The second night of live rounds has little greatness but much less worseness

By Adam Carlson
April 14, 2015 at 10:30 PM EDT
Trae Patton/NBC
S4 E14
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Tonight could have been a night of disappointments, not only because it included two teams whose members have produced only a small handful of big moments in the past seven weeks but because tonight’s second round of live episodes also followed last night — which was, I’m almost completely sure, the best two hours of this fourth season. Disappointment cometh. Except! Though Teams Blake and Shakira didn’t produce the same number of Big Moments as their compatriots (and what moments), they did not produce a proportional number of Bad Moments.

Instead, the evening was rich with country performances, overuses of the words “incredible” and “amazing,” and more country performances. Banjos! A Lady Antebellum song! In contrast to Shakira’s pragmatic, often clever song choices, can Blake’s fixation on the genre that’s made him famous also be considered a fetish? Because dude elevates every single part of it to a virtue. It made little blonde teenager Danielle Bradbery “one of the most important” artists to come out of The Voice. Country music is magic! Country music is also maybe a drug.

But first we have to talk about…

TEAM BLAKE: JUSTIN, HOLLY, DANIELLE, AND THE SWON BROTHERS

The song: “Boondocks”

The performance: To make sure that his team bonded, Blake took them all out to karaoke, which has the intended effect of being cheesy-good television and the added intended effect of making all four singers sing well together, like they’ve spent at least one night in a karaoke bar. “Boondocks” may be a too-perfect choice for a group country number — it’s already a song by a country group, with built-in harmonies — but those same harmonies are the best part, as they should be.

The feedback: Why would Blake bother pushing his team out of his comfort zone when he could just teach them how to perform pleasurably within it?

TEAM SHAKIRA: GARRETT GARDNER

The song: “Imagine”

The performance: The first of Shakira’s risky but admirable choices for her contestants, she picks the John Lennon track and requires an accompanying piano, in order to push Garrett to show off his artistry. Shakira also warns him to be wary of unnecessary lapses into falsetto, because she is a good coach. She also wants him to rough the song up into a rock anthem, because she is Shakira and wears gold clothing and has high standards. And though he’s listless on his verses, Garrett does make “Imagine” rougher, with the aid of some drums. It’s totally Fray-lite but not Fray-bad.

The feedback: Adam is proud of Garrett’s journey and Usher is proud of Garrett’s journey and Blake thinks he’s both a heartthrob and a beast. (Has he been watching Hemlock Grove?) Shakira thinks he was “so cool” (cool-lite).

NEXT: Four singers, two country songs, one Bruno Mars

TEAM BLAKE: HOLLY TUCKER

The song: “How Do I Live”

The performance: Holly has some nerves about her stage presence and her looks — she isn’t the typical superstar figure. Pish-posh, Blake says. (Yes, pish-posh!) He’s selected the LeAnn Rimes song to show off the full, pleasing curves of her voice, which is easily doable thank to the double presence of a faux-rainfall background and a chorus of background singers. The one was a pleasing affectation (so soothing) while the other was an intrusion. The result is strong but unsophisticated, and ended up much like Cáthia did last night, I thought: giving a strong performance of a song that’s typically sung very strongly by much more famous people in exactly the same way. Holly sounded like LeAnn! But is that a great thing or merely a good one?

The feedback: The judges eat the whole thing up. Blake hoots and hollers and Usher commends Holly on her take-charge approach to performing, when she could have stayed rooted to one spot. Shakira calls it “so beautiful” twice and Adam reminds Holly that she is also beautiful. Carson calls Blake “an animal” that is also in a “cage.”

TEAM SHAKIRA: KRIS THOMAS

The song: “When I Was Your Man”

The performance: Kris’ selection is intended to maximize his sweet and emotional voice, and Shakira reminds him to use his super strong upper register wisely. They briefly duet in rehearsal. It’s the best thing so far in the episode. And then Kris takes the stage and flexes his voice all over the song, which the arrangement happily obliges but then also smothers over. The only impression is of technical excellence. But where’s the charisma?

The feedback: Adam calls Kris out on his nerves, saying it would have been nicer to see him more relaxed. Blake completely disagrees (this happens often, haven’t you heard?) and says that Kris displayed impressive vocal control given that, sigh, he had to sing from “wherever the girl place is.” Shakira thinks that not only is Kris a great talent, he’s also a great person. Something in that rehearsal duet stuck.

TEAM BLAKE: THE SWON BROTHERS

The song: “Fishin’ in the Dark”

The performance: In all the time that America hasn’t been bonding with The Swon Brothers — there are Sarahs and Sashas singing, y’all — the duo has become, like super tight. And though the younger one (Colton?) has a tendency to go flat, their chemistry is rock-solid. So, too, is their performance of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s ridiculous, handclappy country song. Every element is engineered to entertain, but none of the engineering is off. It’s hokey in a way that means hokey is a compliment as much as it is an eyeroll. Like a good bar band, I would go back for another night — or two or three or four more. Also, do we think that Colton strode out onto the stage because he wants to be officially recognized as The Cuter One?

The feedback: Usher, who sometimes fishes in the dark “in other ways,” thought the brothers were pretty cool and Adam congratulates/insults Blake for finally getting his big country moment. Blake calls the harmonies tight and promises that much of America already recognizes and loves “Fishin’ in the Dark,” dangit.

NEXT: Blake and Shakira 4eva

BLAKE AND SHAKIRA

The song: “Need You Now”

The performance: Much of this recap will be a slow peeling back of Blake Shelton’s ridiculata — his over-exuberance; his tendency to rely on under-ambitious, crowd-pleasing song choices; and his preaching of the gospel of country like he was a pariah. But his duet with Shakira on Lady Antebellum’s bedroom burner is a surprise success, with both singer-coaches matching the other, warble-for-warble.

The feedback: This is The Voice‘s approach to country: If it is going to be generic, it better also be good down to each guitar string.

TEAM SHAKIRA: KARINA IGLESIAS

The song: “Let’s Stay Together”

The performance: Given Karina’s rocky road to the live shows, Shakira wants her to have A Moment, and she’s picked a song to give Karina a chance to display both her vocal power and her personality. What that means for America is a slow but soulful two minutes, with high, clear notes and some swagger. Every other line is pushed until it touches the rafters, but that amount of trying only fuels the amount of her success. I was “Karina Who?” before tonight but not any more.

The feedback: Adam thinks she is amazing and Blake thought that her microphone was going to shatter, given how intensely she performed. Shakira adds in more adjectives: Karina showed off her sassiness, her strength, and her huge pair of lungs.

TEAM BLAKE: JUSTIN RIVERS

The song: “Meet in the Middle”

The performance: Blake really wants to establish Justin as a country artist because Justin has an aggressiveness to his voice that — what? — scares Blake. Let your artists breathe, Blake. They have such love to give! They just don’t know where to put it! Anyway, Justin also needs to watch his pronunciation — a good note that is rendered moot by the goodwill that covers over everyone by the sight of a lively, broad-shouldered man in a tight T-shirt clapping his hands and singing along to a pop-country crooner. (Diamond Rio was my jam when I was 13.) Bonus: The song starts up-tempo. Extra bonus: Justin’s biceps.

The feedback: Though Usher wants to make an awkward comparison to Justin’s first time at a hip-hop concert (already happened, sorry guy), he assures us that he felt as happy as he did out-of-place. Shakira agrees and Adam says he was only happier to see Justin ditch his earpiece at the end. Blake: something something “awesome.”

TEAM SHAKIRA: KARINA, KRIS, GARRETT, AND SASHA

The song: “We Are the Champions”

The performance: In the least imaginative and most pragmatic group outing, Shakira takes her team to a mirrored studio to help them rehearse their moves and chemistry. Totally sensible and, perhaps, wise given that the arrangement requires both harmonizing and each of the four to step out into their own spotlights and carry the song, one after the other, as the melody rises and rises.

The feedback: It works!

NEXT: The Voice finds a new star

TEAM BLAKE: DANIELLE BRADBERY

The song: “Maybe It Was Memphis”

The performance: Blake wants Danielle to bring the ’90s song to a new generation — though he sets her up to do the opposite with an arrangement that is mid-tempo, mid-range country-cheese: full of itself but little nutrition. The keyboard is straight out of Billy Joel and Danielle sounds like she crawled out of Trisha Yearwood’s mouth. Did I mention that I like “Maybe It Was Memphis”? She does it justice. She also sounds like she’s from another decade (her vocal maturity working against her?) and not the other way around.

The feedback: Usher likes her cool pants. (Cool pants, Danielle!) And Shakira quotes Blake with a “holy crap.” Adam is afraid the moment has arrived when she is now a singer to beat and Blake goes absolutely bananas with the superlatives.

TEAM SHAKIRA: SASHA ALLEN

The song: “Oh! Darling”

The performance: Shakira makes sure to match Sasha with a song equal to her incredible voice while still encouraging her to reveal more personality. Also, she encourages: Do something crazy with your voice. Sasha does while also swapping out her usual soulful syrup for a slinkier, sexier rhythm. Watch those hips. The song comes to life at a mid-point, though the band — which was hiding in darkness — doesn’t ever, quite. And then that craziness: just as Shakira asks, Sasha flexes a new vocal muscle as the music drops out for one — one — beat.

The feedback: Adam thinks she’s “so amazing” and Blake starts to laugh because, remember, Adam gave her up. And then he says that everyone who saw Sasha just fell in love and Usher and Shakira both think she is so-so great. Blake doesn’t stop laughing.

Aaand that’s it for the first week of live performances. Last night was spectacular, right? Who are you most worried about? (XOXO, Caroline.) Next up: a special Wednesday-only episode — and Rod Stewart!

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