Wednesday, May 26, 2010

American Idol Picks Wrong Winner Again as DeWyze Edges out Bowersox

As the New York Yankees great catcher Yogi Berra used to say:  "It's deja vu all over again."   Tonight, America's viewing public went hook, line and sinker for mainstream appeal over true artistry and voted Lee DeWyze as this year's American Idol winner, leaving a much more talented artist, Crystal Bowersox, as runnerup in this year's finale, which also was Idol judge Simon Cowell's swan song.

The end result was similar to last year when vocal dynamo Adam Lambert lost to an affable but marginally talented Kris Allen, who tonight faithfully delivered his bland single "The Truth," despite host Ryan Seacrest's gaffe of talking over the song's intro.

The entire two-hour show was a virtual train wreck of a bad variety show, with this year's contestants coming together on a number of hokey hit-song medleys with - and of - artists from the '70s and '80s.  Everyone tried to hit their notes and conjure up some energy and honesty on the pre-arranged, corny sing-alongs.   But for the most part, with the exception of Aaron Kelly's and Siobhan Magnus' teaming on the Bee Gee classic "How Deep Is Your Love?", everything felt contrived and simply fell flat.

Highlights were great performances from Bowersox on Alanis Morissette's "Ironic," and "You Oughta Know," the latter, on which Alanis joined Bowersox.  Which reminds us?  When is Alanis going to team up again with songwriter/producer Glen Ballard and put out another album chock-full of alt-rock hit singles?  The music industry and buying public are crying for real artistry and material of Alanis' ilk.  Hopefully, she has another great album in her head - if not in the works.

Vocal wunderkind Christina Aguilera, America's Sweetheart Carrie Underwood and the ever-sexy Janet Jackson all delivered exceptionally strong performances tonight, while artists such as Barry & Robin Gibb (from the Bee Gees), Hall & Oates, Chicago and Joe Cocker, singing their past hits with Idol contestants, sadly reminded us of how great their material still is, but how time and nature have seriously decimated their performance and vocal skills.

Aguilera delivered a flawless solo performance on her ballad "You Lost Me," and while her amazing vocals were undoubtedly the best of the evening, that song simply is not a hit single.  It has a beautiful melodic verse, but an ambiguous structure and a totally forgettable chorus.  That song once again underscores how frequently, great and even highly successful singers are not so great at selecting or writing their own material.

Other solid performances of the evening included Casey James and Poison's Bret Michael's teaming up on that band's hit single, "Every Rose Has Its Thorn," and Michael McDonald joining Big Mike Lynche on a soulful rendition of the Doobie Brothers' "Taking It To The Streets."

Underwood sounded great and looked wonderful on her sassy latest single, "Undo It," co-written by Idol judge Kara Dio Guardi, causing me to make a mental note:  this is the first quality song attributed to Dio Guardi's writing or co-writing that we've heard on AI in ages.  Maybe ever.

In another misstep of the evening, AI's producers turned Alice Cooper's timeless anti-establishment rock anthem "School's Out" into one more dumbed-down, pablum sing-along.  And when old Alice him/herself wandered out on stage in full rock attire - heavy makeup and leather pants - it once again painfully illustrated how Idol's middle-of-the-road producers consistently butcher rock 'n roll music, every time they try to get near or interpret it.

We wish Simon Cowell well in his new endeavors.  He truly was the only Idol judge with anything close to solid judgment in rating performances, but more importantly, in matching songs and genres appropriately with Idol's contestants - over the years.

And to winner Lee DeWyze, we congratulate him and offer this advice.  1)  Get to a vocal coach, fast and work, work, work on your pitch and breathing.  2)  Please, please convince your producers NOT to release the U2 classic "Beautiful Day" as your first single.   One, the song was written/sung by and for a tenor - and you're a baritone.  Two, Bono has pretty much done all that can be done with this song. You can't improve on perfection.  And, three, find a song that is more in your vocal range and style; your first single should be memorable, not a bad karaoke rendering.

And that's our view from The A&R Room.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

American Idol Judges Handicap Bowersox, Kill James with Bad Song Choices

Tonight we got to see which American Idol judges deserve to keep their jobs.  Unfortunately, the only one who does, is the one who will be leaving at the end of this season. 

Simon Cowell did Lee DeWyze a great favor by picking Leonard Cohen's classic "Hallelujah" for Lee to sing.  Meanwhile, Ellen DeGeneres had good intentions in selecting "Baby, I'm Amazed" for Crystal Bowersox, but the end result wasn't all that good. 

And shame on Randy Jackson and Kara Dio Guardi for sticking Casey James with a lousy, mediocre song like John Mayer's "Daughters," which may have a nice lyrical sentiment, but all the dramatic build of a shotgunned quail.  For an intents and purposes, "Daughters" essentially killed James' chances of making it to the final round.

Bowersox is a much better singer and performer than DeWyze. However, Lee benefited tonight by singing two songs that were much easier to sing than Crystal's version of Paul McCartney's octave-jumping "Baby, I'm Amazed." Lee sounded great on the verse of "Simple Man," but as usual, got way off pitch in the chorus. He delivered probably his best vocal of the season on the Cohen classic "Hallelujah," but butchered the last few musical notes of the song. The tempo on "Come to My Window," was way too fast and Crystal had trouble keeping up with it, but still turned in a decent performance.

But singing McCartney, come on! Ellen DeGeneres actually did her a disfavor.  As good as Crystal is, that song is out of her comfort zone - and her vocal range. It's a vocal zone few Idol contestants ever could reach - in fact the only one that comes to mind is Adam Lambert.  Here's the bitter truth. Bowersox is a true performer in the old singer-songwriter tradition of the 1960s and '70s. She has great pitch, feel and intonation, but not always the best sense in choosing her material.

Lee has this great alt-rock sound in his baritone range, but is pitchy as hell when he tries to get into his head voice and above. EVERYONE seems to ignore that fact. If Lee wins Idol this year and gets to a decent vocal coach, he will become a platinum recording star. At least he's not some mediocre talent like Taylor Hicks. But he simply doesn't have the artistic chops or tonality that Crystal has.

Considering how many young girls vote and re-vote and re-vote on Idol, Lee has the inside track to win - although if this were truly a TALENT COMPETITION and not a popularity contest, Crystal would win hands down. As for Casey, bad song choices, mediocre performances tonight. And Kara and Randy did him no favors at all by picking the wimpy John Mayer tune which basically has a throw-away chorus.

Tonight, Kara and Randy pretty much wrote Casey's obituary for this year's competition, although both are too stupid to know it - and probably too vain to admit it. All in all, it looks like Lee will be going to the finals with Crystal. And she'd better be loaded for bear and make much smarter material choices, or the tween vote will put Lee over the top in the final round.   Again, stupid judges making stupid songs choices.  And, the people taking the blame for those bad choices and suffering the consequences, unfortunately, were the singers.

And that's our view from The A&R Room.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Big Mike Lynche Exits Idol with 'Will You Be There?'

And then there were three.  American Idol fans for once got it right and voted Casey James, Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox into the final three, while sending home soul singer Big Mike Lynche, who sang an uninspired version of Michael Jackson's "Will You Be There?" from the movie "Free Willy," during Tuesday night's movie theme song competition.

The night opened with season No. 3 winner Fantasia singing her new single "Bittersweet" from her first album in three years, followed later in the show with strong performances by Chris Daughtry on his new single "September," while perennial rockers Bon Jovi introduced their latest single "Superman Tonight."

Daughtry sounded vocally great on his emotional mid-tempo ballad, which has a guitar intro reminescent of the Christopher Cross' hit from the 1980s,  "Sailin'."  Bon Jovi blended several musical styles with their single, opening it with an alt-rock guitar riff, but delivering a more-or-less pop-rock verse and chorus melody on a tune that lyrically touches the fabric of country music or a novelty song.

The Fantasia single, despite a good lyrical concept, felt cliched, hackneyed and tired, as so many of her past songs have been.  Her career has been seriously hampered by poor and mediocre material and "Bittersweet" doesn't give us a lot of hope that her new album will be any better.  It would be a pleasant surprise to be proven wrong.  It also would be great to hear Fantasia sing a great song, with an exceptional melody and lyric that she didn't feel compelled to oversing.

In evaluating the three guest performers' new singles, Daughtry had the best vocal and most emotional melody, even though the song lyrically is sentimental but not particularly unique or memorable.  The Bon Jovi single come easily come across as corny if Jon and Ritchie didn't sing it with such darn sincere conviction.

The Daughtry and Bon Jovi singles both underscore artists who understand who they are, where they are in their respective careers - and what their audiences expect from them - however predictable or formulaic, while the Fantasia single emphasizes an artist still searching for her identify - and a hit signature song.

And that's our view from The A&R Room. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

American Idol Misses 'Big Picture' as Contestants Turn in More Weak Performances

It may have been Movie Theme night on American Idol, but both the show's producers and its remaining four contestants clearly missed the "big picture" as the "Final Four" delivered some mediocre and ho-hum performances trying to interpret songs from classic and famous movies.  One more example of how Idol's contrived "theme nights" don't work well for either the contestants or the show's massive audience.

The highlight of the night was Crystal Bowersox who burned up the stage on Kenny Loggins' "I'm All Right," from "Caddyshack."    Second-best showing of the night was Casey James' understated but charming delivery of "Mrs. Robinson" from "The Graduate," followed by an in-tune but uninspired "Will You Be There," from "Free Willy"  by Big Mike Lynche - followed in quality or lack thereof, by a very pitchy "Kiss From a Rose," from "Batman Forever" by Lee DeWyze.

DeWyze picked the most memorable but most difficult melody of the evening to sing - and didn't do much more than a mediocre job of navigating the difficult melodic twists, turns, jumps and dives of Seal's intricate classic.  He and Bowersox accounted for themselves somewhat better on the melodic "Falling Slowly" from "Once,"  but at times their attempts at tight harmony just didn't come together.

Big Mike and James joined guitars and vocal forces on Bryan Adams' "Have You Ever Really  Loved a Woman," from the movie "Don Juan DeMarco," but the pair looked and sounded uncomfortable in their forced duet.

Based on tonight's showing, we predict that Bowersox will be safe - since both her solo and duet performances were the strongest of the evening.  We think Big Mike and DeWyze should be in the Bottom Two, but based on the fans' constant lack of taste and discernment, probably will send James and Lynche to the Bottom Two.

And that's our view from The A&R Room.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Aaron Kelly Says Goodbye to American Idol: Now His Real Career Begins

Aaron Kelly, at 17, the youngest of American Idol's "Final Five," got sent home tonight by fans' votes. But there was not only great tonality and feel in his farewell rendition of Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon," there was power, grit and a sense of determination in his voice that suggest we haven't heard the last of this talented young man.

Here in The A& R Room, we feel that by finishing in Idol's 2010 Top Five, enough intellingent industry folks and fans have heard and recognized Kelly's talent to nurture and support it.   It will only be a matter of time before a smart record executive launches Aaron's "real career" in a genre that is relevant to today's music scene.  And, that won't be singing insipid show tunes or moldy oldies.  It will be a solid career singing songs of today - in either the pop-country or pop-R&B-soul genre.

Advancing to the "Final Four," were Lee DeWyze, Crystal Bowersox, Casey James and Big Mike Lynche, with DeWyze being the first to be declared "safe" by host Ryan Seacrest.  DeWyze definitely had the strongest performance on Tuesday night with "That's Life," followed by Kelly, Lynche, Bowersox and James - in terms of singing in key and interpreting what may be called "classic," but are mostly boring songs from a bygone era.

Mentor Harry Connick, Jr., while paying props to Ole Blue Eyes in his arrangements and piano accompliment Tuesday night for the contestants, pulled a major left, but smart turn by not performing any Sinatra songs at all in his solo featured performance.  Instead, Connick delivered a spot-on Sinatra vocal imitation on the beautiful Lennon & McCartney classic "And I Love Her."  And, while Connick emulated Sinatra's vocal approach to the Tee, he delivered his vocals out of the corner of his mouth in the inimitable style of another great saloon singer, Mel Torme.  By adapting the Beatles' classic to a jazz and Big Band arrangement, Connick showed how timeless the Lennon & McCartney song is.  But by choosing not to perform a Sinatra classic himself, Connick may have inadvertently underscored how antiquated and irrelevant most of Sinatra's classics are to today's music scene - and to Idol's young performers.

In a painful display of simply lousy music and grotesque theater, Lady Gaga unviewed her new single "Alejandro," mumbling a melody reminiscent of a Madonna 1980s album cut, while half-naked male dancers cavorted around in high-waisted boy girdles.  Her proclivity for high camp tonight bordered on self-parody.  Gaga's fishnet costume and theatrics and her transgender-looking dancers conjured up the image of comedian Will Farrell in drag, slithering around in a Gaga impression - turning suggestive S&M into a laughable SNL skit.

While Gaga is undeniably a commercial suggest, her immemorable dance music and contrived attempts at being outrageous - are only stark reminders of how gullible and susceptible a non-discerning public has become to pretentious performance art, "in" trends and bad music.  Today's buying public is all too willing to accept bad writing and grotesque performance as "high art."  While Gaga has a decent voice and some menial keyboard skills, she is so focused on being "outside," that any talent she actually may possess is being highly eclipsed by her bad theater, poor songwriting and repetitive, overblown productions.

And Gaga hit record or not, Idol's producers ought to be horse-whipped - or at least heavily fined by the FCC for bad taste, for dragging Gaga's horrid music and insincere, artless performance into American Primetime TV.

And by having young singers stumble and falter with Sinatra's songs - a genre that has nothing to do with any of the young performers' talents, genres or career aspirations, one has to ask the questions:   Is anyone at American Idol even slightly in touch with the American audience or really care about giving contestants songs to sing that will enhance their careers?  Or has Idol completely become a TV ratings and advertising cash cow that cares nothing about finding and nurturing real and talented singing artists?

While AI fans have had a bad and deserved reputation for picking "safe" and conservative performers over more alternative ones in the past, such as Adam Lambert or Chris Daughtry, by spotlighting Gaga tonight, the show went 180 degrees in a misguided and tasteless direction.  And tonight, Idol sank to a new low in entertainment values and musical relevance.

And that's our view from The A&R Room.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

American Idol is 'AI: 'Absolutely Irrelevant' Making 'Brat Pack' Sing Sinatra

American Idol or "AI" again tonight showed it is fast-becoming even more "Absolutely Irrelevant" to today's music scene - by forcing its final five contestants to sing Frank Sinatra standards that the young singers could neither relate to or sing.

Lee DeWyze fared the best of the five, turning in a vocally growlly and stylistically somewhat relevant version of the Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon classic "That's Life."  Meanwhile, young Aaron Kelly opened the show with a solid "Fly Me to the Moon," but was criticized by judges Kara Dio Guardi and Simon Cowell for not having the Sinatra "swagger" in his vocal tone and stage presence.  Right!  Expect a 17-year-old kid to emulate the voice, attitude and presence of one of the world's most-legendary, chain-smoking and scotch-swilling saloon singers.

 Big Mike Lynche had the third-best performance of the evening with the Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields standard "The Way You Look Tonight," but once again over-used his vibrato - which was totally in keeping with the misguided evening:  Lynche's performance and tonight's songs were both about 50 years out of style.

Come on, now.  Many of Sinatra's songs were written in the 1920s, '30s, '40s and '50s.  So, how in the hell can Idol's producers and judges expect kids younger than 30 years of age to relate to them.  Idol, get real!  Most people under the age of 60 can't relate to "Big Band" music.  So why, in the late rounds of what is supposed to be a singing competition of CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS AND MUSIC,  is Idol making its young contestants sing songs that are older than most of their parents?

For the second week, Crystal Bowersox made a terrible song selection with "Summer Wind," and as judge Ellen DeGeneres correctly called it:  "swallowed the words on half of the first verse."  Which illustrates another issue that no one is addressing.  Sinatra really wasn't so much a great singer as a great stylist - almost a "reader" of lyrics.  He had a limited vocal range of about an octave and a third.  And his pitch wasn't really all that accurate.  But with great vocal diction, his trademark lit cigarette in one hand and a microphone in the other, he was the epitome of '40s and '50s cool.   But like having Idol's contestants sing Elvis songs, having them try to interpret Sinatra is just as problematic. And pointless.   Sound too much like Frank or Elvis and you're a second-class impersonator.  Sound nothing like them and you're "not interpreting or representing" those legendary performers or their songs well, according to the judges.

It's about time someone had the guts to tell the show's producers and judges:  "Stop criticizing kids for looking and sounding awkward singing songs that, quite frankly, have nothing to do with today's music.  And, butchering songs that were forced upon them and should have nothing to do with them being judged as competent or relevant singers.

Casey James also looked and sounded completely lost on Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies."  And, having Harry Connick, Jr. serve as the contestants' mentor, music scorer and piano accompanist, only made things feel even more dated and irrelevant.  Connick is a great piano player and decent vocal stylist.  But, his musical strengths and tastes are steeped in Big Band, jazz and New Orleans Dixieland music.  True to his heritage and roots, Connick and some of his sidemen turned in solid jazz arrangements and performances.  But this only made the music sound older.  And, it made it virtually impossible for the kids to turn one of Sinatra's classics "sideways" with an alt-rock or hip-hop treatment - or some other musically current adaptation.

By trying to pay homage to Sinatra tonight, both American Idol and Connick made a mockery of Ole Blue Eyes' work.  And they put five young singers in a nearly impossible situation:  trying to make the Brat Pack interpret songs from the catalog of the "King of the Rat Pack."

Based on tonight's showing, Casey, Crystal and Big Mike should be in the bottom three.  But with the voting as screwy as Idol's continuing insistence to make kids sing songs from eras that are a long-time dead and gone, who knows who will be sent home this week?

And that's our view from The A&R Room.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

'Any Man of Mine' Is Siobhan Magnus' Swan Song on American Idol

Just as we predicted after her unsettling Tuesday night performance, Siobhan Magnus' rendition of Shania Twain's "Any Man of Mine," proved to be her swan song, as she was voted off American Idol's competition last night.

Crystal Bowersox, Lee DeWyze and Aaron Kelly were the only contestants judged "safe" by voters, while Casey James and Big Mike Lynche joined Siobhan in the bottom three, before she eventually got the boot.

Crystal was lucky not to finish in the bottom three, after a lackluster performance of "No One Needs to Know," on Tuesday night, as the field of contestants each adapted and performed a song from Twain's country-pop song catalog.

We disagree with the American public's vote tally that put James in the bottom three:  his performance of "Don't" was his best of the season, followed by a very strong but sensitive showing by young Aaron Kelly on "You've Got a Way."    Big Mike turned in a decent but predictably vibrato-exaggerated performance of "It Only Hurts When I'm Breathing." Meanwhile, Lee picked the best song from Twain's repertoire - her pop classic "Still the One" - but despite his nice styling of that song, we were bothered by his continuing pitch problems.

Next week, we think it's time for Aaron to step up and show he can vocally deliver and capture an audience with an up-tempo tune, while Casey needs to remain unfazed by this week's vote - and continue to deliver progressively strong vocal performances in his Huey Lewis meets Southern rocker tradition. 

While we believe that Lee has a vocal style that is both commercial and contemporary, it's high time that he and the AI judges honestly address his persistent and distracting pitch issues.  If not, even if he wins the contest,  his unlucky producer will have to seriously auto-tune everything he sings in-studio.   And that won't address the pitch issues he will continue to have in his live shows - much like Taylor Swift, the Jonas Brothers and other young artists whose singing chops are very weak and artistically unsatisfying.  Lee's strength is that he has a highly identifiable voice and an alt-rock, singer-songwriter style that are well-defined and relevant to today's market.  He just has problems hitting and sustaining pitch when he pushes his voice into its higher register.

We still believe the competition is Crystal's to lose.  But she needs to stay away from weak material like Twain's "No One Needs to Know," avoid the contemporary-country genre like the plague - and continue to play to her strengths as a folk-blues-rocker ala Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt.

And that's our view from The A & R Room.