The Top 7 take on soul favorites and recent hits; J. Lo crushes on Phillip; Hollie is back!

By Annie Barrett
Updated April 19, 2012 at 07:41 AM EDT
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We began with some tender footage of Jessica Sanchez watching herself on TV in the mansion and a slow motion reprise of last week’s “dramatic” judges’ save. “The end is where we start from,” read a quote from everyone’s favorite musician, T.S. Eliot. American Idol, please. Save the drama for Wilmer Valderrama.

It was a new beginning for all — especially our little sparkle sprite Hollie Cavanagh, who kicked off “Now & Then” night with a fierce cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” My instincts said “How dare she,” but then my better judgement took over and determined within the first few a cappella notes that this would be awesome. Good for her! Hollie’s been the judges and Jimmy Iovine’s punching bag for weeks due to her “slightly robotic” stage presence. The fact that she’s probably been belting this favorite out within the non-intimidating confines of her car or the shower for at least a year must have made it easier for her to loosen up and just sing. She couldn’t let that thinking cap go completely, though, because there were a lot of unexpected cuts and twists in there to shorten the song to 90 seconds.

This was a masterful comeback performance from Hollie. She even showed some sass and confidence during the brief pauses in the song instead of resembling a frightened woodland creature. I loved it! Ryan was even more excited than I was, hissing “Nice” in Hollie’s ear after Steven Tyler called the song “perfect.” (Randy disagreed; a couple of notes were pitchy. “No. Beautiful.” stated J. Lo, who surely beat out Steven in the all-important “beautiful” tally last night.)

Amazingly, Hollie’s newfound onstage ease only increased with her effort during the “soul hits” portion of the evening, Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man.” I was a little thrown off because I didn’t detect any sparkles in her short, flirty pink dress, but then I found a bunch in her necklace, so whew. Didn’t know if it was her for a minute there. But she really did seem like a different contestant.

I don’t know why I’m so impressed that she’s able to switch the mic from one hand to the other while standing still and swiveling her hips a little, but I am. I guess switching the mic from hand to hand is Hollie’s version of “juggling balls” (which is how J. Lo described the way Jessica Sanchez plays with songs). I lost my breath a little when Hollie hit that big note at the end, because I really wasn’t sure she had it in her to pull off a soul number and I was just so thrilled that she hadn’t turned out to be the complete zero the judges had conditioned us to expect. The camera man must have been overcome with emotion, too, because he started shaking.

“Drive your car!” cried Randy after Steven told Hollie to push it even further. Just go! Drive all the way back to Liverpool for all he cares.

No one is a bigger fan of Colton Dixon than his sister Schyler. “He does great every week. We’re always surprised,” she told Ryan. She said a lot more supportive stuff after that, but I got bored. Colton had been missing the rock element he’d exhibited in the past, so he went with a modern rock classic, Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” He wasn’t changing who he was, he said. “Just taking on a new monster.” Oh I get it. Little Monsters. Colton continued to play around with language when he assured Ryan after the performance, “I plan on expanding my box every week, so I can include everyone in on the party.”

NEXT: ‘You gotta get low to get high.’ I think the most effective elements of Colton’s first performance were the furious smoke machines and the way the new red streaks in his bangs matched his red leather pants. “Bad Romance” was way too hectic and screamy for me. The judges all called him out for singing the verses too low in order to hit his stride during the choruses. It was a small price to pay for Steven, who knows firsthand that you gotta get low to get high. I also liked his explanation of Lady Gaga’s secret: “In order to get to the other shore, you gotta lose sight of this one.” Just beautiful.

I actually liked Colton’s rearrangement of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September” a lot more than the judges did. He completely changed it, going so far as to basically remove the melody from the opening verse, so I can see why fans of the song might have been annoyed, but I admired the risk involved in modernizing and (ugh) Coltonizing the song to his liking so it would work in a simple setting with just him and the piano. The cheesy staging sort of ruined what could have been a somewhat cool vibe, though, with the giant tree and fluttering autumn leaves on the big screens. “If you’d have taken a Lil Wayne song and flipped it, people would have been like, whoa,” said Randy in a clear attempt to pit Colton against Phillip Phillips, who had brilliantly flipped an Usher song.

Did anyone else notice that Elise Testone had changed out of the black bell bottoms and back into her windblown orange see-thru gown at the end of the show? Both looks were hot. In terms of fashion: Elise wants it, Ryan!

Sadly, the judges are out of music-related love for the talented vocalist. I don’t know if the producers urged them to randomly fill 10 minutes of air time with complete NONSENSE or what, but J. Lo ranted like a fool after Elise’s second performance, “Let’s Get It On.” Jennifer, who to be fair did love Elise’s performance a few weeks ago of that great Led Zeppelin song “Somebody to Love” (CRINGE) (update: this was J. Lo’s mistake, not mine — I know that the LZ song is called “Whole Lotta Love,” jeez), claimed that fans weren’t connecting to Elise because they can’t see her heart, her soul, that she feels things, or that she’s a person. Huh? If anything, Elise is the one who wears her heart on her sleeve the most. Was J. Lo seriously scolding Elise for not allowing herself to choke up even harder when Ryan got her to admit to America that her dog is about to die? Please tell me my TV is broken because that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. “A big part of being an artist is bearing your soul. It’s what makes people connect to you.” Yo. Dude. What?

NEXT: U got it bad for Phillip, don’t you, Jennifer? This was such a wildly off critique of Elise and had nothing to do with the actual performance. I thought “Let’s Get It On” was a bit trying-too-hard but it was exciting to see some maturity up there. I liked her expert growling (because seriously why not?) and the way she serenaded her sax player at the end. The only judge’s comment that resonated with me and also seemed to strike a chord with Elise was Randy’s, that the song “needs to breathe — let it marinate and be sexy.” Elise then spoke up about the difficulties of delivering a condensed version of a six-minute song in 90 seconds. She seems to really miss singing in a club.

The judges admired Elise’s restraint in sticking to the general melody of Alicia Keys’ “No One.” I mostly remember the fabulous orange dress from this, and Elise’s left hand working overtime to demonstrate her notes. She sounded fine, but for some reason this one didn’t have a big impact on me. It seemed like a decent cover and not much else. There wasn’t a lot of wiggle room within that song choice anyway.

I appreciated how “Let’s Get It On” began with a zoom-in of Hot Guitar Player. That’s the right idea!

The supporting band members in their all-black outfits — especially Blonde Sax Player with the Bangs — were a major part of last night’s show, especially in their accompaniment of Phillip Phillips. His manipulation of Usher’s “U Got It Bad” was very exciting for Idol, calling to mind Kris Allen’s acoustic interpretation of “Heartless” or even that Andrew Garcia kid’s Hollywood Week rearrangement of “Straight Up.” (I still love that!) Big, big moment for Phillip, and it was well-timed because he did appear to be losing steam last week. He really came alive in this performance, wrenching his face into that terrifying grimace on “my money or my carrrrrrrrrrs,” gazing around admiringly at different band members, and wiggling his left leg from his perch on a stool.

First standing O of the night from the judges! (It’s so lame that this matters, but whatever.) “I feel like a chump up here — we never know what we’re gonna get with you,” Steven faux-complained. “I love it that this year, guys, we have a true artist on the stage,” said Randy, who bizarrely followed that up with “Let me set the record straight.” Set it straight from what? Weirdo.

Phillip only picked up the heat (from J. Lo’s loins) with his second performance, Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour.” She Bangs was back on the sax — are these two dating or something? sorry J. Lo — and Phillip had his “I’m sexy and I know it” smirk on from the start this time. (That might be the wrong description, because Phillip never actually seems cocky. Maybe this facial expression is more like “I love that I get to sing up here and you should feel free to love me too.”) J. Lo approved, exclaiming “Mmm! MMMMMM.” while wriggling around in her chair. Steven called Phillip “brilliantly awkward, man. I love your character.”

Phillip’s gotta have it, Ryan! Phillip’s ready. (Until next week when the judges decide he’s mediocre again.)

NEXT: Intently Staring Fiddler rivals She Bangs for the night’s best backup New Traveler’s Insurance spokeswoman Jessica Sanchez took on Alicia Keys’ “Fallin'” in the midst of dozens of floating red umbrellas. She had big hair, a billowing white jumpsuit (hello Pia?!) and an immunity idol from Survivor around her neck. What could go wrong? Nothing — but that didn’t mean this performance was so, so right either. The technical precision was there, but all her movements had been so carefully orchestrated so that it seemed like she was merely presenting the song instead of really feeling it. The look and the vibe just didn’t match up for me (for you?). I noticed that when Randy told Jessica her talent was “so otherworldly to me on this show,” J. Lo attempted to cap off his sentence: “Vocally.” As much as J. Lo appreciates how Jessica juggles balls out there on the musical side of things, you can tell how much she wants her to really sell it as a performer.

I thought Jessica stepped it up in terms of sheer vibe in the second round with Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” Sure, she was shouting at the end and on the whole seemed to be playing a character (her alter-ego B.B. Chez?) but at least she committed to the act and showed a ton of energy. The judges took this opportunity to hammer home the importance of connecting with the audience and “taking it further.” It’s the right critique for her, but for me it would have made more sense after Jessica’s first song.

Skylar Laine first sang Lady Gaga’s country version of “Born This Way,” after which J. Lo told her “a more perfect song for you does not exist.” I don’t know about THAT. It was definitely good and Skylar threw a party as usual onstage, drawing Intently Staring Fiddler into her energetic aura. “A lot of people with a drawl out there love you to death. A lot of fans like country music,” said elementary school U.S. history teacher Steven Tyler.

I. S. Fiddler continued to stalk Skylar for our viewing pleasure, creeping behind her down the stairs on “Heard It Through the Grapevine.” This ended up being my favorite performance of the night. I did not expect this! That’s what’s so great about Skylar. I kept rewinding this and finding new things to love, like the way she felt comfortable enough to clutch Kind of Hot Skinny Long-Haired Guitarist’s shoulder at one point, and the way she casually pointed at different audience sections as she repeated “just about, just about, just about.” She always has such a blast up there. Her vocals never disappoint and she’s a pure joy to watch. She’s like what Lauren Alaina could have been. But better.

I love Steven Tyler’s sly “girl you are GOOD at this!” smirk after “Grapevine.”

NEXT: Joshua Ledet benefits from the ripple effect of J. Lo’s abs I’m a little worried about Joshua Ledet because he was in the bottom three last week and didn’t exactly present anything new this week. Still, both his covers were tremendous technically. I love that he did his hero Fantasia’s season 3 finale song “I Believe” (cue confetti? sorry not yet, probably not ever). His eyes were tearing and his throat was bulging, said J. Lo, and I noticed that his lips were working overtime whenever he launched into that vibrato.

Steven called this song “a stepping stone to winning this whole thing” (yay) but then hit rock bottom with the dreaded American Idol mainstay, “You could sing the phone book.” Boooooooo. “Literally,” quipped Randy, making sure his signature phrase was capped off correctly. Ugh, what a pot of coal at the end of a beautiful rainbow.

Once again, I’m a sucker for a string section so I adored Joshua’s finale performance of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” In fact, I think my favorite part about it was that he had no backup singers to fill the space between his vocal twists and turns and the orchestra. “Your voice just climbs inside of everybody and changes them for that moment,” said Steven.

The restraint at the beginning was what made the performance pop. J. Lo still wanted more, so Joshua delivered her the ultimate compliment: He’d been staring at J. Lo’s abs on the sides of her dress to inspire him during his number. “She’s, like, ripped,” Joshua told Ryan. SMART MAN.

So who ultimately won J. Lo’s heart for the evening — Ab Man Joshua or Phillip, who admitted to Ryan, “She always makes me blush”? I think we all know that the answer lies in a VERY gray area, somewhere between heather and charcoal. May the best proponent of muted, loose-fitting clothing win!

Thanks for watching. Good night, America.

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American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

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