Usain Bolt is to the Olympics what The Voice‘s fifth season is to reality singing competitions: Fast, thrilling and seemingly invincible.
So it seemed most peculiar — and actually a little shocking — that the gold-medal-winning sprinter’s appearance on tonight’s Top 10 performance telecast turned out to be the most sluggish two hours the NBC ratings powerhouse has presented in recent memory.
Carson Daly tried to convince us that Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” isn’t a threadbare reality competition staple, but rather a song that James Wolpert was introducing to today’s youth. Christina Aguilera dodged and weaved like a champion boxer — trying to avoid getting caught giving the tart criticisms that were percolating at the tip of her tongue. And I kinda, sorta found myself wishing Christina Milian might stage a sit-in in the Sprint Skybox, just to add a little excitement to the proceedings.
OK, OK, I didn’t mean that last part. We’ve all heard enough “What’s up, Carson?”s to last us a lifetime. So let me jump to letter grades for tonight’s performances:
Austin Jenckes (Team Blake): Outfield’s “Your Love” — Grade: C- | Sorry, big fella, but if I hadn’t taken notes during the show, my memories of this performance would be limited to: A. Your interview clip about driving a forklift when you first moved to Nashville. B. A painful series of glory notes toward the end. C. The sense that Blake, realizing he’s unlikely to have three of the final eight acts, saddled you with a super-generic song about cheating on one’s girlfriend, then pretended it would give you the ability to shock voters and “make it your own.” Spoiler alert: Neither one of those things happened.
Jacquie Lee (Team Xtina): Zedd featuring Foxes’ “Clarity” — Grade: B- | I understood Christina wanting to show a softer side of Jackie, but why rip her out of the retro-soul/rock wheelhouse where she’s made her mark in the last three weeks? There are plenty of ditties, after all, that aren’t stripped-down versions of generic dance-pop hits! Jacquie herself looked — and definitely sounded — tentative for the opening half of the performance, never quite latching onto the pitch. Things improved once she slid off the piano and caught the groove of the chorus — the little upward lift into falsetto territory on “lo-ove!” was a nice touch — but for the first time since her Battle Round vs. Kaley Cuoco’s sister, Jacquie wound up looking vulnerable. (And alas, I mean vulnerable from a competitive standpoint, not in the emotional way Xtina was hoping.)
Will Champlin (Team Adam): John Newman’s “Love Me Again” — Grade: B | Will’s vocal one of the night’s most accurate, and his journey from sitting at the piano to standing behind the piano to rocking out at center stage went much more smoothly than it did during his Top 20 take on “Secrets.” Still, there are still moments where Will’s face and body language are very “4:58pm in Corporateville” — as if he’s already visualizing his commute home and what he might order for dinner. Or maybe, faced with a middling track like “Love Me Again,” Will was merely brainstorming better song choices for Top 8 week?
Caroline Pennell (Team Cee Lo): Peter, Paul & Mary’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” — Grade: B+ | Cee Lo, whose feedback usually amounts to the sound the adults make on The Peanuts, rolled up his zippery leather sleeves and criticized his own artist (a Voice first?) for not opening up enough and allowing the band to overpower her tonight. Normally, I’d applaud that brand of unbiased honesty — except for the fact that dude’s complaint seemed totally unfounded. Sure, “Leaving on a Jet Plane” all but has an “I’m From the ’60s!” tattoo on its hindquarters, but Caroline delivered it with a wistfulness and clarity that overcame the clunky rainbows-and-butterflies animation on the screens behind her. Yes, the kid needs to use her Google Maps app and get off the corner of Pixie Dust Lane and Earnest Avenue next week — click here for some possible song sugestions — but she should (and most likely will) sail through to the Top 8 anyhow.
Cole Vosbury (Team Blake): Mr. Big’s “To Be With You” — Grade: B- | Was it just me, or did the sound mix on Cole’s performance border on disgraceful? Granted, Bearded McSexypants made the peculiar choice to let a coven of backround singers sing the melody on the chorus — making for some awkward pauses from the man at center stage — but then again, watching Cole fiddle with his earpiece mid-song made me wonder if technical difficulties were in play. In spite of those stumbles, though, the grit and maturity in Cole’s tone made it work better than it should’ve, and better than Blake’s “so acoustic!” feedback indicated.
Tessanne Chin (Team Adam): Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “If I Were Your Woman” — Grade: B- | All in favor of a “Free Tessanne!” movement that allows her to switch to Team Xtina or Team Blake (or heck, even Team Crazy Choreography), raise your hand. Because based on Adam’s fusty old song choice — and his instructions to “start at zero, end at crazy” — I’m convinced he has no idea what to do with this powerhouse vocalist who desperately needs to forge her own musical identity, rather than bulldozing her way through her future Vegas lounge show. That maybe sounds harsher than I meant it. Tessanne hit most of her notes, even if her “If I Were Your Woman” lacked subtlety and freshness, but there’s also a sense that her potential is going untapped. And time, alas, is running short.
Ray Boudreaux (Team Blake): Ray Lamontagne’s “You Are the Best Thing” — Grade: C+ | Much like off-brand peanut butter, I suppose there was nothing especially wrong with Ray’s tuneful but listless “You Are the Best Thing.” Well, except for the lack of creativity and surprise. And the overarching sense of detachment. And the blanket of ennui that envelops me and threatens to send me into night-night times just for daring to think deeply about something so sleepy.
James Wolpert (Team Adam): Harry Nilsson/Badfinger’s “Without You” — Grade: B+ | The whole art-deco vibe of the set and James’ mic-stand/cane, lapel-poppy combo added an aura of coolness to his performance without threatening to overpower it. (Take notes, Cee Lo!) And while Xtina was right that his pitch “didn’t always line up” — bless her approval-craving heart for working so hard to not get labeled as “the bitchy one” this season — James’ ability to infuse the oft-heard ballad with a modern-rock sensibility was pretty nifty. Yeah, his vocal ambitions sometimes exceed his abilities by 10-15%, but at least the dude is pushing himself and performing every number like it could be his last, no?
Kat Robichaud (Team Cee Lo): Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” — Grade:
B C+ | I was so bummed by Kat’s Bottom 3 showing after last week’s electrifying “Sail” — and so bewildered by the Paso Doble Dance Troupe that backed her — that I’ve got to cop to having initially given her a higher grade than she deserved. On second listen, it became abundantly evident that Kat was struggling mightily with the lower portions of La Benatar’s range-y pop hit, and still wobbled like a balloon full Jell-o when she transitioned to her belt-y comfort zone. So while I’d still be more intrigued to hear Kat than Austin or Ray next week, I can’t pretend she significantly outperformed them tonight, either.
Matthew Schuler (Team Xtina): Labrinth featuring Emeli Sande’s “Beneath Your Beautiful” — Grade: A- | Matthew began his performance this week tentatively, almost inaudibly, and while perhaps the arrangement was a bit lower than it should’ve been, there was also a tenderness and vulnerability in that cragginess that fit the lyrics rather perfectly. By the time the kid unleashed his full voice to convey the romantic sweep of yet another Emeli Sande number — what’s Idol and The Voice’s obsession with this chica? — I was sold. Now let’s see if he can create the same magic in the first or second performance slot next week, shall we?
Should go home: Austin, Ray
Will go home: Austin, Kat
And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of Top 10 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!