The Voice Recap: Playoffs, Playa!

Gwen Stefani may have a new romance on her hands with fellow coach Blake Shelton — news apparently so earth-shattering that even Nightline (¡!) ran a segment on it — but one thing she shouldn’t expect in her Christmas stocking this year is a winner’s statuette from The Voice to match the quartet on her beau’s mantle.

This is no knock whatsoever on #TeamGwen — home to two of my favorite Season 9 contestants. It’s just that at every turn, executive producer Mark Burnett & Co. have not-so-subtly been the Zola Budd to her Mary Decker. (Feel free to join in a rousing chorus of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” here.)

Gwen saw more of her Battle Rounds matchups get the dreaded montage treatment than any of her fellow coaches. Not one of her contestants has received the Relentless Pre-Commercial Break Pimpage that’s carried many a prior contestant to the winner’s circle. And this week, for Night 1 of the Live Playoffs — in which her hopefuls shared the spotlight with Team Adam — her rival coach landed three of the final four performance slots (always preferable for garnering viewer votes) and then saw the night turn into a very premature coronation for Adam’s main man Jordan Smith. (Two out of three dentists Voice coaches use the word “God” when discussing Jordan’s vocals — srsly!)

Trouble is, I’m not at all convinced Jordan is any more talented than Team Gwen’s Jeffery Austin, or any more commercially viable than her Viktor Kiraly. But neither of those fellas have yet to see their tickets stamped for the NBC Promotional Hype Express. To quote Ms. Stefani’s breakout hit “I’m Just a Girl,” ohhhhh I’ve had it up to here.

Anyhow, while you ponder whether I’ve got a point here (or if I’m Just a Stooge), allow me to share my personal rankings of Monday’s 12 performers — split by team, and with letter grades included!

Team Gwen
6. Braiden Sunshine, “Everything I Own” — If Carolyn Keene was writing this recap, she might title this section Nancy Drew and the Mystery of Braiden’s Intermittently Disappearing Voice. I mean — it just kept dropping into the abyss, people! There were dozens of botches notes. There was perhaps no intellectual or emotional grasp of the lyrical content. And then there was Adal Levine yammering about how Braiden “wanted to do more than the song was doing,” before going all sheepish-like and backtracking and saying, “I’m being stupidly critical.” Oh, Adam, if you don’t have anything nice to say, just shut your trap and leave the dirty work to bitchy bloggers like me, K? Grade: D

5. Regina Love, “Hello” — Based on her raspy post-performance comments, I’m pretty sure Regina was fighting some kind of nasty cold — which is about the only excuse for her two-minute-long struggle to stay on pitch and hide the clear terror in her eyes. I’m not sure there’s a vocalist on the planet who should be tackling an Adele song within two weeks of its release — Gwen, ask for help on Twitter if you’re clueless about song-selection strategy. But it looks as though the woman who shook the entire competition with her “Midnight Train to Georgia” will be getting a one-way ticket back to a simpler place and time on Wednesday. Grade: C-

4. Korin Bukowski, “Adia” — To be fair to Korin (who seemed like a Top 12 shoo-in before this week) the band’s arrangement of Sarah McLachlan’s ballad was like wading neck deep through cold oatmeal, what with the lethargic drums and the syrupy synths. Even the mad scientists at the factory where they make the elevator music would be shouting, “Show some enthusiasm!” Even if the arrangement had been more compelling, though, Korin’s tentative approach to the melody made for a strange and unsettling experience. Even her facial expression gave me the vibe that she hadn’t had enough time to practice and couldn’t stop thinking, “Ugh, I’m gonna mess up every fifth or sixth note” — and then it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wouldn’t be upset if Korin edged out Ellie for the No. 3 slot on Team Gwen, but I won’t be crushed if she doesn’t, either. Grade: C+

3. Ellie Lawrence, “Ex’s & Oh’s” (Elle King’s spelling, not mine) — No one is going to hand Ellie a trophy for Season 9’s Most Accurate Vocalist — she probably missed as many notes as Korin this week, if I’m being honest. But unlike Korin’s baby-giraffe-staring-into-the-eyes-of-a-cheetah panic, Ellie sold her jam with rock-star swagger and excitement. Gwen’s “Coach’s Comeback” pick may be on borrowed time, but dammit, she’s going to make us have fun at her party while it lasts. Grade: B-

2. Viktor Kiraly, “All Around the World” — I should probably start this paragraph by admitting my deep affection for Lisa Stanfield’s music — and adding that “This Is the Right Time” and “All Woman” would’ve also been stellar choices, too. So even though Gwen’s attempt to D’Angelo-ize the 1989 ditty kinda actually backfired and made it sound even more throwback-y, it nevertheless provided a nice vocal showcase for Victor — from his low, “hey baby” growls to his ambitious falsetto. I hope Gwen can crack Viktor’s superpro outer shell in the next few weeks and expose some genuine vulnerability, but at this tenuous point in the season, I’ll gladly accept him singing in tune (combined with an actual ability to work the stage). Grade: A-

1. Jeffery Austin, “Say You Love Me” — I try not to quote the coaches all that often because their steady stream of “goods,” “greats” and “gloriouses” kind of morph into one giant blob of noise that’s reminiscent of the adults on The Peanuts‘ animated specials. But Adam was absolutely right in his assessment that Jeffery is a legit contender to win the entire competition. The former publicist knows exactly how to wring the maximum amount of emotion from a lyric — his phrasing never seems rushed, his investment in the melody never forced — and he’s got good taste in music, too. Granted, we’ve never heard him attempt to go uptempo — might I suggest George Michael’s “Freedom ’90” or Terence Trent D’Arby’s “Wishing Well” — but his under-the-radarness could make him the choice of folks who don’t especially enjoy force-feedings. Grade: A

Team Adam
6. Chance Pena, “Barton Hollow” — Wait a second! Cassandra Robertson — so flawless in her Battle against Viktor Kiraly — didn’t get a callback so that… Chance could get a Coach’s Callback and wobble his way through a Civil Wars track that was three sizes too big for his voice? Oh, Adam, you live to disappoint! Would it be too mean to isolate the first four words of Blake’s critique — “You dump 150 percent [of yourself into your performances]” — as an accurate assessment of Adam’s decision/Chance’s finished product? Grade: C

4. Keith Semple, “To Be With You” — As the coaches danced their way around all the “gaps” in Keith’s song choice, I kept screaming at my TV, “Why didn’t you sing the melody to the chorus at least once — instead of delivering so much ad lib/pause/ad lib/pause ridiculousness?!” And why didn’t Adam discourage Keith from aiming for so many falsetto notes (which are definitely not the guy’s strong suit)? Making matters worse, the weird mix on the house band’s backup singers robbed the number of even the slightest hint of rock edge, downgrading this performance from bar-band level to early-bird dinner-accompaniment. Grade: C+

4. Blaine Mitchell, “Never Tear Us Apart” — Blaine hit more notes than he missed, but his energy was so tentative, his lack of passion so pronounced, I couldn’t believe he was the same fella who crushed Andi & Alex in the Knockout Rounds with his scorching rendition of “Hold Back the River.” To put it another way, when Gwen’s biggest compliment is about how free you are with your body, then it was probably a pretty ho-hum vocal. Grade: C+

3. Amy Vachal, “The Way You Look Tonight” — The judges raved and raved about Amy’s performance — Blake is ready to download her yet-to-be-recorded Christmas album — but completely neglected the breath-control issues that began to crop up around the halfway point (or as Adam calls it, “technical mumbo jumbo”). Sure, her down-the-scale run coming out of the second verse was a nifty trick, but she’ll need stronger technique and frankly, more physical presence (the kind Rihanna begged her for in the Knockouts) if she has any shot at the finals.  Grade: B-

2. Shelby Brown, “You’re No Good” — Shelby has as much raw talent as anyone in the Season 9 field, as her Linda Ronstadt cover proved — but her monster range and piercingly lovely tone got blunted by amateur mistakes. For one, Adam needs to promptly teach her the power of dynamics — Shelby never quite got the quiet slinkiness of the verse down pat this week — and drill into her head the importance of really understanding the words she’s singing. I hate to say this out loud, but like many of the fans Shelby encounters, I wish she was on Team Blake, too. Grade: B

1. Jordan Smith, “Halo” — I’m not sure if it’s the excessive hype that precedes every one of his performances or the way his tone gets slightly shrill at the top of his range, but I am not 100 percent sold on Jordan. Granted, his “Halo” showcased he’s got tremendous power and control — but I also feel at an emotional arm’s length when he’s got the mic, almost as if he’s more focused on making me hear where his voice can take him, rather than using his voice to take me somewhere special. Yeah, yeah, it wouldn’t shock me if Jordan wins me over before Thanksgiving — but let’s not hand him the crown just yet, OK? Grade: A-

OK, your turn. What did you think of Night 1 of the Season 9 Live Playoffs? Whose elimination would crush you? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments!