Friday, April 1, 2011

This week's American Idol performances were a remarkably consistent bunch. Nobody did a bad job of covering Elton John, at least not from the perspective of what they were trying to accomplish.

Similarly, the studio recordings have a similarly high level of quality. In fact, I don't think any of them are worse than what we saw from the finalists Wednesday.


Haley Reinhart, Bennie and the Jets. Haley's cabaret-pop take on John's 1974 glam-fan tribute works even better here. If people who don't generally like Haley wonder why this performance seems to work so much better than her usual fare, it's because the song gives her an appropriate place for all her vocal idiosyncrasies: That woozy slide she likes so much works great on the verses, the melody lets her leap around to her heart's content, and that growl of hers sounds just perfect whenever she exclaims, "Bennie! Bennie!" Sure, she exaggerates the sibilant syllables and the stuttering "B-b-b-bennie" -- but since when is exaggeration in the name of Elton John considered a musical crime?

Paul McDonald, Rocket Man. I don't remember much about the instrumentation on Paul's performance Wednesday, but it's a big part of what makes this track work: a steady tap of drumsticks on hi-hat; a chiming sound that seems like part electric piano, part pedal steel; an eerie, spacious distortion that lurks, shadow-like, throughout the track. At one point, everything drops away, leaving only the echo of Paul's whispery rasp, floating weightless.

Naima Adedapo, I'm Still Standing. Naima hit a double whammy this week, singing a song that was better in concert than execution during the early part of the show when about 3 million viewers are tuned in. Removed from that context, her reggae version of John's 1983 hit makes for an enjoyable listen.


Lauren Alaina, Candle in the Wind. I love the warble in her voice, and I still think this is the best interpretation that any of the Idols gave one of Elton's songs. It's so good it's almost disturbing, like she's gotten so far inside the song that she's she taking on aspects of both the fan and Marilyn Monroe at the same time.

James Durbin, Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting. Okay, there's no flaming piano and he hasn't quite found the right producer yet (though the drummer's pretty smokin'), but James once again proves himself to a be a top-notch rock singer in the hair-metal mold. Vocally, there's somebody he really reminds me of, but I haven't quite put my finger on it yet: Is is Poison's Bret Michaels? Motley Crue's Vince Neil?

Jacob Lusk, Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word. Might as well be his live performance, right down to that massive note he holds for 11 seconds. And Jennifer's right: The arrangement's fantastic. But, wait: Is that the opening lick from Stairway to Heaven that the acoustic guitar is playing?

Pia Toscano, Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me. As usual, Pia sounds fantastic. And I love the way the arrangement, especially the guitar, plays off the original production without mimicking it. But after getting teased with the prospect of River Deep, Mountain High, I can't listen to this without jumping ahead a week.

Casey Abrams, Your Song. Casey wisely pulled way back on his performance this week, and this track is pretty much just him singing with a piano. It's pretty true to what we saw on the show, but if you're put off by Casey's visuals -- notably, the way his upper lip pulls back and he bares his teeth as he prepares for one of his gruff, high runs -- then this might be a touch better than his live performance.

Scotty McCreery, Country Comfort. Scotty still sometimes sounds like he hasn't moved past copying his favorite singers into forging his own style. And, honestly, that's what you expect a 17-year-old to be doing. But when the true Scotty breaks through -- like it does on this song when he emphasizes "Country comfort's in a truck that's going home" -- it's a thrilling thing. Just as Jim Jonsin did last week with For Once in My Life, producer Don Was brings an element of Glen Campbell's classic sound to this track, especially in the deep twang of the guitar solo.

Stefano Langone, Tiny Dancer. Solid performance, though maybe a bit too literal in its recreation of the song. Still, it does a fine job showcasing Stefano's vocals.

Thia Megia, Daniel. It's a weird thing: Listening to Thia sing always makes me feel good, but it never makes me want to call up another track so I can feel that way longer. Go figure.


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