Mariah Carey turned ''American Idol'' into a release party for her new CD, and most performers did her songbook proud
David Cook, Jason Castro, ...

”Idol” recap: Mariah Carey night!

Pop quiz! In addition to the obvious fact that they’ve all been booted from American Idol‘s season 7 finals, what else do David Hernandez, Amanda Overmyer, Chikezie, Ramiele Malubay, and Michael Johns have in common?

Well, aside from their alleged enthusiasm for Ford vehicles, Coca Cola, and iTunes, none of them played instruments during any of their live performances this season. (Yes, yes, I know that’s not 100 percent technically correct…but I refuse to acknowledge Chikezie’s pitiful maiden attempt at harmonica during ”I’ve Just Seen a Face.”)

What I’m really getting at here is that when it comes to the latest incarnation of Idol, ”artists” are in and ”vocalists” are out. And that’s bad news for Syesha Mercado, Carly Smithson, and Kristy Lee Cook — unless, that is, these ladies have been concealing respective skills on the harp, violin, and drums for the past nine weeks.

Of course, there’s not a snowball’s chance Syesha or Carly could win this thing, not even if one of ’em turned herself into a complete one-woman orchestra. And never was that more clear than during last night’s foray into the Mariah Carey songbook.

There was Carly, giving an achingly good performance of the colossal ”Without You,” and Syesha, nailing her crafty choice of the obscure ”Vanishing,” and yet the judges could barely muster up the energy to shrug their shoulders. A half hour later, though, I could kinda, sorta, almost understand why.

Indeed, as David Cook and Jason Castro closed the show with ”Always Be My Baby” and ”I Don’t Wanna Cry,” respectively, they brought to the Idol stage something even more thrilling than the ability to nail a glory note with passion and power; they took a pair of well-known pop melodies, reinvented them in wild, winning fashion, and made me feel like I was hearing ’em for the very first time.

But let me back up for a second here. Before I begin dissecting this week’s performances, I’d like all of us firmly entrenched, highly opinionated, ready-to-tussle Idol-istas to join hands and give thanks. I mean, think about it: At this point in season 6, Sanjaya Malakar was coughing up an excruciating rendition of Bonnie Raitt’s ”Something to Talk About” as his final Idol salvo. By comparison, last night’s top seven all performed decently enough to send their fan bases scrambling into speed-dial mode, which should make the final vote count tighter than Mariah’s black, scoop-neck top.

That said, my money is on either Kristy Lee Cook or Brooke White to go the way of the Glitter soundtrack on Wednesday night’s results show.

Which isn’t to say that Kristy Lee didn’t give a valiant effort, or that I haven’t grown to admire her fighting spirit and savvy song-choice strategy over the past several weeks. After all, a lot of Idol watchers, myself included, mercilessly piled on Idol‘s resident country crooner back when she struggled, splay-legged and pop-eyed, during ”Rescue Me,” or went right over the guard rail on a speeding ”Eight Days a Week.” Yet the Energizer Cowgirl has never quit, and it must’ve been sweet vindication hearing Mariah herself exclaim that she liked Kristy Lee’s twangy rehearsal take on ”Forever” better than her own original. Still, while Kristy Lee soared on the big notes, her saddle slipped a little when she went for the lower register on the verses, and her awkward, robot-Evita hand gestures distracted from the emotional connection she worked so hard to achieve.

NEXT PAGE: Carly’s strategic blunders?

On the other hand, I’d argue Brooke probably gave the night’s least successful performance during her unplugged take on ”Hero.” Interestingly enough, the G-rated nanny’s biggest problem came not from her sweet warble, but rather, her somewhat unsteady keyboard technique. As Paula astutely noted, Brooke seemed to speed up the tempo every time she hit a faulty note on the piano, which in turn tended to throw her voice slightly off pitch. And while I thought Simon was a little harsh saying Brooke’s ”Hero” was like getting a bun with no hamburger — a hero with no cold cuts would’ve been funnier! — when it was all said and done, I realized I liked the whole performance more in theory than I did in practice.

Then again, I could be wrong. Carly was in the bottom three last week, after all, and the judges continue to treat her like a grubby dinner plate that really should’ve been picked up by the busboy and dragged back to the kitchen sink hours ago. And for what reason? In her deep purple dress, with matching pendant and gold bracelet and chandelier earrings, Carly never looked more elegant than she did last night. And she squeezed every drop of pain out of ”Without You,” handling the verse and opening lines of the chorus with remarkable restraint, before unleashing the full torrent of her voice on the closing notes.

In fact, I can’t really fault Carly’s performance on its own merits, although I have to admit that from a strategic standpoint it was a pretty boneheaded move. For starters, why not choose an actual Mariah Carey composition, rather than a Mariah cover which had been previously recorded by Badfinger and Harry Nilsson? (Carly made the same, vaguely disrespectful move during Dolly Parton week.) Secondly, the Irish barmaid had to be — or should’ve been — aware that Kelly Clarkson tackled ”Without You” on her way to the season 1 title. And while I’d say Carly’s rendition was equal to (if slightly less strident than) Kelly’s, why risk enraging the fan base of the original multi-platinum Idol? Perhaps worst of all, though, at least for a contestant who keeps getting mistaken for Simon’s punching bag, Carly should’ve done a little YouTube research and discovered that Simon’s current protégé, Leona Lewis, performed ”Without You” during her championship season of Britain’s X-Factor. No wonder the cranky Brit seemed to take so much enjoyment in slowly delivering the bad news to Ms. Smithson.

Conversely, I thought Simon was rather daft in complaining that Syesha chose ”Vanishing,” a lesser-known Mariah number, considering the judges have been harassing her for weeks for choosing iconic diva numbers and failing to match the original blueprints. I think Syesha was actually trying to say something to that effect at the end of the judges’ critique, but lucky for her, she got cut off by Ryan. I mean, why let another case of ”sassy mouth” get in the way of her first (almost) pitch-perfect performance since ”Yesterday”? If she goes home on Wednesday, at least Syesha will have ended (literally and figuratively) on a strong note. (And sidebar: Loved the glitter-infused hair!)

NEXT PAGE: The Davids take their turns

Actually, quite the opposite of Simon, if I was going to take any contestant to task for song choice last night, I’d have to point my finger at David Archuleta for selecting Mariah’s all-time dreariest ballad, ”When You Believe,” her overwrought, melody-free duet with Whitney Houston from The Prince of Egypt. And yet, once again, Randy, Paula, and Simon played lapdogs to Little David’s cuddly, leather-pants-clad (!) puppy. Yes, the kid sings the heck out of his runs, but he pretty much whiffed his falsetto, and went off the rails again on the final low note of the chorus. Which wouldn’t have bothered me nearly so much if Simon hadn’t still been praising him for stealing the show some two performances later.

We get it, judges and producers: You want an all-David finale. And you’re probably going to get your way. Unless, of course, Jason keeps building on the massive momentum wave he’s created over the last two weeks with ”Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and last night’s ”I Don’t Wanna Cry.” Archu-fans, I’ll admit that Jason wobbled on a couple notes of Mariah’s bombastic, beautiful ballad, and his falsetto didn’t quite hit the mark. But the way ”Cry” got gussied up with a pair of acoustic guitars, a couple of bongo drums, and a full set of strings, it kind of reminded me of that pivotal scene in Moonstruck where Cher’s character shows up at the opera with freshly dyed hair, full battle makeup, and that sexy red dress. It’s a classic movie moment I can watch over and over and over again, and similarly, I suspect Jason’s Mariah cover will hold up to repeat listens.

Of course, if ”I Don’t Wanna Cry” got sent to the Macy’s counter and the Bergdorf salon, ”Always Be My Baby” received the Extreme Makeover: Song Edition treatment by Rocker David. And I’m going to make a confession: On first listen, I totally wasn’t feeling it — probably because it’s my all-time favorite Mariah joint, and my ears weren’t quite ready for that jelly. But after Simon and Randy went ga-ga, and Paula declared the performance was worthy of a movie soundtrack (is that praise?), I decided maybe I should give it a second listen. Then I gave it a third. And I wanted to give it a fourth because, well, just like a crazy romantic-comedy plotline, my initial dislike had suddenly and unexpectedly turned into full-fledged, head-over-heels love. And suddenly, I knew what the heck Paula was talking about, and it scared me a little, but I was too enraptured by Rocker David dissolving into tears at the judges’ critique, and the presence of his brother in the audience, and the sheer magic of the moment. Oh heck, let’s not ruin this. Cue credits. The end.

Actually, I lied. For those of you who were missing recently ousted Michael Johns last night, I’ve embedded part 1 of his Idolatry interview below. Parts 2 and 3 (click here and here to watch) feature a few bars of his performance of ”Vision of Love.” Oh yeah, you’re gonna want to watch!

What did you think of last night’s show? And how about Mariah as mentor? (I thought the diva seemed genuinely sweet and sincerely excited hearing her work get reinterpreted by Idol’s young singers.) And most importantly: Who will and should go home on Wednesday night?

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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