In the first night of semifinals, only four men seem like real contenders
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”American Idol” recap: The males don’t deliver

How many new and different ways can you say ”disappointing”? If you tuned in to the first night of the American Idol season 7 semifinals, then your answer is no fewer than four (Colton Berry, Jason Yeager, Chikezie (not Eze), and Garrett Haley, undoubtedly) and no more than eight (feel free to add any or all of the following: David Cook, David Hernandez, Danny Noriega, and Luke Menard), depending on how generous/unforgiving you’re feeling.

Then again, you might be inclined to add Nigel Lythgoe to the list, too, but I think a more accurate adjective for Idol‘s exec producer might be ”boneheaded,” what with the way he forced the 12 male hopefuls to comply with a broad (but still constricting) ’60s-night theme. Historically speaking, Idol‘s semifinals have always been fascinating because they allow contestants to choose material from any genre, in any era. And that gives us a sense of the type of artist they want to be, not just the kind of artist they have to try to be to survive the dreaded first round of cuts.

But hey, before we delve into such grim subjects, let’s focus on the positive: Four guys performed well enough tonight to separate themselves from their competitors and, barring any week 2 disasters of Sundance Head-ian proportions, have probably guaranteed themselves places in the final 12.

Better still, one of those men emerged from the Invisible Four — the quartet of contestants who hadn’t sung a single note on air in the first five weeks of the season and seemed destined for early exits because of their troubling lack of airtime. Yet somehow it only took a few minutes for folk-rocker Jason Castro to establish a delightful laid-back hippie-dude persona and showcase the kind of sweet, bombast-free vocals that rarely, if ever, make an appearance on the Idol stage. By the time the guy finished his performance with a look of befuddlement and a nervous chuckle — he’s only sung live in front of an audience a handful of times, he noted — I could imagine a very specific internal monologue unfolding in his brain:

Dude, I had the gnarliest dream. I was in the American Idol semifinals, playing my guitar and singing the Lovin’ Spoonful’s ”What a Day for a Daydream,” and it was freaky and scary and kind of awesome. And then, Paula Abdul said I was ”minimal,” ”effortless,” and ”joyful,” and Simon ranked me in the top two performances of the night. Dooood!

Of course, what Simon really meant with his compliment was that Jason had scored the silver medal for the night, behind the inevitable top-five finisher David Archuleta. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that a magical Idol witch concocted little David in a cauldron, using the soft, downy fur of a week-old kitten, the damp, cool nose of an innocent puppy, and the voices of a thousand angels as her main ingredients. Sure, David’s voice momentarily disappeared when he reached for the growly lower notes of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ ”Shop Around,” but his purity of tone and lack of showbiz-kid ickiness make him irresistible. Plus, the kid has the power to draw a laugh-out-loud-funny punch line from Ryan Seacrest: ”You can only vote for him. You can’t actually adopt him.”

NEXT: The other top two

With David and Jason (or is it Jason and David) claiming the top-two slots for the night, that left a two-way battle for the bronze tonight, and I’d give the slight edge to the contestant whom Idol‘s producers would like us to refer to as ”Rocker Robbie Carrico.” Every time the guy takes the screen, I half expect Nigel Lythgoe to give us a freeze-frame shot, whip out the ”football telecast marker,” and start circling Robbie’s various accoutrements in an effort to prove he’s keeping it at least as punk as Avril Lavigne. ”Look, look! He’s always got a kerchief or knit cap on his head! And the leather cuffs! Did you see the leather cuffs? How about the scraggly facial hair? Here’s a close-up of his bandanna: It says, ‘Heal the sick, raise the dead.’ Only a rocker would wear that, okay?” (Yeah, but the guy was also previously in something he referred to as a ”boy-girl group,” which I’m guessing is something like the Backstreet Boys, except the roles of Nick Carter and Howie Dorough would be played by chicks.)

Anyway, who cares how much rock cred Robbie’s got? I’ll admit I was unimpressed by his previous auditions, but tonight, his cover of Three Dog Night’s ”One” proved me completely wrong. Not only was it the best song of the evening — both in terms of suiting his voice and in its general awesomeness — but Robbie delivered it without missing a single note. He may not possess the most muscular voice in the competition, but you can actually imagine Robbie existing (and thriving) outside the Idol sphere.

The only other singer who looked like a contender tonight was early front-runner Michael Johns, who was worried Simon would criticize him for choosing ”Light My Fire,” a number he had already performed during Hollywood Week (though not in front of a full screen of ”fiyaahhhh!”). Somehow, all three judges let the Aussie hunk off the hook — not only for repeating himself so early in the season but also for shouting half the performance, falling flat on one or two notes, and not doing anything unique or original with the arrangement. Still, while at this moment Michael’s vocals are not proving as memorable to me as his emo scarf or his Jim Morrison-by-way-of-Michael Hutchence swagger, there’s no denying he commands the stage and the TV cameras. But he’ll have to dig deeper than he did tonight if he wants to prove that the universe was mistaken for not making him famous during the first 29 years of his life. Let’s just hope he doesn’t see the clear path he’s got to the finals and decide to play it safe.

Right now, it’s impossible to predict which of the eight also-ran males will make it to the final 12. Nonetheless, by Friday morning two will be gone, and while I don’t necessarily agree they were the worst of the night, I’m betting Jason Yeager and Colton Berry will get the boot.

Jason Y.’s biggest problem — well, aside from using Nice ‘n Easy #8G (Beeline Honey) to streak his spiked ‘do — was that he didn’t make a bad enough impression on ”Moon River” to score sympathy votes but wasn’t good enough to win over fans of excellent singing. And it was pretty clear that Jason Y. knew it too; I’m not sure if midway through his ballad I was hearing intentional vibrato or uncontrollable trembling, but the fact that he’s already played the ”dedicated to my late grandmother” card does not bode well.

(Side note: Paula’s first ballet recital was set to ”Moon River.” Relevance: Zero. Hilarity: Off the charts!)

As for my other elimination prediction, I got a sinking feeling the minute Ryan started asking Colton if he was planning to dial down the ”theatrics” (excuse me?), an exchange that ended with the mop-topped blond teenager pointing out his own resemblance to Ellen DeGeneres. It’s impossible for me to root against a kid who sings the Teletubbies theme song to soothe his nerves, but I also can’t justify voting for a performer who delivers ”Suspicious Minds” with all the charisma and polish you’d expect to see in a high-school talent competition. Alas, poor Colton makes both my will- and my should-go-home lists tonight.

NEXT: Memorably bad

The performer who ought to join him — but will probably survive by virtue of being so memorably awful — is another wide-eyed teen: Garrett Haley. His vocals on Neil Sedaka’s ”Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” were thinner than the little teeny hairs forming his ‘stache, and the pure, undiluted terror in his eyes prompted Simon’s funniest critique of the night. At this early stage of the competition, though, it’s better to have a judge say you look like you’ve been locked in your bedroom for a month and need some fresh air than it is to have him say nothing memorable about you at all.

Which has me just a wee bit worried about the five guys I haven’t discussed yet, because while none of them proved top-12-worthy tonight, they all deserve at least one more shot to win over the Idol nation. First among the group is David Hernandez, who was so strong during Hollywood Week that I’m hoping he’s got a big enough fan base to avoid the fate of Rudy Cardenas, the man who led off the season 6 semifinals and went home the same week. Yeah, David H.’s rendition of ”In the Midnight Hour” was soulless and a little bit sad (and his shirt looked like it was riddled with coffee-ice-cream stains), but it was also strongly sung and on key, which is more than you can say for David Cook’s ”Happy Together.”

I’m pretty certain the judges’ too-kind critiques of David C. were prompted by either (a) previous goodwill built up by his excellent audition performance of ”Livin’ on a Prayer” or (b) shock and befuddlement about his abomination of a hairstyle, which looked like the result of bludgeoning a small, oily woodland creature with a flatiron. Here’s hoping next week finds David C. returning to vocal form, hooking up with a stylist, and stopping himself from holding up his fingers to indicate the 866 number viewers need to call to vote for him. I hate when contestants do that almost as much as when they sass the judges.

Yes, Chikezie and Danny, I’m talking to you! Indeed, Chikezie (who needs to get his groove, his voice, and his last name back — stat!) should’ve let Simon go on and on and on about his bright red suit, the better to put off any discussion of the pitch problems that sank the opening half of his dated cover of ”More Today Than Yesterday.” As for Danny, well, I have to admit I howled along with Simon after the saucy teenager gave a shoulder snap and declared, ”Some people weren’t liking it,” regarding the tough critique of his silly but actually very tuneful take on ”Jailhouse Rock.” But on a serious note, Danny seems more interested in delivering snappy one-liners than he does in listening to how he can improve his performances and give that Archuleta pipsqueak a run for the grandmas-and-tweens vote. Sigh.

And on the subject of ”sigh,” let’s end this column with blandly handsome Luke ”Stubbly” Menard. Question 1: Am I the only person in America who kind of loves Harry Nilsson’s ”Everybody’s Talkin’ ”? (I know I am the only person in my household who does.) Question 2: Wasn’t there something peaceful and sweet (albeit flawed) about Luke’s performance? Question 3: Don’t you think if Luke can overcome his visible nerves, he might actually be good enough to make this competition kinda sorta interesting?

While you’re pondering those queries, what did you think of the episode as a whole? Were you feeling (like me) a little let down by the lack of depth in the field? And who do you think is most likely to go home Thursday night?

(PS: If you’re still wondering why Carly Smithson wasn’t sitting with the other female semifinalists last night, we got the scoop straight from judge Randy Jackson.)

Episode Recaps

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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