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The 2012 American Idol Songbook--Week of March 7 (Top 13)
If March 7’s performances could be summed up in one word, it would be improvement. Compared to last week, especially in light of the disappointing live debuts of many of the women, the Top 13 were spectacular in their first final. This was all the more remarkable when one considers that the men had to tackle the songs of Stevie Wonder, one of the most consummate musicians and singer-songwriters to ever grace the R&B field. The women had similarly big shoes to fill, since they had to go toe to toe with songs made famous by the recently deceased Whitney Houston, the foremost pop diva of her time, known to many both within and outside the industry simply as “The Voice” for her delicate melisma and wide pitch range that could make instant classics of both great and middling material. This is not to say that there were no stumbles. DeAndre, Heejun, and Shannon neither quite captured nor redefined the songs they chose. Colton, Elise, and Erika each had to venture outside their comfort zone this week, and it showed, but they each brought enough energy to their choices to more than justify keeping them on another week. Hollie, Jeremy, Jermaine, Jessica, and Joshua astounded, delivering absolutely solid covers that brought the originals to life in ways that did the legends feted that night proud. Phillip and Skylar, for their part, absolutely stole their songs in a way that we’ve come to expect from them night after night.
DeAndre Brackensick – “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” - Advanced
"Master Blaster (Jammin’),” drawn from Stevie’s 1980 album Hotter than July, illustrates one of the more underrated facets of his musical genius, namely his ability to turn an entry in the well-worn genre of “tribute songs” into a joyous memorial. In the grand tradition of the gospel funeral, Stevie gave an electrifying tribute to the messianic life of his friend Bob Marley, the father of reggae in its most classic 1970s incarnation. When Stevie wrote the song, Marley was already diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him within six months of its release, and therefore it continues to be retroactively identified with Bob’s death and final legacy. Stevie had pulled something similar off before, in “Sir Duke,” a track from 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life that emphasized the infectious rhythms of Duke Ellington, who had died in 1974. With “Master Blaster,” though, Stevie got to delve into the distinctive chugging rhythms and Jamaican idioms of reggae, all to highlight the way in which Marley drew from the musical culture of his native land to craft poignant pleas for social justice and pacifism that continue to move people the world over, both literally and figuratively. DeAndre clearly respects both Stevie and Bob, both R&B and the reggae it heavily influenced; and he doesn’t necessarily seem inauthentic in his rendition. Ironically, however, his own silly air of a cute guy tossing off a song for the fun of it distracts from the actual pleasure we are supposed to get from this song. Although he tries to pay tribute to a master paying tribute to another master, so to speak, DeAndre’s self-conscious posturing makes me miss both of these giants in their prime when he should be reminding me of their brilliance.
Heejun Han – “All in Love Is Fair” - Advanced
“All in Love Is Fair” is classic Stevie at his best, drawn from one of his most outstanding albums, 1973’s Innervisions. A meandering, almost classical melody perfectly complements a wistful story of regret about a love wrongly cast aside, perhaps by the narrator. This cocktail is the product of a nuanced talent, and it takes a nuanced talent to deliver it. Heejun, perhaps the most showmanlike of the male contestants tonight, is anything but nuanced. The song can work as middle-of-the-road pop, of course—Barbra Streisand proved it in spades when she covered it in 1974 for a minor hit off her album The Way We Were (more of a companion album than a soundtrack to her hit film). Heejun executes the melody well, but lacks the exquisite tone color that makes a song this complicated really take off. He’s a sweet, if at times sarcastic, guy, and he makes you want him to do better, but this song was not the best match for him. He might have done better with one of the more pop-oriented songs in Stevie’s career, such as “My Cherie Amour,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” or “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”
Shannon Magrane – “I Have Nothing” - Advanced
“I Have Nothing” was from the best-selling soundtrack of all time, that of Whitney’s 1992 star vehicle The Bodyguard, and it gave filmgoers a true-to-form taste of the balladeer they had come to know and love. It wasn’t the most groundbreaking movie of course, but Whitney held her own as an actress against the likes of Kevin Costner, playing a pop diva who hires a former Secret Service agent to protect her in the wake of a stalker’s threats. David Foster, who produced the soundtrack and co-wrote the song with his then-wife Linda Thompson, started as a Canadian rocker and promising R&B session man but is best-known as the father of adult contemporary music, the type of synthesizer-driven pop that dominated easy listening playlists from the 1980s on. In “I Have Nothing,” the royal couple of pop music gave Whitney a rather literal showcase of her character’s vulnerability, accompanied by a melody that played to Whitney’s strengths: the verses are intimate and slow, while the chorus begins with a powerful chord change and contains the power notes that were the Voice’s stock-in-trade. Shannon seemed to have this week in the bag, considering her predilection for pop with a side of gospel, Whitney’s m.o. To her credit, she gives the chorus her best in the rehearsal with Mary J. Blige and Jimmy Iovine, but she doesn’t keep up to that standard in the live performance. Every once in a while, she captures a kernel of the song’s meaning; but immediately afterwards, her nerves get the better of her and she either applies too little or too much energy, in dribs and drabs, to a song that ought to flow naturally.
Colton Dixon – “Lately” - Advanced
"Lately" is another track from Hotter than July, this time an aching ballad that stimulates the mind as much as it pulls the heartstrings; what else could it possibly be from Stevie? The melody just seems to become more gorgeous as it undulates through curve after curve, bringing the listener into the racing mind of a man dreading the breakup he can’t help but see coming. Though Stevie had a modest hit and remains closely identified with the song, it was urban contemporary group Jodeci who, in their 1993 MTV Unplugged special, took the song into the Top 10. Face to face with such perfection, Colton chooses to—change it up a bit. He does an emo “Lately” that Randy compares, with some justification, to Coldplay, and the result eventually gels together surprisingly well. It is a bit jarring for those familiar with Stevie’s song in its original version, myself included, to see Colton tweak the verses into power ballad warm-ups, but Colton’s rendition adds up to a daring take on a classic that recalls early performances by Adam Lambert in its glam heft.
Elise Testone – “I’m Your Baby Tonight” - Advanced
With “I’m Your Baby Tonight” (1990), Whitney Houston returned in earnest to target the R&B market where she first gained popularity in the mid-1980s. The song was the lead single and title track of her 1990 album, a release that had a hard act to follow, 1987’s Whitney, which churned out four consecutive chart-toppers. The song was written and produced by Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and Antonio “L.A.” Reid, two singers-cum-producers who practically defined the urban contemporary genre in the late 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s. This dynamic duo delivered radio-ready synth beats, catchy melodies, and sensual lyrics that proved a hit formula for dozens of acts, often multiple times for a single one. Clearly, when combining them with Whitney meant instant platinum, and of course another number one resulted. In the spirit of the “new jack swing” sound, two parts R&B and one part hip-hop, that Babyface and Reid pioneered, “I’m Your Baby Tonight” was full of circular instrumental flourishes like those a rapper would sample, all supporting a midtempo come-on that gets straight to the point. Like it or not, for better or for worse, Whitney was no longer the innocent “good girl” of the ‘80s, and this song marked the transition with gusto. Elise wanted to sing “The Greatest Love of All” but was thankfully steered toward this song, one with which she was less familiar but to which she was better suited. The adjustment was not perfect, and she struggles at times with the bouncy groove of this song, which couldn’t be further from her singer-songwriter piano lady image. However, she embodies the sauciness of the song effectively, as had the much younger Haley Reinhart in 2011, and carries the tune without major hiccups.
Erika Van Pelt – “I Believe in You and Me” - Advanced
There are great songs Whitney made greater and mediocre songs Whitney redeemed. “I Believe in You and Me” falls decidedly into the latter category, and it’s all the more surprising that it should be there when one considers the group that first attempted it. Ten years before the song’s original 1983 release by the Four Tops, they were Motown’s most pop-oriented male group, playing the Supremes to the Temptations’ Martha and the Vandellas. By the 1980s, however, a decade and several record labels later, the Tops were struggling to stay current and wound up taking on some less than impressive material. To put it simply, many of the writers of the time had seemingly forgotten how to write for an elegant bass like Levi Stubbs. Lyricist Sandy Linzer, best-known for his 1960s hits for the Four Seasons (“Let’s Hang On,” “Working My Way Back to You”) and several disco hits (e.g., Odyssey’s “Native New Yorker”), turns in lovely sentiments but in trite terms, while composer David Wolfert (the pop songwriter who co-authored Dolly Parton’s “Heartbreaker” in 1979) authored a melody that sort of plods without ever really going anywhere. The Tops, ill-promoted by the declining Casablanca label, barely grazed the R&B Top 40 and went nowhere on the pop charts, but Whitney and David Foster saw a chance to really make something of the tune. They took that chance in 1996, when they teamed up with Mervyn Warren on Whitney’s third soundtrack for The Preacher’s Wife. The film was Penny Marshall’s remake of 1947’s The Bishop’s Wife (itself based on a Robert Nathan novel), and it featured a down-on-his-luck preacher overwhelmed by his inner-city congregation’s problems who finds solutions through the guardian angel Dudley, here played by Denzel Washington in place of the rurally set original’s Cary Grant. Whitney, who played the title character, contributed a slightly spiritual feel to “I Believe in You and Me,” in keeping with the soundtrack’s general gospel tone and lending a new dimension to the lyrics. She made the song engaging where the original version had been forgettable, and Erika tries with some success to emulate her approach on the choruses. On the verses, though, she is less effective as she sings in her trademark power ballad style, making the performance a mixed bag overall.
Hollie Cavanagh – “All the Man That I Need” - Advanced
"All the Man That I Need” is yet another Whitney cover, this time written specifically in 1982 for its original interpreter, Linda Clifford. Clifford was a disco diva trying hard to find her footing in a post-disco world, so composer Michael Gore and lyricist Dean Pitchford knew she would need something heartfelt to remake herself as an R&B star fit for the ‘80s. Clifford’s husband was a godsend compared to her first, if the song is any indication, and Pitchford (best-known for his work on the soundtracks of Fame and Footloose) put together a real winner, though Gore (‘60s teen sensation Lesley’s brother) did not provide a melody quite as compelling as those he did for the score of Fame. Capitol Records did little for Clifford’s album, and Sister Sledge’s single version couldn’t get over that group’s own disco jinx, but Pitchford continued with good reason to believe in his composition and kept shopping it around. When he played it in 1989 for Clive Davis, Whitney’s discoverer at Arista Records, the latter flipped, and the rest was history: Whitney took it straight to the top and gave every word its due. Persistence paid off, and all parties were satisfied. The same is true of Hollie’s live version. At first, I was not the only one wondering whether the diminutive eighteen-year-old, the proverbial “little girl with the big voice,” could convincingly pull off this rather adult song about the best rebound relationship imaginable (from Whitney’s adult intro I’m Your Baby Tonight). All those doubts evaporated with the first note to come out of her mouth, and from beginning to end, it was a great voice delivering a great song with both power and nuance; in other words, two minutes of what Whitney was all about.
Jeremy Rosado – “Ribbon in the Sky” - Eliminated
“Ribbon in the Sky” was, like its album-mates “That Girl” and “Do I Do,” a suitable complement to the evergreens with which it shared Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium, a 1982 half-compilation of sorts focusing on his solo peak. It has a straight verse-chorus structure and is not as experimental as some of Stevie’s prior work, but neither the melodies nor the romantic lyrics disappoint, and each new key feels like a brand new ream of the ribbon of love Stevie shares with his fans in every perfectly chosen note instead of a “second verse, same as the first” retread. Anyone remotely familiar with his work knows to expect no less, and Jeremy does not let us down. As Jimmy points out, Jeremy’s vulnerability can make him a nervous wreck in rehearsal, but in performance, that same delicacy comes out as pop magic and makes the softer side of Stevie sound just the way it should. In a way, Jeremy manages to pay tribute to both of tonight’s honorees, since the song was long Whitney’s favorite and consequently played (emotionally and with specially altered lyrics) at her funeral by none other than Stevie himself.
Jermaine Jones – “Knocks Me Off My Feet” - Advanced
“Knocks Me Off My Feet” was an album highlight from Songs in the Key of Life, though highlight cannot help but be a relative term in this case. The world was in chaos in the mid-1970s, with political mismanagement, economic catastrophe, and human rights atrocities seemingly running amok, and Stevie Wonder felt that he was in the wrong place to make a difference. He wanted to quit the business, and felt that Motown’s contract was too restrictive to convince him to stay. Fortunately, Berry Gordy came through with a record-setting, multimillion-dollar renewal with complete creative freedom, albeit under pressure from rival labels’ offers. What people needed was Stevie’s music, and he gave them something unparalleled in this album. In terms of R&B, I am fully in agreement with Elton John that the album is the greatest ever made. It had jazz improvisation, dance tracks that gave the clubs the beats for which they clamor and gave listeners the quality they deserved, and lovely, poetic ballads like “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” What more could you want? “Knocks Me” leads listeners from the start into its melody’s laid-back groove and its lyric’s earnest gratitude, but requires a skilled interpreter to really “get it” and convey the song in a way that doesn’t sound karaoke. After all, it’s hard to fill the shoes of a man that can make “I don’t want to bore you” into a perfect hook that, well, doesn’t. Jermaine is that interpreter, and he makes the song sound perfectly natural even when he moves it a few keys lower to suit his own distinctive voice. The judges were right to bring him back.
Jessica Sánchez – “I Will Always Love You” - Advanced
The story of “I Will Always Love You” is one that reminds us of the connections that make American music so rich. Dolly Parton, the song’s original singer and auteur, was one of country music’s great ambassadors, epitomizing that lonesome mountain sound in her early releases from the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time of Nashville “countrypolitan” dominance. However, she also crossed over to become the ultimate urban cowgirl of the late 1970s and 1980s. Following up the traditional, bluegrass-flavored “Jolene” in 1974, “I Will Always Love You” was somewhere between the two Dollys: she almost whispered her elegant plea but sang to a melody that, while her own, was flavored on the record with the smooth production of then RCA Nashville head producer Bob Ferguson. The song was an instant smash, topping the country charts not just on its first release but also on a second go-round in 1982. The version that introduced the song to Whitney was a Linda Ronstadt version from 1975’s Prisoner in Disguise, which ironically sounded more country than Dolly’s in the hands of California country-rock’s golden girl and the latter’s British producer Peter Asher. Kevin Costner loved it and brought it to Whitney when the Motown chestnut “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted,” Whitney’s intended cover for The Bodyguard, was used for Fried Green Tomatoes. “I Will Always Love You,” of course, became Whitney’s signature on The Bodyguard: The Original Soundtrack. It’s hard not to think of Dolly’s eternal love song today without envisioning each aspect of Whitney and producer Foster’s rendition, from the distinctive a cappella introduction to the understated bridge to the minimalist but powerhouse chorus that grows more explosive on each go-round. While reproducing Whitney’s performances of the song (any of them, really) in toto is likely an impossibility, Jessica comes as close as a singer of her experience and depth can get, giving Idol viewers a stirring tribute by simply doing Whitney Whitney’s way. Not only is Jessica here to stay, judging from this performance, but judge Jennifer Lopez may well be right in predicting a two-woman showdown finale, perhaps of Jessica and Hollie. Now if only today's songwriters could write something fit for a diva.
Joshua Ledet – “I Wish” - Advanced
"I Wish" was the lead single from Songs in the Key of Life, and it ended fans’ two-year wait for new material. The song was a smash, of course, and its club success made it the closest Stevie ever came to disco, although it was more of an up-tempo funk number along the lines of K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s hits than a pounding four-on-the-floor beat. Behind the infectious rhythms and jazzy melody is a rare glimpse into Stevie’s mischievous childhood, a Mozart-like tale of a genius who simply would not follow the rules. Joshua is just what the doctor ordered for this song, which a less energetic performer might have flubbed or made sound silly rather than cool. He uses the rambunctious, animated stagecraft that distracted from many other contestants’ numbers their first week, illustrating the key difference: he’s actually doing it with an appropriate song, practically embodying the young Stevie the autobiographical “I Wish” immortalized. We already know Joshua can give us a solid gospel ballad, but now he shows that he can have fun with a dance track, too. Well done.
Phillip Phillips – “Superstition” - Advanced
“Superstition” is an ideal choice for Phillip, in that it is truly Stevie’s most explicit nod to rock. In fact, Stevie wrote it as a thank-you gift to Jeff Beck in exchange for that guitar hero’s contributions to Talking Book, Stevie’s 1972 commercial breakthrough as an independent singer-songwriter-producer. Berry Gordy, always the hands-on executive, insisted that Stevie record it himself for the album, and so he did, earning his first ever number one pop hit and to many giving the world his true signature song (a meaningless distinction for an artist as prolific and talented as Stevie). Stevie’s arrangement drew on the psychedelic soul sound that had been espoused for five years by his colleague Sly Stone, and similarly combined funky bass licks and pop hooks with a serious message about the pitfalls of letting irrational beliefs guide important decisions. Phillip’s phenomenal electric guitar accompaniment and gruff voice do Beck proud, but his true understanding of the song as a kind of protest novelty tune also makes us glad he’s in the finals to give his tribute to Stevie. It’s not a faithful rendition of the arrangement with which most listeners are familiar, of course, so it still counts as a re-interpretation. However, Phillip may have actually gotten closer to the pith of what Stevie was trying to say in the first place than anyone else I’ve heard cover the song.
Skylar Laine – “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?" - Advanced
“Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” is another ballad (none of her uptempo songs were covered this night) that showed Whitney’s ability to take an OK song to a whole new level. Chuck Jackson, a relative of the Reverend Jesse Jackson who had fronted a group called the Independents in the 1970s before turning producer for Natalie Cole, suggested the title, but most of the song was the work of Frank Wildhorn. Wildhorn was not as talented at writing lyrics as he was at composing music, and the song’s shifting point of view and odd metaphor doesn’t quite work on paper, though he would later prove his worth on Broadway with the music for musicals based on classic works of literature such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and The Count of Monte Cristo. Though at first unenthused with the song, Whitney trusted Clive’s promise of a chart-topper and gave the lightweight melody and boilerplate lyrics her all, proving Clive right and making the song yet another of her anthems when she released it on Whitney. Skylar does the inverse of what Whitney did with “I Will Always Love You” by taking what was very much an urban contemporary R&B song and making it country. Unlike many previous, ill-fated attempts to countrify songs from other genres on this show, it works. Where many singers might attempt to sing the song straight (as many country covers on record do) or simplify the chords and render the song somewhat bowdlerized, Skylar has figured out how to lay down the twang in just the right places to make it country-pop par excellence. She finally lives up to Randy’s frequent comparisons to Reba McEntire here, in terms of her basic sound, and she even aspires to Leann Rimes and Faith Hill’s command of R&B power notes. Jennifer’s only quibble, heard a second time here, is rather amusing: apparently, Skylar has this strange nasal tone, which if I’m not mistaken, just might correspond with—wait for it—a Deep South accent. You don’t say, Jen!