With a performance from Nate Ruess to open the show, two performances from each artist, and clips of them singing at parades and concerts in their hometowns, tonight’s Semi-Finals episode of The Voice felt a little bit like a musical marathon—but it was a marathon where for some reason you got your heart broken right at the starting line and then somewhere around the 13-mile marker, were welcomed into a warm embrace by your mom. Because, man, were the first half of these performances a drama-soaked cry fest. Yes, those emotional covers brought out a powerful moment or two, but with one after the other, after the other, it also felt like I was getting broken up with at prom with each new song.
So, thank goodness for Hometown Visits, which always promise to bring the other kind of crying: The kind that comes with watching a 17-year-old get a day named after her while her dad says this is the proudest moment of his life; or with seeing a formerly struggling artist look out over a sold-out crowd screaming his name; or with observing Naomi Judd arrive unannounced to pull newspaper clippings out of her pockets. Wait—that part felt less familiar. But, I guess if The Voice isn’t worried about shying away from the fact that Meghan Linsey has already had multiple incarnations of a music career (that’s according to Big & Rich), then we shouldn’t be either. Everyone is just trying to achieve their dreams, as evidenced by the subtle scent of desperation that seeped its way into the first round of performances, but worked itself back out by the time everyone got to dedicate a song to the places that have supported them endlessly through this competition.
It just goes to show that a performance is always better when the artists are feeling it rather than trying to convince the audience to feel something. You feel it, we feel it, capiche?
JOSHUA DAVIS (Team Adam)
“I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt
This one really felt like the soundtrack to a breakup-dance at the Senior Prom, which isn’t a bad thing per se, but when accented by Adam’s increasingly unhelpful comments that the “challenge” with Joshua is to highlight what he does best because he can’t compete with the other, more interesting contestants (okay, I’m paraphrasing), it wasn’t the best. It sounded nice, you can almost always say that much for Joshua, and I don’t know why Adam won’t just say that and leave it alone.
“When I Paint My Masterpiece” by The Band/Bob Dylan
I appreciated how totally overwhelmed Joshua was by all the Traverse City support, and equally appreciated this slightly more upbeat performance that leaned on a more country sound than we’re used to hearing from the soulful fellow. It didn’t break any boundaries, but it was at least interesting.
KORYN HAWTHORNE (Team Pharrell)
“One” by U2
It’s very possible that Pharrell is trolling us with the “inspirational” comments at this point. I get where the guy is coming from—there is, indeed, something very moving about the way that Koryn digs into a performance. But it seems like a random first-of-the-night performance might be a good time to let a 17-year-old have a little more fun.
“Oh Mary Don’t You Weep”
Because when Koryn is ready to inspire, she’ll do it. I only wish that Koryn hadn’t let her signature growl take over quite so much of this lyric, but still—this was drama at its most well-executed. With the white gown and the white mic and the choir of backup singers on individual platforms, this was Koryn Does the Grammys with a 90 percent vocal to front a 100 percent production. From shaking hands to Xtina level arm-singing, Koryn really has come a long way.
NEXT: First song, eh; second song, yeah! Just get used to it…[pagebreak]
MEGHAN LINSEY (Team Blake)
“I’m Not the Only One” by Sam Smith
I was really into this performance for about the first 20 seconds, when Meghan was silhouetted against the white wall like a live music video, using her rich, subtle (ahem, quiet) tone that we haven’t heard from her since she opened “Amazing Grace” a cappella. But as soon as Meghan stepped out of that white padded room set, things kind of went off the rails into Growlsville. The coaches’ comments were, of course, nothing but positive, but they weren’t exactly throwing themselves at Meghan tonight the way they do with most of the other remaining artists.
“Tennessee Whiskey” by George Jones
You may be noticing a bit of a theme with tonight’s first and second performances, in that Meghan took an upswing in quality when dedicating her second song to the place that gave her her start, Nashville. It was a bit of a relief to see Meghan smile and seem like she was really enjoying this experience while she was home with her friends and family; that’s a side of her that also seems, for some reason, to be more present in her performances when she’s singing country songs. Once again, tonight, Meghan shined more by being able to put her own soulful twist on a country song, than by wringing every bit of soul out of an already soulful ballad.
INDIA CARNEY (Team Christina)
“Gravity” by Sara Bareilles
By the time India got to “Gravity” as the fourth performance of the night I was already feeling heartbreak fatigue. I agree with Adam that India’s performances are always captivating in the way that they carry their own little narrative with a beginning, middle, and end; and I agree with Christina that India is a “smart” singer. But while that often works to her advantage vocally, it can sometimes make her performances seem a little too controlled, teetering on the edge of contrived.
“Earth Song” by Michael Jackson
And India post-Hometown visit to Queens, NY it perhaps the first time I’ve really thought that she was feeling a song, not for my sake, but for hers. Perhaps it was the untimely exit of Kimberly Nichole that made India think she needed to take up the showmanship mantle, but take it up she did, right down to the almost-backbend that ended the performance. I don’t know if it will be enough to save India from another trip to the Bottom 2, but I do know that India has been shining brightest under pressure (and also in crazy geometric gowns with the assistance of a Beyoncé-level wind machine).
SAWYER FREDERICKS (Team Pharrell)
“For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield
It always feels a little bit like the frontrunner kiss of death when the coaches start floating the “it’s boring because I say the same things every week” compliments, but with Sawyer, I get it. At 16 years old, the guy knows who he is and who he wants to be and he represents that with almost every performance. This song was a really good vocal fit for Sawyer, but surrounding him with a bunch of other Sawyers who were getting a lot more physical with their instrumental performances was maybe not the best approach to distracting from the fact that when Sawyer sings with his guitar, he doens’t move anything but his hands and his eyelids.
“A Thousand Years” by Christina Perri
But when he puts that guitar down—well, he still doesn’t move a lot, but when he’s singing with such conviction and unusual range, his economy of movement is really just a sidenote. Last week’s go-go dancers were a miss, and the evening’s earlier suspendered band was only fine, but for some reason, putting Sawyer in front of a giant music box featuring a live ballerina really swept me up in a way that I was not expecting when she first struck a pose. I agree with Pharrell that when I listen to Sawyer I feel like he’s letting me into something, and that generosity can have powerfully lasting effects (just ask the iTunes charts).
Frankly, for what has so far been a season with a lot of interesting twists and turns, this was not the most exciting Semi-Final performance round. But I’m hopeful that some original songs for the Final 4 could rejuvenate the proceedings next week and show us what kind of artists these singers really want to be. Make your predictions for who will get the catchiest tune and who should/will be heading home tomorrow in the comments!