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The Voice Semifinal Recap: This Is... the Part Where... Four Break Free

“You can! You just have to clench your butt cheeks!”

Thank you, Pink, for bringing some levity to the second-most-stressful night of The Voice Season 10.

The guest mentor for the unbearable heaviness of the semifinal rounds — in which eight remaining artists duked it out for just four slots in the finale — didn’t bring a whole lot of serious advice at this late stage of the competition, but her tip to Laith Al-Saadi about how to hit a high note provided the episode’s most OOLF-LOL (Out of Left Field LOL).

There wasn’t much room for snickering, however, during the remainder of the two-hour installment. Every single contestant chose a tune with an extremely high degree of difficulty — aiming for monster notes, gut-busting emotions and enough votes to somehow leave half their rivals with their heads on spikes, along with the other 40 folks who entered these musical hunger games by advancing through the Battle Rounds.

Two of my favorites turned out to be guys (Bryan and Adam) who sacrificed a little technique on the altar of vulnerability. But I can’t really argue with anybody’s Top 4 selections (unless those selections include Paxton Ingram, who collapsed tonight like a Jenga game in the path of 100 feisty pre-schoolers).

Let’s get to my letter grades for all eight solos and the four peculiar duets:

Shalyah Fearing — “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (from Dreamgirls) — Grade: B- | Wait I thought Pink suggested Shalyah cut back on the rasp? No matter. The bright-eyed teenager impressively managed to stay on pitch for most of the ginormous ballad, but thanks to her tender age, there was no real oomph behind it. Had Harry Connick Jr. been judging, he’d have asked Shalyah to explain the lyrical content — and I fear she’d have had nothing more to offer than “I want to stay in the competition.” (Alas, there’s no no no no way that’s happening, kiddo — but an impressive run this season… be proud!)

Alisan Porter & Adam Wakefield — John Prine/Bonnie Raitt’s “Angel From Montgomery” — Grade: B+ | This was very pretty and restrained… but maybe too restrained? For all its note perfection, it never seemed as though Alisan and Adam were truly connected to one another — and their warm but very separate approaches to the ballad kept the performance from completely igniting.

Paxton Ingram – Meatloaf ‘s “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” — Grade: D | I’m not sure if Paxton abandoned the melody on the second verse in an ill-advised attempt at “making it his own” or if he was merely out of tune. But the tight, nasal tone with which he imbued even the more tuneful parts of the bombastic ballad almost made me regret my #VoiceSavePaxton tweets from last Tuesday night.

Laith Al-Saadi – Adele’s “One and Only” — Grade: B | Laith is as solid as a 100-year-old oak — and I loved his decision to zig with an Adele tune where folks probably expected a zag into hardcore blues. That said, there was a heretofore unheard nervous tremble in Laith’s voice that affected his pitch in spots, and caused him to get swallowed up by the band a few times, as well. Which isn’t to say Laith wasn’t his usual gritty, feelin-it self, but this was a risky moment to come in at less than his personal par.

Mary Sarah & Bryan Bautista — Ariana Grande’s “Break Free” — Grade: C- | What are a country singer and a soulful crooner doing on an EDM trifle? Not blending very well or hitting their notes, I’d say!

Alisan Porter – The Eagles’ “Desperado” — Grade: A- | Color me somewhere between shocked and surprised that Alisan didn’t score the show-closing pimp slot — which would’ve played into the “Team Xtina/Curly Sue FTW” arc that producers have been pushing all season. Sure, the Mariah-esque hand gestures got a little overwrought in the final chorus, but Alisan’s delicate touch and exquisite phrasing — not to mention her usual pitch perfection — was as good or better than anything we heard all night. I’m guessing the lack of fanfare was a sneaky move by Mark Burnett to set up Alisan for a performance-finale surge that will break the Girl Curse, but maybe that’s just blind optimism. It wouldn’t be the first time the season’s most potent vocalist (Amanda Brown, Amber Carrington, Kimberly Nicole) failed to make the Voice finale, would it?

Hannah Huston & Laith Al Saadi — Eddie Floyd/Amii Stewart’s “Knock on Wood” — Grade: C+ | Maybe this collision of unique flavors would’ve blended better on a more carefully curated song choice — “Knock on Wood” redefined the word “random,” no? — but Laith was too screamy, Hannah too all-over-the-place for this duet to satisfy in any genuine way.

Adam Wakefield – Blake Shelton’s “I’m Sorry” — Grade: A- | Adam’s voice sounded hoarse and occasionally even feeble over the course of this breakup ballad, but that only added to the haunted, heartbroken and bitter mood he was conjuring up behind the piano. I’ll admit I wavered halfway through on whether this was one of Adam’s best or worst moments of the season, but the raw and broken final refrain made me feel like Pharrell, Adam and Blake’s standing O wasn’t completely unmerited.

Bryan Bautista – Christina Aguilera’s “Hurt” — Grade: A- | As was the case with Adam, this wasn’t Bryan’s most pinpoint accurate vocal — there were a handful of wonky notes in the final third of the song — but he delivered it with such palpable ache and vulnerability that it landed at No. 1 in my “most likely to download before the noon ET voting period is over” countdown. The opening verse — delivered at the piano — was as intimate as a whisper, and there were some gorgeous falsetto runs that were as impressive as they were stirring. I’m not sure what was going on with the alien creatures trapped inside a giant ice cube — that was what you saw in the backdrop too, right? — but Bryan upstaged the weirdness like the star that he is.

Shalyah Fearing & Paxton Ingram — Jessie J’s “Masterpiece” — Grade: D- | If you don’t have anything nice to say — share your thoughts in the TVLine comments section! This was messier than my five-year-old twins eating red-velvet cupcakes over the weekend, but not nearly as sweet.

Mary Sarah – Randy Travis & Carrie Underwood’s “I Told You So” — Grade: B | The Voice producers sure do love Mary Sarah! (See Pink’s “she’s the kind of artist we need on the radio!” and Blake’s definition of “What’s good?” being summed up by the blonde country chica’s YouTube encores). Still, I wish one of ’em had helped the throwback diva work on her wobbly lower register — a problem somewhat resolved by the up in the air range of “I Told You So.” Still, while I didn’t quite hear the sting of Carrie Underwood’s original — and those gauzy panels in front of Mary were direct from a bad ’80s music video — this was the Season 10 dark horse’s best performance in weeks… and her timing couldn’t have been better.

Hannah Huston – Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” — Grade: B+ | Based on audio alone, it’s hard not to dig Hannah. Her soulful growl and melodic howl are instantly recognizable, and she gives delivers her lyrics with a peculiar cadence that always makes me hear them in a new and intriguing way. I just wish somehow she could conquer the physical and facial stiffness that hints at an overarching sense of “How did I get here? And when do I get to go home?” When Hannah finally dropped to one knee and did a backbend in the final refrain, it was like she’d finally shed her albatross of insecurity. I just wonder if that freedom came a few minutes too late?

Should Advance to the Finale: Alisan, Adam, Bryan and (oooh this is tough) Hannah
Will Advance to the Finale (without peaking at iTunes): Alisan, Adam, Laith and Mary

What did you think of The Voice Top 9 performance night? Who were your faves? Who’s at risk? Take our poll, then sound off in the comments!