With two glaring exceptions (sorry, girls!), the contestants' takes on the Parton songbook made us believe this might indeed be the most talented group ever
Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC
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Watching the nine remaining American Idol contestants perform selections from the Dolly Parton songbook tonight, I suddenly experienced a childhood flashback to those picture puzzles that used to come in My Weekly Reader — you know, the ones where you’d have to look at a scene and pick out the items that didn’t belong. The whole jam-packed episode could be summed up as ”good performance,” ”good performance,” great performance,” ”can opener hanging from the banana tree.”

In other words, that’s my complicated way of saying that Ramiele Malubay and Kristy Lee Cook simply and unequivocally do not belong on the same stage as Carly Smithson, David Cook, Michael Johns, Jason Castro, David Archuleta, Syesha Mercado, and Brooke White, a septet of singers who might, if they collectively pull it together and consistently perform up to par, live up to the early-season mantra that we’re looking at the most talented group! of finalists in Idol history. (Except for maybe season 5.) (Ish.)

Indeed, we’re at the stage of the Idol season where rapidly cementing loyalties threaten to tear households and friendships apart. I almost hung up on my mother tonight when she (again) refused to utter the words ”Jason Castro,” just because she thinks his hair (with its wooden beads and occasional entourage of fruit flies) looks like one of the macramé plant hangers she used to make back in the ’70s, but we quickly united in the common belief that America must scrape Ramiele and Kristy Lee from the competition like unwanted plaque from Ryan Seacrest’s teeth. (Perhaps it was just me, but those chompers looked exceedingly sparkly tonight!)

And isn’t that something all of us can agree on?

Surely, no one in his or her right mind would want to see Carly get booted before the dastardly duo, not after her chill-inducing reinvention of ”Here You Come Again.” And, no, I would not include Simon under the ”in his right mind” heading after his ”good not great” critique of the Irish barmaid’s performance. Heck, I even took issue with Randy’s understated contention that Carly had ”maybe” given the performance of the night. Um, maybe the performance of the season, dawg!

I mean, seriously, how come certain contestants get credit for taking risks with song stylings, and yet when Carly strips down a well-known mid-tempo romp and turns it into a searing acoustic ballad, none of the judges even mentions the arrangement? And what’s more, her risk paid off. The way she held back on the gale-force belting, taking care with every word of the lyric until she built to that final, wondrous glory note, I barely had time to take note of her ho-hum red jeans and bulky black blouse. I realize Simon’s inner record exec is sizing up Carly, and her tattoos, and her imperfect teeth, and her not-size-zero physique, and it makes him say things like ”Have a word with whoever’s dressing you.” But seriously, dude, Ashlee Simpson is about to release her third major-label album: Why are you hell-bent on crushing the self-esteem of a gifted vocalist right at the moment she should be basking in the afterglow of her best live performance in seven weeks?

NEXT: A little bit rock & roll

David Cook and Michael Johns have to outlast the Ramiele-Kristy Lee juggernaut as well, right? Even if Rocker David hadn’t successfully turned Dolly’s sparse ”Little Sparrow” into a moving mid-tempo rocker, even if he hadn’t toned down his standard-operating growl into something more appropriately tender, the man earned my devotion by virtue of his haircut alone. Shallow of me to say? Yes. But his bizarre comb-forward has been driving me to distraction for weeks. What wonders a trim, a nifty side part, and a scruffy goatee can do! (We have a new entry in the race for season 7 heartthrob!) And if there was any question of how unexpectedly off-form Simon was this evening, his tragic (perhaps joking?) inability to grasp the concept of metaphor — ”If you can make a song about sparrows good, congratulations” — served to drive home the point.

As for Rocker David’s pre-performance shout-out to the folks whose covers inspired his covers this season, I’m so exhausted by the buzz about the topic that I’ll only say this: Let’s hope his remarks put the silly subject to rest, since, well, cover tunes are the fuel this show runs on, making ”originality” a looser concept than it is in the world outside Idol.

Oh, and speaking of originality, if some other artist was previously responsible for bringing that stark, bluesy vibe to ”It’s All Wrong, but It’s All Right,” I’ll go on the record and say I’m totally unaware of it. Either way, Michael nailed it, pulling the guitar and piano down from the mezzanine and hitting just about every note of the ode to a meaningless affair. Heck, any guy who can exude sex appeal while wearing that ghastly violet scarf deserved a little higher praise from Simon than the old ”best I’ve heard you sing” routine. (Look at me getting all Devil Wears Prada after groaning about Simon’s misguided attempts at playing fashion critic. Apologies!) Anyway, maybe the producers were right after all, and Michael really is a front-runner. (Just one who happened to be hiding in a middling cover-band singer’s clothing for the first five weeks of live competition.)

While Rocker David and Michael ranked as this week’s top two among the male contestants, frankly, I’d be a little surprised to see any man wind up in the bottom three come Wednesday night. Granted, Jason’s ”Travelin’ Thru” was much better than the judges gave him credit for, and Little David’s ”Smoky Mountain Memories” was typically overhyped, but even these guys’ biggest detractors would be hard-pressed to rank them beneath the two women who’ve been taking a pummeling since the opening paragraph of this column.

If either man finds himself in peril on Wednesday, it’s likely to be Jason, seeing as he chose an obscure, though Oscar-nominated, ditty that, if I were a serious gambler, I’d bet maybe less than 10 percent of Idol voters have ever heard. (It was on the soundtrack of the acclaimed but little-seen 2005 drama Transamerica.) And yet, unlike Simon, I felt the number was right in the dreadlocked dude’s wheelhouse — holy crap, I just said ”wheelhouse”! Damn you, Idol judges! — and, unlike his last two weeks’ performances, the rendition sold me on every word coming out of Jason’s mouth. I promise you, there was nothing stronger than a little merlot in my system when I found myself nodding after Paula said that Jason’s performance sounded strong and rich.

Random thought: I wonder if Randy has ever heard a song start strongly, and then lose its way at the midpoint or the end.

Little David, meanwhile, performed ”Smoky Mountain Memories” as if he were the hands-down champion in the talent portion of the Little Mister Sunshine Pageant (Teens Division). Which is to say that he looked beige-ly dapper in his argyle sweater and sporty jacket, refrained from licking his lips excessively, hit pretty much every note of his number, and yet didn’t make me feel much of anything inside while he was singing. I found it interesting that Dolly said David ”has the voice to become a great, great singer,” and I wondered after she said it if somewhere in her mind, there was an unfinished ”if he goes out and gets some life experience over the next five or ten years.” Similarly, note the presence of the word ”money” in Simon’s critique that Little David was ”absolutely on the money” tonight. In a High School Musical world, I imagine the good folks at 19 Entertainment have visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads every time Little David takes the stage and the tweeners start screeeeeeeaming. Don’t get me wrong — the kid’s got some talent, but let’s just say I didn’t TiVo the Kids’ Choice Awards this weekend.

NEXT: Women on the bottom

So if America exhibits some common sense (and decency) this week, and keeps Carly, Michael, Jason, and the two Davids out of the bottom three this week, that would leave Syesha and Brooke competing for the dubious honor of standing alongside the Two Who I Don’t Feel Like Naming Again on Wednesday.

It’s quite possible it’ll be Syesha, whose thuddingly obvious choice of ”I Will Always Love You” found her once again trying to make a case for herself as the second coming of Whitney Houston. (Those of you who’ve already forgotten her semifinal cover of ”Saving All My Love for You,” raise your hands.) The good news for Syesha is that, unlike a lot of Idol wannabes who tackle Whitney, she was not completely crushed under the sheer weight of all those power notes and even managed to infuse the ballad’s opening third with an unexpected lounge flavor. (Good call, performing atop a piano!) The bad news is that, well, as Dolly herself noted, Syesha is ”a pretty girl and a good singer.” In other words, she’s no Whitney Houston, meaning more viewers probably added The Bodyguard to their Netflix lists than actually voted for Syesha at the end of tonight’s episode.

That said, I’m expecting a bottom-three scare on Wednesday for Brooke, who picked the best song in the Dolly Parton songbook and only managed to make it sound pretty good. Now I know Brooke’s never seen an R-rated movie, and hopefully, she’s never had to worry about an auburn-haired beauty attempting to abscond with her husband, but those aren’t requirements for infusing ”Jolene” with the sweet, sweet agony that it so desperately needs. Nothing about Brooke’s performance indicated that a marriage was in jeopardy, certainly not the big ol’ grin that spread across her face midway through the performance. Add to that the fact that Brooke got stuck with the dreaded leadoff position, and she may take a walk of shame to the silver stools in less than 24 hours. And while that won’t fill me with outrage, I will definitely have an ”I’m never watching Idol again!” moment if she’s sent packing.

That’s because, as we have already established and harped on incessantly, the only two candidates for elimination should be Kristy Lee and Ramiele.

Poor Kristy Lee, in her bare feet and brown peacock dress, really missed her chance to float with ease into the top eight. It certainly wasn’t song choice that did her in, because, seriously, Velveeta-encrusted as it may be, ”Coat of Many Colors” is such a beautiful composition that it brought me thisclose to a misty-eyed moment on a New York City subway car late last week. But as Simon noted (in a rare moment of clarity), Kristy Lee’s entire performance was ”pleasant but forgettable.” Even Paula led with a ”you look stunning” zinger. And at this stage of the competition, that’s simply not enough.

Except, well, at least Kristy Lee scored a laugh (with that ”I’d rather impress [Dolly] than my mom at this moment” zinger) and didn’t colossally botch any of her big notes, the way Ramiele did finishing up ”Do I Ever Cross Your Mind.” And while Idolatry has built entire episodes around Kristy Lee’s robotic showmanship, I don’t think there was a more emotionally disconnected performance tonight than Ramiele’s. Everything about her number was so hollow, I was surprised woodpeckers didn’t descend upon it, looking to build a nest inside. Randy may have given the performance a 6.5 out of 10, but in the midst of a very heated multiplayer race for valedictorian, the season for barely passing grades has long since ended.

What did you think of tonight’s episode? I loved hearing Dolly’s music, but I felt the 60-minute running time didn’t leave enough room for the country legend’s outsize personality to shine. How about you? Who do you think belongs in the bottom three tonight, and which contestant are you betting will go home?

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