Shhhhhhh. Be very, very quiet. If you listen closely enough, you’ll hear the subtle shade dripping from the tongues of The Voice‘s shiny, happy coaching panel.
“You’re still in the process of really improving a lot,” Adam said cheerily to Team Xtina’s Nick Hagelin, which, translated into Real Talk, would go something like, “Dude, you’ve got a long way to go.”
“That was super solid, Mary,” countered Xtina, describing Team Blake’s Mary Sarah with the most damning adjective she’ll allow herself to say on live television. “[There were] some nice notes toward the end there, too!” Ouch! I felt that punch like it was hitting me — and not the country hopeful wearing a repurposed costume from the Tonya Harding Collection — in the kidneys.
In the midst of the silent assassinations, though, there were some genuine and well-earned moments of “Woo-hoo!” and “A-ha!” — though not quite as many of them as I’d anticipated, forgetting how nerves always cloud the tone and accuracy of vocals in the Live Playoffs (aka the first week the public gets to vote).
With that said, let me jump straight into letter grades for Team Xtina and Team Blake’s singers — Teams Adam and Pharrell take the stage Tuesday:.
TEAM BLAKE (Ranked Worst to Best)
Mary Sarah – Lynn Anderson’s “(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden” — Grade: C- | The minute Mary ran out of air on the opening verse, it was clear her front-runner’s ship was already too close to the iceberg to slow down and course-correct. And despite a huge boost from the background singers that no other contestant received, there was no hiding the vocal meltdown playing out on the stage: Mary swallowed her notes, let her final glory note slip away, and sang with the distractedness of a woman who was thinking about how to salvage her technique and forgetting her connection to the lyrics in the process.
Justin Whisnant – Travis Tritt’ “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)” — Grade: C+ | Justin’s a sweet fella who clearly loves to sing, but his performance was as nondescript as the white space in between this paragraph and the next one about Paxton Ingram. If Blake’s taking a country male hopeful to the Top 12, it’s going to be Adam 100 times out of 100 — and that does not bode well for Justin, assuming he’ll need Blake’s sole save to round out the team’s Top 3.
Paxton Ingram – Calvin Harris’ “How Deep Is Your Love” — Grade: B- | Nothing says “you’re cannon fodder” quite like getting assigned an electronic dance jam — without the slightest interesting twist in arrangement. Paxton was mostly in tune, but it didn’t take long for the performance to feel as labored and fleeting as Blake’s attempt at the “Whip/Nae Nae.”
Katie Basden – Trisha Yearwood’s “Georgia Rain” — Grade: B- | I loved Katie’s Knockout Round performance so much, I was willing to overlook the flat note that crept into the last line of the opening verse. Unfortunately, that stumble was one of eight or ten questionable notes throughout the performance. Girlfriend might’ve saved herself with a potent glory note at the end, but Pharrell’s bizarre critique — “You should be actively pursuing this right now!” — made it sound as though this was the last time he’d be seeing her. Ummm… I didn’t get the memo that Katie was about to be escorted off the stage to pack her personal belongings in a box, did you?
Joe Maye – The Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Runnin” — Grade: B+ | Joe entered the Live Playoffs as a bit of an underdog, and of all the night’s performances, his possessed the gutsy, gutty energy of a man well aware that this might be his final time on The Voice stage. His fiery growl on the verses – combined with a smoother approach to the choruses — wasn’t entirely without flaw, but the fact that he doubled down on hip-swaying, boogying, stage-working energy helped set Joe apart from his competitors. If he’s not a Top 2 vote-getter on his team, here’s hoping Blake rewards Joe’s efforts by handing him his sole coach’s save.
Adam Wakefield – Ray Charles and Willie Nelson’s “Seven Spanish Angels” — Grade: B+ | I still think Adam’s a legit threat to make the finale with his gruff, soulful tone and consistent ability to breathe life into a lyric. And while those qualities were in effect during “Seven Spanish Angels,” his enunciation – an issue Blake warned about in rehearsal — and the sleepy nature of the track in question made this his weakest effort of Season 10 thus far.
TEAM XTINA (Ranked Worst to Best)
Kata Hay – Aretha Franklin’s “You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” — Grade: D | Like a hyena tearing into a wounded impala, there was brute force behind Kata’s cover, and the end result was similar, too: Bloody, primal and a little hard to watch. I’m sure Kata is a hoot and a holler when she’s hosting karaoke nights in Nashville, but her lack of nuance and restraint make her an almost certain casualty during Wednesday’s results.
Tamar Davis – Andra Day’s “Rise Up” — Grade: D+ | Tamar’s Battle and Knockout Rounds were among Season 10’s finest, so it pained me to witness her using an industrial sprayer when she should’ve opted for delicate brushstrokes to color in Andra Day’s breathtaking hit. It didn’t help that the arrangement added a frantic quality that runs in direct opposition to the lyric, but Tamar only has herself to blame for overshooting the note almost every time she went in for a showstopping run. Oh, they stopped the show all right – like a Subway train slamming on the brakes. Here’s hoping Xtina doesn’t forget Tamar’s promise, however, and gives her the coach’s save over her cute-boy steals Nick and Ryan.
Nick Hagelin – Rihanna’s “Stay” — Grade: C+ | I’d equate Nick’s performance to one of those fancy bags of gourmet jellybeans. There were definitely some sweet moments in his head voice, but there were also far too many notes that played like “buttered popcorn” or “chili mango,” resulting in a loss of appetite for the hunky former dancer’s future performances.
Ryan Quinn – Sam Smith’s “I’m Not the Only One” — Grade: B | Ryan’s got a soothing, pretty tone, but some of his late-in-the-game riffs on the melody were wobblier than a tray of martinis carried by a 10-year-old. Plus, I didn’t really feel the depth of longing and heartache he claimed he’d be bringing to the lyrics. So how come dude got a four-coach Standing O?
Bryan Bautista – Zayn’s “Pillowtalk” — Grade: A- | It’s pretty clear exec producer Mark Burnett & Co. are going all in for a Team Xtina/”Break the Girl Curse” victory, but Bryan’s grown and sexy rendition of “Pillowtalk” (which started just a tad shaky but ended with an explosive falsetto run and an undeniable superstar swag) means that Ms. Aguilera could easily wind up finishing first and second in this cycle. I liked Bryan’s Knockout Rounds cover of “Sorry” a little better, but this week underscored just how big a threat he could be to a presumed Alisan victory march.
Alisan Porter – Janis Joplin’s “Cry Baby” — Grade: A- | First and foremost, there’s no denying Alisan’s vocal was the biggest, most accurate and peacock impressive of the episode. Yes, I did throw a Gospel hand when girlfriend threw back her head on the “cry cry cry” ad-lib section. The former Curly Sue star is a beast in her prime — and there’s no way she’s not going to be with us all the way through May. “Cry Baby,” however, played out more like a Broadway rendition of a new Janis Joplin musical than it did a banshee howl from the bottom of a conflicted woman’s soul. That’s not an innate criticism, but I do wonder if Alisan might want to avoid the classic rock lane going forward. When you sings-speak the line, “All you ever gotta do is be a good man, one time, to one woman!” it should border on religious testimony, not just pretty recitation. Oh, sure, I’m quibbling, but since the judges have probably completed the constructive criticism phase with the Chosen One, I figure I might as well pick up the slack.