The Voice Live Playoffs Recap: Has Elvis Entered the Building?

Yep, yep, yep, it’s called The Voice, and the voice should be the focus of our attention.

And yet, with 24 singers competing for only 12 slots in the Season 9 finals, shouldn’t a little salty hip action count for a few bonus points in a very close horse race (provided that said moving and grooving doesn’t throw a contestant off pitch)?

That was my thought tonight as Mark Hood, Zach Seabaugh and Nadjah Nicole attempted to do more than bake whole honeyed hams (musically speaking) while standing frozen at the mic stand. None of them gave perfect performances, if I’m being completely honest, but at the same time, I felt like aimed higher than the typical “reality-competition contestant trying to tick off a predetermined set of boxes” and deliver genuine musical entertainment to the audience.

Granted, boogie-oogie-oogie is never going to trump next-level vulnerability – and that’s why Madi Davis ranks No. 1 on my list of Night 2 contestants who absolutely must advance to the finals — but it’s a factor worth considering for an Emmy winner still searching for its first household-name breakout champ. (Maybe it’s folly to hope for NBC’s answer to American Idol to produce a Kelly Clarkson/Carrie Underwood breakout in the iTunes era, but are you really going to be as invested in Seasons 10, 11, 12 and 13 if the stakes are no higher than doubling the price of admission at the winner’s local coffee house?)

Anyhow, while you ponder why Sawyer Fredericks hasn’t yet topped the charts (WHO IS/ISN’T HANDLING HIS P.R., YO!?), allow me to share my personal rankings of Tuesday’s 12 performers:

Team Blake
6. Ivonne Acero, “One of Us” — Ivonne is the kind of girl who’d be a shoo-in to win her high-school talent competition, but her tentative delivery and habit of falling just short of the note — especially on her “what the heck is happening here?” ad libs — means she’s an almost certain elimination during Wednesday’s results telecast. Grade: C

5. Morgan Frazier, “Lips of an Angel” — Blake’s choice of an inarguably groan-inducing Hinder jam pretty much telegraphed Blake’s preference for Emily Ann over is Knockout Rounds steal-back. But Morgan did herself no favors by going flat nearly every time she wasn’t flat-out belting her notes. Grade: C+

4. Emily Ann Roberts, “In The Garden” — Before we talk about Emily Ann’s wobbly sense of pitch on a sure-to-garner-downloads hymn, can we please agree that Carson Daly should not kick off the coaches’ critiques with leading questions like, “Gwen Stefani, how moving was that for you?” I mean, what if Gwen was about to offer some constructive advice to Emily Ann about not starting songs so high in her register that it almost guarantees vocal strain by the time you get to the chous? (That’s what happened on “In the Garden” for sure.) There were pretty moments, though, too, but this isn’t the first time in Season 9 that I’ve wondered if Emily Ann might’ve fared better had she waited another year or two to audition. Grade: B-

3. Barrett Baber, “I Drive Your Truck” — Barrett’s got a muscular voice and the kind of “I didn’t spend too much time lookin’ like this” handsomeness that’ll probably make him a slam-dunk at country radio. I just wish I found him more believable when he’s delivering a lyric. There was so much quaver and amped-up angst from beginning to end that it all began to feel like storytelling artifice rather than a genuine exploration into a man’s grief and loss. (Yes, I know this recap is starting to sound more like a college thesis, so I’ll just try to say it more plainspokenly and tell that I simply wasn’t feelin’ it. Grade: B

2. Nadjah Nicole, “Upside Down” — Sigh. Look, I’m well aware Diana Ross’ rhythmic masterwork is no kind of vocal showcase — oh, Nadjah, why not “No One Gets the Prize” or even “The Boss”? —but on the other hand, does every reality-singing competition “moment” need to center on a big, emotional ballad? Nadjah hit every note of Miss Ross’ post-disco romp, and her riffs over the melody in the song’s final third proved her ability to go beyond mere karaoke. Here’s hoping Blake doubles down on his “special drank” Wednesday night and saves this non-country diva as his Judges’ Choice contestant. Grade: B

1. Zach Seabaugh, “Brand New Girlfriend” — I’ll admit it: I’d written off Zach as mere cannon fodder based on his prior appearances. And while I’m in no way saying he has the strongest pipes in the Season 9 race, his raucous, hip-swaying, I’m-here-for-your-entertainment cover of Steve Holy’s uptempo jam was the most fun anyone’s had on NBC’s reality competition all year. (Nope, I’m not taking the bait and making a ShelFani zinger here.) There were shades of Elvis in his boogying, and hints of Josh Turner in his lower register, and I’m not going to pretend to be a snob and say I wasn’t all about it! Grade: A-

Team Pharrell
6. Riley Biederer, “Should’ve Been Us” — I’ve been feeling all season as though Pharrell somehow seems less invested in his contestants than in his two prior seasons, and his failure to steer Riley away from a song clearly too range-y for her solid — but not gargantuan — voice merely proves my point. Putting it another way, your niece’s pony is a lovely animal, but you wouldn’t put her in a race against Triple Crown champ American Pharoah, would you? And yet as Riley’s voice strained and slipped and devolved into off-key ad-libs, the competition slipped right out of the little pony’s grasp. Grade: C+

5. Celeste Betton, “Something in the Water” — Celeste did her best to transform Carrie Underwood’s religious country ditty into something that could sit at the intersection of Gospel, and while that effort brought out a newfound grit and ferocity in her tone, it also seemed to leave her slightly winded at the ends of phrases, and struggling to keep up with the cadence on the verses. Not a bad effort, but not the showstopper I wanted from Pharrell’s “Coach Comeback” selection. Grade: B-

3. (tie) Darius Scott, “Love Lockdown” —  Dude may have as much (if not more) technical ability as anyone else in the competition, but should he somehow advance to the Top 12, Pharrell needs to make him grab a piece of chalk and write 100 times on the blackboard, “I will not overembellish my vocals with grandstanding runs.” Because at the end of the day, there’s a big difference between “I was impressed by your acrobatics” and “I really enjoyed listening to you sing.” Food for thought should Pharrell choose him as his third artist to advance to the Top 12. Grade: B

3. (tie) Evan McKeel, “Overjoyed” — Evan sounded tremendously passionate and bell-clear every time he opened up and belted a note this week, but he experienced some heretofore unheard breath-control issues at the ends of certain phrases this week. Gwen and Blake’s one-two criticism of the awkward fella’s body language could wind up hurting him with voters, but I’m predicting the blue-eyed soul man will sneak into Pharrell’s Top 3 — either by vote or by coach’s lifeline. Grade: B

2. Mark Hood, “What Do You Mean?” — Mark took a Justin Bieber song and delivered it with so much intensity and frustration that it made me hear the lyrics for the very first time. Sure, his decision to kick things off at the piano, then bust some moves (and a patented spin) at the midpoint made a few notes messier than they needed to be, but Mark is consistently proving more interested in performing like it’s his last time on the Voice stage than he is in playing it safe for a few extra iTunes downloads. I’m hoping that strategy will pay off, but on the off chance it backfires, I hope Pharrell can find a way to keep fostering that derring-do in Mark’s post-show career. Grade: B+

1. Madi Davis, “Songbird by Fleetwood Mac” — Madi’s special skill is her ability to deliver as if it’s going out to a single person, sitting directly in front of her, at uncomfortably close range — while still managing to draw in every other occupant of the room. There’s a womanly maturity to the 16-year-old’s full voice, but also a sweet vulnerability that reminds you she’s at an age when it’s still appropriate to scrawl a crush’s name alongside your algebra notes. (Teens still do this in the Facebook age, right?) Blake was right when he called “Songbird” a breakout moment for Maddie — and while it’s going to be crucial for her to show she can tackle current/uptempo fare, there’s no way she won’t be with us ’til at least Thanksgiving. Grade: A-

OK, your turn. What did you think of Night 2 of the Season 9 Live Playoffs? Whose elimination would crush you? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments!

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