sound mix uglier than those white lycra frocks. Strike three: Those “harmonies.” Ah well, maybe they’ll release their hot-ass audition track to iTunes ’cause I could use some new workout material for my iPod.

Illusion Confusion (Three Guys Who I’ve Already Forgotten About)
My notes say something about “Let’s Dance.” Does that jog anyone’s memory out there? Anyone?

Intensity (Ten Children Who Make You Feel Like You Just Switched on the Disney Channel After Consuming a Dozen Peyote Buttons)
These 10 youths patched together by X Factor producers like Buffalo Bill’s skin suit tackled a mashup of the Ting Tings’ “That’s Not My Name” and Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams,” but it’s a chorus from another track by the latter band that springs immediately to mind. “I can’t go for that, no no. No can do.” That said, maybe a spinoff of Austin, Nick, and Ellona wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world?

What did you think of Judges’ Houses round? Who’s your favorite from Sunday night’s episode, and from the Top 32 total? 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!