I was going to start my recap of The Voice‘s Top 11 performance night by lamenting all of the unfortunate business that played out over its first 90 minutes: The silhouetted ballet dancer shaking out her hair (inside the moon!) and upstaging hapless Evan McKeel. The assassination of Helen Reddy’s “Delta Dawn” in front of 12 million viewers. The ghost of a 1999 Mandy Moore soundtrack cut floating across the stage, haunting Korin Bukowski’s musical future.
After getting to hear Jeffery Austin close the show with an utterly gut-wrenching twist on Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” however, all that hoo-hah and whateverness seems as distant a memory as Bobby Jindal’s 2016 presidential run.
It matters not a whit that my favorite contestant to grace the Voice stage in many moons (and possibly ever) is fighting for runner-up status at best. The relentless NBC promotional muscle/Mark Burnett editing tomfoolery/coaches’ conspiracy is foisting Jordan Smith down our collective throats like we’re ducks in a foie-gras farm — and all you can do is grab a toast point. (I know, I know, I just scrambled that culinary metaphor… but at least I didn’t invoke the terrifying image of Meatloaf Baby, right?)
Emily Ann Roberts, it must be said, was pretty stellar tonight, too — floating in on a breeze so bluegrassy that it made the chilly New Jersey night seem as sunshiney as a Lexington, KY, morning in June.
The other nine performances ranged — on the Randy Jackson Scale of Critique, (TM) pending — from “aiight” to “pitchy.” But let me not invoke the Ghosts of Bad Judges Past, but rather cut to my letter grades and reviews for this week’s performances:
Team Adam: Shelby Brown, “You and I” — Grade: B- | Conspiracy theory of the week: Adam spending half his critique of his country contestant lamenting the audience SwayBots’ inability to clap to the rhythm tells me he won’t be all that crushed if Shelby gets axed this week. That’s a shame, really, because by the time Shelby exited the wah-wah bass intro, settled into the tune and really got to belting on the vamp portion of the chorus, she was actually quite thrilling. Oh sure, the final muted line found her winded and uncertain from all her prior exertions — not a great way to signal “vote for me!” — but I still can’t help but feel the teenager’s stumbles are more a product of lackadaisical coaching than a defect in talent/potential.
Team Pharrell: Evan McKeel, “Smile” — Grade: C+ | I appreciated the simplicity of the arrangement here — and the way it put all the focus on Evan’s clean, clear vocals. Alas, though, you could also use those adjectives to describe an excellent glass of tap water, and by the midway point of Evan’s performance — when he failed to dig into the melancholy of the lyrics or offer much in the way of crescendo — that dang ballerina in the backdrop took advantage of the growing charisma vacuum and stole Evan’s thunder.
Team Blake: Barrett Baber, “Delta Dawn” — Grade: D+ | True story: Out to breakfast over the weekend, while gesticulating to my twins to be careful not to spill their chocolate milks, I knocked over my coffee cup and sent the contents all over the table, my pants, the kids’ scooters and their prized saber-tooth tiger stuffed animal. You want to know what was messier, though? Barrett’s vocal on his “rocked out” rendition of the ’70s AM radio staple. As Barrett adopted an oddly strident tone that reminded me of an anchient parrot, he strayed so far off the melody it was hard to tell if he was going for attempting to be avant garde or just proving unable to hit the right notes while running around the stage. “It’s not about the singing,” said Gwen, slyly. And if Barrett somehow winds up in the upper echelon of the iTunes charts, her theory will have been proven.
Team Gwen: Korin Bukowski, “Only Hope” — Grade: C | Dubious song choice aside – c’mon, if you’re going to cover no-longer-charting divas, why not Jojo or Ashanti or Vitamin C? — Korin started off in very pretty fashion, her voice fluttering over the high notes of the verse like a hummingbird in a spring garden. Halfway through, though, last week’s Twitter Save recipient began to noticeably lose confidence — whiffing completely on a glory note and looking as queasy as Blake Shelton if he were to stumble into a Kohls’ fashion segment with Christina Grimmie. She’s simply not ready for this jelly.
Team Adam: Amy Vachal, “Blank Space” — Grade: B- | First, the good news: Amy’s pitch was much improved over last week’s wobbly “Hotline Bling” — even if there were a few times the band swallowed up her gossamer tone. Unfortunately, though, the improved technical scores came at the expense of artistic interpretation. Sure, the scaled-back light-folk arrangement helped differentiate Amy’s version from Taylor Swift’s original — always welcome! — but she also missed the inherent bite and humor of the lyrics in the process. It can’t all just be gauzy-jazzy-etherealness when you’re courting a future-ex-lover with promises to ceremoniously add him to your rejected pile as soon as the inevitable downward spiral begins. Sheesh.
Team Blake: Zach Seabaugh, “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” — Grade: D | There is no greater example of why we can pretty much all fast-forward through all of the coaches’ critiques now than the fact that no one mentioned Zach’s grasp of pitch tonight was as tenuous as a damp dollar-store paper towel attempting to hold up an anvil. Sorry, but no matter how many times Carson introduces the kid as a heatthrob or the teenage girls in the audience scream like they’re auditioning for American Horror Story, it’s not going to magically make this kid a viable artist… not without a few more years of seasoning and intensive practice.
Team Pharrell: Madi Davis, “Love Is Blindness” — Grade: B- | Madi’s vocal — U2 interpreted by Jack Johnson and run through a Bond-theme filter — intrigued me without moving me as much as I’d hoped. No doubt the teenager’s got a gorgeous, buttery tone — and the ability to drop unexpected flourishes into a melody. But “Love Is Blindness” proved a bit too haphazard — like a first draft in which Madi hadn’t fully mapped out what the lyrics meant to her, or at least how to phrase the song to drive said meaning home.
Team Gwen: Braiden Sunshine, “True” — Grade: C- | After last week’s misguided effort to turn Braiden into a rocker, there was really nowhere to go but up in terms of song choice. But while Braiden managed to not get swallowed whole by the band on Spandau Ballet’s buttoned-up ’80s ballad, he brought about as much energy and passion to the stage as you’d expect him to put into his post-rehearsal algebra homework.
Team Adam: Jordan Smith, “Who You Are” — Grade: B | When Jessie J belts “Who You Are,” it’s like she’s going through an entire session with her therapist, but condensing all her angst and self-doubt and “A-ha!” moments into three glorious minutes. That scratchiness in her voice at the top of the chorus is raw and real and a little bit desperate, and I wanted more of that — rawness! realness! desperation! — from Jordan this week. But while he nailed every note with sniper-y precision, this felt more surface level than his greatest hits from Season 9. I’d love to see the kid get a session with Usher or Pharrell or Xtina — a coach who might dig deeper into Jordan’s backstory of self-doubt and insecurity, then teach him how to bring those universal emotions into his performances. With only three weeks of live shows left — and Adam on a bit of cruise control — that might be one Christmas gift I won’t be getting.
Team Blake: Emily Ann Roberts, “Why Not Me” — Grade: A- | I was worried the Judds’ “Hey, fella, settle down —or at least settle!” ditty might be a bit too thin to give Emily Ann a breakout moment. But Blake’s keen-eared arrangement played up the bluegrass, giving Emily Ann the confidence to riff on the melody, reach to the tippy top of her range and best of all breathe new life into a story that might’ve come off as old-fashioned (or a little dreary) if not for the sass and swing of her delivery. The kid is getting good at exactly the right moment – and with the unspoken Blake Multiplier in play — don’t act like that’s not a real thing — she could have the best shot at thwarting Jordan’s predestined coronation.
Team Gwen: Jeffery Austin, “Dancing on My Own” — Grade: A | I’m not going to pretend that I don’t give Jeffery a few bonus points for his exceptional taste in song choice — the way he studiously avoids done-to-death-on-The-Voice anthems and ubiquitous hits, while gravitating to strong melodies that show off his whopping range and varied vocal textures. But more important is the way the former publicist utilizes his throaty growl, his quavering chest voice, and his ethereal falsetto in true storyteller fashion. The way he hit the line “I’m in the corner, watching you kiss him,” it was as if he’d transported us all to a nightclub full of dry ice and booming music and mixed drinks and regrets. That’s a pretty remarkable skill for a fella who hadn’t given a public performance for six years prior to his audition, but if voters do the right thing over the next three weeks, hopefully Jeffery will never suffer such a gap in his musical résumé again.
Will Be Bottom 2: Korin, Evan (Korin going home)
Should Be Bottom 2: Zach, Braiden (Braiden going home — based on weaker body of work overall)
What did you think of the Top 11? Who were your faves? Who’s in trouble? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments!