Prediction: Tuesday night’s installment of The Voice will be as painful as cardboard paper cut, as unpopular as the words “Paris Hilton’s pop-culture comeback” and as unwelcome as the “shot through some sorority chick’s ‘heart fingers'” camera angle employed during Matthew Schuler’s Top 12 performance of “Hallelujah.”
Believe it or not, I mean this in no way as an insult to NBC’s juggernaut singing competition. It’s just that, with not a single singer bellyflopping into the very deep talent pool Monday night, the prospect of two impending eliminations seems somehow illegal, or at the very least heartbreaking.
I know, I know…now I sound even more relentlessly cheerleader-y than our four coaches, who actually attempted a few mild criticisms tonight: Blake and Adam correctly noting that the studio audience has zero rhythm — not that it stops Mark Burnett & Co. from zooming in on their utterly distracting displays of SwayBotics — and Xtina calling out a few instances of obvious vocal difficulty. (Thanks, girl, for subjecting yourself to audience rancor in the interest of constructive feedback!)
So who is going to be/should be in jeopardy? Let me first weigh in with my letter grades and reviews for the night’s performances:
Caroline Pennell (Team Cee Lo): Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” — Grade: B+ | There’s a wide-eyed openness to Caroline’s delivery and a warmth in her tone that distinguishes her from the rest of her competitors. But while Cee Lo’s choice of “Wake Me Up” picked up the tempo from her prior efforts, I feel like it’s even more vital that he allow his team’s pacesetter to explore different moods. How would her ethereal voice play when juxtaposed with dark and stormy lyrics? Can she embody a woman scorned or a woman obsessed? Is Caroline capable of tackling one of those “message songs” Cee Lo loves so much? If the kid can answer a few of those questions in the coming weeks, it could mean the difference between a trip to the finale vs. a shocking too-early exit.
Josh Logan (Team Xtina): Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” — Grade: C+ | At Xtina’s request, Josh dialed back the absurd avalanche of runs that buried his Live Playoffs rendition of “Crazy.” Alas, though, Josh threw out any sense of originality and emotional connectedness along with the bathwater. The end result was an exercise that was, at best, perfunctory, and at worst, a white flag in the face of some very stiff competition.
James Wolpert (Team Adam): The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” — Grade: B | James’ vocal this week was solid — and even occasionally thrilling, particularly when he dropped to his knees toward the end and brought to life the angst of the lyrics he was singing. I just wish he and Adam had worked a little harder at finding ways to deviate from the Killers’ original. Indeed, in a season where the competition is this close, survival is going to require more than the ability to trace the contours of somebody else’s work, but rather to create a masterpiece of one’s own making.
Austin Jenckes (Team Blake): Travis Tritt’s “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive” — Grade: B- | That high note Austin tackled toward the end of his first country outing proved he’s a rangier vocalist than we’ve seen over the course of Season 5 thus far. Still, I’d be lying if I said that six weeks from now, I’ll have vivid memories of this performance from the contestant Blake says is most likely to win the “Who Would You Want to Sit Down and Have a Beer With” prize. And as any veteran reality competition fan can confirm, in the early weeks of a season, you’re better off being memorably awful than merely decent. (In other words, a panicked fan base votes harder than a sleepy one.)
Jacquie Lee (Team Xtina): Jack White’s “Love Is Blindness” — Grade: A | Can a child be haunted? (I didn’t see Insidious, but that’s what the previews seemed to imply.) If so, then I’d like to know the identity of the masterful, slightly maniacal torch singer who possesses Jacquie every time she opens her mouth to sing. That ghost or phantasm or whatever she is built “Love Is Blindness” slowly, deliberately, wonderfully — bringing to life the ache of the verse before unleashing the full power of her voice in a way that had me hooting and hollering at my TV for a second straight week. And if Xtina keeps up the excellent song choices, that streak is likely to continue well past Thanksgiving.
Ray Boudreaux (Team Blake): John Legend’s “All of Me” — Grade: B+ | Xtina wasn’t wrong that Ray’s voice crumbled in spots like cereal flakes at the bottom of the bag — particularly in that series of falsetto notes that ended the performance. In the context of the song, though, such vulnerabilities and imperfections worked kinda brilliantly, turning his twist on “All of Me” into more of a whispered confessional than an announcement over the loudspeakers. “It’s gonna destroy women’s lives,” Blake declared of Ray’s undeniably sexy moment. Well, either that or cure them of Bieber Fever. (Sorry for invoking “Bieber.”)
Kat Robichaud (Team Cee Lo): AWOLNATION’s “Sail” — Grade: A- | I’m not sure that in the history of reality singing competitions, we’ve seen many contestants who’ve made as much week-to-week progress as Kat did leaping from last week’s listless, pitch-challenged “She Keeps Me Warm” to this week’s wonderful, almost animalistic “Sail.” Like Blake said, girlfriend was a lion on that Voice stage, but a lion who is capable of falling backwards into a crowd-surfing moment without missing a note in the process. (Side note: Kat’s death stare into said pit prior to her leap was a thing of unhinged beauty.) As Xtina correctly declared, “Kat came to play today!” And I’d like to cordially invite her to do more of the same in Top 10 week.
Jonny Gray (Team Cee Lo): Phil Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise” — Grade: B | This was hardly Jonny’s finest Voice moment — that distinction still goes to his “All These Things That I’ve Done” in the Blinds — mostly because he kept dropping the consonants at the beginning of words (especially those starting with the letter “h”). But I appreciated that the jangly, guitar driven pace was a departure from Phil Collins’ dreary original, and that the Cee Lo’s favorite former soldier made little melodic choices (like the way his voice went upward on the “thinks” on the chorus) to give his cover further reason to exist outside the competition.
Tessanne Chin (Team Adam): Emeli Sande’s “My Kind of Love” — Grade: B+ | Adam invoked the words “godliness,” “Xtina,” and “Whitney” in describing Tessanne’s powerhouse instrument, and I can’t even pretend dude was exaggerating. The former background singer wields her glory notes like Thor’s hammer, throwing down with such force that her emotions come at you in waves, never missing a note in the process. So how come I only gave her a B+? To be honest, it might have more to do with song choice (that Emeli Sande track is kinda one-note) than execution, but then again, Tessanne’s excessive amounts of quaver took me out of the moment a few times, as well. Yes, yes, I’m being nitpicky, but with so little separating the top tier of singers, those kinds of picayune details count. (Also: Whoever was responsible for Tessanne’s unfortunate “explosion of side curls” hairdo needs to be put in the penalty box for next week’s episode. Sorry, but it had to be said.)
Matthew Schuler (Team Xtina): Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” — Grade: A- | I’ll be honest: I winced when I heard Matthew was tackling one of the most overdone ditties in the history of reality singing competitions (at this point, it’s neck and neck with “I Have Nothing” and “Against All Odds”) and winced again at the too-literal church facade the set designer had placed behind him. (Am I crazy, or was that backdrop recycled from a prior season?) Luckily for Matthew, he’s got a voice so transcendent that the rulebook simply doesn’t apply. The smokey tone he used in the opening verse showcased a softer, gentler side of his voice — without in any way compromising his pitch (a problem that plagues a lot of big belty singers when they rein themselves in). And from that point out, almost every musical decision he made was flawless: The exquisite phrasing, the deft use of falsetto, the depth of emotion and the pleasing restraint had coach Xtina practically levitating with excitement. And who could blame her?
Cole Vosbury (Team Blake): Miguel’s “Adorn” — Grade: A | Show of hands: Was anyone expecting Blake’s bearded soul man — the contestant most likely to be mistaken for a real-life Muppett — would be the one to bring serious sexytimes to the Voice stage? But with his gravel-tinged twist on Miguel’s supersmooth R&B ditty, Cole not only proved he’s got heartthrob potential, but also the kind of audacious creativity that veers away from safe, expected song choices and arrangements. His fearless leap into falsetto at the end of the performance was a risk that paid off handsomely, and his articulation of every word of “Adorn” made the song come to life for me as if I was hearing it for the first time. That’s not an easy task when you’re covering a recent radio hit, but it proves Cole is a contestant who simply can’t be underestimated.
Will Champlin (Team Adam): Imagine Dragons’ “Demons” — Grade: B+ | Will’s third brush with elimination last week seemed to trigger an added urgency in his stage presence and delivery, which only served to intensify his cover of “Demons.” The guy’s voice is massive — on par with Matthew and Tessane in terms of raw horsepower, really — but now he needs to fully own it. When Will waded into the (dreadful) SwayBot pit toward the end of his performance, he lost control of his upper register a little, putting a little ding in an otherwise terrific effort. I’m not sure if that’s what caused Will to look so panic-stricken during the judges’ feedback, but in future weeks, he needs to remember that voters are swayed by every action in every second he’s on stage — singing or not. A well placed smile — or at least an unclenched jaw — might do him a lot of good with the speed-dialing set.
Should Be Bottom 3: Josh, Austin, Jonny (Josh & Austin going home)
Will Be Bottom 3: Josh, Ray, Tessanne (Josh & Ray going home)
And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of Top 12 performance night? Who were your faves? Who surprised you? Who will and should be at risk? Take our poll below, then expand on your thoughts in the comments!