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The 2012 American Idol Songbook--Week of March 14 (Top 11)
The Top 11 was unusual in many respects. It started, of course, under the tragic cloud of first-round wild card Jermaine Jones’s disqualification for failing to disclose outstanding warrants, mostly for misidentification to police, which would have put him out of the running anyway if he had revealed them. Jones’s exit was handled quite tastefully, in a manner that allowed the producers to explain the rules and compliment his talent, and allowed him to explain himself and showcase said talent through his heartfelt rehearsal of Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville’s 1986 hit, “Somewhere Out There,” the Oscar-winning theme song from An American Tail. The remaining contestants struggled with a different dilemma: like many individuals, they tended to have a “deaf spot” of sorts around the time they were born. Since the music of one’s birth year isn’t tied to one’s adolescence or that of one’s parents, there is unlikely to be any strong emotional connection in the household to the songs that were popular at that moment. Consequently, it’s no surprise that six of the eleven songs performed by the Idol hopefuls were covers of songs that had been popular long before their birth year (often reflecting the style of the true original rather than the later version). Two of the remainder were re-releases or re-recordings. Complicating matters, Jimmy’s talent as a shaper of careers didn’t always translate to sound advice on arrangements. will.i.am, personable gentleman and erstwhile innovator that he is, proved an odd choice of mentor for a show devoted to songs released when he was a teenager, at least compared to someone such as Mutt Lange or Babyface, who actually was active as a producer during the late 1980s and early 1990s. DeAndre and Shannon gave underwhelming renditions of iconic songs, while Erika and Jessica underperformed due in part to badly calibrated arrangements. Elise and Heejun proved their appeal, though not necessarily distinguishing themselves spectacularly. Colton, Hollie, Joshua, Phillip, and Skylar, however, benefited from knowing exactly who and what they are. They sang the most compelling covers of the night, beginning and ending the show on a decidedly upbeat note.
DeAndre Brackensick – “Endless Love” (Lionel Richie and Diana Ross by way of Mariah Carey and Luther Vandross, 1994) - Advanced
"Endless Love" is another one of those theme songs that dwarfed the eventual fame of the movie from which it sprung. In 1981, Franco Zeffirrelli, well-known in the U.S. for 1968’s Romeo and Juliet,went to the star crossed-lovers well again when he cast Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt in a critically panned but mildly lucrative adaptation of Scott Spencer’s novel about a couple from different sides of the tracks. Singer-songwriter Lionel Richie’s love theme was his first soundtrack project. His romantic lyrics and gorgeous chord changes (though diluted by overexposure in karaoke duets and comical send-ups) helped establish his growing reputation as a proverbial aphrodisiac, too commercial to stay forever in the wildly talented funk band he helped start at Tuskegee Institute, the Commodores. As one of the rising stars of Motown, a label well-known for capitalizing on duets, it’s no accident that he was paired on “Endless Love” with its top diva, Diana Ross, who would soon finalize her separation from the label after the acrimonious sessions for her disco album, Diana. The song shot to the top of the charts and won an Oscar nomination, assuring it an immortality that drew two other romantic R&B stars, Luther Vandross and Mariah Carey, to cover it on Vandross’s impeccable 1994 cover album, Songs. The two legends were, of course, every bit the successor of their forebears, and they both gave it their trademark ornamentation without smothering the song’s simple beauty, something from which DeAndre could learn. DeAndre can make the most gorgeous runs on a verse or a bridge, but when he gets to the chorus, his campy theatrics are just a tad too much for the intimacy of the songs toward which he gravitates. It doesn’t help when he tries to imitate both sides of a song inextricably tied to duet singing, in this case attempting to capture both Vandross’s smooth baritone and Carey’s gymnastic range, and failing in both cases. As is the case for many of the night’s performers, he might have been better served by a younger, fresher original originating in his year, including Madonna’s “Take a Bow” or Boyz II Men’s smashes “I’ll Make Love to You” and “On Bended Knee.” Even “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” Elton John’s love theme from The Lion King that DeAndre was thinking of singing at first, might have suited him better.
Erika Van Pelt – “Heaven” (Bryan Adams, 1985) - Advanced
“Heaven,” like “Endless Love,” outshone its movie soundtrack origins. The 1983 film A Night in Heaven, despite the direction of Rocky and The Karate Kid skipper John Avildsen, was an utter critical and box-office dud focusing on a college professor’s affair with her hunky student. The movie’s one major saving grace was a song from two Canadian singer-songwriters well on their way to becoming major presences in the U.S. record industry, namely the song’s original singer, Bryan Adams, and his main collaborator throughout the decade, Jim Vallance. Vallance was in the band Prism when he met Adams and became his mentor, guiding him through the process of becoming arena rock’s biggest solo star with co-writes such as “Run to You,” “Somebody,” “Summer of ’69,” and “Heat of the Night.” Vallance also co-wrote hits for Heart (see Erika’s performance of “What About Love” from semifinals week) and Aerosmith (“The Other Side”), making him a natural choice for Erika’s performance before Steven. The song transcends the movie’s puerile premise with lyrics reminiscent of Journey’s power ballads (e.g. “Open Arms,” “Faithfully”) and a melody as ethereal as you would expect from the title. The song is magical just the way it is, but when Adams decided he wanted to include it on his multiplatinum 1984 album Reckless, his American production liaison at the time, coincidentally our own Jimmy Iovine, was nonplussed. He thought it wouldn’t work with Adams’s more muscular American image, but Adams stuck to his guns and proved Jimmy wrong by taking the song straight to number one as the album’s third single. Recognizing Erika for a latter-day Pat Benatar, Jimmy proves once again that golden ears don’t always translate to good creative instinct by recommending an absurd re-arrangement of the chorus that screeches what ought to be finessed. It’s almost as if our mentor was trying to re-fight the battle with Adams, and I hope it doesn’t sabotage a fine pop-rock voice that could have sung “Heaven” beautifully just as Adams and Vallance wrote it.
Jessica Sánchez – “Turn the Beat Around” (Vicki Sue Robinson by way of Gloria Estefan, 1995) - Advanced
“Turn the Beat Around,” dating to 1976, is, with due respect, the stereotypical embodiment of everything naysayers deride about disco music, simplistic, repetitive, and devoid of significant melodic interest. It serves one purpose only, to pack the floor at the club. In a typical story for a genre littered with one-hit wonders, Vicki Sue Robinson was an actress best-known for productions of contemporary Broadway shows such as Hair, who was discovered by RCA’s Warren Schatz and rushed into the studio for a highly produced gimmick single, only to be discarded after the follow-ups bombed. She was an energetic and vocally competent singer well-regarded in her performances on stage, but she lacked the funky soul of Harry Wayne “K.C.” Casey (of Sunshine Band fame) or the almost operatic stamina of Donna Summer. The song was no great shakes either, discussing dance in the most sophomoric of terms against the backdrop of a paper-thin melody. The songwriters, Gerald and Pete Jackson from the obscure Philadelphia R&B group A Touch of Class, perhaps could have expected the lukewarm reception to their own subsequent albums based on material such as this. Gloria Estefan’s cover actually dates to late 1994, making the choice somewhat questionable if I understand the rules for the birth year performances. Estefan, a consummate singer-songwriter and talented vocalist coming off a decade of spectacular success as one of the first superstars of what would be labeled “Latin crossover,” released the cover on the soundtrack of a critically panned Sly Stallone hit entitled The Specialist, in which he played a CIA bomb defuser turned hit man out for revenge. She also included it in the same year’s album Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, a cover album of her personal favorites that underperformed and broke her record career’s momentum in the Anglophone market. Estefan gave the song her distinctively Cuban touch, but it clashed with the house music production and the weak original to give a distinctively puzzling result. Jessica’s version is no less bizarre. After a pitch-perfect performance on Whitney week, she stumbles trying to inject Whitney runs into a song utterly unsuited for them. It just isn’t the song for Jessica, no matter how much she dances across the stage. Although 1995 would have been a tough year for diva hits (Celine, Janet, and Whitney were between albums), Jessica might have been able to put more feeling into Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy,” Whitney’s soundtrack hit “Exhale (Shoop Shoop),” Toni Braxton’s “Another Sad Love Song,” or Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone.”
Shannon Magrane – “One Sweet Day” (Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey, 1995) - Eliminated
“One Sweet Day,” though released in late 1995 as the second single from Mariah Carey’s album Daydream, made its mark on history early the following year. For over four months straight, from December 2, 1995, to March 16, 1996, this one song held the pole position in the national Billboard pop charts, a still unbeaten record that could not have been a better memorial for those memorialized in the song. Mariah and her longtime producer Walter Afanasieff wrote the beginnings of the song in honor of two people she knew who had been affected by the growing world AIDS crisis: these were a close friend and onetime collaborator, house music pioneer David Cole, who died of it; and her own estranged sister who had recently been diagnosed. Nat Morris of Boyz II Men had been writing a song with his bandmates (his brother Wanya, Shawn Stockman, and Michael McCary) about his late road manager. They happened to meet while Mariah was working on Daydream, and decided to combine their songs into one. The result was one of the most emotional and personal tributes in pop music history, which couldn’t help but strike a chord with the public and continues to be powerful on the record to this day. Although the heavenly content dovetails well with the Christian persona Shannon established with her Kathy Troccoli cover the first night of performances (“Go Light Your World”), she simply does not have the voice to compete with Mariah. Her constant shortness of breath, which will.i.am warned her with good reason to guard against, worsens matters by stifling some of the most touching moments in the entire song. Any of the above recommendations for Jessica would have been potential winners with Shannon’s voice, but it remains to be seen whether Shannon can stay in this competition for the long haul.
Elise Testone – “Let’s Stay Together” (Al Green by way of Tina Turner, 1983) - Advanced
In 1971, Al Green released “Let’s Stay Together” on Memphis’s Hi label, previewing his eponymous album released the following year and blending the gospel croon and horn backing of Otis Redding with the smooth, melodic sheen of Philadelphia R&B. It wasn’t quite like anything else at the time, but for the next five years, it would be the template for an unmistakable soul sound that was all Green’s own. The song’s floating gossamer chords perfectly underlined Green’s plea for understanding and reconciliation, as soothing for a fractious relationship as for a divided country (hence Obama’s recent effort at the song, referenced in the lead-up on the show). Green’s producer Willie Mitchell and drummer Al Jackson, Jr., are credited for co-writing as part of the jam session that produced the song, in typical Southern soul tradition. Tina Turner released a cover in 1983 with British producer Martyn Ware at the start of her 1980s comeback, and she makes it somewhat grittier than Green did but keeps the song’s immortal melody pretty much intact. Elise has a voice closer to Turner than Green in its smokiness, but she sings it in Al’s style, albeit with piano instead of strings and horns on the first few bars. Her approach to the material is something like a cross between Ricky Lee Jones and Mariah Carey, and the combination works surprisingly well even when she doesn’t succeed at capturing or redefining the song’s essence or reproducing Al’s sensuality (her joking vow to have the audience “makin’ babies” notwithstanding).
Heejun Han – “Right Here Waiting” (Richard Marx, 1989) - Advanced
“Right Here Waiting” was the biggest hit ever for Richard Marx, the prince of pure pop singer-songwriters at the time it was released on his 1989 album, graced with the deceptively edgy title Repeat Offender. Marx, also the co-writer of Jermaine’s first live song (Luther Vandross’s “Dance with My Father”), created a sparse melody and a minimalist production that go well with the song’s theme of distant longing. Marx’s wife, Cynthia Rhodes, was working on a movie in South Africa at the time the song was written, inspiring the separation anxiety chronicled here. It’s as good as mainstream pop music can get without some serious improvisation, and this sort of material is right up Heejun’s alley. In all fairness, he’s outdone himself this time, rebounding from the poor standard of last week’s Stevie Wonder cover; but Heejun’s cabaret histrionics never really make the admittedly bland song anything more. Even though Marx was no Michael Jackson, he could still carry a tune in a way that conveyed sincerity and warmth, something Heejun cannot quite do when he’s preoccupied with hijinks like his tongue-in-cheek feigned crushing on married Black-Eyed Pea Fergie, which appears to be intended mainly to get will.i.am’s goat.
Colton Dixon – “Broken Heart” (White Lion, 1991) - Advanced
“Broken Heart” was unfamiliar to the judges, and for one of the few times ever outside of a theme week, I could say the same. No wonder: the song is not really all that memorable, though entertaining after its own quirky fashion. Guitarist Vito Bratta and lead singer Mike Tramp wrote it for the 1985 album, Fight to Survive, a breakthrough release for their band White Lion. White Lion straddled the boundary between arena rock and glam metal, pumping out hits like “Wait” and “When the Children Cry” that made effective, if not distinctive, use of the vocals of Tramp, a Dane who kept the pop savvy that got his earlier band into the Eurovision contest before he moved on to greener pastures in the USA. His pleasant, facile voice could carry a rocker from time to time, but it always was best-suited for elegant but disposable ballads that might be at home, with some modifications, in the typical Eurovision roster. This is not to say he was not authentic at rock, and “Broken Heart” is perfectly suited to the rock standards of the 1980s and early 1990s. White Lion re-recorded the song for their 1991 album Mane Attraction, but any chances for single success were dashed by that year’s alternative rock explosion, which rendered any bands identified with “hair metal” or “corporate rock” pariahs in the more minimalist ethos that was now taking over the American rock scene. Colton sings the song somewhat more charismatically than Tramp, almost channeling Foreigner’s Lou Gramm in his straightforward counter-tenor lead. He puts his stamp on a conveniently obscure song, making it, in Jennifer’s succinct words, a true “Colton song” delivered by a handsome “lover” type.
Hollie Cavanagh – “The Power of Love” (Jennifer Rush by way of Céline Dion, 1993) - Advanced
It took eight years for it to happen, but “The Power of Love” finally managed to become a hit in its original singer’s homeland in 1993. Back in the early 1980s, American vocalist Jennifer Rush was trying her fortune in Germany, the land where she’d spent a great deal of her life on account of her parents’ classical recording careers. Rush struggled to have hits at first but finally found a winning formula with a song by Wolfgang Detmann (who went by the handle Candy DeRouge) called “You Are My Lady and I am Your Man.” Detmann, his production partner Gunther Mende, and Mary Susan Applegate (really Mary Klopprogge from Eurodisco group Air Liquide), all helped Rush re-write the song as “The Power of Love.” While it only became a modest hit in Germany on its 1985 release, it soared to the top of the charts in the UK and was a pan-European smash. The song had a pop form but, in Rush’s distinctive hands, sounded more like the mock operas of Meat Loaf, Kate Bush, and Bjørk than a conventional German schläger song. Nevertheless, CBS Records, her global label, considered it overly European in sound for the American market, and consequently refused to promote it enough to make much impact. Each of the three artists who released U.S. hit singles since took it closer and closer to the American mainstream, including Aussie soft-rock duo Air Supply (1986) and American pop star Laura Branigan. It was Céline Dion, however, whose native Canadian charts also rewarded the original with a number one, who would finally make the song a hit south of the border on her 1993 album The Colour of My Love. She gave it an over-the-top ballad performance in standard Dion fashion, even adding an ever-so-slight bit of country twang with the help of her compatriot and producer David Foster, giving the song that extra push it needed to win the hearts of North American audiences once and for all. Hollie’s British accent and Céline-sized voice fit the Québécoise songbird’s version of the song like a glove. The result is another faithful and flawless performance by a singer from whom I expect nothing less.
Joshua Ledet – “When a Man Loves a Woman” (Percy Sledge by way of Michael Bolton, 1992) - Advanced
In many ways, “When a Man Loves a Woman” is soul music in a nutshell. The story is a tale of wasted love as old as time, the melody is light and meant to be delivered with feeling by a powerhouse vocalist, and the original record was at once earthy and artsy, the perfect mixture of show-biz cool and gospel passion. Percy Sledge, the singer-songwriter that gave us this masterpiece, was also generous to a fault and gave away the songwriting credits. While this was often the way in which many of his fellow performers were robbed of their earnings, in this case it was a gift to bassist Calvin Lewis and keyboardist Andrew Wright, who helped make the record what it was and doubtless were paid more modestly for their contributions. Michael Bolton covered the song on his 1991 album Time, Love, and Tenderness, and while he had an undeniably soulful voice, the Walter Afanasieff pop-rock production did not really take the song in a welcome direction, making the cover something of a letdown. Thankfully, Joshua goes back to his Southern soul roots, beautifully conveyed (at least in my gourmet opinion) by the mouthwatering bucket of crawfish everyone got to feast on after the show, by opting for the superior version by Alabama’s own Sledge. This is, as Joshua’s fellow Louisianan Randy would put it, very much “in his wheelhouse.” Joshua gives us a glimpse of a vibrant American musical style that would not necessarily come through on some of the material available to Joshua from his birth year of 1992. Therefore, I am not disappointed in the slightest by his choice of this song over an original vocal workout from that year such as Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” or Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love.” This song was perfect for him, and it was accepted, and that’s all that matters to this satisfied critic right now.
Phillip Phillips – “Hard to Handle” (Otis Redding by way of the Black Crowes, 1990) - Advanced
Although Otis Redding’s many hit ballads earned him a reputation as part of the softer side of Memphis’s iconic Stax R&B label, “Hard to Handle” proved he could handle the uptempo tracks as well as the best of ‘em. “Hard to Handle” is almost pure blues in its exaggerated hokum brag about the protagonist’s sexual prowess, but it was swamped in the posthumous glow of Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” and therefore didn’t really get its due in its original version, released in 1968. However, it instantly became a popular cover choice for rock bands (along with the similarly paced “I Can’t Turn You Loose”). The Grateful Dead and the New Riders of the Purple Sage were among the many to play the song in their sets or on their albums, but it was blues-rock band the Black Crowes who had the biggest hit when they released it as a single from their 1990 album Shake Your Money Maker. The Crowes’s blues-rock approach, equal parts George Thorogood competency and ZZ Top panache, suited the song well, particularly when they added a Buddy Guy riff to kick the song up a notch. Phillip performs the song a week after kidney stone surgery, from which I wish him the speediest of recovery. So it is all the more amazing how incredibly well he performs, though it is no shock after what we have seen up to this point. For the first time, Phil hews genuinely close to the sound of the most famous version, but this time he relies on the single version that overdubbed the Crowes’s rock rendition on the album with a Stax-style horn section. It’s all-American roots music with enough rock energy to make it somewhat modern, and it’s proof that Phillip is every bit the one-of-a-kind performer the judges each recognize him to be.
Skylar Laine – “Love Sneakin’ Up on You” (Bonnie Raitt, 1994) - Advanced
“Love Sneakin’ Up on You” was the most successful of several singles from Bonnie Raitt’s chart-topping 1994 album, Longing in Their Hearts. Like Janis Joplin, Raitt gained fame and record success with her bluesy voice and an eclectic mix of material, mostly covers, which reflected the whole spectrum of America’s unique contributions to world music, from the blues to country to pop-rock and even a smidgen of jazz in the right setting. This particular song was written by two pop writers, the Briton Jimmy Scott and the American Tom Snow, but in the hands of Raitt and Don Was, a producer and former dance-pop star who went on to be a true legend in roots-rock circles, the number sounds like a classic 1950s R&B track all dolled up with the synthesizer grooves of a later era. Skylar continues Joplin and Raitt’s legacy, punching through every line in the steamy, languid number, to such a degree that it almost seems like a shame that it had to stop after two minutes. Indeed, the studio version Skylar did upon finishing rehearsal sounds more authentic, although obviously less spontaneous, than the already great live version, since she doesn’t have to stop for a big finish that cuts away from the song’s central groove. Skylar had a tough critic to please at home, since my mother is a die-hard Bonnie Raitt fan, and she passed that test with flying colors, earning definitive top-five status for sure in my book.