After last night’s eclectic mix of performers and genres, The Voice took a sharp left turn into Country Land during the second round of Blind Auditions. The show didn’t waste any time getting right to the singers, so neither will I.
First up is Blind Joe, a 32-year-old singer from Fargo, North Dakota, who, you guessed it, is blind. I felt a little queasy knowing everyone in America will now address this guy literally by referring to his disability, but Blind Joe (who’s been unable to see since birth) immediately puts that fear to rest by making some delightful puns. “This truly is a blind audition,” he quips, before telling Carson, “Looking good.” Sold. I am sold already. So far, The Voice has been pretty light on the emotionally manipulative backstories, opting instead for packages like Joe’s and Jordan’s, which highlight the singers’ humor and humanity. For his audition, Joe sings “If It Hadn’t Been for Love,” by The Steeldrivers, a song with roots in classic country, but which allows him to display a darker edge that I’m excited to see more of. Though the performance doesn’t reveal a ton of range, Joe demonstrates he’s a seasoned performer with a strong musical identity. All four coaches turn, but this one is clearly a lock for Team Blake, and that’s exactly where Joe ends up.
Before the next hopeful takes the stage, The Voice switches to a pre-taped segment in which Blake and Adam usher Pharrell into the “Champions Lounge,” a place only coaches who have won The Voice are allowed to enter. While downing champagne, Adam does his best British aristocrat impression and guides Pharrell on a tour of past winners. He and Blake also list those coaches who aren’t members of the illustrious group. There’s always been a trace (or more) of sexism wafting through The Voice — see: Blake’s frequent objections that singers who choose Gwen only do so because she’s bewitched them with her intoxicating lady charms — and never did the show feel more like a Boys Club than in this segment, when every coach but Gwen stood around naming female coaches (sure, and CeeLo) who haven’t won.
Back at the auditions, it’s 17-year-old pop singer Ivonne Acero’s time to shine. This is Ivonne’s second go at The Voice: She auditioned last season (you’ll remember her as “Melon Girl”), but didn’t make the cut, and Pharrell advised her to work on her confidence if she wanted to make it back. Ivonne’s certainly done that, and this time she gets both Pharrell and Gwen to turn for her slowed-down performance of Taylor Swift’s “Style.” Ivonne’s singing is note-for-note impeccable, but her control takes most of the fun out of the performance. She holds on to “Style” with a death grip, when a lighter hand would be more effective. Gwen is the coach who could teach her the most about how to let loose on stage, but Ivonne goes with the guy who inspired her to try again, and picks Pharrell to be her coach.
The next hopeful to make it on to The Voice is Christian soul-singer and Atlanta radio personality Regina Love. Regina was in a gospel group for years, and put out three “inspirational” albums on Evander Holyfield’s record label before the company went under (and God bless the sorry accountant who had to deliver that news to the only four-time Heavyweight Champion of the World). In a word, Regina is soul. She’s got a belt that will knock you over and personality to spare. But, like a lot of singers before her with capital B Big Voices, Regina’s sound could turn scream-y and one-dimensional if she’s not careful. Her take on Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” gets both Blake and Adam to turn, and Regina chooses Team Adam. It seems like the smart call — between the two, he’s more likely to guide her into a lane that’s unique and personal.
Zach Seabaugh is the second country singer to audition — though his and Blind Joe’s styles are so different, comparing them seems beside the point. The 16-year-old from Marietta, Georgia, performs Sam Hunt’s “Take Your Time,” which is about as unlikely an audition song as there could be. His understated performance hints at a deeper register where he could really shine, but there are definitely moments in the song where he doesn’t push hard enough. Blake, Pharrell, and Adam all turn for him, and Gwen tells Zach that her first thought was, “What is this? This is so different and weird.” That reaction is always a good sign on a show that’s so image-conscious and tightly choreographed. Adam fights hard, but he’s yet again thwarted by Blake’s impenetrable grasp on the genre of country. Zach is Team Blake all the way.
NEXT: Pharrell is “Overjoyed”[pagebreak]
Next up is a 20-year-old struggling musician from Richmond, Virginia, Evan McKeel. Out of all the performances thus far, Evan’s is the one that has me the most perplexed. His take on Mutemath’s “Typical” earns him the second four-chair turn of the night, but I just don’t get it. (For the record, I also don’t understand the appeal of Matt McAndrew, and I spent last season imploring Twitter to explain what’s so special about Sawyer, to no avail.) Pharrell compliments Evan’s raspy tone, but there’s no sweetness there to counterbalance the gruff. There’s also some scream-singing going on, and I don’t feel Evan’s connection to the song. But Pharrell is so enamored with Evan that, in a rare turn of events, he asks him to sing a second song, Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed.” Evan sounds better on the slower, more soulful encore, but I’m still waiting to see what the big deal is. Pharrell’s interest in Evan clearly pays off, though, and Evan becomes Skateboard P’s newest team member.
Because there’s been one successful audition since a country singer last took the stage, guess what time it is: If you guessed time for more country, you’re correct! Emily Ann Roberts, a 16-year-old from Knoxville, Tennessee, is the first female country artist to audition so far. As I said, she is a teenage girl with country music aspirations, so Emily sings “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack. Don’t worry, guys, it is still the prettiest song ever. Emily has been singing publicly since she was 12, and she has a practiced confidence on stage, though it comes off a touch pageant-y here and there. Emily is sweet; her runs are sweet; the performance is sweet. Adam and Blake both turn for her and, knowing he’s the underdog, Adam makes what I found to be a decent argument: If Emily picks him, he can share all his knowledge and experience with her, and he can call up Blake for a tip if he needs to. Unfortunately, Adam’s powers of reason fail to move Emily, and Blake adds yet another country singer to his roster. (And if you look closely, you’ll notice a pattern beginning to develop).
Next to sing is 26-year-old alt-rocker Elli Lawrence from Calhoun, Georgia, who chooses Ella Eyre’s “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” for her audition. Elli’s smoky, breathy voice complements the song, and you can distinctly hear a smile in every note — probably because Adam, Gwen, and Pharrell all pushed their buttons mere seconds into her performance. The boys know it’s a lost cause, however, because Elli (adorably) grins and points as soon as she sees Gwen turn. “That’s the queen of ska!” she exclaims, and Gwen finally nabs her first team member of the night.
Before the final performer, Carson tells us that Team Gwen also picked up singers Noah Jackson, Tim Atlas, and Hanna Ashbrook, whose auditions didn’t make it on air.
Well, folks, Elli was not a country singer, and you know what that means: We’re due for another country singer! James Dupré, from Boyou Chicot, Louisiana, got his start in music by playing covers on YouTube, where Ellen DeGeneres discovered him. He performed on her show and secured a record deal, but his career never took off and the label eventually dropped him. James’ performance of Hootie and Blowfish’s “Let Her Cry” hits the sweet spot between country and pop, and got the third four-chair swivel of the episode. This time, Adam is out for blood. He wants a country artist on his team, but more than that, he wants to beat Blake with a country artist. James, our hero, is the only man with the moral fortitude to scorn tradition and all that has come before him — he picks Adam, and we enter a new age, where country singers can belong to teams other than Blake Shelton’s, and all are free to chose their own destiny. So ends the first week of The Voice season 9.
Team Pharrell: Ivonne Acero and Evan McKeel (plus Mark Hood and Siahna Im)
Team Gwen: Elli Lawrence and mystery contenders Noah Jackson, Tim Atlas, and Hanna Ashbrook (plus Kota Wade and Braiden Sunshine)
Team Adam: Regina Love and James Dupré (plus Keith Semple and Jordan Smith)
Team Blake: Blind Joe, Zach Seabaugh, and Emily Ann Roberts (plus Nadjah Nicole and Barrett Baber)