‘The Voice’ Live Playoffs Go to 11

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This Monday’s Voice episode had a little bit of everything, from Nine Inch Nails to Springsteen and Seger, from Rihanna to “Rosanna.” This here recap even has a random Spinal Tap reference, just for kicks. And there was even a backstage marriage proposal!

But which of the night’s 11 performances will have voters saying “I do”? Let’s assess.

photo: NBC
photo: NBC

Ali Caldwell (Team Miley)

After having such a magical moment last week with an elegant Leonard Cohen tribute, Ali made a puzzling 180 this Monday with “9 to 5.” Yes, the Dolly Parton movie theme. This was concerning. Sure, “9 to 5” may be a much-loved female empowerment anthem, and sure, Miley Cyrus’s desire to play the “Dolly card” every chance she gets and remind the world that Dolly Parton is her godmother, y’all is admittedly understandable. Hell, if Dolly were my godmother, I’d probably never talk about anything else. But, still. I question this song choice.

Of course, Ali was working it. No pun intended. But this was hokey. The Branson-esque stage set, the costumey flapper/showgirl dress, the brassy arrangement… it all felt silly and smacking of novelty, especially after last week’s stunning, sophisticated tour de force.

And Ali was singing first, in the “death spot.” I kept getting flashbacks to the night when Season 4’s standout R&B balladeer, Judith Hill, took a chance with an out-of-character uptempo song, performed in the death spot… and went home.

The coaches didn’t seem too worried, however. Adam Levine assured Ali, “You can do anything.” Blake Shelton called her performance “so much fun.” And Miley confidently told Ali: “You’re just a star from the very beginning. And I’m so excited for you to win this show.”

I still think Ali has a good chance of winning Season 11, or at least getting to the finale. But if she keeps singing songs like “9 to 5,” she may end up stalling in ninth or fifth place.

Sundance Head (Team Blake)

If you’d told me 10 years ago that corny American Idol semifinalist Sundance Head would one day transform Alicia Keys’s “No One” into a sweet, sensitive country singalong, I would have said you were crazy. Well, now I’m crazy for Sundance Head. (I suppose after hearing him freestyle some of Alicia’s “Fallin’” on command during the Blind Auditions, I shouldn’t have doubted his ability to pull this off.) This was extraordinary — original, creative, heartfelt, and very downloadable. Alicia herself seemed so excited by Sundance’s twangy interpretation, I bet even she downloaded it right after the show. I’m predicting a very strong iTunes charting for Sundance this week.

“I’ve never heard anybody sing ‘No One’ like that… You just made me listen to my song in a whole new way, in a way that I personally need right now. And I just want to thank you, because it gave me such a beautiful feeling,” Alicia gushed. “To be singing that in front of Alicia, that was so powerful. What would normally make somebody crack under the pressure, that just added another level of energy to your performance… I think this is a breakout moment for you on the show,” added Blake.

Aaron Gibson (Team Miley)

Aaron almost went home last week, after doing a semi-obscure Father John Misty song that I personally enjoyed, but that didn’t connect with most of America (or with Mr. Misty himself). This week, Aaron went with the better-known “Hurt,” originally by Nine Inch Nails and made even more famous by the late, great Johnny Cash. (This was yet another song never covered on The Voice before. Kudos once again to Team Miley’s outside-the-box song choices!) Aaron’s gruff rendition hit the [bitter]sweet spot between Trent Reznor and the Man in Black, and I was really feeling it. But I fear this won’t be enough to keep Aaron out of the bottom two. “Hurt” is a dark, depressing, angry, sort of scary song, and Aaron’s stool-seated, steely-eyed, gritted-teethed, gravel-throated performance probably didn’t endear him to the mainstream viewers who prefer shiner, happier contestants.

Thankfully, Adam defended Aaron’s song selection, saying, “It’s not always the happiest thing in the world, being a human being. That experience needs to be represented. A lot of people like to be distracted at the time, but all emotions are valid and real. I’m a really big fan of what you did.” Miley concurred: “To me, that was a perfect performance, probably the strongest performance of the night, because you represented who you are.”

I do hope America gives Aaron a chance. He is, admittedly, an acquired taste — but I’ve acquired it, and now I want to hear more from him.

Courtney Harrell (Team Blake)

This Monday, Courtney sang, “I won’t regret what I did for love.” But will she regret doing a melodramatic, weepy Broadway ballad from 1975’s A Chorus Line? The song was super-old-fashioned (Courtney confessed she hadn’t performed it in 20 years), so it didn’t exactly establish her as a viable modern-day recording artist. However, she for the most part heeded Blake’s advice to “get as Whitney as you can” with it, hitting all the right notes and even navigating that tricky key change. If this were a performance on American Idol Season 3, I’d say Courtney had this in the bag, but…

Anyway, Alicia was a fan, raving, “Courtney, you are so pure. You are such a pure soul. When you sing, you do what the greatest singers do. And you know that because of your artistry.” Blake was pleased with Courtney’s successful Whitney-fication, declaring this her best performance yet and predicting, “I think we’re going to be hearing you sing again next week.” But a lot has changed since American Idol Season 3, you know. Over-the-top Whitney/Mariah/Celine-style performances aren’t always the ones that win the most votes anymore. Courtney may have some regrets come elimination night.

Josh Gallagher (Team Adam)

Josh remained right inside his very small country box this week, unimaginatively covering Brett Eldredge’s middling midtempo single “Drunk on Your Love.” I don’t have much to say about this performance. It was just another competent, capable, but ultimately forgettable effort from Josh. It was all just so… average. But considering that other contestants (Aaron Gibson and 12th-place castoff Sa’Rayah last week, Ali Caldwell this week) have stumbled this season when taking risks, maybe Josh is smart to follow Adam’s advice to “embrace his inner Garth” and just stay in his lane. He may even ride that lane straight to the finale over more adventurous and interesting (read: more deserving) singers.

“You just get up there, you have a good time, you sing your song, you connect with people,” Adam said. Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.

Billy Gilman (Team Adam)

Last week, Billy covered Queen. This week, he did Adele. This boy ain’t playing. He and Adam are here to win. And Billy just might do that. But the issue I’ve had with him is, I’ve never quite figured out what sort of artist he wants to be. I’m not even sure if Billy ever figured it out – before tonight. His previous song choices have merely showcased his technical abilities, sometimes in the most unsubtle, Sam-Harris-on-Star-Search-circa-1983 ways imaginable.

But this week, brilliantly belting Adele’s “All I Ask,” Billy found his true voice. The high-drama Melissa Manchesterian (Melissa Mancunian?) power ballad suited his pure tone and theatrical tendencies, while the pared-down piano arrangement allowed him to finally connect and emote. This was majestic.

“You can sing all the perfect notes, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t feel it. And I think that for the first time in your stretch on this show, you really made me feel something,” Adam said proudly. “It felt so pure and real and honest, and I think that is so important… You are everything that [The Voice] stands for and more.”

Christian Cuevas (Team Alicia)

So Christian covered “Rosanna” by Toto. Yep, I didn’t see that coming either. I would have preferred “Africa” — and I probably would have preferred any Toto song covered by gone-too-soon piano man Michael Sanchez — but “Rosanna” is a solid soft-rock jam, too. And Christian, with his uncanny Christopher Cross resemblance that I only just noticed now, was a pretty convincing soft-rocker.

Yes, Christian dedicated “Rosanna” to his fiancée, even though his fiancée’s name is Elaine, not Rosanna, and it’s a breakup song. (Um, is Christian trying to tell Elaine something? He serenaded her with Coldplay’s totally inappropriate “The Scientist” last week.) But I still enjoyed this unexpected moment of bongo-augmented happy-hour levity from Christian. It was a nice change of pace after all of his chest-beating, Jordan Smithian balladry. As host Carson Daly put it, “It’s like it’s 1982 all over again up in here!”

Miley called this “a trap version of ‘Rosanna.’” OK, then. Alicia called Christian “the voice of a generation,” which also made little sense. I mean, I’m not even sure Christian is the voice of The Voice Season 11. But his fanbase is probably a solid enough that can take a risk like this and stick around for a while. So… can he do “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” next week?

Austin Allsup (Team Blake)

Team Blake’s Swon Brothers covered Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” in Season 4 and made it to the finale — on which they performed with Seger himself. Well, I help ol’ Bob is free again on Dec. 13, because his services may be required on this season’s finale, too; after seeing Austin sing “Turn the Page” this week, I predict he may be in the top four very soon. He certainly deserves to be.

I can’t imagine a more perfect song choice for a fiery, grizzled road warrior like Austin than this. He felt every note, because he’s lived every note. He really should only do road songs from now on. KISS’s “Beth,” Jackson Browne’s “The Load-Out,” Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” Journey’s “Faithfully,” Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound”… seriously, I want an entire album of this stuff from Austin. Also, I want him to film a series of grainy black-and-white music videos, all of him pensively staring out rain-streaked tour bus windows. Maybe Republic Records can make that happen — if and when Austin wins The Voice, and if and when Republic actually chooses to promote the winner of The Voice.

“That was by far, unquestionably, the best performance you’ve ever had on the show,” said Adam. Added Blake: “I don’t know that I’ve been on the edge of my seat like that in, like, maybe ever… There’s nobody doing what you do anymore out there. It’s kind of genreless, and you’re a badass. You are an avenger with your voice. Congratulations, dude. That was huge.”

Darby Walker (Team Miley)

Darby claimed she was going to do something different this week, but her cover of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” was just another variation on her precious, precocious, Florence-Welch-performs-on-Laugh-In shtick. Miley ironically told Darby to heed the lyrics “don’t tell me what to do” and “don’t try to change me in any way” and just be herself, but this performance still came across as inauthentic and Miley-micro-managed. Miley’s Darby coaching all season has given me déjà vu to Korin Bukowski’s weird, Gwen Stefani-administered mini-me makeover of Season 9.

I also want to devote an entire paragraph here to Darby’s styling — just to drum home the point that she wasn’t really “being herself.” Her furry rainbow dreamcoat and stick-on Wicked Hippie face jewels were straight out of Miley’s closet — or, more specifically, the closet of Miley’s eccentric BFF, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne. Even the Technicolor backdrop and Lite Brite stage set were like something out of a DIY Flaming Lips gig. Seriously, I almost assumed Wayne was this week’s Team Miley guest advisor. And while normally I’d love that (honestly, my ultimate dream theme night would be the top 11 covering The Soft Bulletin in its entirety), this just didn’t work because it didn’t feel real.

And it didn’t help that Darby alternated between shouting the chorus and singing the verses through her (jeweled) nose. I appreciated her fearlessness and commitment and the song’s defiant message, but I just couldn’t connect to her. I wanted to. But I couldn’t. Maybe if she’s done “She Don’t Use Jelly” instead? Nah, probably not.

Alicia, however, felt Darby’s rainbow connection, saying, “I loved how you owned this song. This is one of my favorite songs ever — and for us girls. We need to remind ourselves that nobody owns us. I think this was really important for you to sing for us. You showed everybody what an artist you are.” Miley added: “Darby, we have you singing about freedom a lot. And it’s on purpose, because that’s what you represent. It’s what you radiate. You represent for all these girls watching to be free… It just shows people that it’s fun to be free and to be colorful and not be so serious all the time.”

Brendan Fletcher (Team Adam)

Jersey boy Brendan honored his hometown hero, the one and only Bruce Springsteen, with a wisely chosen working-class ballad, “The River.” He said he hoped to make the Boss proud — no pressure, there — and he accomplished that mission. This was a perfect match of singer and song. “The River” worked well with Brendan’s introverted tendencies, and unlike Darby’s performance, this felt natural and effortless.

“You have a great storytelling voice. I never really picked up on it before until that particular performance. I wish you were singing some country music now,” said Blake. “This is such an important and almost forgotten voice, a voice like Brendan’s. If you want to champion something that’s truly special, that is truly different, and that is truly just one in a million, you’ve got to vote for this guy, because he’s got it. He really, really has got it,” Adam begged America.

I don’t think Adam needed to plead for votes. It’s Aaron Gibson, not Adam or Brendan, who should be worried. I’m sure Aaron watched Brendan’s performance from the wings with trepidation, knowing he was goner. Because if the WGWG vote gets split this week, the results will no doubt be in Brendan’s favor.

Wé McDonald (Team Alicia)

What a waste of the “pimp spot”! Wé didn’t need to sing last. She could have gone first and still owned this entire episode. Her passionate performance of Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain” had so much soul and swagger, and it was the ideal balance of contemporary and classic. Wé started off this season at such a high level and with a ton of hype, yet she has remarkably upped her game and lived up to that hype week after week. This week, she brought fire, she brought theater (that grunt at the end of was everything!), and she brought down the house. Magnificent. She left it all on the stage, as Carson said.

“Wé, you always come with it. And even you’re so young, you sing like you’ve had a thousand drillion years of experience. It blows my mind every time, all these deep places that you take the audience. You can’t deny that you don’t feel it. You deserve everything. You deserve to be here, and you deserve to soar to unstoppable heights. There’s no limits for you, Wé!” proclaimed Alicia, ecstatically.

The unstoppable Wé will no doubt soar right into the top 10 and beyond. But who will sink to the bottom? I think Aaron will be in a world of hurt — not because did a bad job with “Hurt” (he didn’t), but because he was up for elimination last week, and statistically, that’s how this show usually plays out. I predict Darby will end up in the bottom two this week alongside Aaron, but Courtney and maybe (gasp!) even Ali better have their “Save Me” songs ready, just in case.

See you Tuesday, when the top 11 become the top 10, and we find out if my predictions are correct.

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