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Well, The Voice finale is only a week away — and apparently Season 11 is going out with a whimper, not a bang. Monday’s competitive episode felt like one of those Easy-Listening theme nights (or maybe Bryan Adams Night) from an early American Idol season, with most of the top eight covering crusty, musty old ballads. It was understandable that, with four singers going home this week, the contestants wanted to play it a little safe. But sometimes playing it “safe” can, ironically, turn out to be a risk. Seriously, didn’t the top eight learn anything from their fallen comrades Austin Allsup and Courtney Harrell, who both got the boot last week after performing soft-rock tunes by John Waite and Cher?
But a couple contestants rose above the rest — sometimes with a little assistance. Interestingly, a couple of Monday’s standout performances were duets, as the eight contestants paired off throughout the night and seemed to experience an energy boost as a result.
But since those performances weren’t critiqued by the coaches, and duet downloads won’t count as iTunes votes, I’ve saved my own duets commentary for the end of this post. So let’s get to the recap, starting with the solo numbers…
Christian Cuevas (Team Alicia)
Christian made a last-minute play to brand himself the Jordan Smith of Season 11 with a religious hymn, “To Worship You I Live (Away)” by Israel Houghton — something he’d been wanting to do all season and had, wisely, saved for this special, important night. (And for once, Christian was not doing a breakup song! I bet his fiancée Elaine was relieved.) Then he threw in some of his native Spanish, and then ramped up to a bold, Coldplay-style, call-and-response climax. If this performance had taken place at the end of the show in the “pimp spot,” instead of in the “death spot,” Christian would have guaranteed himself a spot in the finals with this genuine emotional display.
“There’s no one really in this competition that allows themselves to wear their emotions on their sleeves the way you do,” said Adam Levine. “Whether you’re doing an uptempo, fun song or a sad song or a song of faith and worship like you just did, you have the ability to make us feel… That’s the mark of a great artist,” said Blake Shelton. Christian’s proud coach, Alicia Keys, called this “a dream-come-true performance.” We’ll see if Christian’s dream really comes true when Carson Daly reads off the results Tuesday night.
Ali Caldwell (Team Miley)
Ali didn’t fare so well the last time she sang a Dolly Parton song — she didn’t even crack iTunes’ top 200 with “9 to 5.” But Miley played the “godmother card” again this week, and pulled out the Dolly showstopper to end all Dolly showstoppers, the Parton-penned Whitney Houston mega-ballad, “I Will Always Love You.” I understood Miley and Ali’s strategy here. Ali is one of those middle-packer contestants — not a lock for the top three, but a strong possibility to sing for the Save and get through to the top four as a wild card – so she really needed to give the performance of her life this Monday.
So, did she? Well, since she belted the Mariah Carey version of “Without You” in the pimp spot last week, while wearing a sweeping pastel Grammy gown, it was hard for her to top that spectacle — even with a Whitney song. So much of this week’s performance felt like a retread: There was another pastel gown, another grandly staged spectacle. If Ali wanted to revisit/recreate a past successful performance, I would have prefer something sexier, slinkier, and subtler, like her amazing Knockout Rounds cover of Sade’s “No Ordinary Love.”
That being said, Ali’s vocals were spectacular. She’s one of the few remaining contestants this season that could actually do Whitney justice, and she certainly seemed confident and comfortable tackling such a beloved, ambitious, and iconic song. “What a legendary song to sing. I love how you didn’t let that shake you for a minute,” Alicia noted admiringly. “You never lost feeling. You sang as beautifully as you look. You are a rose. You are the most stunning. That was a perfect performance. Honestly, I’m so jealous that wasn’t me up there,” raved a very pleased Miley Cyrus. We’ll see if Ali’s still up there after Tuesday’s results.
Brendan Fletcher (Team Adam)
Brendan went from being a dark horse to a true contender this season once his performances became kinder, gentler, and more vulnerable, so I suppose Adam thought it was bright idea to assign Brendan a famous ballad that makes any typical television viewer break into heaving sobs: Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel.” You know — that weepy tune that has soundtracked a decade of depressing SPCA commercials filled with sad-eyed abandoned puppies and kitties.
Unfortunately, this didn’t work nearly as well as when Brendan warbled another sensitive tune originally recorded by a sensitive-hearted woman, Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors.” Brendan went to #2 on iTunes last week with the Cyndi song, which was heartfelt and touching; this time, he was a little meh. The song never really went anywhere; while other Brendan performances have built to a emotional crescendo, like Christian’s did, this one just dragged along. The performance felt long. Brendan seemed tired. And the weepy, operatic song just felt too big for him.
Blake enjoyed this, though, telling Brendan, “I think probably you more than anybody else have had the most consistent growth over the course of the show… It’s because your voice is so infectious. You have that gravelly, warm sound.” (Then he suggested that Brendan do some Michael McDonald. I would not be against that!) Adam turned his critique into a stump speech, telling America, “You should vote for [Brendan] if you want something different — if you want a different shade, if you want a different tone, if you want a different thing than we often see… This guy, who I’m so immensely proud of, is doing something all the way to the bitter end that is so him and so pure to who he is and the message that he wants to deliver. I think that deserves to be rewarded.”
We’ll soon find out if America listened to Adam and rewards Brendan. I still think there is a very good chance that Brendan will land in the middle this week and sing for that fourth-place Save, but I do think he forfeited his practically-guaranteed top three spot with “Angel.” If only he’d done “True Colors” this week…
Wé McDonald (Team Alicia)
Wé was the only contestant to do a current solo song this week — and Alessia Cara’s girl-powered empowerment anthem, “Scars to Your Beautiful,” could not have been a more perfect pick for the quirky, confident, formerly bullied teen. Wé was serving pure theater and Grammy-night realness from the moment she appeared atop a giant gilded podium rocking a Rhythm Nation jacket and some tall, sculpted Janelle Monae hair. And she upped the drama even more once she descended an Adam Lambert-on-Idol illuminated staircase while a fleet of military drummers paraded behind her. This red-hot-and-blue performance was a triumph, and I adored everything about it — until, that is, Wé went for a money note midway through and came up a few dollars short. It was a rare flub from the usually flawless performer, but at least she was trying, really going for it and taking a chance, as opposed to assuming she was already a top four shoo-in. Wé was clearly striving to make to the finals, and despite her minor misstep, I definitely think she’s going to get there.
“I felt like [that performance] showed me what a Wé tour would look like. If I was going to go see you in concert, that’s what I would go see… I can’t wait to go to your concert and be wearing your T-shirt. It’s going to be cool,” said Miley. “I am so, so, so proud of Wé. She knows what she wants. This is Wé’s vision. Wé is her own artist. She knows what she wants. She knows what she wants to say… I want to remind everybody at home that they are witnessing the growth of a star on this show,” said Alicia. As if we needed any reminders!
Aaron Gibson (Team Miley)
Aaron alienated much of America, or at least the part of America that block-votes for The Voice, with his darker songs by NIN and Father John Misty. So lately he’s tried to lighten things up with jollier George Ezra and Elton John tunes. Unfortunately, he may have swung too far to that warm-and-fuzzy extreme this week with his sappy song selection, “Everything I Do (I Do It for You).” I would have liked Aaron doing some Ryan Adams, not Bryan Adams, personally. Or if he had to cover Bryan-with-a-B, why not “Run to You”? Lou Barlow from Sebadoh did that as a B-side once and it was, as Blake might say, quite badass.
But I digress. Aaron did the Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves song and sounded like had been robbed of his vocal abilities. He actually sounded like was in pain, and he seemed lost without his guitar. The same thing that happened to Austin with “Missing You” happened to Aaron this week: He did an adult-contemporary song and he lost his edge. He lost his cool.
“I know you did this song for me, and I have to thank you for that because this is something very different than anything we’ve done so far in this competition,” said Miley, who seemed to think Aaron was as cool as ever. “I’ve been so down with Aaron and his guitar, being totally his own artist; this week I wanted to do a big classic song [for] everyone at home. I don’t want to see you in the bottom again. Please, everybody, vote for Aaron!”
I wasn’t crazy about this performance, but I kind of hope Aaron once again bucks the odds and makes it through to the finale anyway. Why, you ask? Because William Shatner recently tweeted Aaron, and I have a feeling the Golden-Throated artist formerly known as Captain Kirk would be down to do a “Rocket Man” duet with Aaron on finale night. And that would be AWESOME. So, everyone do what Miley said and go download “Everything I Do” now!
Josh Gallagher (Team Adam)
Team Blake’s Swon Brothers had a big moment in Season 4 with “Danny’s Song” by Loggins & Messina, so I guess Adam figured one of his few country contestants in all 11 seasons, Josh, could work the same magic. And Adam may be a genius, because this was the first time I actually appreciated Josh. Josh shook off his bro-country shackles, sat down on a stool, and did something a little different, a little sweeter and simpler, something that didn’t automatically sound like it should be in a Buick or Black Angus or Budweiser commercial. He stretched himself vocally, too, his voice sounding bright and bell-clear. This was very nice. Was it nice enough to get Josh into the top three? Well, no — but it was probably enough to get him to that middle tier, so yes, he still has a shot of finale glory.
“I know you know you nailed that, because you were so happy after you did it!” Adam began, grinning. “That was, I think, vocally-feel-wise, the best of the night so far. I really do… It was probably the best song for your voice that you could have sung. So tasteful. Your voice sounds better than it ever sounded. Best timing ever going into the finale next week.”
Sundance Head (Team Blake)
Monday afternoon’s song spoilers said Sundance would be doing Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” but he ended up doing the Judds’ “Love Can Build a Bridge” instead. I would have liked to hear some blues fire from him, but no worries — the man could have done some Bryan Adams and killed it, probably.
This was not my favorite Sundance performance — I prefer him a little more footloose and fancy-free and honky-tonkin’, like on last week iTunes-chart-topping “Me and Jesus” — but his mighty, thunderous gospel vocal was magnificent here, turning the NBC studio into a megachurch. This felt like a coronation song. Blake was so thrilled with this performance, he was practically rendered speechless — perhaps a first for Blake! — saying, “What can you say about Sundance anymore? I mean, it blows my mind! Every week you come out here and you blow people away. You’re not like anybody else in the world, and you have so much passion when you sing… Congratulations, Sundance. This is really happening, dude. This could not have been better.”
At this point, I started to worry for Billy Gilman. Billy was probably delighted to get the pimp spot in this very crucial week… but he probably wasn’t too thrilled once he found out he’d have to follow Sundance.
Billy Gilman (Team Adam)
So Billy tried to one-up Ali in the diva stakes and cover some Celine Dion. Even though Billy made a brief return to his childhood country roots last week with a Martina McBride cover, which earned Blake’s roaring approval and his first top 10 iTunes chart placement of the season, Billy apparently really does want to reinvent himself as a smooth pop balladeer. “I Surrender” ain’t no country song, that’s for sure.
And it’s actually an even more ambitious ballad than “I Will Always Love You.” Billy had a theatrical take on the Celine song, all bluster and bravado and big, big vocals, that made me think of Season 2’s Chris Mann. (On-hiatus coach Christina Aguilera would have loved to work with Billy, I bet. And I still think Billy could have a huge career on Broadway after The Voice.) Billy went for it, seemingly hell-bent on making Sundance’s previous over-the-top performance seem like an open mic coffeehouse performance of “Smelly Cat” by comparison. And he pretty much succeeded.
Adam immediately went into campaign mode again, telling America, “Sundance was incredible tonight; we were all pretty blown away. I thought to myself, ‘Thank God Billy is next, because I don’t know who’s supposed to go after Sundance.’ And, man, there was a moment among the coaches that I’ve never seen before, which is basically the look of shock and amazement at your ability to sing. It’s hard for Celine Dion to sing Celine Dion! I don’t know if you know how impossible this task is. But also the length of the notes you hold out with such passion, it’s unbelievable… And he is one of the most humble and hardworking guys I know. Vote for him right now!”
Wé McDonald & Aaron Gibson
This was an odd couple, for sure: the teenage R&B frontrunner (Wé, duh) and the indie-rock underdog (Aaron, of course). It worked better than I expected — after all, the song they did, “FourFiveSeconds,” was originally recorded by an even odder odd couple, Rihanna and Sir Paul McCartney — but Wé’s massive, booming vocals only made Aaron’s gruff rasp seem, well, gruffer and raspier. (Did Aaron catch the cold that sabotaged Austin last week? It sure sounded like it.) Also, while there was more chemistry between these two than one might have imagined, this wasn’t exactly like an encore performance of Aaron’s fiery Battle Rounds duet with the more mature Sa’Rayah. So overall, this wasn’t disaster, but even being paired with popular golden child Wé probably will not be enough to keep three-time Instant Save survivor Aaron safe this week.
Sundance Head & Josh Gallagher
I knew when these two got together to raise a ruckus with Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright” that this was going to be a good time. And it was! But I also knew that would Sundance, true to his name, would outshine Josh in every way. And he did! Josh practically seemed like a sideman in Sundance’s band. Maybe when Sundance wins this show (and he might!), he can give Josh a job.
Billy Gilman & Christian Cuevas
The self-described “wonder twins” and Lyndsey-described “choirboys of Season 11” were well-matched on a surprisingly modern song choice, X Ambassadors’ “Unsteady” — although it didn’t sound all that modern once they had their way with it and turned it into a pyro-assisted ‘80s power ballad. (What’s with all the ‘80s stadium lite-rock vibes this season? Billy and Christian even serenaded each other, Air Supply-style.) The boys rendered the semi-hip song somewhat unhip, but they sang the hell out of it. They both seem on a — wait for it — steady path to pyro-assisted performances at next week’s finale.
Ali Caldwell & Brendan Fletcher
I actually much preferred this Ali performance over “I Will Always Love You.” And I preferred this Bryan Adams cover over Aaron’s! Ali and Brendan doing Tina Turner and Bryan Adams’s “It’s Only Love” was almost as fiery and fun as Caleb Johnson and Jena Irene’s version from American Idol Season 13, and after an evening of mostly sedate balladry, it was awesome to see a couple contestants cut loose, finally. Ali was a red-hot rock goddess in lipstick-red Rihanna waves and a leggy, Tina-worthy matching mini-dress (after seeing this tour de force, I wish she’d covered more rock ‘n’ roll this season). And Jersey boy Brendan was channeling his inner Springsteen with his everyman-rocker dude persona. I didn’t think this would work, but man, it did. It was actually my favorite performance of the entire night.
So now, it is prediction time. And my predictions have not changed that much since last week. I still think the top three will be Wé, Sundance, and Billy, and I still think Aaron will run out of chances and finally go home. But which of the remaining middle-packer contestants — Josh, Ali, Brendan, or Christian — will get that fourth finale spot? It will all come down to song choice, and any of them could take it… but I have a hunch that #VoiceSaveBrendan will be the hashtag that dominates my Twitter feed Tuesday night. See you then!