The Voice Recap: Send in the...Clowns?

lindsey pavaoMenacing mimes. Male strippers. Cee Lo Green in a slinky red jumpsuit with deep-plunging, lace-up neckline and a delicate ladywig. Carson Daly turning superlatives into bowls of lukewarm mush. And enough bum notes to recreate an authentic Ashlee Simpson recording-studio session. Those were just a few of the disconcerting distractions on the menu for the first live-performance round of The Voice‘s second season.

Maybe my expectations were too high going in. And to that end, maybe it’s not fair to make any long-lasting judgments about the season when there are a whopping 24 singers still alive and well and fighting for Javier Colon’s Season 1 title. But by the time the six members of Team Xtina and the six members of Team Blake wrapped the two-hour telecast, the overwhelming urge was not to visit iTunes to download the fruits of their collective labor, but rather to fantasize about a sensory-deprivation tank where I could turn down the noise and the flashing lights and the milquetoast excuses for feedback that created a reality singing-competition judging curve whereby Randy Jackson’s Idol ramblings have been upgraded from an unquestionable F to a comparably impressive C-.

Ugh. I hate myself for typing that.

Let’s instead focus on the good, the bad, and the bizarrely choregraphed performances, with an eye on figuring out which three singers from Team Xtina and Team Blake will advance to the quarterfinals based on the public’s vote, and which vocalists will get saved by their respective judges to round out the pack of eight vocalists who’ll still be standing at the end of Tuesday’s results-show telecast.

TEAM BLAKE
Mortal Locks
Charlotte Sometimes: There’s no way Charlotte’s going to have to resort to asking “Is Denny’s hiring?” after an ultra-dramatic take on Paramore’s “Misery Business.” As Christina noted, Charlotte is a woman who knows when to go big, but also knows when a song calls for calm and quiet. I’m not sure where or how Adam heard pitch problems, but maybe the botched notes of the 10 vocalists who came before her messed with the Maroon 5 singer’s inner tuning?

Erin Willett: “That was technically and passionately the best vocal performance of the night: That is fact,” declared Blake (correctly), following Erin’s big, brassy rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.” Which means that even if voters got distracted by the “random dancers convening at a speakeasy” staging or by the fact that Erin began the performance playing a piano that looked like it was made of cardboard, she should be able to count on her coach to carry her to the next round.

The Weakest Link
Jermaine Paul: If scientists ever figure out a way for men to have babies, we already know what labor will sound like, thanks to Jermaine’s extraordinarly strained cover of “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Dude was pushing and pushing and pushing for what felt like 12 hours, and it wreaked havoc on any sense of musicality in the performance. My scribbled notesinclude this description: “His voice turns into a squiggle.” And in a weird way, that’s what happened. It was almost as if the long-time backup singer’s throat started to close up from exhaustion, and by the time he hit the octave change, his rocker shriek had turned into something strange and cartoon-like. If Blake turns out to be right with his prediction that Jermaine’s Bon Jovi cover is headed for the Top 10 of iTunes, I’ll eat Xtina’s bedazzled vegetable steamer hat. But if I’m correct in predicting Jermaine’s early exit, that leaves us with three women fighting for the last two slots on Team Blake…

The Question Marks
There were moments during RaeLynn‘s countrified version of “Wakeup Call” where the tone of her voice sounded like she’d just chugged a liter of Pepsi and was about to let out the mother of all burps. What’s more, she’d completely run out of breath by the time she’d reached the final chorus. But I can’t lie: I didn’t not enjoy RaeLynn’s performance. Maybe it was residual good will from the fact that I really like Maroon 5’s original track. Or maybe it was the fact that the song really works with an injection of twang. Or maybe I was just impressed by the audacity of this kid flipping a well-known pop hit into something that could easily find its way to CMT. But even if you think I’m crazy for finding something of value at the bottom of the reality singing competition bargain bin, you don’t think there’s any way Blake is going to the next stage of the live shows without a country artist on his team, do you?

The way I see it, that means an early exit from either Naia Kete or Jordis Unga, and I can’t say I’ll be brokenhearted in either event. As a surprisingly astute Xtina noted of Naia’s cover of “Turning Tables,” “It was cool?” but not without “moments that weren’t great.” To translate that into brutal honesty, there’s something undeniably enchanting about Naia’s feathery light tone, but only on the 40-50% of notes she hits correctly. And what’s the point of covering a power vocalist like Adele if you’re going to bring pitch problems to the party? Jordis, meanwhile, arguably had the stronger performance with her take on Heart’s “Alone,” but while Blake applauded her for doing the “opposite of playing it safe,” I felt like the former Rock Star: INXS contestant was so busy trying to put on a display of vocal firepower that she kind of missed the point of the song. This isn’t a truck-lifting competition, after all. Plus, her sleepy cadence on the verses left me wondering for a moment if she’d missed some of the lyrics.

TEAM XTINA
Mortal Locks
It takes a strong performer to not get upstaged by dancers in terrifying clown regalia, and so cheers to Lindsey Pavao for triumphing over the creepy during her moody cover of “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Lindsey’s smart enough to understand that in 2012, you’re not going to win a reality singing competition on pretty vocals alone, but even more importantly, her synthed-out, almost ’80s-ized take on Gotye’s current smash proved she knows how to rearrange with a purpose, put her own twist on a melody without taking a sledgehammer to its foundation. One week in, and it’s pretty clear she’ll be the last member standing on Team Xtina.

Jesse Campbell: Cee Lo and Adam both declared Jesse as the contestant to beat this season, and that lavish praise — combined with Jesse’s end-of-show pimp slot — is a pretty good indicator that he’ll live to sing another week. Still, if I’m being honest, I’ve got to admit I found Jesse’s rendition of “What a Wonderful World” pretty excruciating. Oh sure, the guy has big, powerful pipes, and he hits his notes the way I eat a box of Tagalongs: Not one gets missed. But what good is pitch perfection when your delivery is so thuddingly affected? Every choice Jesse made in terms of melody and cadence felt like an exercise in “look what I can do!” vocal showboating, rather than a genuine attempt to bring feeling and emotion to his classic ballad. Maybe Jesse is simply my broccoli rabe — a fancy shmancy vegetable that’s always popping up on gourmet menus but leaves me with a case of the voms — but I can’t believe I’m the only Voice watcher whose world would be a little more wonderful without an encore from Mr. Campbell.

The Weakest Link
It was pretty much all downhill for Moses Stone‘s mashup of Kanye West’s “Stronger” and “Power” once the crazy acrobat dude handspringed his way off the stage at the top of the perfomance. I could say Moses’ vocal was flimsier than bargain-brand toiler paper, that you could see livelier dancing from the aged-aunties contingent at any family wedding, that his silver asymetrical half-kilt had bumped Fashion Star from its reigning position as the saddest marriage of clothing and reality TV on the NBC lineup, but why pile on when the guy is about to walk the Voice plank by the end of Tuesday’s results show?

The Question Marks
Of Team Xtina’s three remaining vocalists, I entered the week most excited about Sera Hill, which is why her self-immolating rendition of Drake’s “Find Your Love” was so disappointing. Sure, Sera brought her usual sassy presence (and a cool chandelier-y necklace) to the stage, but by the time she hit the final verse, she was veering off pitch like a three-wheeled grocery cart careening toward an endcap of tomato cans, and the results were predictably disastrous. I’d like to believe that Xtina’s decision to surround Sera with writhing, shirtless hunks threw the contestant off her game — “I was waiting for Christina to start stuffing some $1 bills,” declared Blake with his usual quick wit — but I can’t quibble with voters if they decide Sera doesn’t deserve a second chance to prove her live-show merits.

The judges seemed more enamored of Chris “Pale Ben Stiller” Mann‘s cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” — it was “so so so beautiful,” cooed his coach — but to my ears, the verses were peppered with pitch problems, and Chris’ vocal contained so much vibrato he might as well have been performing atop a washing machine in the midst of its spin cycle. Much like his teammate Jesse, Chris represents a triumph of technique over feeling, and the result was a Bridge on the River Kwaitype situation. Boom!

I’d prefer to see Sera or Chris get booted to make way for Ashley de la Rosa, whose cover of Alanis Morissette’s “Right Through You” wasn’t perfect, but was at the very least interesting. Had the Voice house band not been cranked up to 11, the bubbly teen’s vocal might’ve had even more impact, but as Adam correctly noted, Ashley definitely won the award for most improved. All in all, a pretty solid result for a kid who’s gotten the cannon-fodder edit for most of the season.

LETTER GRADES
Erin Willett: A-
Charlotte Sometimes: A-
Lindesy Pavao: A-
Jesse Campbell: B
Ashley de la Rosa: B-
RaeLynn: B-
Jordis Unga: B-
Naia Kete: C+
Sera Hill: C+
Chris Mann C+
Jermaine Paul: C-
Moses Stone: D

What did you think of the first week of Voice live rounds? Sound off in the comments, and for all my reality TV news, interviews, and recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!