Week 1 of The Voice‘s Season 2 Quarterfinals closely paralleled a pivotal scene in Game of Thrones‘ inaugural season: What appeared to be a character central to the action had his head unceremoniously detached and placed on a spike as the crowd — or at least the three people in my living room — roared approval. The only thing missing was Christina Aguilera emerging naked from the funeral pyre of her Bionic album, its jewel case having hatched into a tiny, fire-breathing dragon.
Of course, there were a few moments where the episode began to resemble the kind of deranged hootenanny described during Saturday Night Live‘s “Stefon” segments: “New York’s hottest club is The Voice: The secret password is ‘rhayyy-LEEEEUHHHNNN!’ It’s got teenage Lolitas, Sears family portraits, washed-up R&B singers Christina Millian, a charity-minded Starbucks, Xtina’s anthropomorphic bosoms, flaming air, and human microphones!”
And while, from a musical perspective, the episode was an unmitigated disappointment, we still have to get on with the business of discussing the evening’s eight solo performances — from the four members of Team Xtina and four from Team Blake. (The less said about the caterwauling group performances the better, no?) Each coach ended the episode by instantly eliminating one singer: On Tuesday’s results show, America’s votes will save one member of each judge’s team, and then Blake and Xtina will respectively send a second contestant to safety, while sentencing the third to the guillotine.
Best Performance: Ashley de la Rosa (Team Xtina) | I’ll admit I disagreed with Xtina’s decision to save Ashley last week, but all I can say now is the “Beautiful” singer has a better ear than me. Ashley’s rock-inflected cover of Jewel’s “Foolish Games” was deeply moving and thrillingly original — veering from a gentle whisper on the verses to a gut-busting glory note that matched anything we’ve seen on The Voice this season. By the time Ashley played with the melody and went into the stratosphere on her final refrain of “you were always crazy like that,” I was firing up iTunes to purchase her rendition of the song.
Most Disappointing Vocal: Lindsey Pavao (Team Xtina) | In theory, I understand why Xtina wanted to push Lindsey to use her voice “in a bigger way,” but in practice, you can’t ask Joni Mitchell to be Celine Dion, or Beck to be Josh Grobin. In other words, maybe Lindsey giving us a stripped-down acoustic Rihanna medley might’ve been more pleasing to the ear than her straight-up-the-middle “Part of Me,” which spun out in the intersection of strained and pitchy every time she went for a big, belt-y note. (Why Adam had to couch his critique by stammering he was stupid for pointing out pitch problems makes me wonder if he should think about sitting quietly with his hands folded in his lap after performances.) Even worse, Lindsey seemed to lose any sense of originality this week: “Part of Me” felt like a WWKPD? (what would Katy Perry do?) cover, right down to the tight white pants, flared bedazzled jacket, futuristic braid, and “human microphone.” Where’s that chick who two weeks ago rocked Gotye better than Glee or Idol or even Gotye himself on SNL?
Biggest Emotional Disconnect: Jermaine Paul (Team Blake) | I cringed 1,000 times listening to Jermaine’s pre-performance interview about how Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” — a song about a desperate, empty man making one last futile plea for his lover to reconcile — reminded him of his journey to succeed in the music business and support his family. (Um, dude, you ever hear the adage about not judging a song’s meaning by its title?) Nevertheless, Jermaine’s performance was a huge improvement on last week’s catastrophic “Livin’ on a Prayer,” although I suspect if it had been worse, a gap would’ve busted open in the Earth’s crust and swallowed him whole. I dunno. I guess the guy can sing. He hits his notes, and there are moments where his tone is meaty and powerful. But looking back at my notes on Jermaine’s performance, there’s a phrase — “big, growl gobs” — that sums up why I don’t find him particularly enjoyable to listen to. It’s like every one of the guy’s notes has to be individually separated from the song and put through a process of melisma, ad-libbing, growl, and/or vibrato. He literally cannot leave well enough alone — and his coach doesn’t seem to have any interest in teaching him the finer points of restraint. Still, I think he did enough to win the public’s vote — and leave Blake to decide between Erin and RaeLynn.
Worst Song Choice: Erin Willett (Team Blake) | I could talk about the peculiar “tree silhouette at night” backdrop or Erin’s hideous dress (color: old book pages), but really, all I can do is shake my head at Erin and her mentor for thinking it was a wise idea to tackle a recent Adele hit, which in 99.999% of cases can only make one sound like a pale carbon copy by comparison. Plus, Adam was right: Erin’s phrasing somehow stripped the song of its drama, turning it into something that bordered on the pedestrian. It’ll take a miracle of 21-topping-the-charts proportions for Erin to outlast both Jermaine and RaeLynn this week, but a big part of me really really wants a redemptive encore in two weeks’ time. Anyone with me?
Most Entertaining in a Terrifying Way (embdeeded below, because you kinda have to see it): RaeLynn (Team Blake) | There was something deeply disconcerting about the sight of this teenage farm girl in a Toddlers & Tiaras tutu, seductively swiveling her hips during her cover of Jason Aldean’s “She’s Country.” RaeLynn may not have the best grasp of pitch, and she needs a lot of work when it comes to breath support (especially on a ditty with a quick cadence), but there’s something weirdly fascinating about the way she doesn’t quite sing, but rather devours a song — kind of like a hyena greedily tearing hunks of flesh off an half-conscious impala. It’s not pretty, but good luck taking your eyes off it. Blake called it the most proud moment he’s had all season. Yep, she’s cawwwwwwn-traaaayyyyuh!
“What the Hell?” Prize: Chris Mann | I wish I could just insert a photo collage of a washing machine, a giant floor fan, Chris Martin, and Ben Stiller in Zoolander to depict my feelings about Mr. Mann’s almost comical cover of “Viva la Vida.” Dude adds vibrato to his music the way Ina Garten adds butter to her recipes, and the layers and layers of vocal affectations overpower the meaning and the message of the music. I agreed with Adam’s not-quite-articulate critique — there was something simply odd about Chris’ performances — and I suspect that Xtina and her main man may be overestimating his chances to go all the way to the finale. Or Lord, I hope so anyway.
AUTOMATICALLY BOOTED CONTESTANTS
Most Underrated: Jordis Unga (Team Blake) | Blake said he had to revert back to America’s decision in the previous round — during which Jordis received fewer votes than RaeLynn, Jermaine, and Erin — since no one on his team faltered badly. To me, though, the decision felt like a bit of a cop out, given that Jordis hit a significantly higher percentage of notes this time around than RaeLynn or Erin, and showed a new and tender dimension on Sara Evans’ “A Little Bit Stronger,” a country ballad that on paper wasn’t really a great fit for the roaring rocker’s voice. (Speaking of a not-great fit: Girlfriend really should’ve juxtaposed her hard-edged look with the inspirational ballad, instead of committing to the baby pink pageant gown, no?) Whatever your take on her outfit, though, I think we can best sum things up by quoting Jordis’ blurted reaction to Blake delivering his verdict, “S***!” Indeed!
Most Overrated: Jesse Campbell (Team Xtina) | Cee Lo, Adam, and Blake heaped praise on Jesse’s performance — although Xtina slyly didn’t mention anything about the actual vocal — which made it a pleasant shock when his coach gave him the boot at episode’s end. Honestly, I’m not sure there was a single note in tune during the last two-thirds of Jesse’s cover of “Halo,” and to make matters worse, the dude’s attempts to make Beyoncé’s track his own steadily devolved into a bizarre stream of wild, screaming hysteria. By the time Jesse started hollering ad-libs like “People of the world! You’ve got a halo!” (no, sir, I do not) it all veered a little uncomfortably into “crazy guy shouting on the subway platform” territory. Yeah, two weeks ago Jesse was the guy touted by the coaches as having a huge shot at the Season 2 crown, but (bringing back our Game of Thrones comparison) Xtina made the right choice in sending this major character to the executioner.
What did you think of The Voice this week? Who was your favorite? Who do you think will survive on Tuesday? And what did you think of Blake and Xtina’s automatic ousters? Sound off in the comments, and for all my reality TV recaps and interviews, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!