American Idol Recap: Sudden Death Round, Week One (The Boys)



Last night, American Idol sprung some more talent on us in the form of ten boys from Season 12’s Top 40. The men were nowhere near as stellar as Wednesday’s girl group, but the top five who sailed on through to the next round were all deserving. In an unprecedented, unexpected moment, Thursday’s show introduced us to Bizarro Randy Jackson. I mean, that couldn’t be the real Randy Jackson who was so precise in his criticism, vocally knowledgeable like I’ve never seen, and made all of his three cohorts’ words seem of minimal importance compared to his own. Whoever this Randy Jackson imposter is, please stay because I love what you brought to the judging panel last night. Will the real Randy Jackson please sit down, please sit down forever? All joking aside, it’s time I get right down to the important task of ranking this week’s group of guys.

10. Johnny Keyser, “I Won’t Give Up” — It’s one thing to appreciate music and show off that repertoire of knowledge, but it’s a whole other story when you’ve got nothing to offer individually except a barely-capable voice. What I was missing from Johnny’s performance was an identity stance. I want to know what type of artists these contestants want to be, and when Johnny takes on an unfamiliar track by Jason Mraz that sounds weirdly old-fashioned, it makes us scratch our heads and wonder what on earth his strategy was. Las Vegas and Johnny Keyser are as ill a pairing as Ellen DeGeneres and a judging panel (Keyser is now a two-time victim of Idol’s Las Vegas round). For whatever reason, the two never mesh well, and Johnny didn’t help matters with his off-tune, skittish lower register and strained glory notes. Keyser might be a decent singer, but his level of talent is way beneath what the competition requires. Sorry Keyser fans — like Randy, I was pulling for him too but sometimes you have to face the honest-to-god truth right in front of you. Keyser’s voice and awkward performance style just doesn’t work for this show…period.

Performance Review: (*½)

9. Jimmy Smith, “Raining on Sunday” — There’s nothing worse than being so unmoved and bored by a performance, that you subconsciously flip your brain’s off/on switch just to fast-forward to the next contender. Jimmy Smith’s cover of Keith Urban’s “Raining on Sunday” (which is also a cover of the original Radney Foster track) caused me to find another distraction as soon as it started. I could hear Smith hitting all of his notes just fine, but I honestly couldn’t care less because of the utter lack of importance. The song selection wasn’t relevant, and actually pushed Smith back into the realm of anonymity/invisibility if I’m being blunt. This was the first of two ill-chosen Keith Urban tracks. Note to all future Idol hopefuls: do NOT pick a Keith Urban song. You’re actually better off picking a Nicole Kidman song from Moulin Rouge!

Performance Review: (**)

8. Kevin Harris, “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” — I’ll admit, I was almost fooled into enjoying this sickly syrupy rendition of Bryan Adam’s classic hit. Every time Kevin “Butter” Harris went for a note, he’d always stop just shy of taking it the extra mile. It was done so often that it soon began to really take a toll on my patience. It’s better to commit to something and fail at it than just going to the edge of the pool and not jumping in. Harris aged himself fifty years with the track, which is very odd considering Season 8’s Anoop Desai infused so much modern R&B soul when he sang it. Harris tried to impress with tonal variety, but by doing so he obliterated any emotional connection we might have had with the song. Ultimately, I was distracted by Harris’ vocal jumpiness, which in the end turned out to be no more than mild karaoke when seen in an objective light (thank you, Randy).

Performance Review: (**)

7. JDA, “Rumour Has It” — JDA’s vocals weren’t atrocious nor even karaoke, but he took on an Adele song and so naturally the quality of singing is expected to be front and center. JDA’s stage antics were predictable yet lively, but for someone who wanted to create such a big impression, I didn’t really end up remembering his performance after a half hour went by. I guess those remarks fall in line with Keith’s problem about being able to predict JDA’s “originality.” I didn’t witness anything I wasn’t expecting, and the most pleasant surprise would have been to see JDA stop midway and simply belt out the song. I kind of hate when Randy keeps belaboring the fact that Idol is a “singing competition,” because it really isn’t (see last season’s winner for proof of this). However, at the end of the day, night, two hours, whatever, I just want to see if a star can be born from this show without the added glitz and glamor. JDA had all the tools at his disposal and wielded them with impressive force, but not the one that counted most: inherent talent.

Performance Review: (**½)

6. Chris Watson, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay — Pitch issues and nasal delivery aside, I was thoroughly entertained by Chris Watson’s cooler-than-cool strut across the stage, his confidence scrubbing all the stains off that big ol’ floor as he roamed about. I don’t really care for the song, but his modern twist of Otis Redding’s smash-hit had me more than a little intrigued. However, Chris’ velvety-rich tone was wildly misused, and thus came off as a worse singer than he really is. The guy’s charisma makes him endearing to watch, although based on how competitive the season is about to get, his voice would be swallowed whole if allowed to make more noise. Watson’s rendition of Redding’s timeless tune was a memorable one, but not for the reasons he and the judges were hoping for. Side note: Is it just me, or does Chris Watson look like the spitting image of a grown-up Jaden Smith?

Performance Review: (**½)

5. Paul Jolley, “Tonight I Wanna Cry” — Paul Jolley is one of my favorite contestants this season, but I knew that if he picked the wrong song for his first major outing, he’d be in serious trouble. It turns out my nightmares became actualized as Jolley selected a lifeless Keith Urban ballad that was way too intimate for the Idol stage. Jolley has a strong lower register, but I couldn’t appreciate it since he was whispering during many of the verses. The inconsistent arrangement did him no favors, and I was dissecting every measure of the performance instead of relaxing into it. Jolley’s theatricality shined through a bit too much, but I think it’s a quality of his that he could use advantageously if managed right. A country boy with a great range and a flair for the dramatics? No one’s heard of an artist like that before, thus skyrocketing Jolley’s appeal and commercial value. Thank god Randy and Mariah stuck their necks out for him, otherwise we might’ve lost a superbly gifted vocalist.

Performance Review: (**½)

4. Elijah Liu, “Talking to the Moon” —  Like many of the performances last night, my enjoyment came from the potential showcased and not the actual execution. Elijah looks like he’s ready to start busting out platinum-selling singles, but all he’s missing is some vocal coaching that could spruce up his technique. Choosing “Talking to the Moon” was a wise choice of song because of the obvious Bruno Mars parallels, but unfortunately Elijah has no falsetto to speak of. Every time he hit the chorus, specifically the “moon” lyric, it was like the moon didn’t even exist, possibly destroyed by the Death Star. And yet, it’s hard to deny that Elijah is a record producer’s dream, his high and clear voice so accessible to screaming teenage girls. He’s literally a mixture of Justin Bieber and Bruno Mars — honestly, what producer/judge/mentor would ever get rid of such a walking $ sign?

Performance Review: (**½)

3. Devin Velez, “Listen” — Cue Devin Velez, the first of the entire evening to finally deliver a “good” (not great) performance. Everything that came before — and often after — was either disappointing or beneath what we know some of these guys are capable of. Velez’s “Listen” wasn’t mind-blowing, but his transition from English to Spanish was a well played move that will serve him well for at least a little while. Devin doesn’t have the charisma or aggressiveness to be an Idol champion, but he did his homework on “Listen,” and that’s a victory compared to the other men who couldn’t even exert the smallest amount of effort. I felt the chorus needed a lot more punch to it, but Devin’s range isn’t strong enough to bring it to the levels of Beyonce, Melanie Amaro (X-Factor), or even Trevin Hunte (The Voice). Still, a solid cover is a solid cover, and more power to Devin for taking a huge risk and not totally blowing it.

Performance Review: (***)

2. Curtis Finch, Jr., “Superstar” — There’s no question Curtis Finch, Jr. delivered the best vocal of the night. Striking each note with lightning accuracy seemed the smallest of tasks for Curtis. I particularly enjoyed Curtis’ eccentric phrasing, especially when he extended the word “me.” Such original tampering demonstrated Curtis’ artistry, not to mention driving home the point that he’s a larger-than-life personality whose voice has as much character and charm, if not more. Yes, I understand where Randy was coming from with his cautionary advice. Appearing too old is especially problematic when your singing voice sounds like it’s emerging from a fifty year-old man, and the last thing the judges want is for one of their favorites to get booted because his old-fashioned style directly opposes tween pop obsession. Curtis Finch, Jr.’s gospel voice is strong enough to get him into the finals, but he never looked like a winner in the first place, so I’m not so sure a complete style/identity overhaul would make a difference to Curtis’ Idol fate.

Performance Review: (***½)

1. Charlie Askew, “Rocket Man” — For the second night in a row, I’m top-billing the contestant whose performance connected with me the most. Elton John’s one of the greatest singers ever, but when you have the guts to tackle one of his songs, you really can’t try to mimic his vocal intonations. John’s music is about the story told within his beautifully written lyrics, and Charlie — whether he hit all his notes or not — was able to tap into every nuanced emotion present in the song. His entire performance was akin to watching a mini-opera. It was astounding, weird yet undeniably moving. Charlie’s mantra is “glorifying weirdness,” and I hope he continues to glorify the Idol stage with his continually improving voice. His vibrato is otherworldly when he projects, and he did nail a difficult note jump at a key moment in the track — certainly not an easy thing to do. In a night filled with mediocrity, forgettable performances and singers who refuse to jump out of their comfort zone, it was refreshing to see a genuine artist jump across the cliff and land safely on the other side. There’s an alluring, dreamlike quality to each Charlie Askew performance that keeps me coming back for more, each time just a bit hungrier and lot more appreciative of his artistry. Sorry Paul McDonald, but that is how you sing Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”

Performance Review: (***½)

The judges thankfully agreed with my picks of who to move forward, and followed suit to a tee. The one person they were split on was Paul Jolley, who I thought wasn’t going to have a chance in heck but was saved by Mariah and Randy’s heavy campaigning. Jimmy Iovine noticed in Paul what I’ve been saying this entire time: a huge voice with a great deal of potential, who just needs the right song to show off that soaring voice of his. Thank goodness Iovine gave the underrated Paul Jolley a chance to fight for America’s votes. Now let’s do a final wrap-up…

Top 5 Guys the Judges Put Through

1. Curtis Finch, Jr. (The most obvious choice of the night…like duh!)
2. Elijah Liu (Tell me about the money, money, money…)
3. Paul Jolley (Holy crap, the suspense was killing me!)
4. Charlie Askew (Season 12’s most pleasant personality)
5. Devin Velez (¡Si, yo te gusta!)


1. Johnny Keyser (Unlucky in Vegas…again!)
2. Chris Watson (Get some nasal spray)
3. Jimmy Smith (zzz)
4. Kevin Harris (The age limit is 28, not 50)
5. JDA (Now who’s going to sing “Whip My Hair”?)

That’s all for the boys this week. I’ll be back next Wednesday and Thursday to do this all over again, so stay tuned! Please post your thoughts and indignation (if you have any) in the comments section below!

  • Delisha

    I thought that Charlie did a fantastic job on “Rocket Man” because he has the vocal range to hit it hard. Any man that does old school rock on American Idol is alright in my book. He’s one of my favorites on the show so far and as of this week it’s a list of five. I watched a episode preview of the first night of sudden death in my office and I was a little worried that he wouldn’t be able to hold his own. Thank goodness he proved me wrong and rocked it! I’m not able to watch the new episodes when they air because I ‘m still at work but I usually catch up on my train ride home.