Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Voice: The Top 5 Performances

The Voice: The Top 5 Performances (Seasons 1-6)

5. Cassadee Pope - "Over You" (Season 3, 2012) 

Cassadee would go on to be the most successful winner so far from The Voice with a platinum single and country chart success. Her cover of the Blake Shelton-penned ode to his brother is not sung perfectly, but her emotion is far beyond expectations for a reality show contestant. The shakiness in her voice in the beginning of the song lends a believable air to the ache and tentative start to the lyrics, the dull ache of losing the security you took for granted and will never find again. Her voice is plaintive towards the end, defiant, soaring, poignant. The second version embedded below 

4. Juliet Simms - "Oh Darling" (Season 2, 2012)

The original Beatles tune is a study in perfect pop songs: it starts tender and sweet, with harmonies and doo-wop backing vocals, a plea from a star-crossed lover outside the window of a teenager in a poodle skirt and silk ribbons in her hair. It grows increasingly desperate in that now-archetypal Paul McCartney howl, with the hint of something unhinged. 

From the first note, Juliet has the kind of voice that walks a fine line between gravelly and nasaly - it's intriguing and infuses the classic song with a palpable edge. She pays tribute to the original, painting different colors in the already-drawn lines. Juliet brings a sense of world-weariness to the song that's different from Paul's teenage dream. It's a scorned lover at the end of a love affair, a woman who's angry both at herself and the man she needs despite herself.

Check out this link for her audition (sadly no YouTube embeddable links).

3. Vicci Martinez - "Afraid To Sleep" (Season 1, 2011)

"Afraid to Sleep" was Vicci's swing-for-the-fences home run original song during the finale of The Voice's first season (previously covered by Dido). Dido's version sounds instantly dated with a 2003 beat and a lilted, clipped, detached, unpleasant tone. The passion of the lyrics simply is not there. Vicci brings to life the regret, fear, and innate sadness lyrics express, with more than a hint of bitterness and anger. Vicci sings with the regret of not appreciating what you have when you had it, blurry nights spent forcing wakefulness, mirages in the corners of your eyes in the darkness. This remains one of the most played songs on my iTunes.

2. Sissaundra Lewis - "Oh Sherrie" (Season 6, 2014)

The opening is a church organ, heavy and triumphant, and it's a perfect metaphor for Sissaundra's voice as she figuratively takes the listener to church. The fact that Sissaundra did not go on to win Season 6 of The Voice is an indescribable travesty. She has a confidence in her voice, assuring Sherrie that love is worth fighting for. She "makes it look easy" despite a high degree of difficulty in Steve Perry's biggest solo hit which went on to inspire the Rock of Ages Broadway play. Her voice is passionate but never descends into theatrics or histrionics. 

1. Vicci Martinez - "Jolene" (Season 1, 2011)

"Jolene" is the kind of song that gets covered in a million ways, but this is the definitive cover of this Dolly Parton song about a plea to the other woman. The live version is even better than the studio version, if you can believe it, but no matter how I search the web, I can't seem to find it. Haunting and achingly gorgeous, a full-bodied voice, and a sad resignation towards the end of the song. The pleas are crystal-clear, precise in their requests, but by the end, Vicci's narrator dissolves into only being able to whisper Jolene's name over and over again,

Watch The Voice on NBC; it's pretty much always on!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Nashville Soundtrack: Best Of Season 2

As ABC's Nashville just concluded its second season a few weeks ago, here's my picks for the best songs of the season.

"Trouble Is" (Episode 3: I Don't Wanna Talk About It Now)

"Trouble Is" could serve as the theme song for one of Nashville's main characters, Juliette Barnes (played by Hayden Panettiere). A song you could easily imagine being sung by Miranda Lambert, with its sly winks to hell-raising and pictures painted of smoky bars, taxi rides to unknown destinations, and one more drink then you'd planned on. By far my favorite song of the season.

Ain't going home till I check a few more sins off of my list
If you're looking for me I'm gonna see, I'm gonna be where trouble is

Trouble is a guy with the guitar in the next bar
Trouble is I don't even have to know his name

"What If I Was Willing" (Episode 3: I Don't Wanna Talk About It Now)

The song that is Will's (Chris Carmack) first hit single when he is signed to a major record label deal. An upbeat, cheery song that calls to mind the first rush of summer love, flowers, and flirtatious winks from the passenger seat. Yet in the context of the show, the song takes on a deeper meaning as Will struggles with his sexual preference in the conservative world of country music. He isn't willing to admit to himself, his girlfriend, and the world at large that he is gay; looking at it through that lens, the song takes on a more poignant and sad tone.

What if you wanted to feel alive, make something of the time you're killing,
What if you wanted somebody to love you right, what if I was willing?
What if you wanted to ride with the windows down?
Bare feet banging on the dash to Dylan,
What if you wanted somebody to love you right, what if I was willing?

"Crazy Tonight" (Episode 13: It's All Wrong But It's All Right)

Scarlett takes on a persona in this song that is wildly different from her true self - an overarching theme in the season when she works with Rayna's former lover and record producer, who encourages her to tap into her most painful, truthful memories to inform her songwriting. He derides this song as fluffy nonsense, full of typical country songwriting tropes. But outside of the context of the show and Scarlett's character, "Crazy Tonight" is a rockabilly midtempo about nights on the town with an edge of menace. It's sung with the slightest promise of a threat and a roll of the eyes which lends it an extra layer of weight.

Well I paid way too much for these jeans
And they look too damn good not to be seen
So if you don't want to play, baby, I'll go meet up with the ladies.
And you know exactly what that means.

"Don't Put Dirt on My Grave Just Yet" (Episode 13: It's All Wrong But It's All Right)

This song became a major theme song over the season and a perfect song for Juliette's character arc. It's a triumphant burst of defiance in times when repentance would be appropriate or expected. The song begins with the sound of a slap to symbolize the proverbial "slap in the face" this song is to Juliette's detractors. The song is about survival, power - and how when you have nothing left, you still have yourself.

I'll give you something to believe
Nothing on me says defeat
No I'll never look back 

So you better think fast 
If you think you can cut me deep

"Can't Say No To You" (Episode 14: Too Far Gone)

A song that was so quickly featured on the show, it didn't get a chance to resonate with me, until I purchased one of the digital exclusive character albums (Juliette Barnes, Season 2) and this song was a clear standout. An absolutely perfect country song somewhere in the middle of the lane between country and rock. So sweet it will give you a toothache and a rare duet between Juliette and Will's characters.

Darling, stars shine whenever you're with me
I melt like the ice in your sweet tea
I'm bulletproof, I just can't say no to you, girl.
I'm loving you without trying
Whatever you got I'm buying
So try me, I ain't no one's fool
I just can't say no to you

"He Ain't Gonna Change" (Episode 17: We've Got Things To Do)

A duet between Rayna (Connie Britton) and Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) as Juliette tries to seek acceptance back into the country music community. Eventually Juliette learns that no matter what she does, change has to be arrived at gradually, not overnight. An instantly catchy refrain and an all-too-true sentiment.

He ain't gonna change, he ain't gonna change
I love that boy, but he ain't gonna change
He can tell a lie like no other man
And he'll turn it all around on you
If he thinks he can

All music from Nashville Seasons 1 & 2 can be purchased on iTunes, Amazon, or in physical CD format in 4 albums. The show was just renewed for Season 3 and will premiere this fall 2014 on ABC.

Friday, April 11, 2014

American Idol 13: Top 8 - April 2, 2014

Top 8 - April 2, 2014 - Audition Songs

1. Jessica Meuse - "Blue Eyed Lie" A+

Jess becomes the FIRST EVER American Idol to sing an original song during a live voting round. And what an awesome song. Her audition instantly captured my attention and I loved this longer performance of it. I loved the grit and the passion of it. The studio recording, which I purchased off iTunes, is worth a listen and is an awesome addition to my music collection. One complaint: the big bridge is just a repeat of the same lyric. Kind of kills the "build" of the song, but a minor complaint over all. Can someone explain why Keith Urban said she should move around the stage more when she was literally performing on a pedestal?

2. CJ Harris - "Soul Shine" C/C-

I've never been a big fan of this song in any way and CJ has consistently proven himself forgettable week after week. Not the sort of performance I would remember without re-reviewing it for this blog. CJ's gritty tone can be appealing in a small dose, but he overuses it each week. CJ seems like a nice guy but I'm not sure how he made it into the Top 8 over more talented contestants who were cut in the early rounds.

Duet #1: Alex and Jena - "Just Give Me A Reason" A-

The two most interesting, unique voices in the competition came together beautifully on this duet. There was the right amount of passion and their voices sounded awesome together.

3. Sam Woolf - "Lego House" C

The part of the show where I can fall asleep and not miss anything... Sam sings in such an affected, flat tone, with absolutely no emotion or feeling. I feel like there is something blank in his eyes and something missing in every performance. It's funny to me that Alex gets labeled "shy" or "awkward" when to me he is light years more comfortable in his skin and his performances than Sam. I've seen better performers in high school musicals. (And in the movie High School Musical.)

Duet #2: Caleb and Jessica - "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" A

I LOVED THIS. One of my favorite songs and I see where the producers were going by choosing the Tom Petty/Stevie Nicks duet for these two. They had an easy chemistry in this song and sang rings around the next two duets (Dexter & CJ, Malaya & Sam).

4. Malaya Watson - "Ain't No Way" B

A powerful and beautiful performance by Malaya. I admit I counted her out completely as a joke contestant in the early rounds of voting after her hideous performance of "Runaway Baby" and over the top personality. Her latest performances have changed my mind on the front. I still contend she may have been even better if she had come back at age 18, but there's no going back at this point. Her big notes at the end veered into her usual, unpleasant lane, but she did rein it in pretty quickly.

5. Dexter Roberts - "One Mississippi"A-/B+

Dexter's best performance in a long time. Season 8 Top 4 finisher Allison Iraheta sounded beautiful singing the harmonies in the chorus, and it really added a lovely quality to the entire performance. A quiet moment from him that he desperately needed to showcase some of his much-lacking versatility. Here is a performance that I wouldn't mind listening to multiple times.

Duet #3: Malaya & Sam - "Lucky" F

What an insipid, twee song and what a flat performance. According to the Official YouTube page for this performance, "It's a duet you simply HAVE to see!" (emphasis not mine, trust me). The vocals were embarrassingly off, the "oooooohs" sounded god awful, and the both of them looked obviously, glaringly uncomfortable. Listening to this back in order to write this review is almost painful. Idol, please never make 16 and 17 year olds sing awkward love duets to each other ever again.

6. Jena Irene - "Rolling In The Deep" A

WOW. This was a stunning, haunting performance in which Jena completely reinvented the song that we've all heard a thousand times, in a thousand cover versions, to the point it sounded like an entirely new song. This girl is unbelievably talented for any age, let alone 17 years old. Her voice is instantly recognizable from the first note and she signs with just the right amount of passion and emotion to entirely convey the meaning of the song. This was near perfection.

Duet #4: CJ & Dexter - "Alright" C-

Their voices did not blend well together and there were plenty of bum notes that stood out like sore thumbs. Absolutely forgettable, but at least it wasn't a train wreck like Sam and Malaya's duet.

7. Caleb Johnson - "Chain Of Fools" A-/B+

I didn't at all remember Caleb's audition so it was awesome to hear him sing one of my favorite 60's songs. Much like Jena, his voice is instantly recognizable. A fun performance without angst or deep meaning. His voice reminds me so much of David Coverdale of Whitesnake.

8. Alex Preston - "Fairytales" A-

Alex is such a unique talent and I have a feeling his original songs are awesome. He is the kind of contestant that fits well into the modern radio landscape of singer/songwriters and bands like Ed Sheeran, A Great Big World, American Authors, and Passenger. Of all the current contestants, he might just be the most likely to have current radio success. "Fairytales" improves each time I listen to it, as I hear more of the lyrics and the flourishes that Alex puts in the song.

Best of the night: Jessica
Worst of the night: CJ
Best duet: Jessica & Caleb
Worst duet: Sam & Malaya

Friday, April 4, 2014

American Idol 13: Top 9 - March 26, 2014

Top 9 - "I'm With The Band" - March 26, 2014

1. Alex Preston - "Don't Speak" A-

This was a pretty polarizing performance by Alex, but I loved it. Alex is showing actual potential to be an American Idol winner - he consistently reinvents songs and has a definitive, recognizable style. I loved the jazzy, sort of reggae twists he put on this No Doubt song. I loved that the song choice was unexpected and light years away from his performance of One Direction's "Story Of My Life" last week.

2. Majesty Rose - "Shake It Out" B-

I loved the physicality Majesty put into her performance. So often Idol, the contestants forget that it's not just a singing competition. The entertainment industry is, by nature, a visual one and a true performer incorporates visual, emotional, and technical aspects. Unfortunately, Majesty doesn't have the big voice needed for some of the songs she's been tackling lately and it showed on the big, belting notes. She was really fun to watch, but just listening to it on its own, the vocal performance doesn't hold up.

3. Dexter Roberts - "Boondocks" B-

Dexter has not had a performance on the Idol stage that I truly liked since "Simple Man" - maybe his lane is anthemic, bro-country songs but it's a lane I don't necessarily want to go down. It's consistently forgettable. And the way he ended the song felt lazy and uninteresting to me. I can't really fault his vocal delivery, I guess, it's not like he sang badly or out of key, but I would hate to have an Idol winner be so generic.

4. Malaya Watson - "The Long & Winding Road" A-/B+

Malaya has really come a long way from her first disastrous performance of "Runaway Baby" - she is learning to demonstrate control with her voice. I must say watching the show live, I liked this performance a lot better than when I've listened to it back after the fact, but maybe it was just the fact that it was a breath of fresh, different air after the previous 2 performances. She has such an interesting way of delivering her songs that I've sat here listening to her song about 3 or 4 times as I write this.

5. Sam Woolf - "Hey There Delilah" C

OF COURSE. Of course Sam would play "Hey There Delilah". It's a bland, inoffensive song that even your grandmother would like. Hey, kind of like Sam himself. The equivalent of eating crackers or white bread or chicken broth. Love or hate Malaya, you can't say she is ever boring or bland. Sam has no emotion in his voice, no sign of life behind his voice - it's so wooden I can't stand it. Moving on...

6. Jessica Meuse - "Rihannon" A-

I hear a hint of subversiveness in this performance and I absolutely love it. Her performances have been a little bit generic, a little bit Stevie Nicks-lite and I am glad to hear her gain some of her intensity back. Interesting that she does so on such a whispy song.

7. C.J. Harris - "If It Hadn't Been For Love" C+

A lot of grit in C.J.'s voice - and just a bit too much to be appealing. I like hearing songs on Idol that I haven't heard before, but the affect in his voice is distracting and prevents me from enjoying this performance like I wanted to. On repeat listens, much like Majesty's performance, it doesn't quite hold up.

8. Caleb Johnson - "Dazed & Confused" A+

Caleb is an absolute tour-de-force. There is no other way to describe him. In a season where a lot of the contestants seem to be sleepwalking through their performances (C.J., Sam, Dexter, even Jessica), Caleb "brings it" every time. I love the way he interacted with the band, I love his stage presence, his persona, that rock star, Grade A Caliber quality he brings to the show.

9. Jena Irene - "Bring Me To Life" A

Jena is the only one who could have followed Caleb after his amazing performance. I love the physicality of her performance, how she commits herself 100%. I love how mature she is beyond her years, her amazing songwriter ability, and her extremely unique and identifiable voice. She played off the band as well, embracing the theme of the week. There was such a beautiful, unexpected, brief moment in the middle of the song where she slowed the song down with only a piano for accompaniment. She is truly one to watch.

Best of the night: Caleb
Worst of the night:  CJ

Monday, March 24, 2014

American Idol 13: March 19, 2014 - Top 10

Top 10 - "Top 10 Songs from 2011-2014" - March 19, 2014

FINALLY! Some current songs.

1. MK Nobilette - "Perfect" C-

I had such hope for MK this week after her beautiful performance of "To Make You Feel My Love" last week. Her message in the pre-performance package also got me ready to be blown away. However, she took a misstep with this one. It started off strong when she was looking at the mirror but as soon as she stepped away, I felt the energy deflate. It seems like MK might have skipped a lyric or a beat which threw her off a bit. Keith is right that she needs to "own the stage" more and seem more confident; whatever her intent may be, it reads as unsure on the stage and distracts me from her vocal.

2. Dexter Roberts - "Cruise" C+

Fun and competent, but nothing I will remember by tomorrow. He did a few stylized notes on the song that made it slightly different from the original. Dexter hasn't stood out for me to week-to-week at all and I wonder how long his strong country fan base will keep him in this race. I can't even come up with anything else to say about this performance.

3. Jena Irena - "Clarity" A

Idol consistently encourages its young contestants to be "current", yet at the same time the current landscape of music isn't always exactly G-rated. This puts most of the contestants (particularly female ones) in a bit of a dilemma as they try to navigate the balance between "current" and "appropriate" (whatever that means, as its largely in the eye of the beholder). That said, Jena did a masterful job tonight of balancing edgy with age-appropriate, fun with emotion, and energy with vocal talent. This is probably the most energetic I've ever seen the audience react to an idol contestant as well!

4. Alex Preston - "Story Of My Life" A

I like how he sped it up a bit and gave it a different arrangement and overall feel. I could really believe that this was his song; it didn't sound like a cover at all. I just absolutely loved it. His performances are small and intimate,  but unlike MK, he knows how to draw you in instantly.  He has a phenomenal voice and is such an individual; I feel that you could instantly recognize his voice if  you heard it on the radio. I would love to see him in a small concert venue or buy his CD.

5. Malaya Watson - "When I Was Your Man" A-

I actually absolutely LOVED this. I will preface this review by saying Candice Glover's performance of this song last season made me cry because you could feel each note of that song from her. While not quite comparable to Candice, Malaya's version was beautiful and unexpectedly so. I still think Malaya needs to work on the control of her voice as she often goes off the rails. In this performance, that was pretty minimal however. There was a ton of emotion in her voice and I was glad she prefaced the performance by explaining it was about two members of her family that inspired her to choose this song.

6. Caleb Johnson - "The Edge Of Glory" B+

At first listen, I was only focusing on Caleb's glorious voice, which would warrant at least an A- for this performance. But the more I listen to it, the more the arrangement bothers me. I agree with the judges that the arrangement lacked the upbeat urgency of Clarence Clemons's saxaphone in Lady Gaga's original. It is plodding and never really quite goes anywhere. I would love to see Caleb stay out of the midtempo lane next week and either pick something very rock-driven or something very quiet and intimate.

7. CJ Harris - "Invisible" C+

His emotion was clear in this song, but he started off pretty shaky. CJ has not done one thing to distinguish himself in this competition. In this kind of show, it's more dangerous to be completely middle of the road than it is to be terrible (see: Lazaro). The chorus sounded a bit sharp and like he was straining his voice in many places.

8. Jessica Meuse - "Pumped Up Kicks" B+

Jessica finally looked like she was having a little fun with this song, choosing to interpret it with a wink in a tongue-in-cheek way. She did choose stay in the lane a bit with the song and deliver it the way it was written - still, I think it worked for her. I was glad when the band came in, it didn't overpower her voice. I would love for her to try something even more unexpected next week since this was a little sleepy for me.

9. Majesty Rose - "Wake Me Up" B

A better song choice for Majesty by a million miles this week! This is the kind of song she should be covering and I really liked the Americana folk style of the song. Lyrically, it was the perfect song for her, but I couldn't really settle into it.

10. Sam Woolf - "We Are Young" C

Sam has failed to captivate me, at all, on the Idol stage. He is so one-dimensional I can't be drawn in by any lyric he sings; he fails to sing in a way that interprets the lyrics or gives me any amount of feeling. You don't have to be a great singer to be captivating; singers like Rihanna and Katy Perry have proved charming and charismatic without possessing Mariah Carey levels of vocal talent. Sam has been a very capable, competent singer who has a beautiful tone, but it's ultimately a flat one without meaning or nuance.

Best of the night: Alex
Worst of the night: MK

And just because it's so amazing, Jena Irene's original song "Unbreakable Me":