So you go out to dinner and you order the mushroom cheeseburger with truffle aioli and shoestring onions. Your mouth is watering and your stomach is growling, but then the waiter comes out 20 minutes later and shakes his head.
“I’m so sorry. The mushroom cheeseburger with truffle aioli and shoestring onions fell on the floor and it’s covered in kitchenskank*. And it was the last one left. But you’re going to absolutely go nuts for this spaghetti squash entree. Don’t scowl — just try it!” (*Not a word, but should be.)
The above is my attempt at expressing my feelings about Night 1 of The Voice‘s Season 9 Knockout Rounds through the ancient art of the food metaphor.
To put it another way, I sat down craving some of my faves from the Blind Auditions and Battle Rounds, but wound up savoring entirely different flavors I didn’t even know I’d wanted.
A few performances wound up sounding uglier than Mike Huckabee talking about the legality of my marriage. Others were so sublime they had me wanting to write strongly worded Yelp reviews demanding everyone go out and get some.
However you felt about the half-dozen showdowns — and their outcomes — there was one element of Monday’s telecast that was indisputable: Special advisor Rihanna was Michelin Star-level terrific, giving specific notes (sometimes about specific notes), zeroing in on areas for improvement and rarely stooping to the level of fawning pablum that’s become all too commonplace for the regular lineup of coaches. (Could someone at NBC please draft Rihanna for Season 11? K. Thanks.)
But let’s not turn this recap into a Riri lovefest — although it must be said she somehow managed the impossible by making a sleeveless denim jumpsuit somehow less than hideous — and instead rank the six Knockouts in order from least- to most-promising winner:
6. Team Blake: Ivonne Acero, “Part of Me” defeats Chance Peña, “Demons” | Ivonne sounded like a really solid second-place finisher at a mid-sized high-school talent show. Poor Chance sounded like he was performing a one-man play called Journey to the Center of My Kidney Stones. Yet despite Blake weighing in on the right side of the one-on-one showdown, I’m not sure anyone involved came out of this looking or sounding like winners.
5. Team Gwen: Braiden Sunshine, “Feeling Good” defeats Ellie Lawrence, “Cool for the Summer” | Braiden won the night’s “Most Improved” trophy — but only because his Blind Audition and Battle Rounds vocals were pretty dismal. The good news was that while the kid still struggled with breath support — there was simply too much gasping for my tastes — he mostly stayed on pitch and didn’t ever look fully terrified to be there. Ellie, on the other hand, chose a song that didn’t showcase any of her natural grit — and then failed to put any kind of distinctive twist on it (the polar opposite of her glorious “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” audition). Even if, as Internet rumors have hinted, laryngitis hampered her pitch, there’s still no acocunting for the wrong-mindedness of all Ellie’s other Knockout Round decisions. If I’m being honest, I still might’ve declared her the winner — based on her overall body of work — but given Gwen’s clear adoration for 15-year-old moppet Braiden, I won’t be surprised if she uses her Live Playoffs save to get him all the way to the Top 12.
4. Team Blake: Barrett Baber, “Colder Weather” defeats Blind Joe, “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” | Rihanna gave some excellent advice to Barrett (which he didn’t fully embrace) about bringing the same level of electricity to his softer moments as he does his big, belty notes. I wish she’d also told the sorta-kinda country ham to open his eyes and not pull “emotion face” when he falls into a melody, but there’s no denying Barrett has a solid sense of pitch and muscular pipes with which to execute it. Blind Joe, on the other hand, watched his technique fly out the window —along with his confidence and any shot at the title — on a performance that cemented him as more of a club-night honky-tonker than as a vocalist ready to transition into prime time.
3. Team Adam: Blaine Mitchell, “Hold Back the River” defeats Andi & Alex, “Stupid Boy” | The twin-sister duo should’ve known better than to pick the same exact jam that provided Cassadee Pope with her breakthrough Voice moment — especially seeing how their solo lines exposed their heretofore unacknowledged weaknesses in pitch and tone. Even at their best, though, I’m not sure they’d have beaten Blaine, whose powerful, deliberate verse gave way to a plaintive, passionate howl on the chorus. As corny as his “Old Time Rock and Roll” was in the Battles, his “Hold Back the River” came across thrilling and relevant this time around.
2. Team Adam: Jordan Smith, “Set Fire to the Rain” defeats Viktor Kiraly, “If I Ain’t Got You” (Viktor stolen by Gwen) | If I’m being hyper critical, I’d have to ping both Jordan and Viktor for gilding the lily on their respective covers of Adele and Alicia Keys’ anthems — Jordan in the way his speeding high note scraped up against the guard rails, and Viktor in his not-fully-necessary falsetto riff. But there was plenty to like about these fellas, too. Jordan stayed right in the pocket through the verse, showcased a rumbling grit that pegs him as a more versatile vocalist than we’d been initially led to believe, and proved there’s a Mack-truck-sized engine fueling the whole situation. Viktor’s lower register, meanwhile, proved rich and succulent and dripping with real emotion. As long as he doesn’t overbake his delivery in an effort to one-up more peacock-y competitors, he could make Gwen look like the smartest person occupying a red spinny chair in Season 9.
1. Team Pharrell: Madi Davis, “A Case of You” defeats Amy Vachal, “A Sunday Kind of Love” (Amy stolen by Adam) | I fully expected Amy to annihilate Madi, but Rihanna’s advice to the latter singer about rounding her tone paid huge dividends: She painted a full portrait of romantic longing with brushstrokes totally different from Joni Mitchell’s original — managing to deliver intimacy, character and enviable power, sometimes all at once. Rihanna’s critique that Amy’s physical stiffness made her fantasy love story less believable got stuck in my head — making me focus on her stiff lower body and her hunched-over posture through most of her performance. That doesn’t mean her tone isn’t easy, breezy, beautiful — but her special advisor had a point that it’ll take more than a surface-level reading for her to go all the way in Season 9.