NBC’s The Voice has a lot of fantastic qualities — stellar vocalists, positive energy, the limitation of Christina Milian’s ineptitude to two or three mercifully brief interview segments per episode — but subtlety ain’t one of ‘em.
Indeed, a cursory examination of the performance order from last week’s Top 10 telecast and this week’s Top 8 show reveals that certain contestants have been unfairly marooned in top-of-the-episode “death slots” that veteran reality TV viewers know are synonymous with results-night exits. To be more specific, this week’s 1-2-3-4 solo performance slots were mired in the 2-1-3-5 slots last week. Meanwhile, front-runners Daniele Bradbery and Michelle Chamuel have never performed earlier than No. 7 in performance order since the live voting rounds began. Come on, Mark Burnett…that’d be like having a Survivor camera guy secretly hand-hold a contestant till he or she was within 3 feet of a hidden immunity idol. (Wait, the camera guys on Survivor don’t actually do that, do they?)
Whatever the case may be, what began as a showdown among a pretty evenly matched Top 8 soon found four singers — Judith, Michelle, Danielle and Amber — beginning to separate themselves from their rivals. Without further ado, let’s cut to the set list (along with my letter grades) for the 120 minute concert.
Judith Hill: will.i.am (featuring Justin Bieber)’s “#thatPOWER” | From a strategic standpoint, it was risky for Judith to choose vibe over vocals and grit over glory notes, but I appreciated her effort to make something more (and different) (and vastly more interesting) of an inconsequential pop trifle. Swathed in a cape of feathers and rocking a Sanjaya-esque “ponyhawk” that looked in silhouette like the crest of some strange exotic bird, Judith brought funk and tempo to the Voice stage, and didn’t have any troubles maneuvering the tight curves of will.i.am’s ditty with her Mack-truck sized voice. Judith may be too far polished to appeal to voters who like their reality-show pop stars to emerge from half-shells of complete anonymity, but this week she convinced me that she could be a viable player on today’s Billboard Hot 100. Grade: A-
Holly Tucker: The Band Perry’s “Done” | You can’t fault Holly when it comes to vocal consistency: The still-active college student hits her notes like Katniss Everdeen at target practice. But there’s still something uninspired about her delivery — a shallowness of emotional connection, maybe — that leaves me thinking “She’d be great at karaoke night” or “I might’ve voted for her if she’d had another five years of life experience” rather than “I can’t wait to buy her record next fall.” Grade: B
Judith, Michelle, Sarah and Sasha: Rihanna’s “Diamonds” | I’m just going to come out and say it: Individually, these women have talent, but together, they operated as naturally and purposefully as the combination of a fork, a woodchipper, a gallon of 2% milk and a box of Kleenex. I couldn’t wait for it to end…and upon second listen, I realize I was way too generous with my inital letter grade. Grade:
The Swon Brothers: The Eagles’ “Seven Bridges Road” | I’m not gonna lie: It bugged me that the trio of background singers overpowered Zach and Colton for at least half of their Eagles cover — especially because, from what I could tell, their vocals simply weren’t as on point as last week. No, the end product wasn’t terrible, but Usher’s use of “incredible” in triplicate strained the outer boundaries of credulity. Adam made a half-hearted attempt to point out the aforementioned pitch snafus, but then retreated under a blanket of disingenuous self-deprecation: “I’m just being stupid and picky. I’m sorry.” Urgh, dude, that’s your job! And you’re paid wayyy too much to be shirking it in the hopes someone else will get it done. Grade: B
Sasha Allen: David Guetta (featuring Usher)’s “Without You” | Shakira has been a delight during her maiden voyage on The Voice — she’s got great chemistry with her fellow judges and seems really invested in her contestants. But can you imagine how much more successful a coach she’d have been if she’d wound up with a final three of Luke Edgemon, Shawna P and Cathia? I know some TVLine readers adore Sasha, but to me she’s like orange marmalade or oysters or chardonnay — flavors I just can’t get excited about. Sasha’s rendition of “Without You” had so much vibrato that I wondered if there was a tower of laundry machines on spin cycle beneath the platform where she began her performance. Worse still, though, the gorgeous young mom went intermittently flat throughout the verses — making me wonder if those dancers in Hazmat gear had been sent in to clean up the notes she’d made toxic. Grade: C-
Sarah Simmons: Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” | Sarah’s got a lovely, ethereal tone to her voice, except for those moments where it sounds like she’s broken out a shot glass full of battery acid, gargled it and then let out some kind of guttural animal shriek. Granted, I felt like there were times early in the season where Sarah used the raspier parts of her voice to bring to life darker and stormier emotions in her songs. Lately though, that grit has been used more arbitrarily — and much less pleasantly — almost as if Sarah is going backward in terms of her technique. (Where’s her coach at, yo!?) Oh, and that well-concealed dig from Shakira — that Gotye’s 2011 smash has already been done “several times” on The Voice (by Daniel Rosa and Lindsey Pavao, to be specific) — definitely had merit. Grade: C-
Amber, Danielle, Holly and the Swon Brothers: Sugarland’s “Something More” | I couldn’t shake the thought that the chorus of Sugarland’s 2005 hit was a close cousin of Hanson’s “Mmmbop,” but these four acts sounded rock-solid (if not thoroughly thrilling) joining forces to bring it on home for the country-music fans in the audience. Grade: B
Michelle Chamuel: Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” | I liked Usher’s idea of making Michelle’s voice the “loudest instrument on stage” — especially since The Voice house band sometimes steamrolls the show’s more subtle vocalists. And yet while the final arrangement sacrificed Bruno’s percussive urgency — transforming it into what wound up sounding like “Grenade” as reimagined by Meatloaf — it nevertheless showcased Michelle’s versatility, not to mention the way she authentically conveys whatever emotion a song requires. I love the tremulousness she brought to her softer notes — without ever going off pitch — and the rocker-girl danger that emanated off her when she went into a crouch and howled. And while it’s not really a legit reason to cast a vote, Usher’s connection with his last remaining contestant is undoubtedly the most endearing of any coach-contestant combo this season. Michelle loves Usher. He loves her. He even dons black-framed glasses to keep a visual sense of unity on game night. #Adorbs Grade: A-
Danielle Bradbery: The Judds’ “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good ‘Ol Days)” | Everything about Danielle’s performance — the old-fashioned swing on a rural porch set, the windowbox of flowers behind her, Blake’s insistence that her song about Grandpappy’s value system “matters now more than ever” — transported me back to the early ’80s era when my grade-school self would occasionally tune in to Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters variety show. (Oh no, I just realized that I’m playing the role of grandpa and telling you ’bout the good ‘old days!) Anyhow, the verses were definitely pitched a little low for Danielle’s comfort zone — not that any of the coaches called out this fact — but she did seem really connected to her song, and showed off that big, honey-kissed voice of hers to beautiful effect on the chorus. I can’t pretend the aura of inevitability surrounding the likelihood of Danielle’s Season 4 win doesn’t aggravate me a bit, but as long as Blake keeps coaching her to hit up-the-middle doubles that play to her country core, the kid is gonna keep building a sizeable lead over her competitors. Grade: A-
Amber Carrington: Adele’s “Skyfall” | Hallelujah! Amber not only survived last week’s disastrous Kelly Clarkson cover, but reemerged as a serious conteder with a vocal on “Skyfall” that had an almost condor-like wingspan. What was even more amazing was that Amber looked genuinely nervous as she slinked out from behind the piano and began to take on Adele’s sweeping James Bond theme, but those nerves never registered in Amber’s voice. I loved the little gritty twist she gave to the pre-chorus, and the pure diva showboating of the final run of glory notes. The girl is a superstar in the making — though I sometimes feel like that should happen in the pop lane moreso than country. The only thing that I didn’t care for was Adam declaring that no prior Voice contestant had ever done an Adele song justice — despite having coached Amanda Brown when she proved beyond brilliant last season with “Someone Like You.” Better be great the next few weeks, Amber, how because your coach seems to have problems with his memory! Grade: A-
Should Go Home: Sasha and Sarah
Will Go Home: Holly and Sarah
And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of Season 4 Top 8 performance night? What did you think of the coaches’ comments? Who was your favorite? Who’s going to be in trouble come results night? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments, and for all my reality TV news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!