"The Voice's" top six performance show this Monday was a mixed bag. A country bag. There was a country cover of a hair metal song. There were emo and R&B covers of country songs. There were a few old-school country songs, and some new-school country songs, too.
Really, aside from the Keane and Aretha covers, Monday's "Voice" episode pretty much resembled a rerun of the talent show Blake Shelton's wife Miranda Lambert once competed on, "Nashville Star."
This was not necessarily a bad thing. A few of the contestants were definitely country strong. But a couple others were just country wrong. Here's how everyone did…
"Voice" producers once again tried to railroad Holly out of the competition, or so it seemed, by putting her in a disadvantaged slot. Seriously, every time she's performed on the live shows, she has sung either first or second. So far, this transparent tactic hasn't worked, and I don't know if it will this week, either. Holly's mentor Blake picked Martina McBride's "When God-Fearin' Women Get the Blues" for her, and it was a smart choice; Holly's Band Perry cover last week proved she's much more listenable, watchable, and marketable when she's doing feisty, uptempo tunes, not church hymns and pageant ballads. Shakira and Adam Levine appreciated the newfound confidence and personality Holly's been flaunting over the past couple weeks, and Blake said this was Holly's best performance yet. I didn't think this was as fun as last week's "Done," which came out of nowhere and was such a pleasant surprise, but this certainly was a high-energy way to kick off the night.
Unfortunately, Holly was back to balladry on her second song, Rascal Flatts' "My Wish." I wish she'd done something else. This was just BLAND. Whenever Holly does something upbeat and youthful, like the aforementioned Band Perry and Martina songs, she shows some serious spunk and true grit, but when she croons any maudlin ballad, she immediately defaults to Stepford mode, and she flatlines emotionally. This unexciting performance gave me flashbacks to her boring "How Do I Live" from a few weeks ago. Shakira praised Holly's consistency and Adam praised her supposed diversity, but if I'd been a judge, I would have critiqued this song choice, which was Holly's own. Holly really should let Blake choose her songs from now on, if she makes it past this week. Which, she probably will.
For her first performance, Michelle did Keane's "Somewhere Only We Know," a perfect showcase for both her vulnerability and her major pipes. Usher, Michelle's coach, has really done right by Michelle this season with his song choices; it's obvious that he adores her, and that America does too. This was more classic Chamuel: every syllable positively dripping with emotion, a dramatic knee-drop at the end, and a real connection with both the audiences in the studio and at home. Shakira praised Michelle's use of dynamics, Adam praised her uniqueness, and Usher praised her depth. I agreed with all of the above. Michelle is just a true original, and she's what "The Voice" is all about.
Taylor Swift herself surprised Michelle during her rehearsal of "I Knew You Were Trouble," and she gave Michelle a Swifty seal of approval. Of course, we all know Michelle can sing circles around Taylor (oh snap) and around most "Voice" contestants, for that matter (double snap). This performance started off a little sedate, but then Michelle went full-on emo when the chorus kicked in. "TROUBLE, TROUBLE, TROUBLE!" There was hair-flipping, boot-stomping, knee-dropping, teeth-gnashing, head-banging…and just So. Much. Awesomeness. Michelle really tapped into the song's anger, without being scary or alienating, and basically, she rocked. Hard. The studio audience's applause was absolutely deafening when Michelle was done. Now please excuse me while I further deafen myself by listening to Michelle's just-downloaded studio recording of "Trouble" at max volume on repeat…
THE SWON BROTHERS
I could have done without the distracting saloon-girl burlesque dancers shaking their cabooses during the Swons' performance of Darius Rucker's "Wagon Wheel," which made an already corny song even cornier. Cornier than a tour of a Jiffy Pop factory, even. I like this Team Blake duo, but I don't think this song, which they chose themselves, showcased the one thing they've got going for them (besides the fact that they're double-WGWGs, of course): their fabulous harmonies. This mid-range song did nothing to highlight their vocals, and if this had been an actual Swon Brothers "Swoncert," this would've been the number when I'd hit the beer line or take a bathroom break. Shakira, one of the brothers' biggest fans all season, loved the "fun" and "loose" vibe; Adam thought it was a hoot (I bet those sexy "Bonanza" dancers had something to do with that); and Blake called the brothers "unique." I do think the Swons have something unique to offer to this competition, but this song was just too generic for them.
The Swons' second song was another misfire, and an even bigger one. Not only did their performance of Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee" go nowhere vocally, but it was real hokey-Okie. It was a novelty act, a "Hee Haw" act, and it in no way resembled the modern country-crossover fare on the charts today. I'm all for young country acts tipping their cowboy hats to the past, but in a Grace Askew kind of way, not like this. Blake, a proud Okie himself who's been milking the duo's Oklahoma connections for weeks now, seemed thrilled with this performance, but I thought it was trite and silly, and I can't imagine too many people downloading this.
This was pleasant, but I'm beginning to worry about Danielle. We're getting very close to the finale now, and "pleasant" just won't cut it anymore. Blake, Danielle's coach, has been playing it way too safe with Danielle — "Shake the Sugar Tree," which he assigned her this week, was the second Pam Tillis song he chose for her this season. If he doesn't switch things up a bit and let Danielle evolve, she may soon get upstaged by rising Season 4 stars who are starting to display more versatility and growth, like Holly and Team Adam's Amber Carrington. That being said, Danielle didn't do anything wrong here. She's a natural onstage, with star quality and innate likability, and she sang well this week. Adam called her "solid," which was a fitting adjective. But when Blake compared Danielle to his feisty filly of a wife? Um, no. Danielle doesn't have one flicker of Miranda's fire (not even from Miranda's early days on "Nashville Star"), at least not on safe songs like this one.
I'm not sure if Sara Evans's "A Little Bit Stronger," which Danielle chose for her herself, was the best pick for her second song, either. Being so young, only 16, she didn't have the life experience to draw from (instead, she had to dedicate the song to her unlucky-in-love older sister). Additionally, Danielle was already struggling with the upper-register notes in rehearsal. Onstage, Danielle mostly worked it out, although she didn't quite nail the last big note, and she looked a little chagrined (and even relieved) when the song was over. I didn't quite get why the coaches heaped her with such effusive praise. All of the coaches specifically gushed about that last note, oddly; maybe they just didn't hear in the studio what I heard on my TV. Overall, this was a fine performance, but a little ho-hum, and definitely not Danielle's best.
I've long rallied for a Hair Metal Night or Power Ballad Night on some singing show, any singing show, so I was enthusiastically flicking my Bic and whipping out my economy-sized can of industrial-strength Aqua-Net when I found out that Adam had assigned Amber Skid Row's arena anthem "I Remember You." Of course, Amber did a countrified version of the song, but that was okay; Carrie Underwood's rendition a few years ago proved that it can adapt well to that genre. However, Amber's performance mostly just renewed my appreciation for Skid Row's Sebastian Bach, one of the most underrated powerhouse belters in rock. Her vocal didn't pack the same wallop as Sebastian's, nor did it live up to the high expectations set by her amazing, bar-raising "Skyfall" tour de force last week. Blake and Shakira liked the country arrangement and Adam, despite the fact that Amber is his only remaining contestant, seemed confident that this was a risk that would pay off. I think it was a smart choice, in the sense that this song is sure to sell a lot on iTunes…but all it really made me want to do is go download the Skid Row original.
Next, Amber went totally vintage country with Patsy Cline's Willie Nelson-penned "Crazy" (her own choice), and this worked so much better than the Swon Brothers' hokey Haggard song, when it came to the evening's old-school country covers. Amber kept it classy, and classic, but there was a raw bluesiness to her voice that I'd never heard before. This was just lovely. Blake thought Amber pulled off what he considers to be a "sacred" song. Shakira called the performance "beautiful." Adam called her a "firecracker." I just called her awesome. The fact that Amber could segue from 1980s hair metal to early-'60s Patsy in one night with such ease was impressive, but this was for sure her standout performance of the two.
Damnnnnnnnnnn. It takes a brave woman to take on Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, and Aretha's "Ain't No Way" was Sasha's own choice, not her coach Shakira's. At first I was worried for her, and I was also disappointed that Sasha had gone back to doing old-fashioned fare after taking on more youthful, modern songs by David Guetta and Emeli Sande in recent weeks. But then she sang. And I do mean she sannnng. And her performance was STUNNING. Sasha proved she can sing almost anything: old songs, new songs, even Aretha songs. Adam, still understandably kicking himself for letting Sasha get poached from him in the Battle Rounds, even said this was her best performance yet, and Usher concurred.
Unfortunately, Sasha had one more performance to go…and it was her WORST performance yet. Shakira really should not have let Sasha do Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats." Sasha sounded shrill and forced and out-of-breath throughout this number; this was the absolute opposite of her elegant, effortless Aretha cover. But what was worse was the overly, overtly sexy (some might even say skanky) staging. Midway through the song, Sasha ripped off her tearaway dress to reveal a skimpy showgirl leotard and thigh-high Pretty Woman boots underneath. Then, at one point, she practically crawled on the floor like an extra in an old Motley Crue video. This felt cheap and desperate. With a great voice like hers, Sasha didn't need to put on some Pussycat Doll act. I understand that she wanted to be Sasha-fierce and show some "New York sass," but this was more like New York crass. Blake and Usher seemed to thoroughly enjoy Sasha's surprise strip-tease, of course, but I think it will alienate the more conservative viewers who've been voting for sweet girls-next-door like Holly, Amber, and Danielle.
So now, it is prediction time. If two contestants were going home this week, I'd say it'd be Sasha and the Swons. But for reasons unexplained (that's the way they do it on "The Voice," a show that changes its rules as often as Shakira changes hairstyles), only ONE contestant will go home Tuesday night. Based on this week's episode, I would say the Swon Brothers should go; both of the usually fun and freewheeling twosome's performances were as dull as dishwater. (Actually, that's an insult to dishwater. Sorry, dishwater.) But the Swons continue to stand out as the only duo AND the only male singers left on the show, and they appeal to "The Voice's" ever-growing country base. So I predict that Sasha's bizarre second performance will prove to be a risk that sadly doesn't pay off, and she will be sent home instead…leaving Shakira without a team for the rest of the season.
Tune in Tuesday to see if I'm right! See you then.