Several singers showed new sides of themselves tonight, in an episode full of surprising performances and on-point song choices.
The Voice opens with Team Adam’s Shelby Brown, singing Lady Gaga’s “Yoü & I.” (As an ode to her home state, she changes all the “Nebraska” references to “Alabama.”) Adam and Shelby tried to create “a moment” last week, but her rendition of “In Color” was plagued with technical issues. This time around, Shelby comes much closer to pulling off that special performance. On this vocal, which she makes fit her country-rock vibe, we get to hear more of her funky growl (even a tad too much, as Gwen points out) and her signature sassy attitude, which she pulls off better than any of the other female artists. Shelby is still in it to win it, to borrow a phrase from Randy Jackson.
After that rousing performance, the show calms down with Evan McKeel’s take on Nat King Cole’s “Smile.” It’s a soft, slow song already, and Evan doesn’t do much to add additional, more interesting elements into the mix. He gets to play guitar for once (it seems all the coaches have allowed their artists more free range with their instruments as of late), but I would have been more intrigued if he shown off his musicianship on an upbeat track, instead of this meandering one. Without the ability to get up and use his physicality, the whole performance feels flat. Evan relies on this beloved song to carry him through, but his own vocal isn’t all that impressive.
Team Blake’s first artist of the night, Barrett Baber, needs little introduction. At this point, we know he consistently delivers and that he’s here to entertain. Although he could coast through this episode on another emotional ballad, Barrett switches things up: He decides to update Tanya Tucker’s classic “Delta Dawn,” by adding a soulful rock twist. It’s the right move. For once, we get to see Barrett have full-throttled fun with a song, instead of pulling our heartstrings. I also heard, for the first time, more of what makes his particular tone unique. He’s slightly nasal (which isn’t a bad thing for him), and his twang is on full display. It makes for a good time all around, especially when a choir shows up to accompany him.
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Following Barrett is America’s Instant Save from last week, Korin Bukowski. After being in the bottom two, she needs to show viewers why we should keep her around. But I don’t know if her performance of Mandy Moore’s “Only Hope” — so many middle school memories! — was enough to do that. After Korin’s take on “Titanium,” we know she’s capable of a whole range of emotions, dynamics, and tones. “Only Hope,” however, brings her back into that extra-high, breathy zone, which is becoming overplayed. She sounds so thin and fragile in the highest parts of the song, I worry (more than once) she’s about to crack or can’t hit the note. That tone can be delicate and pretty, but I’d like to hear a little more strength from her.
NEXT: Don’t say I didn’t warn ya
The next singer to perform is one of last week’s top three, Amy Vachal. Just like last time, she flips an unexpected, current song to suit her own throwback style. This time, it’s “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift. Amy sounds as good as ever on “Blank Space” — Blake says it’s his favorite vocal from her so far. Her warm, sultry tones glide over the lyrics, bringing out the song’s sensuality, and she displays a more playful attitude than we’ve seen before. But for all that, it still sounds very similar to every other performance we’ve heard. She’s got a good sound — it’s just the same good sound, again and again. When I imagine what an Amy Vachal album would sound like, I don’t envision a lot of emotional connection or variety, and that’s worrisome as the competition continues.
After Amy comes Zach Seabaugh (or “baby Barrett,” as I think of him). After experiencing his more high-energy performances the past few weeks, it’s nice to watch Zach get back to basics: his deep voice, lazy stroll, and perfect hair. Zach oozes confidence all over the stage while taking on Thompson Square’s “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not.” Vocally, he’s done better — he throws away many of the words at the ends of his phrases, and his baritone has been bolder in the past. But this kid knows how to work a crowd, and sometimes that control over the whole performance makes up for vocal mishaps. To ensure his safety just in case, he threw in a hip swivel or two. Ain’t no way the tweens are sending him home this week.
Pharrell’s final artist, Madi Davis, comes next. Madi has a lot of pressure on her: she’s been a frontrunner for the entire length of the competition, primarily because of her unique tone. The rigors of this show make many singers fall back on what they know is successful and what people have liked before. But Madi continues to stretch herself, and those risks make me respect her more and more. This week, she took on U2’s “Love Is Blindness.” This record is eerie and mysterious and dark, the absolute opposite of her folk origins. But she dives right in without pause. Her arrangement sounds closer to Jack White’s 2013 version, more dramatic and gut-wrenching than the original (and now just the thought of a Jack White-Madi Davis collaboration has my ears salivating). At the climax, she lets loose with a wail that gives me goose bumps. Blake calls it the best performance of the night, and I’m in full agreement.
Team Gwen’s Braiden Sunshine is up next. Braiden was a standout for me earlier in the season, but his star has faded as other singers have shown more of themselves. Gwen says she wants Braiden’s Top 11 performance to hearken back to his take on Michael Bublé’s “Feeling Good” from the Knockouts. That was Braiden’s shining moment, but it isn’t re-created with his performance of Spandau Ballet’s “True.” Gwen keeps remarking on how incredible it is that Braiden has been in a band since he was 9. Yet, she doesn’t give him songs that speak to that side of him. Instead, we get these big band performances, in which he comes off like he’s playing a character, instead of being himself. Braiden’s abilities are impressive, especially for a 15-year-old, but he’s not seasoned enough to succeed on this show.
NEXT: Be “Who You Are”
Next up is the frontrunner of this whole shebang (at least according to iTunes charts), Jordan Smith. Again, Adam announces that he’s giving Jordan an inspirational song, to match his personal journey. For me, The Voice is overselling it. Jordan has enough talent to gain the audience’s love without all the show’s extra hype surrounding his backstory — which started all the way back at his very special Blind Audition and hasn’t let up since. Still, I’m glad Adam gave Jordan Jessie J’s “Who You Are.” This song is less well-known than his past performances, so it sounds like something that could go on his own album, not just a cover. Jordan shows what he can do on a punchier song, displaying solid technique without going overboard on every note. He’s proving that he’s more than just his huge high notes: He can command the rest of the scale, too.
The penultimate singer, Emily Ann Roberts, always shines brightest when she steps into her bluegrass lane. Her style differentiates her from the other country singers, Shelby, Barrett, and Zach. That’s the route she decides to go this week, and her position in the Top 10 is all the more secure for it. Emily Ann takes on “Why Not Me” by The Judds, a tune that shows off her full yodel capabilities (and her best glittery cowboy boots). With that Tennessee twang on full display, she’s got the audience eating out of the palm of her hand. Her tone is so enjoyable, and coming right after Jordan, it also underscores how difficult it is to compare these diverse singers. They’re all doing fundamentally different things.
Then it’s all up to Jeffery Austin to bring the night to its close. Jeffery gets Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.” Gwen asks if he’s excited about her selection, and he gives the perfect response: “As a gay man, singing Robyn on national television is a dream come true.” As this season progresses, Jeffery has continued to open up and grow more confident, and tonight he goes so far as to change the pronouns in the song. It’s a small touch, but it says a lot about his own comfort level. More than any other singer tonight, he lays it all on the line with his performance. There’s so much passion and so many layered emotions: hurt, anger, lust, jealously — the dude basically throws down a Shakespearean epic over the course a three-minute dance track. He continues to develop the lower half of his voice, as well, which might just be his secret weapon. I’m calling it now: Jeffery is Top 4.
- We now know why Pharrell’s been hiding behind his sunglasses the past two weeks: “spatula eye.” Some quick Googling reveals he sustained a black eye after a rogue spatula hit him in the face while he and his wife were goofing off in their kitchen
- Adam says Blake’s outbursts during the coaches’ comments remind him of Storage Wars, a comment which Pharrell can’t stop laughing at. Everyone, take a mental note of Pharrell’s reality TV preferences
- Bottom two prediction: Braiden and Evan (and Korin’s not looking too safe either)