As the knockouts rounds wind down, so does the talent

By Adam Carlson
Updated April 14, 2015 at 10:31 PM EDT
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The Voice Recap
Credit: NBC
S4 E12

Tonight’s theme was toughness. Everything was tough: the judges’ choices between singers; the singers’ choices about their songs, often making the wrong ones — it was a two-hour deep dish of difficulty. These are the knockout rounds, and each contestant is fighting the other to make it to the live playoff rounds next week. Past successes “left it all on the stage.” (Ahem, Ms. Allen.) Future failures cried. (Sorry, Savannah Berry.)

Some quick applause for Samantha for filling in for me last Tuesday when I was detained on the red carpet. She’ll be joining me for the season from here on, trading thoughts about the vocal prowess of America’s amateur class and swooning over Adam’s scruff. (Adam’s scruff.)

Onward!

TEAM BLAKE: SAVANNAH BERRY VS. JUSTIN RIVERS

The songs: Savannah chooses “As Long As You Love Me” and Justin chooses “The Climb”

The knockout: Savannah whips out a guitar and a new red streak in her hair to put a country spin on Justin Bieber’s slow-burn jam-ballad, which has Blake telling her that she has much artistry as anyone in the competition. It’s bad, then, that her performance is a stretched-out, slowed-down mess, with a combination of sound levels, wonky tempo, and bad mojo swallowing up most of her energy. At multiple points, the guitar is as loud as her voice.

Justin opts for safer territory with Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb,” itself originally a pro-forma country ballad that was meant to push Miley toward safer territory. Blake warns him to show off his range and not his runs while performing — which Justin does with a sweet, sincere performance that is as methodical, quiet where it should be and loud everywhere else, as it is a little dumb. (But sweet!)

The verdict: Usher commends Savannah for showing that she can “transcend.” Adam says that she should be proud of what she did. Everyone loves Justin’s mile-long notes. Blake says he even did a good job on a Miley song! (Shade.) Savannah starts to cry before she is even not-picked and then she really starts to cry. It’s sad.

TEAM USHER: JOSIAH HAWLEY VS. JESS KELLNER

The songs: Josiah chooses “Back to Black” and Jess chooses “You Give Me Something”

The knockout: Josiah wants to show that he’s versatile with his electrified version of Amy Winehouse’s song. (Burning question: Why can’t he say the word “artist” without fumbling the last consonant?) And his performance is, indeed, a spin away from the most standard covers of the song…it’s just too bad Josiah wasn’t able to sub in any substantial pose for the grit that his voice can’t supply. Smoldering and snarling are not the same thing, and faking both doesn’t mean you have either.

Jess’ take on “You Give Me Something” is meant as an ode to her mother, who has struggled with alcoholism. It’s a powerful but nervous performance, with phrases that tend to flatten at the ends. The power notes are nice! Not much else is memorable.

The verdict: Shakira reminds us that Josiah looks like her boyfriend (he does) while Blake basically laughs nervously about Josiah’s looks and says “no homo” before saying that he liked Jess a bit anyway. Usher says that the song was meant to bring out Josiah’s bad boy side and — after a cruel fake-out — picks him over Jess, which is totally understandable but still totally stings a little.

NEXT: A “Teenage Dream” gone wrong

TEAM BLAKE: HOLLY TUCKER VS. LUKE EDGEMON

The songs: Luke chooses “Teenage Dream” and Holly chooses “Live Like You Were Dying”

The knockout: In a bid to shake things up on Blake’s team, Luke not only opts to sing Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” he also re-arranges it into something heavier and more seductive so that he can show off his “fist-like” voice. That it does, but the bigness of the space has the double-edge of downsizing his finger-snapping intimacy. It comes off as a lounge song for the wrong lounge. Not Holly, whose Tim McGraw cover (and my eighth grade jam) is high and clear and very, very controlled. It barely missteps.

The verdict: Usher is first to point out that Luke’s transformation of his song may have made it hard for people to connect with. Shakira disagrees and reminds us how amazing she thinks Luke is — while Adam reminds us that Holly just came out and killed it, as we all expected her to. This is the knockouts, Luke, and Blake wanted to see something that was more range-y. He picks Holly, because obviously. The other three judges fume.

TEAM USHER: AUDREY KARRASCH VS. MICHELLE CHAMUEL

The songs: Audrey chooses “How to Love” and Michelle chooses “Raise Your Glass”

The knockout: Audrey wants to prove that she’s an alternative artist who can take risks while blithely unaware of the fact that we just heard Usher tell America that he paired her against Michelle to see which indie artist can deliver the bigger performance. So she covers Lil Wayne’s “How to Love,” which is far from big but is alternative. Usher is thrown off in rehearsals and doesn’t seem much better watching her on stage. Her tone does stand out, sharply, but everything else about it leaves her locked inside the bars. There’s a lot of risk but little personality.

Michelle has the opposite problem, moving in synchronicity with the beat. It is, I think, the first real performance we’ve seen this season, and is all the better for it. (Roommate: “She listens to a lot of Gwen Stefani.”) The vocal isn’t a room-buster — she sings like she has a rocker’s yowl but doesn’t quite — but those moves, man.

The verdict: All four love how Michelle balanced the physical and vocal demands of her performance, and Usher tells Audrey that she got to the true value of Lil Wayne’s song. But Michelle is a “thinker” so he picks her.

TEAM BLAKE: DANIELLE BRADBERY VS. TAYLOR BECKHAM

The songs: Danielle chooses “Jesus Take the Wheel” and Taylor chooses “Russian Roulette”

The knockout: It’s almost eerie how well Danielle’s voice fits into Carrie Underwood’s, and it has an eerily adult quality, its muscles already fully formed. Still, it isn’t the most sophisticated thing (she could have ventured into a higher register when there was room), and there’s room to grow in stage presence.

Taylor is slow, torchy and reedy trying to tackle Rihanna. She has her moments when her voice can open up, but too few of them. (Burning question: Why is every contestant so eager to twist a song to fit their sound? Corollary: Do all contestants who are afraid to be a power vocalist now look for ways to avoid that label by swapping it with “artist”?)

The verdict: Usher chides Taylor for her song selection, which he says didn’t give her enough room to show off her talent, while Shakira says Danielle still seems nervous. Both of them had trouble with the lower notes, Blake thinks, but Taylor commits the double crime of also being breathy. Danielle carries it.

NEXT: Two R&Bers fight to the tears

TEAM USHER: VEDO VS. C. PERKINS

The songs: C. chooses “She Ain’t You” and Vedo chooses “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You”

The knockout: Here’s what we know: C. Perkins maybe got in over his head with the Chris Brown song choice — Can he hit that high-high note? Should he be singing a Chris Brown song? What does a reality competition have to do with patriarchy anyway? — and so turns up his performance by several notches to compensate. There’s arm pumping. There’s crotch grabbing. (The most crotches.) But his voice is eh until the falsetto hits and then it’s good until it gets bad again.

Also: Vedo’s mom is dead. He’s sad! He sings a Bryan Adams song to feel better and is basically beseeching. It’s touching, and his voice has a heartfelt smoothness to it, but my generosity bleeds out after being poked repeatedly by the producers’ Dead Mom Stick. (She’s dead!)

The verdict: Vedo’s mom is still dead and he’s still singing for her and C. Perkins has a special tone and all but Vedo, y’all.

TEAM BLAKE: GRACE ASKEW VS. THE SWORN BROTHERS

The songs: Grace chooses “I Can’t Stand the Rain” and The Swon Brothers choose “Drift Away”

The knockout: Like Luke, Grace thinks it wise to prove that she can do more than country and picks Tina Turner’s bluesy “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” which she turns into a lived-in, very thick cover. If it’s bluesy, it is also gimmicky, with an extra side of bright lights and big drums. Blake warned her about enunciation — a smart note, though her general commitment to the song’s ness means it won’t play nearly as well to a karaoke crowd as…

The Swon Brothers’ take on “Drift Away,” which is so pleasing and lively it feels like they’re cheating. As my roommate reminded me: “They could be playing on a frat lawn, true or false?”

NEXT: Blake completes his team

The verdict: Grace’s uniqueness (bleck) is offset by her use of guitar, which Usher thinks might have been a distraction. Plus The Brothers Swon just play so well off each other. Blake likes Grace because she never sangs the same thang twace. But gosh dangit, he just can’t get a handle on her. (This is a transcript of the remarks.) So it’s The Brothers Swon in the spotlight — the first of Blake’s duos to ever make it to the live rounds.

TEAM USHER: CÁTHIA VS. RYAN INNES

The songs: Cáthia chooses “Mr. Know It All” and Ryan chooses “I Don’t Want to Be”

The knockout: Since Cáthia will be singing he first English-language record on the show, Blake wants her to bring an extra amount of energy and control to the stage, which ends up getting telegraphed as Cáthia moves her limbs in alternation with her runs. She’s sassy because her face says so. It’s not sassy in any particular way and could have settled nicely in as just well-sung, but she’s trying and she wants us to know that she’s trying. Watch those syllables, Cáth.

To be fair, Ryan is guilty of trying, too. But he’s not trying to impress as much as he is just trying to feel. Why else would he sound so emotive and raw? It can’t have been easily sung — it didn’t look that way, though it has a strong life to it. The night had a lot of talk of bluesiness: of wanting to appear bluesier and sound bluesier, of wanting to show off one’s bluesy side. Ryan is bluesy.

The verdict: You did good, Cáthia! So confident! Good try, Ryan, and good grit. Usher likes your brute force, but the season’s buzzword is sassiness personality and the victory goes to Cáthia.

That’s it for The Voice’s first month. Next week we head into the live rounds. We’ve seen a lot of personalities — but have we seen any signs of greatness? On this count, Idol may still have the edge. Who are your early favorites? Samantha loves Sarah; I’m surprised by how much I’m Team Sasha. Are you excited to see more of the judges’ fashion? (It’s a legitimate question.) And based on what we saw tonight in rehearsals, is Usher just the right kind of crazy?

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The Voice - Season 14

The Voice

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

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