Welcome to NBC’s The Voice: Country Strong, home of gingham dresses and boot-cut jeans, chewin’ tobacco and four wheelers, and Blake & Miranda as your royal couple. The letter “g” need not apply for the apostrophe’s position at the end of such words like singin’, dancin’, comin’ or goin’. Y’all.
And no, I’m not mocking the redneck way of living. (I’ve had my share of Pabst from a can while sitting around a bonfire, if you must know.) I’m just shocked that Season 4 of NBC’s reality singing competition seems to have abandoned any notion of musical versatility. Instead, what we’ve got is a game of Follow the Blake Shelton. After all, his three artists are consistently killing it on iTunes (and avoiding elimination on Tuesday-night telecasts) while Adam Levine, Usher and Shakira are all down to one contestant apiece.
Putting it another way, when electro-rocker Michelle Chamuel and pop-soul diva Sasha Allen tackle Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, it almost makes you long for an American Idol-esque dive into the Burt Bacharach songbook. (Okay, no, I didn’t actually mean that. And apologies for even putting the idea into the universe.)
Let’s cut to tonight’s set list and letter grades, shall we? Also — BIG TWIST! — only one contestant goes home this week.
Holly Tucker: Martina McBride’s “When God-Fearin’ Women Get the Blues” (Blake’s Choice) | As Blake noted in rehearsal, Holly (aka Most Likely to Get Stuck in Blake’s Sacrificial Lamb Slot) really needed to “set the stage on fire” for Martina McBride’s ode to good girls gone mad, but to my ears, girlfriend was rubbing two sticks together to no avail — and hitting a surprising number of bum notes along the way. Usher’s feedback — saying he “wanted to see more” while looking like he’d found a dead ladybug in his salad — was as close to brutal honesty as we’re apparently going to get on this show for the rest of the season. Grade: C+
Michelle Chamuel: Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know” (Usher’s Choice) | I really do love Usher’s enthusiasm for Michelle — “We should continue to do this, regardless!” he chimed in during rehearsal — but there was something about Keane’s wistful ballad that stretched Michelle’s voice to a little too far past her comfort zone. (Side note: When Michelle paused to dig around in her back pocket area, I wondered if there’d been a power outage to her in-ear.) Shakira was correct in pointing out the cool dynamics of the performance — from the gentle piano-led opening verse to the wailing grand finale — but nevertheless, this wouldn’t rank anywhere near Michelle’s personal Top 5 for the season. Grade: B
The Swon Brothers:
Darius Rucker’s Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” (Contestant’s Choice) | I’ll admit I groaned a little when the performance opened with a shot of that ye-olde-timey saloon/brothel and the sextet of dancing chicas, but aside from Colton struggling on a couple of his high-pitched glory notes, this was a reasonably good effort. Oh, sure, Blake’s feedback — “nobody in the world sounds like The Swon Brothers” — should’ve resulted in a federal charge of felony hyperbole (honestly, the guys have charm and work-ethic, but a distinctive sound? Please!). And no, I can’t imagine this is the Season 4 act that will suddenly put The Voice on the map as a major hit-maker. But they did succeed in painting a portrait of a rambling man headed for points south, so bully for them. Grade: B+
Sasha Allen: Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way” (Contestant’s Choice) | I’ll freely admit that for weeks now, I’ve been dumbfounded by the praise heaped on Sasha’s patented brand of heavy vibrato with a side of screaming. But “Ain’t No Way” started promisingly enough — with Sasha displaying a heretofore unseen restraint while standing stationary at a mic in front of the kind of big-band-on-white-platform backdrop you’d expect to see in an old noir film or a flashback episode of Moonlighting. Alas, though, Sasha lost me toward the end, when her penchant for “look what I can do!” tricks served as a guillotine severing any real emotional connection from the lyrics. If Sasha were an actress, she’d leave no stick of scenery left unchewed. Why Coach Shakira hasn’t reined those tendencies in is one of the great Voice mysteries of Season 4. Grade: B
Danielle Bradbery: Pam Tillis’ “Shake the Sugar Tree” (Blake’s Choice) | Can someone — anyone? — tell me what emotion Danielle was attempting to channel during her second performance of a Pam Tillis song this season? TRICK QUESTION: There was no emotion whatsoever! (Except for maybe a faint hint of, “Is there such a thing as a sugar tree? And if I shook it, would I be able to catch some Pixy Stix dust on my tongue?”) Okay, in Danielle’s defense, what does she know about telling her man she’s not content with “the cookin’ and the payin’ of the rent”? And what difference does that lack of connection make when the audience doesn’t care about her interpretation of the lyric anyhow? As Blake so plainly exclaimed, “there’s no need to change things up” when it comes to Danielle. Except for the fact that said aversion to any type of risk-taking whatsoever makes me so bored I could die. (And yes, that was a Lexi Featherston reference.) Grade: B-
Amber Carrington: Skid Row’s “I Remember You” (Adam’s Choice) | Maybe it’s the fact that I grew up in the hair-metal era, but I couldn’t have been more stoked about Adam’s decision to assign Amber a Skid Row anthem — or by his critique that Amber’s countrified take “stood alone” from an iTunes standpoint. I mean, it’s not like her rendition was anywhere near a karaoke rendition of the original, or nothing more than a cover of somebody else’s cover. It was a fully realized musical moment unto itself. And this deep in the competition, shouldn’t creativity — or at least having the chops to sell a unique vision — count for something, or maybe everything? I loved the slide of Amber’s voice on “die for your kiss,” the way she really enveloped each word of the song to create vivid pictures of a girl who just can’t let go of a lost love. I could’ve done without the literal ring of fire on stage — Amber probably felt the same — but to me, this indicated the type of big-belting, slightly edgy country crossover artist Amber could easily become. So come on Voice voters, let her get there! Grade: A-
The Swon Brothers: Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” (Blake’s Choice) | Whether you take the lyrics as a straight up “Square-Pride Anthem” or a send-up of deeply conservative values, the only point-of-view I could detect from Colton and Zach was a slight aura of embarrassment — which continued with Colton’s uncontrolled giggles during the coaches’ critiques. It was as if the bros had gone along with Blake’s song choice just because it reminded folks of their Oklahoma roots, then realized mid-song they were singin’ ’bout not burnin’ their draft cards on Main Street. In 2013. Blake said 10 percent of the audience would “bitch and moan” about the song choice, while the other 90 percent would be smacked in the heart. But methinks he forgot about the large swath of folks who probably found this to be some combo of outdated, irrelevant, drearily sung, not at all believable and absolutely boring. Grade: D
Holly Tucker: Rascal Flatts’ “My Wish” (Contestant’s Choice) | The judges’ praise of Holly’s performance was so muted, it might as well have come with a muzzle. (Shakira’s compliment that Holly consistently gives “good performances” that are “mostly in tune” was especially damning.) And while I can’t say Holly didn’t hit a good 95 percent of her votes, the performance had all the artistry and unexpectedness of a pageant contestant using her final interview question to wish for world peace. If one assumes that a three-way Blake vote-split has to sneak up and bite one of his contestants this week — not an unforseen possibility — then I suspect it’ll be Holly who pays the ultimate price. Grade: B
Michelle Chamuel: Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” (Contestant’s Choice) | Yep, Usher called in the big guns getting Taylor Swift to drop by during Michelle’s rehearsal, but the real excitement began a third of the way into the performance, when Michelle stopped swallowing the ends of her phrases, dropped into her trademark crouch and punch, and brought a raucous rocker energy to the stage that shook the entire telecast to its core. Not only did Michelle land like a jetliner alongside a pile of her model-airplane rivals, but she reinvented Ms. Swift’s pop ditty into a true, gut-busting rock anthem. Based on the thunderous applause Michelle received from the in-house audience, if she doesn’t make it all the way to the Season 4 finale, the show’s producers may have to deal with a riot in the venue. And to be honest, I’d raise a brickbat and torch in protest, too. Grade: A
Amber Carrington: Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” (Contestant’s Choice) | On paper, this could’ve been a safe way for Amber to connect with the core country fan base she desires without stretching her artistry too far, but girlfriend pulled off a tricky fete here: Coloring within the lines of Patsy Cline’s much-revered original, but shading it with unexpected hues like the high notes she selected on “what would I do,” the slide she worked into “worry,” the drag of the mic stand as she moved to the front of the stage. Amber’s got as much — if not more horsepower — than anyone in the competition, but she’s also got a way of polishing a lyric till its meaning shines through all the fog and noise and lighting that are part and parcel of The Voice experience. Blake’s “I thought it was good” may have been as close as he came all night to a put-down, but maybe that’s because Amber is perhaps the only direct threat to his sweet Danielle’s country-radio crown.
Danielle Bradbery: Sara Evans’ “A Little Bit Stronger” (Contestant’s Choice) | It was a little jarring to see the show’s producers use rehearsal footage of Danielle struggling with pitch — especially because if they wanted to level the playing field, they’d could’ve just had Danielle take Holly’s usual position and go first or second in the lineup. On live TV, though, there were no such snafus hampering Danielle’s performance, aside from the fact that (as is becoming standard) there was no real sense of surprise, no great payoff aside from that king-sized final glory note. The question is, though, if Blake’s bunt-and-get-to-first strategy is paying off, is there any incentive for him to encourage some risk-taking from Danielle and go for the homer? I’m hoping for Danielle’s shake — and for all the sake of our next two Mondays — that the answer turns out to be “yes.” It’d certainly make for better (or at least more suspenseful) television. Grade: B
Sasha Allen: Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” (Shakira’s Choice) | When I first heard that Shakira had picked a Carrie Underwood tune for Sasha, I was as flummoxed as the first time I listened to “Poem to a Horse.” But when Shaki encouraged her last woman standing to take the tune from the country to the city, I started to get excited. Sure, I could’ve lived without Sasha ripping off her red cape-dress to reveal a set of thigh-high boots and sparkly black romper that seemed at odds with everything we’ve seen from her to date, but the vocal and the arrangement were really, really cool. I loved the introduction of horn and organs into the opening verse — the way the story of a woman scorned and angry got transformed from a country-pop classic into a Broadway blues tale. If Sasha doesn’t lose her taste for risk-taking mischief, she might just rise above her underdog status and make Blake wish he’d kept an oddball contender back in the Battle or Knockout Rounds. Grade: A-
[PSA Time: On the subject of risk-taking oddballs, have you heard former Team Blake-r Grace Askew's fantastic new single "Empty Rooms"? If not, click here and give a listen -- and bear in mind you can download it at CDBaby. Anyhow, back to your regularly scheduled recap!]
Should go home: Holly
Will go home: Holly
And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of Season 4 Top 6 performance night? What did you think of the coaches’ comments? Who was your favorite? Who’s going to be in trouble come results night? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments, and for all my Voice-related news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!