The Voice Performance Recap: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About (Top) Six [Updated]

Jacquie Lee Cry BabyWhen it comes to warm fuzzies, good vibrations and positive feedback, The Voice has a coaching panel that’s second to none.

Nevertheless, if you listen verrrrry carefully, you can hear their withering subtext, their coded messages to the viewing public in favor of one contestant or in opposition to another.

Take Blake Shelton’s repeated mentions tonight that it’s not just about hitting big notes full-on (a subtle put-down of Jacquie Lee?) or Adam Levine essentially telling Matthew Schuler he peaked with his Top 12 week cover of “Hallelujah.”

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Of course, when it comes to faint praise, nobody does it better than Christina Aguilera. I couldn’t help but chuckle when her critique of Tessanne Chin’s “Redemption Song” devolved into a memory of a vacation she spent riding horseback on the beaches of Jamaica. Oh, Xtina, we’ve been around long enough to know what you mean when you don’t mention the actual vocal. (Translation: You shoulda picked me when I turned my chair for you during the Blind Auditions, beyotch!)

With the competition so close and so cutthroat, though, can you really blame ’em? If Blake loses Cole Vosbury this week, not only will it break his winning streak at three, it’ll represent his first ever failure to make the finale. And so we’ve got four music superstars attempting to unleash morsels of negativity — while still trying to sound like the world’s nicest kindergarten teachers.

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But enough about Blake, Xtina, Adam and Grumpy Cat. Let’s cut to my letter grades for the week’s performances:

Tonight’s Letter Grades
Cole Vosbury (Team Blake): Hall & Oates’s “Rich Girl” — Grade: B- | Am I the only one who misses the days when Cole was covering unexpected material like The Jeffersons theme and Miguel’s “Adorn”? “Rich Girl” was mostly in tune, but so what? Cole’s rendition of the super-repetitive pop ditty was so devoid of any real passion and any attempt at creativity that it played like — warning: possibly botched baseball reference in 5, 4, 3, 2… — a bunt instead of a swing for the fences.

Tessanne Chin (Team Adam): Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” — Grade: A- | There’ve been moments this season where I’ve doubted Adam’s enthusiasm for and/or skill at mentoring Tessanne, but he redeemed himself by assigning her this mournful anthem by her country’s biggest musical superstar. From the opening note, Tessanne locked in like a guided missile — striking with stunning accuracy and breathtaking intent, and turning verbose phrases like “emancipate yourself from mental slavery” into pure poetry where a lesser vocalist might’ve wound up with word salad. What’s more, Tessanne had to perform under abominable circumstances — bogged down in a sea of audience members where a headphones-sporting producer infuriatingly initiated a round of soulless audience swaying that was completely out of time with the music (and each other). Why The Voice has continued the horrific SwayBot tradition that American Idol has mostly banished in recent years is a mystery worthy of Jessica Fletcher!

Matthew Schuler (Team Xtina): One Direction’s “Story of My Life” — Grade: C- | After last week’s botched Imagine Dragons cover, I figured the odds of the ultra-consistent Matthew coming back with yet another disaster were somewhere between “Xtina Getting Handed a Mic and Not Spontaneously Ad-Libbing” and “Carson Passing on the Opportunity to Add His Own Critique Before Tossing to the Coaches.” But man, was I ever wrong. Matthew’s “Story of My Life” was hampered by a badly mumbled intro, a midsection where he was completely drown out by the background singers and a finale that stretched his upper register to surprisingly strident territory. Dude may have been aiming for another opportunity to upgrade a piece of pop piffle (see: “Wrecking Ball”), but instead, he wound up getting outshone by the carefully coiffed boys from Simon Cowell’s British singing competition.

Will Champlin (Team Adam): Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” — Grade: B- | Will’s opening piano riffed proved he’s got serious skills at the keys, but once again, he refused to stay seated, opting instead to walk to the mic — and botching the lyrics of the opening verse in the process. Will’s vocal was otherwise fairly solid, except for those few final bars where he strained for the top notes like a toddler attempting to reach candy off a kitchen counter. But until Adam advises the guy to actually look engaged and excited on stage — instead of resembling a three-legged impala being dangled over a cheetah pit — I don’t think Will’s got a snowball’s chance in a sauna of winning the whole enchilada.

James Wolpert (Team Adam): The White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl” — Grade: A- | James took a scouring pad to the White Stripes’ grimey, feedback-fueled original and transformed it into a quirkier, folkier kind of party — and I’ve got to be honest: I fell in love once and almost completely. Was it a tremendous vocal showcase? No, but like Adam noted, not every song or performance needs to be. And on the plus side, James’ nasal quaver and sing-speak cadence brought to life the quirk of the lyrics: I could practically envision the two sides of the bespectacled fella’s brain meeting right then and there on The Voice stage. Will that be enough to catapult him into the semifinals? I’m not certain, but it certainly ought to be.

Jacquie Lee (Team Xtina): Janis Joplin’s “Cry Baby” — Grade: A | I might be a little impartial because a) the sound of Jacquie’s voice makes me go bonkers like a miniature poodle eyeing an open bag of Snausages, and b) “Cry Baby” probably ranks in my Top 10 favorite songs I grew up listening to on my mom’s record player in the ’70s. But even accounting for said biases, I adored how Jacquie attacked this rockin’ woman-done-wrong-but-still-in-love-anyhow anthem with a spiritual and physical gusto that had her clutching the piano for support, dropping to her knees and hurling the mic stand to the floor as if it were the errant lover who still hadn’t learned to appreciate her. I don’t even know how I’m typing this, ’cause the girl straight KILLED ME. That her performance was equal parts banshee howl and songbird-y perfection only added to the awesomeness. As Adam so cheekily said to the inexperienced teen, “if that’s you not having had your heart broken…” (Side note: Maybe next week, wardrobe can avoid exposing Jacquie’s midriff, since she spent, y’know, three-quarters of the performance surreptitiously covering her exposed skin with her arms. Just a thought!)

Cole Vosbury (Team Blake): James Morrison’s “Better Man” — Grade: B+ | Cole’s reign as Season 5’s unlikely (aka aggressively bearded) sex symbol continued unabated with this tender soul ballad that he delivered with heart and delicacy and what seemed like hundreds of ye-olde-timey lightbulbs in the background. I’m not 100 percent sure I’ll remember this very pretty performance six months from now — in much the same way I enjoy my daily bowl of breakfast cereal, but can’t really differentiate one from another — but in terms of activating his fan base to hit iTunes and spend $1.29 to support him, I’m guessing this puppy will do the trick.

Tessanne Chin (Team Adam): Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally” — Grade: B | Or as I like to call it, when incredible voices happen to really crappy songs. In all seriousness, though, I’d belong in the trash bin with Xtina’s discarded eyelashes if I failed to note how Tessanne’s cover was in every single way superior to Katy Perry’s own rendition at last month’s American Music Awards. (Not that that’s saying much, but still…) On the flip side, though, “Unconditionally” seemed a peculiar pick for an artist with the range and ambition of Tessanne — kind of like Mario Batale trying to show off his culinary chops with a package of hot dogs and a can of Spaghetti-Os. In her zest to upgrade the number, Tessanne got a tad bombastic — beginning at 10, and inching her way up to the nonexistnent “13” dial — but she never missed a note in the process. The real question now, though, is whether Blake’s “stop focusing on Jamaica” feedback might hurt her chances with xenophobic voters who want the U.S. flag hanging over the gold-medalist’s podium at the end of their reality singing competitions.

Matthew Schuler (Team Xtina): Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” — Grade: C+ | Yikes. Matthew’s fall from front-runner status has been so sudden and so unexpected, that I half wonder if Paulina Rubio (mentor of The X Factor‘s “Boys” category) has created a voodoo doll of the fetching 21-year-old and squeezes its throat every time he takes the stage. (I kid! I kid! That would imply that Paulina gave two craps about her contestants!) All kidding aside, though, Matthew once again failed to live up to the lofty expectations he created in the early weeks of the competition, trailing off at the ends of notes, sounding strained in his upper register and delivering some falsetto notes that were more like squeaks of surrender. I don’t know if there’s any way Matthew avoids the Bottom 2 this week — it’s just a question of whether his fans will rally on Twitter to give him a second straight Instant Save.

Will Champlin (Team Adam): Avicii’s “Hey Brother” — Grade: A- | I’ll admit I’d never heard this track till about an hour before The Voice‘s live broadcast — yeah, I might’ve succumbed to reading song spoilers this week — but to my almost-virgin ears, Will’s cover was actually an improvement on the original — managing to accentuate the smooth and gritty sides of his instrument with equal aplomb, and ensuring that viewers keep viewing him as a guy who can handle modern music as deftly as he does old-school ballads. All in all, a success — and even more so because Will overcame that silly “this backdrop’s on fire!” nonsense on the screens behind him.

Jacquie Lee (Team Xtina): Christina Aguilera’s “The Voice Within” — Grade: B | If I’m being honest, I wish Jacquie had chosen a less-obvious ballad from Stripped (which still holds up as Xtina’s masterpiece) — maybe “Soar” or “Walk Away.” Why? Because, even though the lyrics probably resonated with Jacquie moreso than anything she’s tackled this season, “The Voice Within” is, essentially, the musical equivalent of strained peaches. It’s also something of an infinite crescendo — a ditty that builds and builds and builds till there’s a Gospel choir and a key change and a little more holleration than one wants to hear in 2013. Don’t get me wrong, Jacquie hit most of her notes and brought a lot of emotion to the table, too, but the end result was perhaps 15% more pageant-y than I’d expected (or wanted) from a potential future pop star.

James Wolpert (Team Adam): Meatloaf’s “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” — Grade: B- | “You really can’t overdo this!” exclaimed Adam, as he saddled James with one of the corniest tracks in the history of popular song (the sheet music of which might as well have been stapled to a note reading, “You’re my No. 3 out of the three remaining contestants on my team, bro.”) I mean, COME ON! “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” is only OK in 2013 if it’s part of a goofy M&Ms commercial. This had to be sabotage, right? Adam wasn’t expecting anyone to download this on iTunes, was he? Unfortunately, James (who was sick tonight, Adam cried out) couldn’t quite keep pace with the rapid fire lyrics, couldn’t quite come up with a dance move that didn’t make him look like an inebriated speed skater and couldn’t quite convince me that he didn’t want to roll under a drum set and turn to dust. Given Adam’s (ridiculous) praise, though, that James’ Top 8 Queen cover was one of the best performances in the history of the show, I wouldn’t be shocked to see the guy sail into the Top 5 on Tuesday.

*Should Go Home: Matthew
Will Go Home: Tessanne

(*NBC’s publicity team confirms it’ll just be one artist getting axed this week — and that there’ll be an Instant Save in effect.)

And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of Top 6 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!