The top 8 lay it all on the line to earn a spot in the finale.

By Amanda Bell
May 15, 2017 at 10:57 PM EDT
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Credit: Trae Patton/NBC
S12 E26
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With only eight singers left in the competition, there’s not quite enough room for everyone to sing two solos just yet, so they’re paired off for a series of mostly miserable duets tonight, with the cutthroat eliminations coming along tomorrow to cut the contestant pool clean in half for the finale. So, which singers emerge as the most deserving contenders for the top 4?

Let’s walk through tonight’s performances and find out, shall we?

Hunter Plake (Team Gwen): “With or Without You” by U2

All four coaches come away from Hunter Plake’s performance convinced that this is a deal-maker because it shows that yes, the guy actually can sing a song just like its original rendition with incredible precision if he wants to. So much so, in fact, that he practically disappears into a Bono mirror, mimicking every bleeding inflection of the radio version better than even present-day Bono probably could.

The problems, though, are twofold: First, as much as I admire Hunter’s voice and skillset, this is a pretty boring number to open the show with, and I fear it’ll be forgotten in the fray; second, it just… isn’t the best showcase of what makes him a “voice” worthy of a spot in the finale. Blake calls this the best performance of his Voice career, and Adam considers it his “most straightforward production” to date, but it’s entirely devoid of that originality and instinct that have served as such a signature for Hunter so far. Did he sound good? Sure, it was a solid cover. Did he sound as riveting as he has in the past? Not even close.

Vanessa Ferguson and Chris Blue (Team Alicia): “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys

Credit is due to Carson Daly for coming up with a craptacular group name for these two — “The Super Duo” — because it’s true that unlike most of the battles, group performances, and duets we’ve heard this season (spoiler: and the duets to follow theirs), these two are actually a pretty good pair. Vanessa Ferguson was almost sent home last week (still guffawing over that one here) but handily earned her save-me vote for the semifinals, and Chris Blue’s been safe all along. And with this shared delivery of Alicia Keys’ breakout hit, they each prove that they belong here at this stage, and probably further.

Vanessa comes off the strongest, in my humble opinion, because she never breaks key or pitch to get these iconic lyrics in the air with her own tones behind them, while Chris Blue struggles with a few notes on the first chorus run and purposefully accelerates the second in an effort to make up for that. Even so, he still got to show off some of that swagger that goes along with his unpredictable note runs, and they sound completely harmonious together.

TSoul (Team Blake): “Ain’t No Way” by Aretha Franklin

Oye. I want to like what TSoul’s doing with this — the pink tux, the theatrics with the guest star, and the take-me-to-church emotional applique he’s laid over this thing — but sorry. I did not. TSoul’s performance starts out on a flat note in the first verse, and while he manages to insert a little more of that rhythm and texture we’ve come to expect from him in the second verse, it all falls apart by the end, leaving him screeching out of pitch in the climax. You can tell it’s not gonna send him through when the coaches are relegated to saying things like, I’m so proud of you for all you’ve done this season and, Cool idea to incorporate all that showmanship, fella. Basically, when the compliments are about everything but the vocals, it’s not a good sign.

Brennley Brown (Team Gwen): “Suds in the Bucket” by Sara Evans

Womp. American Idol fans might remember when Kellie Pickler tried to bring this song to the stage in season 5 and was hilariously rebuffed by Simon Cowell, despite the fact that she actually performed it well. He didn’t know the song, so he was vexed by why someone would get up there at such a critical juncture in the competition and sing about suds in some bucket like this?

So, there’s that; it’s not a good song for audiences outside of the country sphere. More importantly, though, Brennley Brown doesn’t sound all that great singing it either. It’s unusual for her to miss like this because, thus far, she’s completely transcended her age range. She’s been neck and neck with Lauren Duski for the Southern sweetheart appeal, but tonight she might’ve just given Lauren the edge she’s needed. Blake and Gwen are quick to point out that this song presents her true age, but all that really means is that she sounds immature and unrefined. And when she tries to interject these lengthy bursts of soul in the middle of this square-dance-ready rhythm, it comes across as awkward and forced rather than creative.

Hunter Plake and Aliyah Moulden (Team Gwen and Blake): “Let It Go” by James Bay

There are some people who should just never ever sing together. And now we know these two are among them, because woof. This is painful. Standing alone, Hunter’s raspy whisper singing thing starts out on a strong note and could’ve been exactly what his fans needed to be reminded of after his un-Hunter-like standalone number. But the second Aliyah chimes in with her sharp (and still somehow dull) half, however, it never recovers. They don’t mesh well, at all, and that’s the least of their troubles. Their tones clash to the point of being uncomfortable to listen to, and honestly, they just make each other sound worse with each verse. Whoever made the choice to put these two together had a vendetta against both of them.

Lauren Duski (Team Blake): “Ghost in this House” by Shenandoah

Unlike Gwen Stefani, who’s just potentially gifted Brennley Brown with a ticket home with her terrible song selection this evening, Blake Shelton knows what he’s got with Lauren Duski here. As he (rightly) puts it, her appeal is that she’s something of a vocal storyteller, which makes his song selection here absolutely on point. Unlike the suds dud, this is a number anyone can hear for the first time and enjoy on the spot, especially with Lauren Duski’s lovely classic tones weaving in and out. There’s definitely something approachable and familiar about what she does every time she takes the mic, but this song in particular allows her to sprinkle in a lot of those warm, rich tones that make her a votable voice. Well played.

TSoul and Jesse Larson (Team Blake and Adam): “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder is my all-time favorite singer and even I’m sick of hearing his songs on the open tap for this season. In theory, this tune should be an ideal match for both TSoul and Jesse Larson, but somehow it leaves Jesse sounding unusually nasally and overshadowed. Even so, the “beard brothers” here seem to have a good time with it, so maybe that’s just gotta be good enough for these duet pieces. On the bright side, Hunter and Aliyah had just set the bar for how terribly low these twosomes can go, so by comparison, TSoul and Jesse were fire emojis incarnate.

Chris Blue (Team Alicia): “Take Me to the King” by Angela Mann

Go ahead, Chris Blue. He was impressive in the duet, even alongside the force that is Vanessa Ferguson, but man he is alive in his solo act. The first verse or two, he’s clearly focusing on hitting the right notes and offering a competent performance, but as soon as his little sunshine stage prop hits a bright spot, he’s in it. You can physically see the exact moment when, as Alicia Keys puts it, he gets out of his own way and goes full-on gospel with his performance, and the power is palpable. The level of feeling he has running through him here is contagious and adds authority to his vocal delivery that cannot be rehearsed. If he wanted to show America his good-churchgoing-guy side, he couldn’t have done it any better than that.

Vanessa Ferguson (Team Alicia): “Superstar” by Luther Vandross

Sigh. Vanessa Ferguson is something else; she really is. How she could’ve landed in the bottom three last week is beyond me, really. That near miscarriage of justice notwithstanding, if Vanessa doesn’t make it to the top four, it’d be a shame, but she’s given it her best effort tonight for sure. Following her performance in what is unquestionably the best duet of the night, she delves into something “sweet” to perform this romantic number that’s at once wistful and sturdy. The song as a whole is a pretty eloquent metaphor for who she is, and the fact that she manages to make her note-for-note delivery look easy only proves just how good she is.

Brennley Brown and Lauren Duski (Team Gwen and Blake): “A Good Hearted Woman” by LeAnn Rimes

On paper, this duet is a great idea. Hearing these two side by side could finally put to rest the question left open by the battle: Who’s the better of these two? There’s only room for one of these country crooners in the finals, so it’s totally time to hear them united again. But this kitschy, corny song selection is atrocious. It’s not flattering to either of their voices or even entertaining. Instead of offering them a platform to show off their skills, they’re each just trying to come away sounding less contrived than the other one, and neither wins that effort. What a waste.

Jesse Larson (Team Adam): “I Was Wrong” by Chris Stapleton

There was nothing wrong with Jesse Larson’s duet earlier, but standing alone, it’s not going to earn him a ticket to the finale. But Adam Levine’s begging, combined with this full-bodied soul performance, just might. The swoony number is something Sundance Head might’ve excelled with, and even though Jesse’s not a traditional bluegrass singer, his jazzy tones blend in well all the same. The only thing I’ll add is that if you’ve heard one Jesse Larson performance, you’ve heard them all — whether that’s a sign of his strength or not is a matter of perspective and opinion, I guess, so we’ll have to see how the votes tally up tomorrow.

Aliyah Moulden (Team Blake): “I Can Only Imagine” by MercyMe

After Aliyah Moulden broke her own mold and burst into tears at the end of her surprisingly compelling performance last week, Blake Shelton’s realized he’s onto something by fitting her with slower tempo songs instead of those shouty pop ditties that had me buying stock in ear plugs all season. Even though Aliyah still struggles with some pitch problems here and there, it’s a night-and-day difference to hear her exercising some restraint with her voice and belting only where appropriate. Imagine that! Blake’s convinced she’s the real deal and that she should be voted into the finals based on the fact that she’s changed so much during the course of this show. Apparently, The Voice has become a “most improved” trophy show in its 12th season. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

Predictions for the top 4:

I hate to say it, but unless Hunter Plake’s fanbase is fervent about getting him through, we might’ve just witnessed his final stand on the show. He’s a great singer and has a rare sound that’s completely intoxicating, but it just wasn’t here tonight at all. And that duet probably had more people reaching for mute button than their vote devices.

TSoul is going to go home; he’s gone farther than I expected, but there’s no way he takes one of the final four spots.

Lauren Duski and Chris Blue have done what they need to advance.

I think Jesse Larson will get through because he’s a capable musician and his coach is not afraid to insist on hyperbole right now, since he’s his last chance at having someone in the finale.

That leaves Brennley Brown, Vanessa Ferguson, and Aliyah Moulden, and it’s no secret who I’d choose to advance of these three — and I think the night’s performances would justify that — but based on the steadiness of Aliyah Moulden’s fanbase, and the fact that she actually has shown some signs of life lately, she might just earn that fourth space.

Final standings:

  • Team Adam: Jesse Larson
  • Team Gwen: Brennley Brown, Hunter Plake
  • Team Alicia: Vanessa Ferguson, Chris Blue
  • Team Blake: Lauren Duski, Aliyah Moulden, TSoul

Episode Recaps

The Voice

A rotating chair-full of judges search for the next great superstar singer on this NBC reality show.

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