Sunday, February 19, 2012

This One Goes to 11

My favorite reality show has returned and it's loaded with talent. And there's even a contender for personal favorite this year like Haley Reinhart was for me last year, only this time it's a young dude with a very unusual energy and a killer rasp in his voice named (I kid you not) Phil Phillips.

This past week the contestants sang 50's and 60's tunes in groups in Las Vegas and these were the four that stood out to me, with annotations on my emerging faves. By standing out, I mean that I've listened to these versions numerous times since Thursday night, like released music. Roughly in order of overall quality (IMHO), they are:

Sealed with a Kiss, with harmonies right out of The Mamas and the Papas, sounds like a professional recording act already:

Jen Hirsh is the one to watch for top four honors as the season progresses. She clearly has range and when she goes big, it's still in control, while hinting at awesomeness to come. Creighton Fraker is unusual and powerful in his own right.

I Only Have Eyes for You feels like a 1950's act come back to life. The early part of the song, their movements and the sway, it feels like water lapping the shore:

Neco Starr is perfect as Little Anthony and the unfortunately (and, I think, erroneously) cut Jairon Jackson is flawless and mellow in tone as well. But it's the other two guys that are breaking out bigtime.

Yep, Heejun Han could be the first Asian-American Idol, so strong is his tone and the crazy surprise of the polished voice that comes out of him, when he's very drily humorous in accented English offstage. And then there's Phil Phillips, who doesn't get very much solo time on this number but it's timed for maximum impact, as if a little of his personality-rich voice goes a very long way. He's the first one this season who's music I could see actually Haley last year.

I Really Doesn't Matter Anymore: Has anyone ever done a Buddy Holly song as a slow-but-hard-driving blues grinder before?

Crazy, unusual harmonies. Again, an African-American cut (in the end-of-episode paring down, not this clip) that feels unfair and unwise, as Candice Coleman does a great job. Deandre Brackensick has the sick high-end vocals that impress as well.

But it's Jessica Sanchez who just made a name for herself this week. Did anyone expect a Jennifer Hudson-sized voice to come out of this girl? With such soul. At age 16. A star may have just been born.

The Night Has a Thousand Eyes: This was an early performance for this batch and the only one I saw that received a standing ovation from the judges. Whether that was due to the early spot or the high-quality revision of this '50's classic into a jazzy 1970's SoCal groove, you be the judge.

Eban Franckewitz is Idol's shot at a Justin Bieber but he doesn't seem to have the full control yet and could use a year or two. Chances are he'll be in the top 12 anyway. Haley Johnson is strong as well but, to my mind, the other two are the standouts.

Reed Grimm is this year's Casey Abrams, extremely musical, improving any group he's in, a good part showman, quite an instrument. He's got a signature bent-leg dance posture and even did one his Hollywood Week solo performance behind a drum kit. Could be the guy to watch for a top four spot.

Then there's Elise Testone. I'm not sure if her breaks on the top notes are planned or not, but she's got a crazy amount of soul and guts, and I love her style of singing. Some funk to come, perhaps? Some hard blues? A Janis number should she make the Top 12?

There you go: Jen, Creighton, Phil, Heejun, Jessica, Reed and Elise are my faves, as in I'm very interested to see what they do next. Others may emerge -- I want to hear more from Hallie Day, in particular. In early seasons sometimes it was a question of whether the top contestants could even stay on pitch, so that picking the final few was easy. Since last season it's felt like pitch talent isn't a problem, so what's going to make the difference is something distinctive in the voice, the musical choices and the personality that comes through.

It's way too early but let me make my prediction:

Phil Phillips FTW.

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