The Voice Recap: Xtina Marks the Spot

Adam Levine and Blake Shelton may have been the co-winners of the battle to deliver the best one-liner on this week’s episode of The Voice, but in a surprise turn of events, they lost the war of taking home Most Valuable Judge trophy to Christina Aguilera.

Oh, sure, Blake’s “I almost threw my panties on the stage” was a priceless response to James Massone’s lady-baiting rendition of “Don’t Know Why.” And Adam hit the bullseye poking fun at Blake’s consternation over a group of shirtless male backup dancers: “I think that Blake just bought a one-way ticket to Boner Town.”

But it was Xtina — the heavily painted, cleavage-baring madwoman who’s spent much of her two seasons on The Voice teeterting between self-indulgent psychobabble and embarassing attempts at humor — who suddenly started delivering the type of tough, honest, and often constructive critiques that aren’t usually a part of The Voice‘s red, black, and spotlight-heavy tapestry. In fact, I counted eight separate occasions when Xtina was able to pinpoint a specific problem with a performance — whether Katrina Parker’s restrictive dress, or Erin Martin’s failure to interact with her dancers, for example — that could lead to improvement next week. And the fact that girlfriend has a voice that’s an upright-walking entity in a sea of single-celled organisms makes her point-of-view that much more intriguing. Here’s hoping this turns out to be more than a one-week trend.

And now let’s turn our attention to the good, the bad, and the Cleopatra-from-the-gutter, with an eye on figuring out which three singers from Team Cee Lo and Team Adam 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 CEE LO
Mortal Locks
Jamar Rogers: The Season 8 American Idol contestant — he got cut in Hollywood while his BFF Danny Gokey advanced — almost lost me with his “social media lounge” nonsense that he doesn’t have fans, only family. But by the time he finished a scorching cover of “Are You Gonna Go My Way,” I was ready to call myself a third cousin once removed. There were plenty of distractions in the staging — aggressively pulsating lightbulbs on that mini staircase, a pair of guitatists on stilts, the contestant’s unfortunate two-tone hair — but Jamar’s thrilling, pitch-perfect growl drown out everything else, and he’s got a frenetic stage presence to match his vocal firepower. Plus, that final glory note had all the crispness and whoosh of a freshly cracked can of soda. I can’t wait to see what dude does next.

Juliet Simms: Yeah, she received a pretty unappealing personality edit during Battle Rounds, but methinks the standing ovation Juliet got for a stunning rendition of “Roxanne” may have vaulted her back into front-runner status. I liked her wacky black and gold dress with one sleeve of fringe from the Xena Warrior Princess Collection, and I loved the way the sparse arrangement of the opening verse highlighted the gruff, almost desperate nature of Juliet’s delivery. And yet, once the number crescendoed to its climax, Juliet proved to be one of the evening’s few performers who was never at risk of being swallowed alive by the 10-ton whale of The Voice‘s house band — a trait that could carry her deep into the competition.

The Weakest Link
Erin Martin: It’s interesting that Cee Lo repeatedly referenced the early response his contestants had received on social media, which might explain why he saddled the snooty, much-maligned Ms. Martin with the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian,” a fast-paced, lyric-heavy novelty hit that suited her voice as well as a hot-pink tulle tutu would fit Bruce Willis. It didn’t help that Erin, dressed as a dime-store Cleopatra, spent most of her time indulging in “sexy” posing while paying little mind to pitch, projection, or the writhing, shirtless centurions on stage. But, hey, at least she didn’t attempt a single note during the last 20 seconds of the production number, so it’s not like I can say it was a total failure.

The Question Marks
Personally, I’m hoping Team Cee Lo will be rounded out by the uni-monikered Cheesa and James Massone, but I suspect it’ll be James and Tony Vincent.

I was one of the many folks who entered the week thinking Cheesa should’ve been left behind at the auditions, or at least during Battle Rounds, but she delivered a solid if not spectacular vocal on Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” and was the only member of the Season 2 Top 24 to successfully nail a bit of synchronized choreography with her backup dancers while managing to stay on pitch. Granted, her yellow t-shirt, blue tracksuit/pantsuit with red piping, and gobs of red sparkly eye shadow, didn’t exactly scream pop star, but girlfriend has improved with every round, and it might be interesting to see what she can accomplish with a little more confidence and polish.

I wasn’t a huge fan of James’ “Don’t Know Why” — Xtina was right that he had his share of pitch problems, while Cee Lo was spot-on in his note that his lady-lovin’ team member had serious issues with projection whenever he held a note — but at least there was a sweet tone that bubbled up amidst the wretched park-bench/street lamp/autumn leaves set and hideous letterman tuxedo jacket. Yeah, James still needs to pump up the volume and work on improving the nasal quality of his delivery — his heart is drenched in whine? — but at least he can blame youth and lack of experience for his performance issues.

Broadway vet Tony, meanwhile, has no such excuses for the intermittent pitch problems, dropped phrases, and quavery-to-the-point-of-unpleasant tone on “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” I know the guy got a lot of early-season buzz, but Blake was right that he was upstaged by the “evil, hellish” set and backup dancers, and there’s something incredibly forced about his delivery. That final “worllll-dah!” — complete with self-satisfied grin — had me rolling my eyes, certainly not heading to iTunes to download the performance.

TEAM ADAM
Mortal Locks
Xtina was correct in pointing out that Mathai’s rendition of “Ordinary People” was a little lounge-y, but she was nevertheless the major standout at the end of a disappointing, and sometimes disastrous, showing for Team Adam. The girl definitely has a soothing quality to her vocals, and a pleasing penchant for zigging with the melody when you expect her to zag, and she gets bonus points for a lovely a capella intro. I was a little bit distracted by the black-and-white glamour shots of Mathai being projected against the backdrop, but I guess you can’t blame Adam for wanting to remind America that his star player isn’t too hard on the eyes.

Kim Yarbrough: Cee Lo had a good point that Kim’s choice of “Rolling in the Deep” probably wasn’t the most astute, since it invites comparisons to the all-powerful Adele, but I’ve got to admit I was shocked that the competition’s elder stateswoman got mostly negative feedback for her pitch and delivery. To my ears, she nailed almost every note — and brought the requisite weariness and heartache to the lyric, to boot. Plus, Kim served serious diva face when the camera zooomed in for the final closeup. If that’s not enough to advance to the next round, then Cee Lo’s cat isn’t fluffy!

The Weakest Link
Pip: Granted, I’m still having problems with the fact that this bowtie-sporting dandy wants to be known solely as “Pip,” but even if his name was Preppy McHappypants, there was really nothing redeeming about his cover of the Killers’ “When You Were Young.” This was a classic case of a bunny rabbit trying to deliver a TKO nibble in a fight against a grizzly bear. Pip not only has no rockstar swagger, but his smooth, polished instrument just isn’t cut out for music that’s hard around the edges, and it rendered the entire performance as inauthentic as a “Louis Vuitton” handbag in the back of a dank Chinatown warehouse shop.

The Question Marks
Step right up! We’ve got a three-way battle between competent, pedestrian, and thoroughly wrong-minded!

I’d have to give the edge to the “competent” Tony Lucca, who gave us solid karaoke on Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” as a weird backdrop of lemon Life-Savers whirled against the backdrop. I actually thought Tony’s styling — gray sportscoat, big hair — and his penchant for throwing back his head and baring his teeth, stripped the performance of any sense of cool, and after so much rehearsal-footage buildup to his falsetto woes, it felt weird when Tony essentially bunted instead of trying for a home run. I can’t say I disagreed with Xtina’s assessment that “there are better voices on the show” than her “one-dimensional” former Mouseketeer buddy, but it did seem a wee bit harsh for a performance that was mid-pack at worst, no?

The real scrimmage might come down to Katrina Parker vs. Karla Davis, a couple of women who were terrific during Battle Rounds but fell apart for their first shot at the live stage. Katrina’s vocal on Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” was certainly stronger and more in tune than Karla’s whispered/gasping version of B.o.B.’s “Airplanes,” but it was also less exciting than the umpteenth T-mobile commercial with that chick in the pink dress. On the flip side, I’ve got to at least give credit to Karla for thinking so far outside the box that she wound up making an origami monster out of cardboard.

I felt a little bad for Katrina when Adam noted “the elephant in the room is Adele,” then proceeded to send his team member onto the stage in a dark, flared dress and slicked hair (just like Adele!) to perform a song that made absolutely no sense for her voice, earning her the most convoluted negative critique of the season: “You went too far in the direction of no frills.”

Karla, though, brought out my frown-face emoticon too when Adam placed her atop a literal airplane wing — emblazoned with her own name and the Team Adam logo — to perform “Airplanes” (while clad in perriwinkle sequins and cowboy boots)! There were actually moments during Karla’s performance where I wondered if her mic had been accidentally switched off — “it was a little bit of a whisper a lot of the time,” said Xtina — and it made me wonder what happened to the woman who looked like she had a serious shot at taking home the Season 2 crown back when she killed “Easy” in the Battle Rounds. Should she get a chance to sing again based solely on that one pretty run she snuck in, and because, as Blake pointed out, she “did as good as you could do with that song”? (I also think Karla was hindered by 5 lbs of lipstick and eyeshadow.) Or should Katrina be rewarded for at least hitting the bulk of her notes and…oooh, sorry, I’m getting a little sleepy thinking about that performance for the second time in two paragraphs.

Letter Grades
Juliet Sims: A-
Jamar Rogers: A-
Mathai: B
Cheesa: B
Kim Yarbrough: B
Tony Lucca: B-
James Massone: C+
Katrina Parker: C+
Tony Vincent: C
Karla Davis: D
Pip: D
Erin Martin: F

What did you think of this week’s show? Who should advance to the next round and who should get the boot? And what did you think of the new and tougher Xtina? Sound off below, and for all my reality TV recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!