Friday, April 18, 2008

Favorite Idol Performance #16 ~ David Cook

Since I'm far away from America, my plan was to catch up on American Idol via YouTube. Simple enough, as long as my connection cooperated. By the time I was able to log-in this week, someone in the Lucky 7 had already become unlucky, but I didn't want to know who it was before seeing the Mariah-inspired performances for myself. Of course the first page that came up was Yahoo! with a big headline about one less Cook in the kitchen. Had Kristy Lee finally been sent home? (Surely it wasn't David, although after last week's elimination of Michael, anything seemed possible.) Sure enough, it was Kristy Lee. So much for surprises.

Watching the performances and commentaries out of order on YouTube (and knowing the ultimate results in advance) can't quite match the excitement of watching the show live, but I got the gist, along with additional spoilers like knowing (according to Simon) that the boys outdid the girls. (No big shock there this season.) Now, the idea of contestants tackling Mariah songs seemed a recipe for vocal pyrotechnics gone flamingly awry. (Would any contestant tackle Mariah's signature dog-ear-hurting squeal? God forbid.) They deserved credit for not even trying. In fact, I was favorably impressed in one way or another with everyone. Perhaps I'm homesick, so anything containing English words and reasonably on-key sounds good to me? Mariah night was unexpectedly train-wreck-free.

I should confess that, since I'm not a big Mariah fan, I (unlike David A.; ding-ding goes the gaydar) do not know her songbook back to front, with the exception of "Without You." The definitive Nilsson version of the song (not to be confused with the recently distinctive Ken Li version) is hauntingly gorgeous, one of those songs I remember hearing in a very specific place at a very specific time in my life (in the car on the way to the Ice Capades in Boston on a snowstormy day when I was a wee lad), and one I never tire of. (It's up there with the best car radio sing-a-long songs of all time, though careful on the melodramatic conclusion or you may have an accident.) So I knew that song very very well, but the Mariah-penned ones, not so much. Mariah's voice has always impressed me as an instrument (I just can't stand to watch her draw the notes with her fingers every time she sings live), and I find her more recent hip-hop layered stuff sonically impressive, but she's one of those singers, like Céline, who's full of technique (technique a bit rough around the edges, given her live performance) and empty when it comes to connecting with the lyrics. No Kleenexes required when listening to Mariah, unless the high notes rupture your tear ducts.

Anyway, the task was to remake Mariah songs at human scale. Brooke did this perhaps too well. She brought it so far down it nearly sank, particularly when she got distracted (as Brooke tends to do) at the end. I love limitations in a voice (Emmylou Harris, a personal favorite of mine, has all kinds of vocal limitations, but she's learned how to bend them for emotional effect), and Brooke is well aware of hers, but I don't think she's learned to use them to her advantage, and American Idol--where vocal grandstanding is celebrated--isn't the best venue for experimentation. (Brooke's also getting annoying at judgment time. Quiet and no pouting, Sunshine, new rule!) Jason Castro is in a similar boat, but that sweetly liquid falsetto of his, and the casual confidence with which he uses it, can slide him through, as it did on Tuesday.

Speaking off fals's, Mariah encouraged starstruck David A. to try his out, and, to his credit, he did, shakily. In his case, having only recently been through the horror of pubescent male voice-changing, it's no wonder he was reluctant. The judges overpraised him this week, which seemed unnecessary since he's as safe as safe can be. At his best, he does find those tones that make you melt, but I feel like I know him less with each passing week, even though vocally he does pretty much the same thing from week to week. What kind of artist will he be? Is he old enough or sure enough of himself to have a clue? The curious leather pants were symbolic of his overall opacity. Did he choose them? Did someone else choose them? Why or why? (Actually, they looked so wrong on him, they were almost right.) I'm hoping for David A. to do something completely unexpected, and to do it convincingly enough to win over cynics like me. (Having selected his as a favorite performance last week, I had to rewatch the clip to remember what it was: not a good sign.)

Who's left? Syesha. Bless her heart, she puts it out there every time, takes ambitious vocal risks, and, for the judges, it's never quite good enough. I think she's as underrated as David A. is overrated, but I must admit I'm not sure what kind of artist she'd be either. Texturally, her voice is the richest of the lot, and, with some good guidance, she could do great things with it. (That said, I expect she'll be going home within the next 2 weeks.) Like Simon, I was glad Carly took on "Without You," and, like Simon, I was disappointed. I'm still wanting to like Carly more than I do. She seemed the most upset when Michael was wrongly sent home last week, and that renewed my desire to root for her. Her voice is big and interesting, but there's something grating about it. I think it's because her big notes always seem constricted, closing down when the should be opening up. Her upper range doesn't blossom like, say, Linda Ronstadt's, so she can't quite pull off being a belter, and, if she's not that, what is she? Beyond desperate to please Simon, an increasingly elusive goal. I was surprised she wasn't in the Bottom 3, but maybe not landing there will give her the confidence to tap some potential she hasn't yet shown.

And, speaking of potential, spunky Kristy Lee. It was her time to go. She knew it. Everyone knew it. A bad performance would have sealed the deal, but I thought she gave a good performance. The girl has found her niche, she made that song her own, and she is certainly the most improved contestant of the season. She let Brooke do the undignified blubbering for her, put her chin up, and took her perfect parting song to Simon's lap with delightfully uncomfortable results. Pair clever Kristy up with a good country production team, and she may have the last laugh. Watch out, Pickler! Watch out, Underwood! Kristy Lee will soon be nippin' at your high heels.

Which leaves David Cook, rebounding from last week's misstep. He's got the sensibility, his hair has improved as much as Kristy Lee's vocals, and, touchingly, with his ill brother in the audience (from what I've read), he got teary-eyed after the judges buttered him with praise. He deserved it. His interpretation improved the song (can't ask for more on AI) and his emotional leaking was both genuine and moving. With Michael gone, David's the one who's most holding my interest. But he'll be up against the zillions of young girls who won't be budging from the other David's camp no matter what he does. (Did they dig the leather pants, though?)

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