American Idol Season 12 Review “Finalists Compete”

On tonight’s “American Idol,” the focus was on music from the Motor City, aka Motown, and as I predicted, it was a much better fit for this group of contestants than last week’s pseudo-disastrous Beatles show. I mean, don’t get me wrong, some of them did fine, notably Janelle, but overall, it was pretty clear most of them were way out of their respective wheelhouses. That was decidedly not the case here, as most everyone acquitted themselves nicely this week.

Not hurting matters was the presence of Motown legend Smokey Robinson, who actually gave the performers some decent advice along the way as he mentored each one by one, beginning with Candice Glover. Of course, if any contestant was in no need of coaching, it’s her, but when she announced she was taking on the much-covered “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” I’ll admit I was a little concerned.

I needn’t have worried. Whereas her take on The Beatles’ “Come Together” was pretty straight-forward, her version of this classic R&B standard was anything but, as she transformed it into a bluesy, soulful slow-burner that brought to mind someone like Etta James, not the likes of Marvin Gaye or Gladys Knight, who are among the most famous to cover the song. (Though Robinson mentioned he & the Miracles took a stab at it as well, which I didn’t know and later sought out- you can hear it for yourself, if you wish, here. Not bad!)

The judges were pleased, and Nicki said Candice had a much more confident and assured presence this week, which I agree with and will attribute to her being much more comfortable with the material. I’d happily buy Candice’s version, and that’s saying something for a song that’s been covered as much as this one.

After that, we got a somewhat odd take on another Michigan native of a decidedly different bent, Madonna, by way of Jennifer Nettles, of the band Sugarland. I’d never heard Sugarland’s take before (you can: here), but it was only mildly countrified, so it wasn’t that different all things considered. In the hands of Kree Harrison, it was reasonably entertaining, with a strong vocal as expected- but paired with Janelle Arthur, who was a bit out of her depth, the end result was a bit mixed, with Kree doing most of the heavy lifting.

Keith thought the song translated well to country, and both he and Mariah thought the performance was more about sisterhood and the like than competing with one another. Randy and Nicki felt differently, singling out Kree- or should I say “Kreedom,” as Nicki dubbed her? – as being far superior to Janelle’s pitchy vocals. Though the performance was sort of a “bonus” and not really part of the official judged part of the show, I’d have to agree with the latter, although Janelle didn’t embarrass herself, either. Kree’s just exceptionally stiff competition, you know? It’s apples and oranges.

Lazaro Arbos was next, and he more or less redeemed himself from last week’s train wreck, which should have landed him in the bottom over Amber- still ticked off about that one- with a decent take on Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in my Life.” I liked the beginning, which had a jazzy, lounge-y style, but when the song moved into a more mid-tempo section, he was more than a little off his game. The judges mostly felt Lazaro was “back”- though Randy at least acknowledged the pitchiness. Nicki was just glad Lazaro stopped listening to Jimmy (Ouch! Cameraman, where were you at for the reaction shot?), and declared that she wanted Smokey Robinson to be her “sugar daddy” and husband. Alrighty then. Though it must be said, he is looking good for his age!

Janelle was up next and she rebounded nicely from the Madonna thing with another curveball, a lovely, slowed-down version of the Supremes’ classic “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” Another song that’s been covered within an inch of its life- I always liked this nutty take myself- I was really impressed by her interpretation, which was different enough from any other take I’ve heard to manage to set itself apart from the rest. No mean feat that.

I also liked that she played guitar on it again and really brought out the emotion of the song and made it her own, just like she did last week with The Beatles. She really is proving to be one to watch, though not everyone agreed, notably Nicki, who thought it was a bit off. I can see why she might think that, as it was decidedly different from the original or even the other well-known take by Kim Wilde, which are both relatively upbeat. But I liked it, I thought it was different, and everyone else agreed.

Devin Velez, in the bottom three last week, and deservedly so, rebounded with a decent take on none other than Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “The Tracks of my Tears,” which takes courage, given that he not only had to practice it in front of the man himself, but perform it live with him in the audience to boot.

Lucky for him he pulled it off nicely, getting a thumbs-up from Smokey and all of the judges, though Keith thought he could stand to relax a bit. Yeah, no crap, Keith. You try performing in front of a Motown legend and see if you’re not nervous and get back to me. Honestly. I thought it was pretty solid, personally, and I’m not particularly a fan of Devin’s, so that’s saying something.

The rest of the girls performed next as a group, with Amber, Candice and Angela tackling “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” a fantastic song originally recorded by the super-group collaboration that was the Supremes and the Temptations. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore, folks. The girls acquitted themselves nicely, with Candice an obvious stand-out, though as it turned out, it was actually Angela Miller’s highlight of the night, as her vocals her were superlative. And might I add, she was looking mighty fine, too? (Insert wolf whistle here…)

Alas, her take on another Smokey Robinson classic was a bit misguided, as she tried to rock out “Shop Around” in an early-80s Linda Ronstadt-type fashion. It wasn’t a total train wreck, and Lord knows, “Idol” is always telling performers to not get stuck in a rut doing the same thing week-after-week, but as is their wont, if they don’t like the way a performer chooses to change it up, they will turn on you, and that’s essentially what happened here.

Even Mariah lamented missing the “old” Angie at her piano singing her heart out, and MC rarely criticizes anyone except in the most passive-aggressive of ways, i.e. Nicki. But I thought Randy was right when he said that it was the arrangement that was the problem. It was a good idea to rock out a Motown song, and as alluded to, it’s certainly worked before with Ronstadt. For whatever reason, though Angie was looking even sexier than before (which is saying something, let me tell you) “acting sexy” does not a solid cover song make.

Just ask the likes of Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus, who’ve both mauled the likes of “I Love Rock and Roll” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in highly misguided attempts to be hip. They should have stuck with their wheelhouse, and so should Angela. You are sexy, girl. Don’t try to be intentionally sexy, just be sexy, you know? But a rocker you are not, sorry to say. I think she’ll get a pass this time, though, especially with her much stronger performance earlier and her previous work.

Burnell Taylor did a take on another Stevie Wonder classic, “My Cherie Amour,” that was easily the best of the guys that night. Nicki thought he looked like a “sexy doctor”- would that be “Dr. Love,” maybe? Hey, it’s “Detroit Rock City” too, people! Though a bit on the subtle side, which might lead to him being overshadowed a bit by the others, it was still pretty decent, I thought. The judges seemed to agree.

Amber Holcomb also took on Stevie, with the “Lovely” ballad of the same name. Randy thought it was the vocal of the night, and reiterated how shocked he was that she was in the bottom three last week. I agree completely, and if she’s in the bottom this week, there’s something wrong with America’s ears. I freaking adore Angela and even I agree that she deserves to be in the bottom three this week over Amber.

For whatever reason, Amber’s just not connecting with the voters. My guess is that Candice is siphoning a lot of her votes, unfortunately, and that’s stiff competition, to say the least. Even I don’t think Amber could win this thing, but she deserves better than the bottom three, especially this week. Hey, even Mariah called it a “tour de force.” You know what that is, right? (LOL.) Amber herself said it best, though: “I’m back, but I never really was gone.” Amen, sister.

After that, the guys destroyed their rebounded reputation, save Burnell, when they fully tanked “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” originally by the Four Tops, which is a song I love. As Burnell pointed out, he did his part and knew his words, then Devin did what Burnell said he didn’t intend on doing, which was to throw his team mates under the bus, which is just bad form. Devin claimed to have been helping out the “guys” as best as he could. Um, speak for yourself, buddy.

Devin might have been helping out the clearly clueless Lazaros, but Burnell didn’t need your help, thank you very much. Consider yourself unredeemed. Lazaros was beside himself, not any more able to get out the words in his defense than he was the lyrics to the song, claiming unfamiliarity with it. Not gonna cut it, bro. Good on Nicki for calling them out- notice how they almost left when she said to? As well they should have.

Thank God Kree Harrison was around to wipe up the stage after that whole debacle, with a lovely take on a lesser-known Aretha Franklin song that was favorably comparable to Candice’s earlier pot-boiler. Everyone liked it, but Randy was disappointed she picked something so obscure. Hey, better that than “Respect” or “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” for the billionth time. I thought it was just fine, if a bit too reserved for my tastes. I like it better when Kree belts it out more, but there’s something to be said for restraint, to be sure. She should be fine this week.

So, definitely a step up from last week overall, though the guys’ performance was single-handedly the worst thing I’ve seen thus far this season since the top 20 was narrowed down. I won’t hold it against Burnell, but the other two should almost certainly be in the bottom two for it, with Lazaro earning it and Devin deserving it for bad form. As much as I hate to say it, Angela probably deserves it, too, if only by default because everyone else was so good in comparison. I fear it may be Amber or Burnell, though, as they were both kind of too subtle for their own good. We’ll see, I guess.

What did you think of “American Idol” this week? Did you like the contestants’ respective takes on Motown? What was your favorite? How about your least favorite? Should the guys be thoroughly ashamed of themselves? How about the girls? Any predictions on who will win this? Sound off in the comments- but try to stay in key, if you will. I don’t want to have to sic Nicki on you!