The Voice Top 8 Performance Recap: At Last!

The Voice - Season 5The Voice is not the easiest show to recap for a fella like myself, who’s as cozy with snark and bitchery as a Kardashian is with secretly texting her exact whereabouts to the paparazzi. So on what am I supposed to hang my hat now that Season 5 is down to eight vocalists with enough combined talent to fill up an entire major label roster?

Oh sure, I can always find humor in Carson Daly’s attempts to position himself as Coach No. 5 — how I wish I could’ve been in the Sprint Skybox and shouted “Objection! Leading the witness!” as the host snuck in his own bland critiques for several contestants prior to tossing to the panel. Or I can chuckle about the way Xtina poisons the well against certain singers while avoiding a direct mention of their vocals — the better to not be branded as “bitchy” by the general viewing public. (“You utilized a different area of the room, of the stage!” she chirped tonight, while craftily rallying the public against James Wolpert’s failed attempt to paint himself as the next Freddie Mercury.)

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Ultimately, though, from this point forward, The Voice‘s Season 5 players will rise and fall based on song choice — are they playing it too ambitious, too safe, too far outside their wheelhouses? — on the hazy notion of “personality” and on whether or not they’ve built up enough good will since mid-September to keep them afloat during any unexpected squalls in their trajectory.

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With that in mind, let’s jump to letter grades for tonight’s performances:

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James Wolpert (Team Adam): Queen’s “Somebody to Love” — Grade: C | I’m about two-thirds of the way through reading Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, and crazy/inappropriate as it may sound, I couldn’t help but compare the fatal Alaskan trek of Christopher McCandless, the book’s subject, with James’ own hubris in attempting to climb Mt. (Freddie) Mercury. Not only did James struggle to stay on pitch throughout the operatic number, but he lacked the mischievious zest and theatricality that Queen’s late lead singer possessed (even in the midst of nifty staging where he played the role of “Waldo” in a chorus of bespectacled, tuxedo-rocking chorus members). In other words, James was grossly underprepared for the journey on which he embarked. And that only made Adam’s obviously for-the-cameras freakout and claim that James “could sing in Queen” all the more disingenuous. The question remains though, whether or not voters will see through it.

Tessanne Chin (Team Adam): No Doubt’s “Underneath It All” — Grade: A- | Bafflingly, Adam seemed about 20 percent less enthused by Tessanne’s loose, note-perfect upgrade of one of No Doubt’s least exciting jams — damn, how I wish People’s Sexiest Man Alive had chosen “Ex-Girlfriend” or “Simple Kind of Life” or even Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For” — than he did for James’ worst effort in weeks. (Perhaps there’s a footnote in the Bro Code explaning this imbalance?) Whatever the case, Tessanne — despite having been violently mishandled by the show’s stylists via skintight acid wash jeans and a weird yellow jacket — grooved her way through the opening half, then exploded to life on Lady Saw’s reggae-rific interlude. Her interaction with the audience and those soaring “yeah yeah yeah yeahs” that closed out the cover had me whooping and couch-dancing — and made me view the former backup singer as an interesting potential artist, not just a brilliant technician. Xtina was right that the foray into her Jamaican roots paid off — though I wish the Lady Aguilera had stopped short of shamelessly requesting that next week Tess tackle the reggae-fied cover of “What a Girl Wants” she’d done on her Back to Basics tour in 2006.

Caroline Pennell (Team Cee Lo): Florence + The Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over” — Grade: B+ | Caroline looked a little defeated in her intro package, maybe because she can’t even assume her coach will pay for her gelato when they go out for a mentoring session. (I kid! I kid!) Seriously, though, while Cee Lo had the right idea in choosing something unexpected for the angelic-voiced early front-runner, I’m not quite sure that in practice, “Dog Days Are Over” was the track to give Caroline a true “Big Moment.” The song’s relentless rhythmic propulsion and Florence Welch’s fearsome banshee delivery don’t leave a lot of room for creative interpretation — or in reality TV speak, to “make it your own.” Caroline did her best with some tricky rhythmic tweaks, and she nailed every note square on the jaw, but the end result lacked the genuine surprise of her Battle Rounds Bieber cover or even “Anything Could Happen” or “The Way I Am.” In other words, this was quite good, but not quite great — and might put her at risk of another Bottom 3 placement.

Cole Vosbury (Team Blake): Vince Gill’s “I Still Believe in You” — Grade: B | To my ears, Cole’s whiskey-soaked rasp shines brightest when it’s paired with ditties that require a certain amount of soul — like “Adorn” or The Jeffersons theme. Which is why I was a little bummed by Blake sending him toward the fork in the road that led away from Funkytown and toward Countryville this week. Sure, the sparse strings-and-acoustic-guitar arrangement highlighted the desperation in Cole’s delivery — just like Blake wanted — but it also exposed some rough spots in his lower register. Perhaps more distressing, though, I just can’t see myself remembering this performance in six months’ time — which isn’t something I expected from the season’s most eclectic player.

Matthew Schuler (Team Xtina): Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time” — Grade: D+ | Matthew’s total mess of a performance this week was a shocker — the equivalent of Meryl Streep signing on for her own reality show on E! or Ashley Wagner falling on her keester during a single axel. The pro-tem leader of Season 5 — who’s missed only a handful of notes all season — was under the melody for at least three-quarters of the number, and sounded downright winded on the choruses. Carson, towing the producers’ party line — This! Is! The! Voice!, after all — was equally breathless when Matthew wrapped his number: “Christina, when this young man sings, there’s a sense of urgency that’s potent and palpable!” But no amount of hostly blathering could hide the fact that the usually bespoke-suited emperor had taken the stage without a stitch of clothing. Was it Matthew’s decision to dance mid-performance that caused his voice to abandon him? Could something unfortunate have happened to Matthew’s vocal cords during last week’s 21st b’day celebration? Or was it simple nerves from getting so close to achieving his dream? I suspect (and hope) the kid’s got a big enough fanbase to carry him through one off week, but suddenly, the race for the Season 5 crown seems a lot more wide open, no?

Will Champlin (Team Adam): Etta James’ “At Last” — Grade: A- | Like his teammate James, Will was attempting to scale a lofty summit with “At Last” — a crowd-pleasing standard that’s been tackled by so many greats (see Melinda Doolittle’s astonishing version embedded below) that it’s almost foolish to go near it and open oneself up to comparisons. But Will went there anyway, like a pilot taking off in a jumbo jet that looks too big to take flight, and aimed higher, higher and higher — capping things off with a crazy run of notes that threatened to scrape the moon. Was it a little showboat-y? Yeah, sure. But it was also packed with raw and heady feeling that made the vocal acrobatics seem authentic, rather than contrived. Indeed, along with conveying the joy of a man who’s found his one true love, Will’s performance also had the undercurrent of excitement that comes from chasing your dream for what feels like an eternity, and then suddenly having it in the palm of your hand. At last, indeed!

Ray Boudreaux (Team Blake): Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin'” — Grade: B- | Truth be told, Ray gave one of the night’s cleanest performances: His pitch was so spotless, in fact, it was as if the Scrubbing Bubbles had served as his backup singers. Soul music, however, shouldn’t be created in a sterile, lab-like setting; it requires some dirt and grit and sense of real abandon. And as Ray stiffly danced amidst a quartet of sexy background singers, then later tried to engage the crowd with the kind of banter that’s supposed to say “I’m spontaneous and feelin’ it!,” I found myself wishing he’d lose himself to the music, make me feel some kind of urgency, prove to me that he’s not content with being the eighth-best contestant on Season 5 of The Voice. That moment never arrived, nor did “The Full Blake” when it came time for his coach’s feedback. Mark Burnett might as well have opened a trap door in the stage floor and flushed Ray out of the competition right then and there, no?

Jacquie Lee (Team Xtina): The Miracles/Jackson 5’s “Who’s Lovin’ You” — Grade: A | Oh, Jacquie, you had me at “when.” As in the first, gut-busting word of your haunting, utterly daring a capella intro. “Whe-eh-eh-eh-eh-nnnn…!” And from there on out, your gritty, down-in-the-trenches-of-love delivery had me punching my couch with sheer joy. Even though your pre-performance package had annoyingly mapped out everything that was about to happen on stage — c’mon, Xtina, nobody likes that many spoilers! — the way you punched and parried your way through the song, offering bursts of incredible power, then reeling it all the way back in, was downright masterful. You know you’re doing great work when you’re scoring truly inspired feeback from your rival coaches, and while Blake’s “you parted somebody’s hair down there” was a hilarious way to spotlight the brilliance of your holleration, Cee Lo took home the big prize with this doozy: “It’s like you swallowed an old lady or something.” Hey, whatever it takes to keep trucking along to the finale…

Should go home: James, Ray
Will go home: James, Ray

And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of Top 8 performance night? Who were your faves? Who surprised you? Who will and should be at risk? Take our poll below, then expand on your thoughts in the comments!