The Voice Live Playoffs (Night 1) Recap: True Colors Shining Through [Updated]

The Voice season 4 Amber CarringtonThings we learned on Night One of The Voice‘s Season 4 Live Playoffs:

Shakira is nothing more than “a little ant in the infinity of the universe.” (Her words, not mine.) Usher has either very dubious taste in music or a very sneaky strategy of saddling his two least-favorite team members with a pair of the most overplayed ditties in the history of reality singing competitions. There may have been something stronger than coffee in Blake Shelton’s Starbucks cup. And Christina Milian never fails to disappoint in a live interview scenario. (Her dingbattery is so reliable at this point that I dare say it borders on impressive!)

But enough about those jaunty judges — let’s try and get some focus back on the contestants by running down tonight’s set list with letter grades for every performance. (Just to clarify, America will vote through two members of Team Adam and two from Team Usher, then the coaches will save one of their two remaining “at risk” contestants.)

Team Adam: Amber Carrington — Rihanna’s “Stay” | Here’s hoping Amber getting the dreaded lead-off spot (well, after the disjointed Team Usher group performance) doesn’t leave the country diva in need of a save from her coach. Because, honestly, her combination of technical perfection, vocal clarity, intriguing riffs on the melody and quiet emotional power was the best thing that happened all night. (Plus, girlfriend KILLED IT on the really excellent Team Adam performance of “Shake It Out.”) Bottom line: Season 4 without Amber would be like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup without the chocolate. Grade: A

Team Usher: Josiah Hawley — Muse’s “Starlight” | Shakira was right that this was Josiah’s best performance to date — dude hit most of his notes and didn’t get drown out by the band as badly as he did on his Amy Winehouse cover last week. That said, his tone is as common as a dandelion on your front yard in April, and the way his nose kept hitting the mic drove me bonkers (a shallow complaint, but nevertheless a deeply held one). Grade: B-

Team Adam: Sarah Simmons — Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” | There’s something seriously intriguing about the way Sarah’s voice shreds in certain places and gets all goose-down delicate in others. And while Usher was right that “there were a few little things” (that’s Wuss-anese for “you hit a couple hinky notes, grrrlll!”), there’s no denying Sarah also brought a stark emotionalism (and a Stevie Nicks Collection cape) to the number that was mesmerizing. Grade: A-

Team Usher: Cathia — Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” | Phooey! Getting stuck with “I Have Nothing” is like being forced to order seafood at a restaurant on Mondays: You know you’re not getting anything fresh, and you just have to hope that it doesn’t end in feelings of cold sweats and nausea. Cathia sounded pretty solid on the first third of the ballad, but after that, only about half of her adlibs managed landed in the right spot. Usher’s faint praise was a pretty clear sign that she won’t be the one getting his save come Wednesday — and let’s be honest, she’s gonna need it. Grade: C+

Team Adam: Caroline Glaser — Ed Sheeran’s “The A Team” | There’s no denying her tone’s as bright and intoxicating as fresh lilacs, and yet Caroline’s affected pronunciations and stylized approach hinder the effectiveness of her performances. Even after a second listen, I could only understand maybe 40 percent of the words Caroline sang during the middle third of the performance — and that’s a problem for a gal who wants to reside in the singer-songwriter universe, no? [Side note: I did not appreciate Carson’s leading segue into Blake’s critique, insisting that because Caroline was in the country coach’s “wheelhouse” that he “must’ve loved it.” Don’t put words in Blake’s mouth! Harumph.] Grade: B

Team Usher: Vedo — Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” | And just when you thought “I Have Nothing” had wrapped up the title for the Night’s Most Played-Out Song Choice, Usher goes and gives “Against All FRAKKING ODDS” to Vedo (who is an aspiring musician but has never heard of Phil Collins — alrighty then). Nevertheless, the guy took his boulder-sized lemon and made a decent pitcher of Country Time thanks to a stripped-down, piano-heavy arrangement and an impressive commitment to his task that upgraded the tired ballad to something that approached the corner of “stirring” and “fairly solid.” Grade: B

Team Usher: Michelle Chamuel — Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” | I’m not gonna lie: I teared up during Michelle’s rehearsal package, at about the exact same time she teared up answering Usher’s question what “True Colors” meant to her. And while her tempo seemed a wee bit off on the opening lines, she quickly yanked out her in-ear monitor and hit her stride, delivering the ballad with a music-box delicacy that was in stark contrast to her rousing “Raise Your Glass” last week. And unlike so many “quirky” contestants we’ve seen on reality singing shows through the years, Michelle’s gawky squats and oversized glasses and general sweet-goofiness fit her as comfortably as an old t-shirt. She’s the real deal — as a singer and a personality. Grade: A-

Team Adam: Judith Hill — Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” | This just in…Los Angeles police have put out an APB desperately seeking the melody of “Feeling Good,” which inexplicably vanished during Judith Hill’s cover on tonight’s episode of The Voice. Okay, I kid, I kid! Well, only partially. There’s no denying Judith’s got huge pipes and an undeniable charisma, but her performance tonight simply tried too hard to put a fresh spin on a standard that’s been done by Adam Lambert, Melanie Amaro, Carly Rose Sonenclar, Jennifer Hudson (in that amazing Weight Watchers commercial), Dez Duron, (most recently) Lazaro Arbos and too many other reality singing show competitiors to list. None of Judith’s melodic choices really captured the celebratory vibe of the number, and I particularly hated the meaninglessness of that elongated pause and exaggerated stomp with her back to the stage after “freedom is mine.” I know it’s easy to take shots at early front-runners, to want to drag them back in line with the pack so they don’t pull too far ahead and ruin the fun of the competition, but in this case, Judith got clearly outperformed by two of her three #TeamAdam cohorts. She ought to be in trouble, but all the early hype (and a powerful showing on the group rendition of “Shake It Out”) mean she probably won’t be. Grade: B

And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of the first night of Season 4 Live Playoffs? Who was your favorite? Who’s going to be in trouble come results night? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments, and for all my reality TV news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!