American Idol Top 12 Performance Recap: Home Is Where the Art Is [Updated]

Jessica Meuse American Idol“Complete Honesty” (™ pending) infected the American Idol judging panel tonight in much the same way that backwards baseball caps (AKA Satan’s Prefered Haberdashery) infected the ranks of Season 13’s Top 12 contestants. (OK, only two singers wore ’em on stage, and another two during rehearsal, but that’s still a terrifying enough ratio to alert the CDC.)

And while it’s easy to start a slow clap on behalf of Harry Connick Jr. and His Inability to Spout Producer-isms Like “Best! Season! Ever!”, credit must also be paid to Jennifer “I’m Not Maleficent!” Lopez, who risked studio-audience booing and a brief/insignificant drop in her Q rating to speak her own, more gentle brand of truth to a group of singers on the precipice of greatness — but lacking the confidence that wings will appear once they take the big leap.

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Also of note tonight: J.Lo being forced to take a bite of a deviled egg delivered by Ryan Seacrest’s un-gloved hand (what would her nutritionist say!?!?), a litter of fresh-out-the-oven puppies being used as a get-out-the-vote tool for Dexter Robers (smart boy!), and a bafflingly awful decision to release “real-time” Facebook-driven voting totals despite the fact that the numbers trended against contestants who’d taken the stage mere seconds prior.

But hey, at least footage of in-house “mentor” (I’ll pause while you stifle your guffaws) Randy “now is the time!” Jackson were kept to a minimum. And with that happy fact in mind, let’s jump right to letter grades and reviews for tonight’s performances:

Jena Irene: KT Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See” — Grade: B- | I j’adore Jena’s voice — and suspect I’ll eventually purchase whatever she produces post-Idol — but unfortunately this second-tier “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” was not the right vehicle to showcase her rich, burnt-caramel tone. I liked that she smiled and stepped away from the mic without fear — whereas many of her rivals grimly clung to one spot on the stage like newborn impalas to their mommies — but ultimately, Jenna’s instrument doesn’t read “easy, breezy.” Instead, it’s dark and stormy and complicated — and if she can’t tap into that vibe in the next couple of weeks, she will be doomed to a midpack finish.

Alex Preston: Gavin DeGraw’s “I Don’t Want To Be” — Grade: C+ | I’m not even going to comment on Alex’s violently rolled pant leg — I’m probably too old to really understand such youthful folly — but musically, this was his weakest showing since his whiny twist on “Scream and Shout” during Hollywood Week. It didn’t help that his done-to-death-on-Idol song choice (which I’ve repeatedly railed against over the years) is the room-temperature oatmeal of reality-singing competition far. But as J.Lo noted, Alex’s peculiar rearrangement — reggae by way of a Norwegian Sun ad — left Alex’s voice sounding tight and straining at the top of his register.

Jessica Meuse: Dido’s “White Flag” — Grade: B+ | I don’t think I’ve disagreed as strongly with J.Lo and Harry all season as I did with their withering criticism of Jessica’s Dido cover. Where they heard sharp notes and a dispassionate delivery, I heard a smoldering vibrato and depth of feeling that gave me shades of Fleetwood Mac-era Stevie Nicks. Dido’s original is pure adult-contemporary heaven, with its midtempo electro groove and Dido’s cold, clipped delivery. Jessica’s more organic approach may have been jarring to fans of the original, but to me it was a huge plus — and an indicator that she’s the kind of contestant worth watching in a post-Idol setting. Oddly, Harry continued to pile on the criticism coming out of commercial and heading into Dexter’s number — a possibly producer-driven decision that ended with a closeup of an emotionally broken Jessica trying to maintain her composure in the Idol Lounge. I’m not one to root for sympathy votes, but in this instance, I’ll take whatever keeps the pink-haired rocker in the mix through next week.

Dexter Roberts: Montgomery Gentry’s “Lucky Man” — Grade: B- | I liked seeing Dexter take a more introstpective approach to song selection after last week’s party-down “Aw Naw” — a sign that he may understand how to move his Idol chess pieces better than some of his rivals. Still, there was something stilted about the country kid’s timing on the verses (and a weakness in his delivery in his lower register) that prevented me from joining the judges in their peculiar praise. I mean, seriously, Keith praising a possible missed lyric as showing “vulnerability”? Or J.Lo impying that Dexter hasn’t yet matched Season 11 champ Scotty McCreery’s penchant for surprise — then backing away and praising Dexter for it? Did someone invite Nigel back into the control room without telling me?

Emily Piriz: Jennifer Lopez’s “Let’s Get Loud” — Grade: C- | Harry’s reaction to Emily’s performance — a heavy, waterlogged sponge in a case where a featherduster was needed — was perhaps the most laser-focused moment of critique in Idol history. “Let’s Get Loud” is a “locomotive,” he noted, one where the audience feels a rush of energy before a single note is sung. Emily, on the flip side, never really drove the train, Connick noted, instead settling for a couple of shouted words in Spanish, a couple of half-hearted shimmys and a final string of runs that held up as well as filo dough in a toddler’s fist.  Sure, it probably hurt Emily that the show’s producers spent approximately 67% of her performance cutting to her parents, to her fellow contestants and a “feelin’ it!”  J.Lo doll, but maybe if girlfriend had exhibited a greater ownership of her circumstances, she’d have been the primary subject of her own two-minute documentary.

Caleb Johnson: Rush’s “Working Man” — Grade: B- | Harry was completely correct in calling Caleb the most consistent singer in the Top 12 — at least over the past two weeks — but that was just a bit of praise in the warmup to questuining whether dude has any of the tools or innovative ideas to advance the cause of modern-day rock-and-roll. (No pressure, Caleb, it’s just the future of rock music depends on you, OK?) Still, I get what he meant: Caleb’s like a bowl of chili at your local — meaty, filling and nothing to complain about. But if he wants to be taken seriously as a recording artist in 2014 — and not be thought of as a “free admission with two-drink minimum” fella — then the predictable song choices and delivery, the theatrics of collapsing in a heap on the final note, must be upgraded. And quickly.

M.K. Nobilette: Train’s “Drops Of Jupiter” — Grade: C | I liked that M.K infused her performance with some dancey-dancey physicality when the backrgound vocalists were belting out their part of the melody, but despite the amped-up stage presence, M.K. still hasn’t proven she has enough vocal firepower to exist outside a coffeehouse setting. There was a nervousness in M.K.’s expression — and a lack of breath support on most of her extended notes — that continued to plague me with questions like, “How exactly did she make it to the Top 30 over Tessa Kate, Sarina Joi Crowe, Paisley Van Patten and Nica Nashae?” And before you complain about my relentless shout-outs for the Ghosts of Recent Idol Past, let me provide a link to Mishavonna Henson’s vastly superior Season 8 semifinal rendition — which didn’t even score her a shot at the Wild Card. As long as reality-singing competition injustices exist, I will continue to rant about ’em. #kendrachantelle #uhhuhiwentthere

C.J. Harris: John Mayer’s “Waiting On The World To Change” — Grade: D+ |  I loved that Harry pointed out the frathouse ennui of John Mayer’s lyric — “It’s not that we don’t care, we just know that the fight ain’t fair/ So we keep on waiting, waiting on the world to change” — when J.Lo tried to advance C.J.’s position as an agent for social change through song choice. And dude, if you’re gonna completely misread the lyrics of the song you’re singing, at least try to land two out of every three notes, OK? I know, I know…I sound heartless, and C.J. seems like a sweetheart. But in three weeks of live performances, not only has he failed to live up to his Hollywood Round promise, he actually seems to be retreating from it.

Sam Woolf: Blind Pilot’s “Just One” — Grade: C+ | Things I liked: Sam choosing a song I’d never heard before, and thereby introducing me to new music. Sam’s brown-sugar-on-oatmeal tone, a rich source of good vibes and seven essential nutrients. Sam’s hat that wasn’t a backwards baseball cap — a step toward making my bald-patch-protecting summer fedora a little less tragique.) But Harry — steadfast in his commitment to critique in spite of screeching sorority girls in the audience — couldn’t have been more spot-on in questioning whether Sam possesses more than one musical setting (midtempo, acoustic, soft-rock sweetie). Even worse, though, was the fact that Sam got upstaged by the pit of perma-grinning, dead-eyed SwayBot(™) chicks in which he’d chosen to perfrom. The whole experience was akin to watching a Walking Dead hero surrounded by hungry zombies — and then not knowing which team you’re rooting for. Might I suggest something uptempo (Kris Allen’s “Alright With Me”) or a creatively daring rearrangement this time next week?

Malaya Watson: Tamala Mann’s “Take Me To The King” — Grade: C+ | I’ll admit it: When I think about Malaya’s week-to-week improvement over her catastrophic Top 13 cover of “Runaway Baby,” I wonder if I’m being too strident. But there’s that adjective again — strident — and it reminds me that when Malaya goes into full diva mode and tries to belt out the big notes, she sounds just a shade off the desired mark. She’s like a symphony orchestra while they’re tuning up: Eventually, something beautiful will come out of the pit, but in the moment, it’s not entirely pleasing to the ear. A bigger problem, though, is Malaya’s inability to fully convey adult emotions. Tamela Mann’s original is a lullabye for the weary — the woman is churched out, and she doesn’t even have the strength to lay herself out in front of her savior, for cryin’ out loud! — but that oomph was missing in Malaya’s rendition. My attention drifted the further she waded into the waters — even if the positive feedback from the judges ensures she’ll survive another week into the competition.

Ben Briley: David Nail’s “Turning Home” — Grade: C+ | Like Malaya, Ben shows spurts of potential in his performances, but when he cranks up the “growl and grit” dial, something in his voice tightens up and the tone veers into wince-inducing. As Harry noted — and damn, dude was doing his job tonight, even if it was to the detriment of America’s opinion of the Season 13 crop — the end result was a feeling of being shouted at, which pretty much gutted the meaning of the song. As if to help keep Ben’s country realness in the mix, though, Ryan brought out a platter of deviled eggs for the be-capped contestant to snack on — and then offered one to J.Lo. We saw La Lopez take a bite, but I wonder if — like one of my toddlers when they’re not digging a veggie — she eventually spat it into Keith’s hand with disdain?

Majesty Rose: Coldplay’s “Fix You” — Grade: B | I loved the way Majesty shook up Coldplay’s most overwrought number by giving it a Gospel chorus-esque arrangement, and the delicately optimistic approach she took on the verses. Yes, the judges were right write that things went a little sideways when Majesty didn’t quite reach the shelf continaining the tippy top notes of the chorus, but by that point, I was in mid-sway and feelin‘ it, so I can’t complain too bitterly. Next week, though, I’d love to see her press pause on the band, break out Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” and leave us all weeping into our Kleenex. You know she can do it. I know she can do it. Does Majesty know she can do it?

Should Be Bottom 3: C.J., Emily, M.K. (C.J. going home)
Will Be Bottom 3: C.J., Emily, Jena (C.J. going home)

And with that, I pass the mic to you.

What did you think of the Top 12? Who were your faves? Who’s in trouble? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments!


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