Ryan Seacrest said we had been waiting for it with bated breath. But it wasn't the Top 12 he was referring to -- it was the set. "Say hello to our new set, America." Hello, set. Actually, it's an improvement but still not quite as flash as the set for Simon Cowell's UK equivalent "The X Factor." (I love how that show flashes the contestant's name all over the stage.) But the "mosh pit" where audience members can stand and groove along to the songs is a great addition. On the negative side, why strand the bandleader on his own little alcove far away from the other musicians? Stupid and dangerous when it comes to the subtle communication they need to adjust on the fly to a particular performance.
Ryan also said the Beatles -- I mean, "the Lennon/McCartney Songbook" (sorry, George) -- is exciting because John Lennon and Paul McCartney are responsible for more Number One hits than any other songwriters. No one else is even close in the rock era. The Beatles alone had 20 #1 hits so he may be right but I'm still checking. Ryan asked Simon if these songs were difficult and Simon said, "It depends which one you choose," with his usual blunt finality. Made perfect sense until he said if you chose "She Loves You" it's easy and if you choose "Yesterday," it's hard. Huh? Actually, "She Loves You" seems easy but has all sorts of tricky high parts if you really want to make it work and "Yesterday" is a dead simple melody -- it's not one of the most covered tunes of all time because it's super hard to sing, that's for sure.
Syesha Mercado -- Sang "Got To Get You Into My Life," which wasn't even released as a single till 1976, long after the band disbanded. Earth, Wind & Fire did a terrific cover two years later that also went Top 10 and Syesha took her cue from that, adding in lots of horns. I didn't dig her hair and she had a very rough start. But once she hit the chorus she got stronger and she ended very well. However, by the end of the show, when they did the recap I was a little startled to hear her because I'd totally forgotten her performance. And I've got a crush on her! Always dangerous to be forgettable. But she had a strong ending. Randy was lukewarm, Paula said it was great from halfway through onward and Simon was quite positive and might have given her enough of a boost to get her through. It's never fun to go first.
Chikezie -- Sang "She's A Woman," the B-side to "I Feel Fine" that didn't even appear on a UK album (though it was on the thrown-together Beatles 65 in the US. Don't get me started about the absurd chaos of the US versions of Beatles albums.) I'm a Beatles fanatic but why choose a song that 98% of your audience won't even recognize? Even before he began I pegged his song choice as a complete disaster -- when you've got one of the most well-known song catalogs in history, one bursting with tremendous tunes, don't choose a relative rarity. Then he began singing. The arrangement reflected the early skiffle days of the Beatles, with some banjo thrown in. (Has Chikezie been listening to the terrific new Otis Taylor album, Recapturing The Banjo? That's where I learned the banjo came from Africa.) Then the song began rocking out and Chikezie was looser, funkier and more entertaining than he'd ever been before. Just terrific. The only flaw in a great moment was Ryan dancing around like a dork at the end, encouraging shenanigans and generally infantilizing Chikezie by rubbing his head. Help them look cool, Ryan. If they seem hyper from the adrenaline rush, help them get control. All three judges were wildly enthusiastic, of course. His best performance yet.
Ramiele Malubay -- Sang "In My Life" from the landmark Rubber Soul album. Boldly, Ramiele began the song on the stairs looking UP, kind of a fun change of pace that worked well, until she had to get back down to the ground and wavered a moment on the steps. Too often, I've found her anonymous and a diva ready to throw in tons of trills and runs to no purpose. She still didn't show me a lot of personality. But for once she kept it simple and straightforward. Of course, she got pilloried for that. Randy and Simon were bored and even Paula said she was waiting for some vocal gymnastics. Actually, no, we don't need another Mariah Carey. To top off the injustice, Simon even thought the John Lennon classic was a boring song. Disastrous reviews. When all three judges slam you, you are in serious trouble.
Jason Castro -- Sang "If I Fell" with just an acoustic guitar, a so-so voice and a lot of charm. The tune originally appeared on the A Hard Day's Night soundtrack in the UK and on Something New in the US, serving as the B-side to "And I Love Her." (Told you I was a Beatles fanatic.) Lovely tune and Jason coasted through, but he's very lucky a lot of people were worse than him. Very rough on the high notes and at the end. But when Simon said it sounded like a student sitting in their bedroom at midnight, a lot of fans thought, "Gee, that would be fun to be in a bedroom at midnight listening to Jason sing." Sex appeal counts for a lot folks. Paula said, "I can feel your heart" and Randy was negative but Simon was vaguely positive. That and charm should keep him safe, but those weak vocals will catch up with him in the end. If I'm not mistaken, Simon trashed this song too as dull; I know Simon can't handle Bob Dylan but does he hate the Beatles too?
Carly Smithson -- Sang "Come Together" in a pretty traditional arrangement, despite promising she would change things up. Lennon's last #1 hit with the Beatles, off their best-selling album Abbey Road (12 million copies and counting in the US.) I still don't like her piercing high notes (they sound weak and a tad shrill to me) but this is a very good performance and I haven't been a fan. I think to myself, "Gee, someone should give her a record deal. Oh, wait...." On top of the deserved praise, Simon goes into overdrive for Carly, saying that she reminds him of Kelly Clarkson, who gave a breakout performance the same week in season one. Clearly, one of his goals tonight is to build up the other artists and stop making David Archuleta seem so inevitable or audiences will get bored.
Before introducing David Cook, Ryan is seen leaning over whispering to Simon. Since he was looking up at a monitor, I assume it was a planned bit of silliness. But no matter how many times I played it back, I couldn't quite hear all of the first sentence. Ryan is whispering, "The crew thinks you're..." and Simon rears back and says loudly, "No, I would NOT!" and then Ryan says, "No, but I think they think you're becoming obnoxious."
David Cook -- Sang "Eleanor Rigby," off Revolver, which combined with Rubber Soul to send the Beatles into the stratosphere creatively, setting them a galaxy apart from every other act. Cook pulled the same stunt as last week, giving an emo makeover to another mellow ballad. It worked well again and he ended very strongly on a rocker's yelp. But he can't pull the same trick again next week. And he still has that unintentional habit of looking very pleased with himself, that Daughtry attitude where he seems to be thinking, "I am such a badass for rockin' out on Idol." Actually, you can't appear on Idol and pretend you're a rebel. It's not possible. The judges loved it, rightly. Simon insisted he was "brilliant" and said that if this were a talent contest instead of a singing contest (take that, you popular little punk, David Archuleta), then Cook could win it all! One more stab at not making the show seem a foregone conclusion. Both Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin sang the heck out of this tune, though I'd give a slight edge to Brother Ray if I had to choose.
Brooke White -- Took off her shoes, sat down at the piano and sang "Let It Be." Nailed it. Do Carly Simon and Carole King realize their love child is coming on strong on Idol? The song is the title track from their raw second to last album which broke down in recriminations. They then got together to record their final album Abbey Road. Producer Phil Spector stepped in and dug through the tapes to come up with an album that was technically released last. And the documentary film showing their backbiting has unfortunately been held up for years; I've never even seen it. The judges fall over themselves in praise, even though Randy confuses poor Ramielle by praising Brooke for basically singing the song straight, just like she did. The difference? Brooke did a good job. Tearing up at the end of the song didn't hurt in the endearment department either. By the way, Ryan said this was the last single from the Beatles, but I believe it was actually "The Long and Winding Road." (That ignores tunes released years later like "Got To Get You Into My Life" and the patchwork job "Free As A Bird" and "Real Love" in '95 and '96.) Joan Baez was the first to have a hit covering this song, though I favor the great Bill Withers.
David Hernandez -- Sang "I Saw Her Standing There" and looked cute with an untucked shirt and tie but it was basically a train wreck. He ran out of breath while running in and out of the audience and was weak on the low notes and the chorus. The tune was the B-side to the Beatles' breakthrough US hit "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and was a big hit for Tiffany, who changed the genders. If he's gonna go down for this, I kind of hope he sings the Tiffany version when he says goodbye. But he shouldn't have to go; Hernandez has a great voice and I still thought he was sort of entertaining. The judges trashed him -- even Paula.
Amanda Overmyer -- Sang "You Can't Do That" from A Hard Day's Night in the UK and The Beatles' Second Album in the US. Another relatively obscure choice that I immediately peg as bad. She should be doing "Helter Skelter" or "Back In the USSR" or something tough but well-known. So of course she delivers her best performance so far. I couldn't understand half the lyrics, but that's standard operating procedure for Amanda. But it's a competent performance and the judges loved her so she'll be fine. Most interesting of all: Amanda didn't change the gender of the song, so she was singing, "If I catch you talking to that boy again" and "Well, it's the second time I've caught you talking to him." Did Amanda just not bother changing the gender, was it too awkward to sing "her," which wouldn't rhyme with "sin" in the next line? Or did Amanda just come out? (I don't think so.)
Michael Johns -- Sang "Across The Universe" nicely and simply. Despite one rock star moment of lifting up his hands into the air, very controlled and emotional. His best since singing "Bohemian Rhapsody" during Hollywood. And I havent' been a fan. The judges however were mostly bored. Randy and Simon poo-poo it, while Paula felt his heart. My favorite cover of this song was Sean Lennon, Rufus Wainwright and Moby singing it at a Lennon tribute show in October of 2001, one of the first events to be held in the wake of 9-11. Just beautiful.
Kristy Lee Cook -- Sang "Eight Days A Week," y'all! She also do a sort of line-dance, riding-a-bull sort of move while singing it. The second train wreck of the night, the song comes from Beatles For Sale in the UK and Beatles VI in the US. Weak, anonymous vocals throughout and a very weak final note and the judges body-slammed her.
David Archuleta -- Sang "We Can Work It Out" and gave another brilliant performance. Huh? You say it was a disaster? Sure he forgot the words and stumbled around. Heck, even before he sang -- when the camera spotted him on that garganutan stage when going to commercial -- I thought, "Gee, he looks young. And small." But the David Archuleta train was going to fast. You've got to stumble so you can recover and not be so boring that people just don't bother voting. So David picked a perfect week to be just awful. If you wait too long and give your bad performance when there are only four or five people left, you might just get sent home. But doing it tonight, enough other acts were bad (but none worse) to guarantee that David will be given a free pass from his huge fan base and get to work his way back up to indomitable favorite. Smart thinking, David! How bad was he? The audience barely booed when Simon said David was awful. He also dredged up some mannerisms from his Star Search days, including a diva-like bobbing of the head and those gospel singer hand gestures. But how smart is he? David was forgetting the lyrics left and right and nearing meltdown. So when the chorus began and the background singers started singing, he let them go first and then came in behind so he could use them as a safety net to make sure he was singing the right words Smart, smart, smart. A #1 hit for the Beatles, "We Can Work It Out" was a single (backed by "Day Tripper") and only appeared on greatest hits compilations. Stevie Wonder had a top 20 hit with it in 1973 but you can be certain it WON'T be on David Archuleta's debut CD. He'll wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat trying to remember the lyrics for weeks to come. But don't worry, David; your stumble came at just the right time. Now your fans can start rooting for you again without feeling like they're cheering for the Yankees during the Fifties.
So putting aside David Archuleta, the two worst performances of the night were David Hernandez and Kristy Lee Cook. The two most boring performances of the night were Ramiele Malubay and Syesha Mercado. Usually, boring is worse than bad because at least people remember the bad and feel maybe a little sympathy. Simon really dropped the hammer on Ramiele and Kristy. I'm probably crazy not to include David Hernandez, but I'm going to say the bottom two is Ramiele and Kristy and in a nail-biter I say Kristy Lee Cook is going home.