American Idol Top 15 Guys Performance Recap: Let's Hear It for the Boys! [Updated]

american-idol-top-15-guys-performance-recap-sam-woolf-malcolm-allen“Intonation” is the new “pitchy.” Jennifer Lopez is suddenly astute and critical. And if you listen carefully, Season 8’s glorious, criminally underrated Allison Iraheta* is providing chill-inducing background support as part of Rickey Minor’s band. (*If you’ve never heard her providing lead vocals on Halo Circus’ “Gone,” go directly to iTunes, download it, then come back and finish this recap.)

This…is Season 13 of American Idol. And while Tuesday night’s “Top 10 Ladies” performance show sputtered under the unbearable heaviness of 15 women waiting for two hours to find out whether or not they’d even have an opportunity to sing for America’s votes, tonight’s bookend — starring the Top 10 Guys — settled into a groove far more quickly and far more comfortably. They already knew what was coming, and they adapted accordingly.

The only problem is, with fewer catastrophic misfires on the gents’ side, Thursday night’s results telecast — during which five men and five women will advance, followed by the judges’ selection of  three Wild Cards — is almost certain to cause pain and consternation among the Idoloonie nation.

Imagine if the pretty but questionable Spencer Lloyd rides that in-studio wave of sorority-girl applause past a more deserving dude? And what if J.Lo offering Emmanuel Zidor a second chance to prove his talent — after a gaspingly awful drubbing of a disco gem — pays dividends and carries him to the Season 13 Top 13?

Oh, such speculation is simply too much to bear. Let’s focus instead on how the Idol judges chose better bench-warmers tonight than they did Tuesday — and on how those perceived weak links might come back stronger, slicker and with better breath control in Season 14. (Good luck, Casey!)

Also positive: Harry Connick Jr. keeping it dangerously real (even when it meant getting booed). Keith Urban’s glow throwing some much needed warmth to offset the Polar Vortex (which is still a thing, right?). And the bittersweet tears of C.J. Harris’ girlfriend. (Every year needs a world-class crier, and combined with M.K. Nobilette’s supporting players, Season 13 may very well pick up an extra sponsor in Kleenex or Puffs.)

With that, let’s cut to letter grades for tonight’s performers:

Caleb Johnson: Faces’ “Stay With Me” — Grade: B- | There’s an appealingly brusque, Bo Bice-y quality to Caleb’s voice, and you can’t say he didn’t hit most of his notes tonight. That said, his rendition of “Stay With Me” felt too surface-level, too much like the emcee at a Thursday night karaoke bar, to position Caleb as a real contender. The winking sexuality of Rod Stewart’s original — and even the wayward energy of Skylar Laine’s legendary Season 11 rendition — were missing from Caleb’s repertoire tonight. I felt more like he was a dude at a local dive bar trying to convince us he was a rock star than a rock star digging deep into the tale of an ill-advised one-night stand.

C.J. Harris: Ray LaMontagne’s “Shelter” — Grade: B | So C.J. had a root canal on Tuesday, and still managed to show up for his live Idol debut 24 hours later looking like he’d just landed on the surface of the moon. That’s impressive, even if lidocaine was partially to blame. Better still, the Alabama fella’s growl was chock full of passion and purpose — even if (and this may be a controversial thing to say) I always feel like Ray Lamontagne songs provide a weirdly un-challenging path for southern blues contestants who don’t want to venture even an inch outside their comfort zones. Sure, he hit a few sharp notes — but I didn’t hear nearly as many as Harry did. Or maybe I was too distracted by Top 10 Ladies Briana Oakley and Kristen O’Connor blasphemously joining forces with the absurdly off-the-beat SwayBots.

Emmanuel Zidor: The Emotions’ “Best of My Love” — Grade: D- | “It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye!” my mom used to yell when my sisters and I were growing up. (Because parental love means imagining all the gruesome ways your children don’t even realize they’re in peril.) I’m not entirely sure why, but that expression popped into my brain as I watched Emmanuel awkwardly dance and attempt to engage the crowd while his pitch veered wildly like a screen door during hurricane season. It’s like, yeah, he’s a sweet guy who loved what Vonzell Solomon did with “Best of My Love” back in Season 4, and who doesn’t find that adorable? But did it actually make him qualified for a place in the competition over Maurice or Casey? It wasn’t exactly the loss of an eye, to be fair, but in the context of the competition, it was a sharp stick puncturing one of 10 legitimate Rush Week performance slots for the men. Click. Dialtone. Goodbye.

Sam Woolf: David Gray’s “Babylon” — Grade: A- | “This child just has something,” I Tweeted tonight while watching Sam perform. And I stand by my sentiment after playing back his performance a second (and then a third) time. Not only does the kid have perfect pitch (as J.Lo noted) and a tone as clear and clean as springwater, but he’s got an uncanny ability to inhabit a song, too. The words mean something to him, the music means something to him, and it’s palpable with every note. Harry complained a bit about Sam’s “confidence” issues, but he’s a teenager and it’s Week 1: Wouldn’t you rather throw your fandom to a contestant who cuts his own slice of humble pie over one who needs a piece shoved down his gullet at this stage of the competition? In other words, the kid is all right!

George Lovett: Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” — Grade: C- | Yikes. George is definitely a guy with plenty of raw vocal talent — there’s no trying to deny it — but his approach to “Grenade” was the equivalent of putting a filo dough through a meat grinder. His face etched with anxiety and fear, George tried to overcompensate with big glory notes and showy runs, but any hint of subtlety, nuance or emotional connectedness got lost in the mix. At last report, “Grenade” was being carried out of the theater on a stretcher and headed for Cedars-Sinai with multiple blunt-force blows to the head. The prognosis for George’s Idol dreams, alas, isn’t much better.

Dexter Roberts: Craig Morgan’s “This Ole Boy” — Grade: B | First of all, shame on Idol‘s wardrobe department for letting Dexter take the stage in a sheer white Henley with visible tank top beneath it. I mean, what good is Randy Jackson’s workshop (sentence should probably end here, but…) if you’re not going to test out contestants’ outfits beneath the lights and on camera? Infuriating! Superficial rant aside, though, I rather enjoyed Dexter’s laid-back, sweetly romantic country jam (a song I’ll admit I was hearing for the first time). The relaxed way Dexter throws in little snarls and “come ons” into the midst of his performances gives him the vibe of being a relative veteran in the midst of neophytes. Sure, Keith’s right that he needs to figure out what makes him distinguishable from other country male artists, but can’t that be said of anyone at this verrrry early stage in the competition?

Alex Preston: Damien Rice’s “Volcano” — Grade: B+ | Yes, yes, yes… I ought to demote Alex to a B for a blasphemous song choice; Phillip Phillips owns “Volcano” when it comes to the Idol stage, of course, and contestants who don’t learn their Idol history are doomed to be hounded by unflattering comparisons and general nitpickiness. But on its own merits, Alex’s rendition was strongly sung and beautifully played — while managing to capture a genuine sense of the danger and mystery that’s embedded in the lyric. If Alex is not one of the five guys advancing based on viewer votes, then J.Lo secretly delights in using public transportation. (Oh, that’s how we kid! J.Lo only rides the subway in videos and Kohl’s ads!)

Malcolm Allen: Anthony Hamilton’s “Comin’ From Where I’m From” — Grade: B+ | J.Lo wanted more “performance.” Harry complained that the vocal featured the “same exact run over and over and over.” But I couldn’t have disagreed more. Yeah, there were a couple of wobbly notes, and yeah, the song’s tricky rhythms tripped Malcolm up in a spot or two. But I felt so much angst and heartache in Malcolm’s rich tone — and enjoyed the way he dug down deep into the groove — that I’d have been more than happy to hear him come back for an unannounced encore when the show returned from commercial. Throw some votes his way; I guarantee you you won’t regret it come next Wednesday night!

Ben Briley: The Allman Brothers Band: “Soulshine” — Grade: C+ | First, some good news: Ben’s guitar playing was undeniably impressive, and the opening half of his performance featured a reasonably solid grasp on pitch. Once he’d completed his guitar solo, though, I felt like Ben’s vocals started staggering like a queasy sailor stumbling onto a dock, and eventually devolved into a not-entirely-pleasant sludge of growls and quavers. The judges and crowd clearly disagreed with my assessment, meaning Ben’s probably a lock for the Top 13, but it’s going to take more consistency (and better mic technique, if I’m being really fussy) to make me a convert.

Spencer Lloyd: The Fray’s “Love Don’t Die” — Grade: C- | What does it matter what I think? All those sorority chicks in the audience, deafened by the sound of their own screams all night, could hear nothing but the sound of their own lust as Spencer grinned and strutted his way through a performance that read “popular boy deciding last-minute to enter the high-school talent show.” Spencer’s thin, breathy voice had about as much chance against the band as a guppy trying to sink its teeth into a pihanha, and his brief attempt at falsetto was about as much fun as slapping a brick wall with one’s open palm. On the plus side, Allison’s backing vocals (OMG, what an injustice!) percolated through the arrangement, and Harry (bless his honesty!) decided to not be a mouthpiece for the producers by insisting, “This was not good.” Look, I’m fine if America wants to crown Spencer and Marrialle as prom king and queen, but when it comes to my Idol, I need that duo walking the plank Thursday night, ok?

With that, I turn it over to you.

What did you think of the Top 10 guys? Who were your faves? Which pre-performance cuts made you most upset? Take our polls below, then sound off in the comments!