The Voice Recap: Semi-Sweet Smell of Success

If American Idol is the good, old-fashioned courtship of televised singing competitions, then The Voice is its modern, speed-dating cousin. When it comes to NBC’s buzzy reality hit, there’s no time for slowly inching your arm across the back of your favorite contestant’s movie-theater seat. Quite the opposite, The Voice demands love at first note — or pretty darn close to it. The show will crown its Season 1 champ next Wednesday, June 29 — before this year’s Fourth of July fireworks have snapped, crackled, and popped, and after a mere four weeks of live-performance voting rounds. Only time will tell if we end up with a lifetime commitment to the winner or a Bachelor Pad-style summer fling, but the fast track to the altar has been undeniably fun. Let’s recap how Tuesday night’s semifinal proceedings played out.

Before the evening’s eight performances could begin, of course, host Carson Daly (who seems to have a primal passion for the teleprompter) delivered the absolutely predictable results of last week’s Quarterfinals — Vicci Martinez advanced from Team Cee Lo, while Javier Colon triumphed on Team Adam — and then the coaches themselves stepped up and made their absolutely predictable saves (Cee Lo: Nakia; Adam: Casey Weston), making The Voice a perfect 8-for-8 in advancing the correct contestants from the first two weeks of live performances. Goodbye saccharine sisters who raise pigs for the county fair! Adios, country crooner with the woeful haircut who can’t stop referencing his late mom‘s desire for him to be a famous singer! Farewell country dude still trying to wash away the embarrassment of those bump-n-grind moves during last week’s “Addicted to Love” cover! And happy trails to that kid who inexplicably trumped Rebecca Loebe in the Battle Rounds!

With the fruitless branches pruned and cleared away, here’s a rundown of the night’s performances:

Frenchie Davis: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”
Christina Aguilera wanted Frenchie to take the vocal to church, but before she could get there, the glamorous, stiletto-wearing diva needed to find a way to get down from a giant white pedestal with steep stairs and no railing. Perhaps it was that trepidation about how she’d teeter to safety that caused Frenchie to fall behind the beat of the dance-centric remix on the opening verse, but once she got a hand from one of her crazy, choir-robe-clad backup dancers and hit the main stage, the Lady Davis took control of the performance with some fierce holleration and a glory note on the line “it feels like home” that steamrolled any comparisons to Madonna’s classic original flavor. That added denouement with organs and flashing lights and a ferocious Frenchie growl was simply gravy. The former Idol hopeful probably won’t take home the top prize, but it’ll be a crime if some savvy dance label doesn’t bring the Frenchie fierceness to clubs and treadmills everywhere before the year is out.

Nakia: Adam Lambert’s “Whataya Want From Me”
For a guy who spent his pre-Voice days playing blues in Austin nightclubs, Nakia’s vocal performances to date have been surprisingly light on — dare I say it? — soul. The burly belter struggled to stay in tune on the opening verse, and then got swallowed up like a piece of plankton when the whale of a backing band kicked in on the chorus. The end result was decent, I suppose, but you can’t tell me some crafty Voice producer didn’t prompt Adam Levine’s preposterous, Idol-jabbing critique that Nakia “probably sang it better than the person who sang it originally.”

Dia Frampton: REM’s “Losing My Religion”
If I’d rolled my eyes every time I’ve heard a reality-show judge use the expression “you made it your own,” my eyeballs would’ve probably waved a white flag and retired to Boca Raton somewhere around May 2010. But Dia didn’t merely cover REM’s 1991 smash, she bought it with her own money, renovated it with style and panache, and then threw a thrilling open house to which all of us were invited. I loved the little twists and turns she made with the melody, turning the line “that was just a dream” into a single, floating feather, giving “Oh no, I said too much” an ethereal gloss, and making me hear every word of the cryptic lyric as if for the very first time. Even the handclaps on the chorus added to the sense of mystery that Dia was building. If she can successfully deliver some sort of interesting tonal shift — rock out a little, maybe, or else tackle some kind of classic heartbreak anthem — she has the potential to take home the big prize next Wednesday.

“Recent High-School Grad” Casey Weston: Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”
Adam Levine’s rehearsal advice — “Don’t try to be Whitney” — seemed so rudimentary that I fully expected added pre-performance footage of him trying to help Casey cook up an arrangement that would further separate her from La Houston’s ubiquitous template, and Dolly Parton’s well-known original. I almost wished Casey had tried to infuse the number with absolute torch and twang — maybe slow it down to a funereal dirge and throw in a mournful fiddle — but instead, the performance read like a girl stuck with a song that intimidated rather than inspired her. The bleat-iest qualities of Casey’s voice got highlighted here,and the bizarre ye-olde scroll of lyrics on the backdrop suggested The Declaration of Independence by way of your local karaoke bar. This week’s setback is a shame, really, considering Casey showed growth from her audition to the Battle Round to the Quarterfinals, but in this case, The Voice‘s rapid-fire elimination process will surely work against her. Alas,with the field getting halved each week, there’s no room for a single stumble on the path to artistic enlightenment.

Beverly McClellan: B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone”
In an era of pop music where it sometimes feels like 30 is the new 90, there’s something compelling about watching an artist get a crack at the big time after spending 20 years trying to give wings to her music. I just wish Beverly could infuse all of her performances with approximately 16.4% more restraint. In their mentoring session, Xtina said she wanted the audience to get acquainted with the bald-headed rocker’s “warm, bluesy side,” and in reality, we did, at least until Beverly got up from the piano and began to lose some of the nuance — and enunciation — that defined the opening third of the number. That artistic miscalculation — a feeling that “bigger is better,” that there’s not as much power in a whisper as there is a shout — or perhaps merely the inability to hold back after waiting for two decades in the wings, kept Beverly from reaching her maximum potential. And that’s about all the complaining I intend to do about a number that was completely in tune and heartfelt.

Javier Colon: Coldplay’s “Fix You”
I got a surge of double happiness when Javier used his pre-performance package to acknowledge his previous record deals and tip his tilted cap to critics that said he needed to be more respectful of the basic melodies of the songs he chooses to cover. And certainly, “Fix You” benefitted from Javier’s reduced use of vocal acrobatics. Still, as far as song choices go, this felt about as natural as pairing a chocolate ice-cream cone with a garlic aioil dipping sauce. No doubt Javier has huge voice and a luscious tone, and I liked the way he brought a sense of sadness to the opening verse here. But there’s no denying the dude got a little swallowed up once the band kicked in for Coldplay’s anthemic chorus. In fact, there were a few notes where Javier’s voice seemed to break, or perhaps even collapse, as he ran headlong into a wall of guitar and bass and drums. To his credit, though, Javier recovered during the song’s final, tender lines, and that’ll probably be more than enough to carry him through to the finals.

Xenia: The Script’s “The Man Who Can’t Be Moved”
Look, Xenia seems like a sweetheart of a young woman, and as the judges keep reminding us, she really does have a unique and lovely tone to her voice. But all that aside, I don’t want to spend another week watching the kid standing stiffly behind a mic stand, waving one arm robotically like a lever, as her lovely tone meanders from petrified to half-hearted to inaudible. If Blake truly madly deeply cares about Xenia, he’ll encourage her to finish high school, enroll in college courses, keep working on her craft, and revisit the whole music business thingie again in her mid-20s, when she’s got some life experience and confidence in her arsenal. Until then: j’enough!

Vicci Martinez: Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over”
It sure didn’t hurt Vicci’s chances that she chose the night’s best and most rousing composition, but any time you’re going to color inside the lines of Florence Welch’s template, you’re not going to match up. Vicci’s opening verse was surprisingly filled with bum notes, and I almost felt like something — perhaps that intro package about her late dad’s unfulfilled dreams of music stardom or maybe the scent of Xenia’s lingering stage terrors — had diluted her core confidence. Thankfully, as the song’s percussive thunder began to percolate, so too did Vicci’s vocals. Like I said, nobody’s going to out-Florence Florence, but Vicci brought her own fire and passion — and her trademark war dance — to the tune. Was she as original as Dia? No. Was she as mellifluous as Javier? Nah. But if Cee Lo puts in some work next week to helping Vicci forge a unique artistic path rather than aiming for impassioned karaoke, she might have an outside shot at scoring a season finale upset.

Tonight’s Letter Grades
Dia Frampton: A
Vicci Martinez: B+
Javier Colon: B
Beverly McClellan: B
Frenchie Davis: B
Nakia: B-
Xenia: C
Casey Weston: C

Oh, and before I turn things over to you, a couple housekeeping notes:

* This week’s mentor performances were more memorable for Blake’s lumbering charm, Adam’s dapper duds, and Xtina’s “Boys” t-shirt (designed by Haus of Total Mess, perhaps?) than anything that happened vocally.

* Did Allison Haislip inadvertently fuel the fire of creepy Casey Weston fans by forcing her to agree to say yes to any and all dating requests from random male fans? Add this to the list of reasons NBC should dismantle The Voice‘s relentlessly awkward social media red room for Season 2.

Who’s with me on that one? What did you think of The Voice this week? Who was your favorite contestant? (Take our poll below.) Who’s going home? And who’s your prediction as the Season 1 victor? Sound off below!

Slezak on Twitter: @MichaelSlezakTV

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