The Voice Recap: Louder Than a Lion [Updated]

Jacquie Lee The VoiceDid you ever get so excited by a primetime network broadcast that you wanted to pick up your TV set and hurl it against a wall* — the way a heavy-metal guitarist in the throes of an arena encore might destroy his instrument to the cheers and whistles of the crowd?  (*If your answer is “no,” just ride this recap out till the end of the next paragraph, OK?)

That insane urge swelled up inside me during tonight’s installment of The Voice‘s Season 5 Live Playoffs, prompted by the perfect storm of a fine but somewhat sleepy opening 100 minutes, followed by back-to-back performances that featured all the fire and beauty and excitement of flying a helicopter over a live volcano.

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Yeah, I know, I’m neck-deep in hyperbole, but I’m willing to stick said neck out into the internets and say Jacquie Lee and Matthew Schuler absolutely earned such high praise. Their displays of vocal horsepower not only made the second set of Live Playoffs — focused on Team Cee Lo and Team Xtina — worth remembering, but also guaranteed that Season 5 remains must-see TV (even without the presence of Matt Cermanski).

Oh sure, there were the usual moments of subtle (and overt) sabotage: Like weighing down R&B hopeful Amber Nicole with a country tune — then arranging it about a half-step too high for her vocal range — or locking Tamara Chaunice in karaoke prison by way of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” And don’t even get me started on the tragedy of Stephanie Anne Johnson’s ill-tailored belt.

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But thanks to Matthew and Jacquie, those moments of pure peevery are the secondary stories, not the headline. With that in mind, let me assign letter grades for tonight’s performances:

Caroline Pennell: The White Stripes’ “We’re Going to Be Friends” — Grade: A- | Caroline definitely solidified her front-runner status this week with another vocal that was as refreshing and clear as mountain springwater — as well as her ability to add lovely little flourishes to the melody line. Cee Lo, however, needs to be very cautious about limiting his star pupil’s musical color palette to 50 shades of pastel. I won’t pretend I didn’t enjoy hearing Caroline let her precious flag fly again, but Blake’s “cotton candy” critique may have been precient: Man (and reality competition contestants) cannot live on spun sugar alone.

Amber Nicole: Cassadee Pope’s “Wasting All These Tears” — Grade: D | Poor Amber didn’t just get thown under the bus, she actually wound up under a layer of pavement and then under the bus thanks to Cee Lo’s oddball pop-country song choice and total lack of help in reconfiguring it to fit her R&B diva style. Oddly, the kid didn’t sound too bad in the intermittent moments where the equally terrible arrangement wasn’t forcing her to strain past the upper limits of her register, but maybe it’s best she heads home now. I mean, if Amber somehow advances to next week, I’m worried Cee Lo will assign her Limp Bizkit’s “Nookie” or some other sabotage-minded selection.

Tamara Chauniece: Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” — Grade: B+ (vocals)/C+ (listening experience) | Is Cee Lo not aware that iTunes sales count toward contestants’ overall success or failure? I mean, seriously, his choice of a threadbare karaoke classic like “I Will Survive” for Tamara was akin to sending a kid out to play in the snow dressed in board shorts and a tank top. That said, Tamara managed to deliver a solid vocal and deliver a few tasty ad-libs — even with the tempo sped up to almost sadistic speed. The question now is whether she’ll somehow get phone and facebook votes from viewers who take a “love the singer/hate the song” approach to fandom. My guess is probably not.

Jonny Gray: The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” — Grade: B | Jonny’s got a warm, lovely tone, but listening to him strictly abide by the Verve’s melody for the opening half of his number exposed a major potential weakness: The inability to find fresh ways to breathe life into well-known ditties. Xtina was right that the performance came to life when Jonny got down the stairs, waded into the crowd and let his vocals rip, but even then, he offered more of a rock-solid cover than an intriguing interpretation, if that makes any sense. Still, it’s hard to imagine he won’t eke out a spot in Cee Lo’s Top 3 come Thursday.

Kat Robichaud: Mary Lambert’s “She Keeps You Keep Me Warm” — Grade: C- | I found it a little peculiar, possibly even unnerving, that Cee Lo would choose this anthem for same-sex unions, and that Kat would gladly take it on, only to drop the “she” from the chorus and turn it into a gender-neutral “you.” Was that her reason for randomly hugging a gal in the audience to end the performance? Why not just tell us about your happy marriage to a dude but then go into storyteller mode for 90 seconds? Lyrical switcheroos aside, though, the far more serious problem was Kat’s struggle to play it “vulnerable” through the opening half of the tune — a move that led to an unpleasant mix of excessive vibrato and almost nonexistent lower register. Kat’s one of those vocalists whose sense of pitch increases whenever she starts belting, but in this case of this performance, said redemption felt like a case of too little, too late.

Jacquie Lee: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You” — Grade: A+ | We knew from last week’s “Stompa” that Jacquie had range and brute strength in her arsenal, but “I Put a Spell On You” was some next-level business! That insane high note on the line “things you do”? The rockstar grab of the mic-stand? The haunting, almost possessed delivery of “I don’t care that you don’t want me”? Every moment from the sultry intro to the audience adulation was absolutely awesome. Either that or she actually put me under a spell — which, given how her cover almost made me destroy my TV set — is a definite possibility. Either way, next Monday — and Jacquie’s next number — can’t get here soon enough.

Matthew Schuler: Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” — Grade: A | A ditty, if you’ll indulge, to the tune of “Wrecking Ball”…
He sang, he grooved, each note in tune
He jumped, never asked Xtina why
The song’s played out, but he did not pout
His vocals no one could deny

First I voted, then downloaded
A Miley Cyrus ditty
Cannot tell a lie, when it’s by this guy
The song’s actually quite pretty

He sang it like a wrecking ball
Matt Schuler hit so hard each note
But he never hit the vocal wall
He’s got to make the Top 3

Stephanie Anne Johnson: Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” — Grade: B+ | This was one of those strange performances I thoroughly enjoyed, while nevertheless wishing I could change everything about it (starting, but hardly limited to, that unfortunate seafoam green skirt). Which isn’t to say Stephanie’s vocal choices weren’t surprising or successful — because with a few little exceptions, her dips and yelps and trills and mmm-mmms were on-point. It’s just that, of all the members of Team Xtina, Stephanie was the one from whom I’d expected a big surprise. “Georgia on My Mind” is a timeles classic, sure, but so are hundreds of other numbers that haven’t been flogged to death on reality singing competitions. Still, if Xtina can somehow find the right vehicle for Stephanie Anne’s supple voice, there’s no telling how far she can drive into Season 5. And that’s why I’m hoping she’ll be the one to join Jacquie and Matthew in Team Xtina’s Top 3.

Olivia Henken: Katy Perry’s “Roar” — Grade: B | I liked Xtina’s idea to twang up the ubiquitous lion-themed hit, and aside from a handful of jank notes, Olivia executed the plan solidly. Stacked against Jacquie and Matthew’s jaw-dropping work, however, the Reese Witherspoon lookalike played the part of plain baked potato to her rivals’ flawless surf & turf combo. Also hurting Olivia’s momentum: Restless Road’s own countrified “Roar” from last week’s X Factor. Yeah, the boy band’s rendition was unquestionably inferior, but it also came first. (Waah waah waah.)

Josh Logan: Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” — Grade: C- | How-ow-OW-ow-ow-OW-ow-ow mu-uh-uh-uh-uch viiiiiiiibraaaaaato iiiiisss too-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh mu-uh-uh-uh-uch viiiiiiiibraaaaaato? Listen to Josh’s smooth-jazz reinterpretation of Cee Lo’s finest musical moment and you’ll have the answer, times ten.

And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of tonight’s Live Playoffs? What did you think of the coaches’ somewhat more criticial feedback? Who were your faves? Who are you worried about? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments!