American Idol Top 9 Performance Recap: Such an Easy Game to Play [Updated]

amber-holcomb-american-idolAt first, I didn’t understand why American Idol needed to get Jimmy Iovine to endorse the John Lennon-Paul McCartney songbook at the top of tonight’s Top 9 performance telecast.

Then, as several contestants approached their ditties the way I might open an AP Calculus textbook — which is to say with bewildered ignorance and/or total indifference — I remembered: I’m an old man. Come to think of it, you’re probably old, too. And those Beatles songs? They’re history, like the Dead Sea Scrolls.

But who among us hasn’t scraped a little mold off an excellent cheddar or pricey Camembert from the back of the fridge, taken a taste and let out an expletive like an overexcited Nicki Minaj? “#@*% that’s good!” Every song on tonight’s set list may have been about three times older than Burnell Taylor, but the bulk of the Top 9 contestants proved at the very least enjoyable, if not utterly delightful, while tackling the Fab Four’s undeniable melodies.

So yeah, while it might’ve been nice to hear one or two or even eight more uptempo choices, I’m gonna put a lid on my kvetching and jump to assigning letter grades. Without further ado…

Kree Harrison: “With a Little Help From My Friends” | “What would you do if I sang out of tune?” asked Kree, delivering the night’s first lyric and making me chuckle a little bit. I mean, that’d be like me asking, “What would you do if I stopped production on Idology and forced Melinda Doolittle to do an entire YouTube series based around ABC’s celebrity diving competition Splash?” It’s simply not gonna happen. Still, while Kree looked gorgeous and her voice was as supple and pleasing as ever, there was something a little, er, low-impact about her performance (for me, for you). The notes were all there, but the energy was slightly muffled — to the point where, when the six-person chorus crashed the party on the opening refrain, I found myself sighing and thinking, “Isn’t it a little early in the season for dramatic choir reveals? And how come Kree’s not giving me 100 percent of the emotional abandon I need in my life right now?” Don’t get me wrong, Kree deserves to go directly to the Top 8 without passing go and without collecting $200, but it won’t exactly land her on Boardwalk or Park Place. Grade: B+

Burnell Taylor: “Let It Be” | Has everyone recovered from Burnell admitting he’d never before heard “Let It Be”? I mean, I’d have been less horrified if the kid had thought the tune was a Kris Allen original on account of our Pocket Idol’s Season 9 results-show cover. Nevertheless, you can’t judge a vocal based on its pre-performance package, and if I’m being honest, I kind of liked how Burnell’s gruffly soulful instrument sounded up against one of the Beatles’ church-ier anthems. What bugged me, though, was the blank grin that kept cropping up on Burnell’s face during the performance, an expression that left me wondering, “Does he have any idea what he’s singing about? Why am I getting the same vibe I got from “Flying Without Wings”? Where’s the electricity?” To keep the metaphor going, at this point in the competition, Burnell is a little like geothermal energy: A really good idea that hasn’t quite come to fruition yet. I’m interested in at least a few more weeks of research, though! Grade: B

Amber Holcomb: “She’s Leaving Home” | To my ears, Amber’s performance was so mesmerizing that I didn’t even notice her utterly random “industrial scenes” backdrop — not until she hit her last note and my husband asked, “What’s with those pictures of smokestacks?” (Maybe they were the source of all that white smoke that swirled around Amber and her chamber-music accompanists?) Far more vexing to me was the judges’ mixed feedback — Randy claiming the number started “slow and unsure,” Nicki demanding a change in lipstick color, Mariah admitting she’d never even heard “She’s Leaving Home” (!) — but no one giving Amber credit for a sophisticated arrangement that highlighted the soaring quality of her vocals, and gorgeous phrasing that brought to life the somberness of the lyrics. I wish Ryan Seacrest could’ve thrown a flag on the play and demanded the judges watch an instant replay (apologies for that possibly botched sports reference): Maybe a second listen would’ve opened their ears to the awesomeness they just weren’t appreciating. Or maybe they were just following instructions from Uncle Nigel in the first place? Grade: A-

Lazaro Arbos: “In My Life” | I appreciated Keith and Mariah offering some constructive criticism about Lazaro needing to start his songs in the right key, but the latter judge’s assessment that his merely “making it through the song” was “a big deal” would be as patronizing as telling Ms. Carey that she really earned that Golden Raspberry for remembering her lines and staying on set right through the very last scene of Glitter. Alas, Lazaro is so far behind the other eight runners in the field, it’s almost like he’s in his own race: Once his rivals pass the bleachers and cross the finish line, the likeable kid comes staggering down the straightaway all by himself and everyone feels the urge to cheer “Run, Lazaro, run!” And then he’s collapsing in tears and getting wrapped in a foil poncho (dyed canary yellow or hot pink) and you’re hoping Ryan will repeat his 866 number so you can throw some sympathy votes his way. The problem is that said sympathy votes will only serve to put Lazaro back on the track for another humiliating effort next week — which isn’t really very sympathetic, if you think about it. Grade: D-

Candice Glover: “Come Together” | Here come Miss Candice/ She come groovin’ up slowly/ She will throw you shank eye/ She will play with tempo/ Her voice makes you shake down to your knees/ “Muddy Water” low note/ Gives a case of the “squees!”

What bad production/ There be too much jump cut/ She works the stage but/ Where are the closeups?/ I say close your eyes, hear carefully/ A final jazzy run/ Has just been hit perfectly/ Come together, right now/ Girl can sing Grade: A-

Paul Jolley: “Eleanor Rigby” | If you can forgive the hinky falsetto notes that started and ended his performance, Paul achieved his personal best tonight. And if I sound a little like Paula Abdul trying to spin an Amtrak ticket out of a trainwreck — “Sweetheart, you have never sounded better on a song starting with the letter ‘E’!” — that’s not the case. I’ve consistently called out Paul for his lack of connection to the lyrics he’s sung in Season 12, but to me, he sounded vastly more at home as the narrator of “Eleanor Rigby” — painting pictures of fictional characters rather than baring his own heart and soul on stage. That comfort level and ease allowed us to hear Paul’s pretty natural tone rather than the strained, overdramatized version that made “Alone” and “Amazed” so unappealing. Alas, though, dude might find himself at risk mainly because he hasn’t met a Ryan Seacrest softball question he couldn’t fumble with an eagerness-to-please that always verges on desperation: Hint, even a scowl plays better on TV than a painfully forced smile. Grade: B+ B (upon second and third listen, methinks I was a tad too generous)

Angie Miller: “Yesterday” | Look, if Angie had been auditioning for a Broadway revival of Cats, then “Yesterday” was a rip-roaring success. But to my ears, her overwrought (albeit pitch-perfect) delivery was a triumph of staged, play-to-the-rafters acting over genuine gut feeling. And while the judges praised Angie as much as any contestant tonight, I felt like their comments were peppered with hidden caveats — Nicki mentioning how Angie could eventually sing “soundtracks for Disney movies,” Mariah daydreaming about hearing more “rock edge” from Ms. Miller, and Keith straight-up saying he could hear Angie’s focus drift in and out of the performance. Girlfriend has all the horsepower and accuracy an Idol contestant could want, but she needs to ugly-up some of the edges, worry less about celery-crisp enunciation and more about the meaning of the words coming out of her mouth. A shift back to the piano and a choice of uptempo — or heck, I’d even accept midtempo — number wouldn’t hurt girlfriend’s competitive trajectory, either. Grade: B-

Devin Velez: “The Long and Winding Road” | If you’ll allow a moment of Top Chef ridiculousness, it’s not enough for a chef to julienne veggies with machine-like precision, he’s also got to be a master of spice and flavor and the right temperature. And that’s why Devin — who continues to cut through every note with Ginsu-like accuracy — has yet to fully capture my imagination. Oh sure, I’m impressed by his technical merit, but where’s the artistic interpretation? Where’s the heat? Like Burnell, Devin’s facial expression is an issue: He often looks like he’s buffing the floors of his military high school rather than trying to become a pop star on America’s most venerable singing competition. Keith noted the disconnect tonight — asking for more heart and a little less “laid-backness” — while Randy actually asked for fewer runs. (Was that an Idol first?) Mariah’s get-out-the-vote campaign will probably keep Devin out of harm’s way, but I’ve got to be honest: While intellectually, it’ll confound me if Devin gets booted before Lazaro, emotionally I suspect such an offense won’t muster anything past a 2 or 3 on my Outrage-o-Meter. Grade: B-

Janelle Arthur: “I Will” | Janelle’s backdrop — a swirling heart-shaped Christmas-ornament projection — was tackier than Nicki’s attempts to get censored, but everything else about the night’s closing performance was sweetly subtle — and served to restore the Tennessee gal’s rep after several weeks of substandard vocals. It didn’t hurt that Janelle chose what was probably the night’s least-known track, allowing her to add some country instrumentation without conjuring up the vision of her pulling a flannel hood over the song’s head and throwing it into the back of an unmarked van. And Janelle’s lilting delivery — along with her avoidance of unnecessary glory notes — unearthed the hummingbird-delicate aspects of her tone. As Randy said, it wasn’t quite a yodel, but I don’t think I’d have called “foul!” if she’d taken it that far. Plus, that sensational white goddess gown with beaded top made her look like a seasoned star — and played right into Nicki’s ridiculous “be my bride” feedback arc. Now let’s get a second consecutive week of excellence and keep the Season 12 race exciting. Yeehaw! Grade: A-

Should Be Bottom 3: Angie (a scare would do her good), Devin, Lazaro (with Lazaro going home)
Will Be Bottom 3: Amber, Lazaro, Paul (with Paul going home)

Winner of “Idol Tour Fan Save”: Aubrey Cleland over Charlie Askew

And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of Season 12 Top 9 performance night? What did you think of the judges’ comments? Who was your favorite? Who’s going to be in trouble come Thursday? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol-related news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!

Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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  1. Carly says:

    Paul–does nothing for me. Can’t tell what his genre is, but he and Devin bore me.
    Kree—sensational. She was an opener and is still gonna get a buttload of votes cause she’s just that good.
    Amber—LOVED it. Agree with Michael on the mixed feedback…can’t the judges give her the Candace treatment for once? She deserves it, her voice is so captivating.
    Angie–musical theater. First thing me and my sister were saying after her performance. She would do awesome on The Glee Project. Maybe if she showcases more of her singer/songwriter vibe and maybe less of her showy, ovedramatic ballads?!
    Burrell in my opinion is the only guy right now that I could see a viable superstar recording artist. He didnt know “Let it Be…” but who cares after he learned it and delivered it fantastically. He is absolutely IS ready. He’s lovable and talented and super cool! the full package.

  2. bbl says:

    All of the girls will be in trouble when Jessica hits the stage tonight! XD

  3. imac says:

    I thought Amber’s song choice and performance were sublime.

  4. DCGal says:

    Disagree mostly on Amber’s performance. I found it really slow, and the song way too old for her. Let her be a teenager. She was by far the weakest of the women last night. And while I generally liked Janelle’s performance, I hated the ending of the song.

    • Karen says:

      I don’t think She’s Leaving Home was too old for Amber. It’s about a teenager running away from home. It’s perfect for a teenager. I thought she did a wonderful job with it and should have received more compliments from the judges.

  5. betsy says:

    No one really sang these songs well – some of them were technically good singers but it was like they were singing, look at me singing, singing – not FEELING, not listening to the words and putting out the feeling in them. Angie really tried and Candace of course did great, but otherwise – BORING.

    Apparently no one here has ever heard Alison Krauss’ lilting version of the song Janelle sang, because Janelle was boring karaoke in comparison. Same with Kree and Joe Cocker’s version of Friends – there were no highs and lows, no crescendo, no scream – boring. Well done, but boring. Amber didn’t even care what the song meant, apparently. Paul put me to sleep. Devin, beautiful voice, now once again with feeling. Jimmy Iovine SUCKS as a mentor because he should have these kids listen to the song and explain the emotion behind them and the greatness of them so the kids will at least try to do them justice.

    • Guitar Blue says:

      The singing grades by reviewers, us bloggers, etc. – are more based upon what they like in terms of song choice, style, associated genre, etc. ——-

      Devin delivered a good, vocal coach approved, smooth copy of his song choice for instance, but he has not captured the interest of most viewers. So whether he sings well or not, he’s going home soon, this week, next – or soon thereafter — no matter how well he sings. He’ll never make the top 4, no matter what he does. ———-

      It’s more a popularity contest than a singing contest. ————

      Last year, Elise for instance, could sing way better than some who went further. She just didn’t have the whole package for popularity.

  6. karen says:

    Elise’s stink eye did her in last year. She didn’t have the best of personalities. Kree, in my personal opinion, has become my favorite American Idol of all time. There is something so soulful in her voice. I could listen to her all day. She’s an amazing singer. Just hope Jimmy Iovine doesn’t mess w/ her too much. Last night, the gospel choir was a bit too much. It obscured the brilliance of Kree’s phrasing and delivery.

  7. “I wish Ryan Seacrest could’ve thrown a flag on the play and demanded the judges watch an instant replay” – OMG I totally want Ryan to have yellow penalty flags to throw now. Great idea!

  8. syb says:

    This week I take issue with some of your grades Michael– a rare occasion.

    I would give Kree more credit and Amber less. I’d give Burnell more credit and Janell less. And Devin less. All comments about Angie’s presentation I endorse, but I’d still give her a higher grade than Janell and really, pretty much everybody except Candice and Kree, or maybe Burnell.
    Burnell had the only truly “unique” interpretation. Janell’s was straight up Allison Kraus, and Kree went with Joe Cocker.
    Lazaro needs to be put out of his misery. He’s gone farther than his story should take him, but I fear he’ll be back next week.

  9. HitTheGroundRunning says:

    BOO! All you boring 80s hating haters made them kill her 80s hair by way of flat iron. RIP Angie’s real hair. Hope everyone is happy. You’ve now comniited hairicide, every last one of you.

  10. HitTheGroundRunning says:

    Angie and Amber were good. Burnell had probably his best night. Candice was good but coulda put in some more grit and hard edge to things at various times. Kree was good but fell a touch weak on a few things, maybe after effects of the cold. It was a great match for her voice she was the sort who could do it not some of the others people said should do that song. Janelle did the best she has in a while she was good.
    I know everyone was hating on this night beforehand, but Beatles do have good songs. Not a bad night.

    • JASon says:

      The Beatles is a great theme night! Only problem is it exposed how much better the Season 7 top 10 was compared to this one!

  11. Jeanne says:

    Amber looked gorgeous last night.

  12. HitTheGroundRunning says:

    Wow that was harsh B- for Angie?? I think Burnell needed to be bumped above Paul.

  13. JASon says:

    How can anyone cover Come Together after Carly Smithson killed it in Season 7.! Candace’s performance was week and near bottom three. . She will probably avoid the bottom three based on last week but she better right the ship quick or they will have to use the save on her.

    • JASon says:

      I think this will be one of those seasons where Slezak just blindly loves every performance by her!

    • HitTheGroundRunning says:

      It did seem to lack zing at times, liek she just kinda ran through some parts without getting the rock edge to it. It was good, one of the better of the night, but lacked that special something to make it truly rock believable.

  14. JASon says:

    1. Janelle 2. Amber 3. Angie 4. Cree 5. Devin 6. Candace 7. Paul 8. Burnell 9. Lazaro

  15. Ed says:

    I think I may have watched my LAST American Idol show this season…… Lazaro being “safe” has just caused the show to lose ALL credibility. People are SO STUPID!!! This is a SINGING competition, NOT a “feel good” kumbaya-fest which is driven by fear and trepidation over the possibility of hurting someone’s “feelings”. Good god. There are NO sharks left to jump.

    • HitTheGroundRunning says:

      I could understand a fan fav surving bottom three, but not even making it into bottom three when there is clearly nobody else you could point to last night who did worse?

    • HitTheGroundRunning says:

      You were wrong. There WAS another shark to jump! Not only was he safe safe but he was above Amber!?!!

  16. HitTheGroundRunning says:

    I think Jessica may be going places. They may have another truly modern pop who can chart.

  17. HitTheGroundRunning says:

    Oh come on Lazaro safe and Amber bottom three???? WTH. I guess nothing we shouldn’t expect from the remaining voters of the show.

    • Anton says:

      I agree 100%. Lazaro should not endure any longer, people are mot doing him favor. They only prolong his shame and agony. He better wait for AI for the disabled.

  18. Anton says:

    Amber fans, come on come on! Don’t let this little whitney lose this fight. Never let another country girl win. I’ve been sick hearing country wins. Carrie Underwood is enough fo America. Please we need Amber to brighten up the music scene. Vote for Amber!!!

  19. Ali says:

    I voted for lazaro because the thing is even his performance was not all there, i feel if he made a record deal he would sing what he wants to sing be comfortable with it & feel he would be fine in the recording studio. People voted for him because they like him. He’s the underdog due to his stuttering. I would buy his CD just for that.

    • HitTheGroundRunning says:

      So you’d by a CD just because he stutters? Tens of thousands of people stutter will you buy their CDs too? What about those who sang better?

  20. Larali says:

    Oh, i am slightly disagreeing with MS tonight… didn’t like Ambers’ rendition of She is leaving home… that song has a flow, a very characteristic flow that she didn’t get at all, a very beatlesque flow that is a delight. She failed on that one big. And she did look like she was struggling trying to catch up with the notes and the tempo. Burnell was groovy and original. I love Candice, and she was fierce but hated the back-up singers!! Lazaro should have gone home indeed. Kree is superb but was ok this week. I just can’t connect with Paul – don’t know why. Me not feel it. Devin in the other hand – oh, i just love his voice. Yeah he is not super original but singing a Beatles’ song you have to respect the medoly and treat it with care and precision, i think Devin nailed it. Janelle, definitely her best week thus far.

  21. Houster says:

    A little late to the party: Candice’s and Janelle’s live performances were outstanding. However, if you listen to the studio version of Amber’s “She’s Leaving Home”, her performance is right up there. Carrie Underwood sang the same song during the Grand Finale Beatles tribute in Season 5, during which Kelly Clarkson sang “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, and Taylor Hicks sang “A Day In The Life.”

    Amber, in my unprofessional opinion, was better than Carrie.

    Kree, Angie, and Devin were at the next lower (B) level. I thought Kree was drowned out by the background singers. Angie MUST go uptempo soon, or she’ll suffer a similar fate to Pia Toscano. I enjoyed Devin for a change, but he has to keep it up and not be sleep-inducing.

    Burnell made me think the song was called “Let It ZZZZZZZZ”.

    Lazaro might be in first place based on the sympathy vote, but he clearly should never have been placed in the Top 40. Here in the New York area, there’s a commercial running for the mattress store “Sleepy’s”, which uses the song “In My Life”, and the person singing it is far better than Lazaro. If Lazaro can’t even come close to a mattress store commercial, you know he’s terrible.

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