But like the two diggers’ worth of animal dung that Adam Levine dumped onto Blake Shelton’s shiny red pickup truck out in the show’s parking lot tonight, there always seems to be something getting in the way of this undeniably terrific quintet of vocalists.
Look! It’s Carson Daly kicking off the episode with a way-too-long shout-out to Transformers: Age of Distinction, “a huge movie that everybody’s looking forward to!” — minus, at a minimum, myself and star Mark Wahlberg, whose brief promotional appearance filled him with all the outward joy of a restaurant patron impaling the roof of his mouth with a clam shell during a paella dinner.
Listen! It’s Usher calling Shakira “an incredible young Cuban fire-hot ball” — despite even casual fans of the show knowing she’s Colombian (and that maybe we need to retire any variation on the adjective “fiery” to describe Latinas — rápidamente). (One segment later, Carson corrected the error, and Shakira scored her best one-liner of the season: “If I’m from Cuba, he’s from the great state of Nashville!” she giggled, referencing Usher’s Season 4 confusion over the Tennessee capital being its own state.)
And yep, let us pause to consider the aformentioned, manure-scented distraction that only proved how awkward it is when Adam attempts to match Blake’s effortless sense of humor. (Is it possible Mr. Shelton has never been invited to host Saturday Night Live, or does Justin Timberlake writes him a six-figure check every time Blake turns such offers down?)
Alas, the show’s obsession with its coaches will probably prove as tough to quell as the Screaming Mimi who’s always harmonizing with The Voice theme going out of and coming into commercial breaks, but that’s not gonna stop me from focusing on what’s important: Finding a successor to Season 5 champ Tessanne Chin, a successor who (we can only hope) can build some real traction on the Billboard charts.
With that in mind, let’s jump to letter grades for the episode’s performances — each contestant selected one ditty as a tribute, and got assigned a seocond song by his or her coach:
Kristen Merlin (Team Shakira): Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead” — Grade: B | Kristen honored her Massachusetts hometown with a song about… an abused woman greeting her paroled mate with a loaded shotgun? (A song, incidentally, that’s been covered more times on reality singing shows lately than a rich lady’s backyard pool on a windy day.) Yeah, the subject matter was a little jarring juxtaposed with the dedication, but I understood Ms. Merlin’s desire to prove she can hold onto her pitch — and the audience’s attention — while simultaneously working the stage. Yet while Kristen’s Shaki-esque vibrato added a nice bit of texture to the choruses, there were also moments where Kristen struggled to be heard over the show’s background vocalists. As a “Get Out the Vote/Convert the Vote” strategy to get her to the finals, alas, this was about as effective as a flyer slipped under a stranger’s windshield wiper. (Still better than Shakira’s bizarre “You represent all the minorities out there!” talking point, though.)
Josh Kaufman (Team Usher): John Legend’s “All of Me” — Grade: A- | Before I praise Josh’s nuanced hearbreaker of a performance, can I please have permission to roll my eyes at the highly literal framed photos of Josh’s family that some overzealous set designer (or Usher) insisted on using as a backdrop. (Missed opportunity for some Olan Mills promotional synergy, Mark Burnett!) Anyhow, one of Josh’s great strengths as an artist is the way he controls his pitch on quiet whispered moments as easily as he does on big, belty notes. “All of Me” was a case study in this skill set, with the college tutor’s husky lower tone transitioning effortlessly into falsetto, his intimate pillow talk giving way to bursts of passion on lines like “head underater, but I’m breathing fine.” The guy is bloody fantastic, and it’s not really up for debate, even. That said, I’d love it if for once — just once! — Adam didn’t start his critique by telling us he let Josh go during the battles; I mean, keep yelling faux self-deprecating garbage like “I’m a moron!” and eventually we might start believing you, Adam! (Maybe we already do?!)
Kat Perkins (Team Adam): Sia’s “Chandelier” — Grade: A- | Adam’s not above sabotaging one of his team members to ensure a Chosen One’s survival — he’s the Darwin of the panel, to be sure — so is it possible he steered Season 6’s rocker chick toward a very tricky EDM track and a Disney princess ballad — without a single song from her preferred genre — in order to bolster Christina’s chances? Quite possibly. But despite certain members of my household (AKA my hubby) wincing at the way Kat swooped upward and twistingly against Sia’s insane melody — like a BMX stunt rider flying off a ramp– I found myself in a a dual state of being impressed (“Yowza! Is there a note Kat can’t hit?”) and deeply moved (by the way Kat brought to life the desperate party girl at the center of the song). If this polarizing track leads to Kat’s ouster, at least she exits on a high note — or 20 (but who’s counting?).
Jake Worthington (Team Blake): Waylon Jennings’ “Good Ol’ Boys” — Grade: B+ | And the award for Most Improved Vocal Vs. Last Week goes to… drumroll please (and imagine the next two words in the voice of an excited Carson Daly)… “Jake! Worthington!” Granted, the Texas teenager’s rock-solid rendition of “Good Ol’ Boys” still didn’t play like Top 3 material, not to my ears anyway, but there was an aw-shucks charm to Jake’s entire performance — along with good pitch and a little bit of rhythmical improvosation — that made it pleasing to the ear. Mind you, I’m not sure if his singing-boy-next-door style makes him any more of an American than someone from the Bronx or Chicago or South Dakota or the middle of Wyoming — as Adam and Blake semed to suggest — but hey, that’s Mark Burnett’s narrative, and he’s obviously stickin’ with it.
Christina Grimmie (Team Adam): Imogean Heap’s “Hide and Seek” — Grade: B- | Christina has definitely won me over in the past month with her divalicious belting and potent stage presence. Still, I can’t pretend Adam’s Vocoder-heavy arrangement and choice of an Enya-esque cover painted her in the modern, take-charge light with which The Voice has previously portrayed her. As Usher pointed out, the opening half of the performance was marked by a disconnect — emotion got trumped by awkward staging and mood lighting –but Christina’s prior body of work makes her a lock for the finale, so maybe a little experimentation — even of the unsuccessful variety — was apt this week?
Josh Kaufman (Team Usher): One Republic’s “Love Runs Out” — Grade: A- | Speaking of risks, how about Josh shifting out of the smooth-soul lane and into raucous, rockin’ territory? Dude grabbed ahold of the melody of OneRepublic’s latest ditty like a cheetah to an impala’s leg, the ferocity of his desire to crack the finals almost palpable, the staccato punch of lines like “I’ll be your light! Your match! Your burning sun!” as bracing as a blast of office-lobby air-conditioning on a boiling summer day. I would’ve maybe liked a little more boogie in place of Josh’s perfunctory stage-walking, but that’s just being nitpicky. Instead, I’ll just thank Josh for injecting some suspense into the proceedings (aka providing a possible narrative alternative to The Lady Grimmie’s victory march).
Kat Perkins (Team Adam): Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” (from Frozen) — Grade: C | It was super sweet of Kat to dedicate this Disney ballad to the family for whom she used to nanny, but the actual execution made about as much sense as storing your ice cube tray in a 450-degree oven. The verse seemed like it was pitched too low, with several noticable intonation woes, while the glory notes bordered on strident. And the “rockin'” arrangement was too cheesy by half. No, it wasn’t an Adele Dazim-level disaster, but Usher and Shakira’s faint praise — the former droned on about wanting an ice fortress on stage, the latter declared the song “an unexpected pick” — indicated there was blood in the (ice) water. Side note: What’s more irksome — Adam repeatedly referring to this 33-year-old woman as “a girl” or The Voice producers showing Kat out in the back lot before her performance, thus spoiling any surprise over Kat’s black-and-blue beaded gown?
Kristen Merlin (Team Shakira): Jewel’s “Foolish Games” — Grade: A | My heart broke a little for Kristen watching her eyes fill with tears of uncertainty during her rehearsal package. But once she took the stage for her actual performance, the only heartbreak centered on the tale of bad romance being spun by the country cutie. I loved the way her voice almost mimicked the band’s string section in the opening lines, the way she pulled back the verses to something just a half-step louder than a whisper — a choice that made her emotions even more explosive, her delivery even more chilling when she tapped into her anger and disappointment to belt lines like “Excuse me, I must’ve mistaken you for somebody else/ Somebody who gave a damn/ Someone more like me.” The chorus was, in a word, gorgeous — and it came at just the right moment in the competition, too. I just wish the producers had seen fit to let Kristen have the last word (for once) and close the show — an honor that Team Shakira hasn’t experienced since the Battle Rounds back in March.
Christina Grimmie (Team Adam): .fun’s “Some Nights” — Grade: B+ | Adam’s fellow coaches clearly don’t want him occupying two of the three finale slots, thus explaining their critiques that centered mostly on the balloons that fell from the rafters on the final chorus and the fact that Christina decided to explore more of a pop-rock lane after leaning R&B most of the season. Still, while this was far from Christina’s best work on the show, it once again displayed her vocal dexterity and ability to stay in tune in the face of difficult high notes and tricky wordplay. Yeah, girlfriend needs to be careful not to veer into the tippy-top of her range — aka the strident part — but I appreciated the attempt to show a different side of her artistry during a crucial crossroad in the competition.
Jake Worthington (Team Blake): Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” — Grade: C+ | Jake seems like a nice kid — or at least Blake Shelton’s done a dang good job making him look that way. But, honestly, I heard nothing remarkable at all in his countrified cover of “Heaven” — not the quavery nervousness in the opening verse, not the intermittent pitch problems, either. To my mind, Jake hasn’t yet made the leap from reality-show contestant to viable post-show artist, but the production chose to give him the coveted episode-closing spot rather than the far worthier Kristen. Not only that, but Usher gave Jake an added gift of mentioning “issues” with Jake’s throat — aka a cold that affected his performance. Blake, never missing an opportunity to subtly build his contestant’s popularity, added that Jake never would’ve mentioned his illness, and “that’s what I respect about you, man.” Hey, why would he need to mention it when half the panel is doing it for him?
SHOULD BE BOTTOM 3: Kat, Jake, Christina (Kat and Jake going home)
WILL BE BOTTOM 3: Kat, Jake, Kristen (Kat and Jake going home)
What did you think of the Top 5? Who were your faves? Who’s in trouble? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments! And for all my reality TV-related news, interviews and recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!