The Voice recap: The Live Playoffs, Night 1
After eight seasons, The Voice can officially consider itself an old hand in the reality game. This show is a well-oiled machine, and it has its beats down pat. Which is why the announcement that a new wrench is being thrown into the mix, in the form of “comeback artists,” was so surprising. This season, each coach gets to bring back one singer they’d previously let go. This could be a shot at redemption for a previously underappreciated performer…or it could just be prolonging the inevitable. We’ll find out which on Wednedsay.
The first night of Lives kicks off with performances from all of Team Adam and Team Gwen, including their comeback picks (or, as I like to think of them, “zombie artists” risen from the dead). Twelve songs is a lot to pack into this show (and into a recap), and the tired call for less banter has never felt more relevant.
First up is Adam’s rocker Blaine Mitchell, who got married since we saw him last. Adam gives Blaine “Never Tear Us Apart” by INXS (whose frontman, Michael Hutchence, Adam has been comparing Blaine to all season). Blaine has steadily grown from bit player to one of this year’s stars, but his version of “Never Tear Us Apart” doesn’t conjure impressions of a leading role. Blaine’s a natural onstage, but the song has a repetitive tempo that doesn’t build to anything. That said, Blaine still sounds (and looks) like he believes in his own power as a performer. If America doesn’t keep him, I believe Adam will.
Following Blain comes Regina Love of Team Gwen, who’s given the challenge (or maybe it’s the burden) of performing Adele’s new single, “Hello.” Typically, when a contestant can pull off the likes of Adele, Sam Smith, Alicia Keys, or other singers with otherworldly voices, it’s a major coup for them. But “Hello” is so new, and was so immediately beloved that Regina can only look lesser by comparison. It doesn’t help that this is not Regina’s strongest showing. She sounds like she has problems with her breath control, pausing in the middle of phrases. “Hello” offers some of her subtlest work yet, and she shows off a delicate high range that adds nuance to the performance, but it’s also her least in-control number to date.
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Team Adam’s second singer, Keith Semple, is back with another stadium anthem, “To Be With You” by Mr. Big. During rehearsal, Keith says he’s worried that, by doing too much ‘80s rock (never mind that “To Be With You” came out in 1991), people will think that’s all he can do. Adam shrugs off his concerns, but I wouldn’t be so quick to put that fear to rest. Keith’s had four performances at this point. If he hasn’t shown us by now what else he can do besides cheesy ballads, when will he? No matter the genre, “To Be With You” is also just a lightweight choice — both vocally and in terms of emotional and lyrical complexity. Adam and Keith could have cooked up a heftier version, but Keith’s take is too bouncy and diaphanous to turn anyone into a fan who wasn’t one already.
NEXT: Bad, Bad Shelby Brown
Shelby Brown, Adam’s next singer, certainly doesn’t have to worry about sounding like a lightweight — she’s one I have my eye on to take this whole thing. Adam gives her “You’re No Good,” the hit from Linda Ronstadt, who Adam says lives right in the space between folk and pop. That’s the same space Shelby is hoping to occupy. Shelby’s voice has got intensity and feeling to spare — I just wish she had brought that same energy to her body language and stage presence. We saw her physically dominate Amanda Ayala during their Battle, but during “You’re No Good,” Shelby acts a little too low-key to be singing about broken hearts and battle scars. Plus, she smiles. A lot. If I were Adam, I’d take a page out of Gwen’s (admittedly much-overused) playbook, and focus on how Shelby acts on stage, because her voice needs no help at all.
Next comes Korin Bukowksi, Team Gwen’s quirky girl. Half of the Korin’s rehearsal is spent discussing her hair cut, not her performance. I don’t know if it’s an editing choice or if it’s all Gwen, but this one coach’s emphasis on style over singing is really starting to wear on me. Many times, Gwen’s critiques don’t even mention a performer’s voice at all, just their outfit or how they looked on stage. I think Korin’s oddness is overplayed, but I’ve been moved by some of her performances, “Samson” in particular. I’m beginning to wonder if that magic is more dependent on song choice than on Korin herself, though. She gets “Adia” by Sarah McLachlan. The song’s soft and airy, but it doesn’t carry the same weight as her other performances, and Korin showed more nerves tonight than we’ve seen in the past. It is certainly not the showstopper she needs now that America is voting.
Rounding out the first half of the episode, Gwen reveals her comeback artist: Ellie Lawrence. Really, Ellie’s the only obvious choice. I’m certainly glad to have another female artist on board who’s got some rock flair. Ellie is assigned Elle King’s “Ex’s & Oh’s.” (Fun fact: Elle King is Rob Schneider’s daughter. Yes, Rob Schneider has a daughter who sings bluesy rock and who scored a No. 1 hit on both the rock and alternative charts this year.) As much as I’m rooting for her, Ellie’s performance isn’t the comeback I was hoping for. Her rasp sounds more hoarse than melodic, and the song is too quick and talk-y for her to really show off all she can do. She does have a fan in Blake: He called it the best performance of the night.
The second half of the episode starts off with Team Gwen’s soulful pop singer, Jeffery Austin, who takes on “Say You Love Me” by Jessie Ware. The song allows Jeffery to put more emphasis on his lower register, not just his stellar falsetto. It also gives him one of the biggest “big moments” of the night, a full-throated riff that blows the roof off. Most Voice performances strive to include that one big note, the moment that will wake up viewers at home and compel them to vote. Precisely because performances are so calculated to curry favor with the widest audience possible, these moments can sometimes ring false. So far, however, Jeffery has managed to stay completely believable. Adam agrees, saying he could win it all.
NEXT: A wardrobe malfunction
Following Jeffery comes another Team Gwen singer, Braiden Sunshine. She gives him Bread’s “Everything I Own,” which they both acknowledge is heavy stuff for a 15-year-old. That lack of experience shows onstage, where it becomes clear Braiden isn’t connecting with the vocal all that well. Then, during the critique, when Adam points out Braiden’s difficulties, Braiden tells him he can’t see the coaches, because he’s not wearing his glasses. If both Braiden and Gwen knew that connecting was a challenge for him, why would he perform in a condition that made it impossible to see (and therefore connect with) the audience? Because Gwen thinks he looks cuter without frames? How can any singer expect to do well when they’re performing to a blur?
Next up from Team Adam is crooner Amy Vachal. Amy has been citing Frank Sinatra all season, so Adam obliges this episode and gives her “The Way You Look Tonight.” Amy’s voice is timeless and very pretty, but she’s made for piano bars and jazz clubs, not thousand-seat stadiums. It’s an unfortunate reality that this show caters to certain types of singers, and I don’t know how we’re supposed to compare Amy to Adam’s other team members, like Shelby Brown or Jordan Smith. “The Way You Look Tonight” is breezy and stylish, but it doesn’t have much in the way of personality.
Gwen’s next singer, Viktor Király, on the other hand, is just the type of artist who excels on The Voice. He’s got panache, big hair, and an even bigger range. This episode, he also has a Justin Timberlake vibe going on that I hadn’t picked up on before, but now the comparison seems obvious. Viktor sings one of the few upbeat records of the night, Lisa Stansfield’s “All Around the World.” It comes off a bit choppy: Viktor adds runs and other vocal shenanigans to nearly every line (executed perfectly, of course). Those kind of dramatics are necessary when you need America’s vote, but I hope he simplifies over time. It hardly matters, though. Viktor is a sure thing for at least the next few weeks.
Before the final performance of the night, Adam announces his comeback singer: It’s Chance Peña. My bet was on Chance’s Knockout rivals, Andi & Alex, but I’m not mad that it’s Chance who returned. He’s clearly eager to prove himself, and he gets the song to do it: The Civil Wars’ “Barton Hollow.” This is a bluesy, funky rock track, and Chance has the skills to pull it off. (Although Braiden Sunshine, the other 15-year-old still left, has bigger pipes, Chance’s voice is more mature.) Chance gives everything he has on the challenging track and manages to stay on top of it and keep his cool. He’s at a disadvantage right now, but this could be the beginning of a comeback.
Team Adam’s closes out the night with the biggest, baddest vocalist on the show: Jordan Smith. Jordan knows his lane — he’s got diva covers, well, covered, so it’s no surprise when he’s given Beyoncé’s “Halo.” Like Jeffery Austin, Jordan opts to show off the deeper end of his range this time around. Just as his coach says, Jordan is able to cut through to an audience and show off an intimacy and vulnerability that few other artists can achieve — especially when combined with his unique abilities. Pharrell and Gwen both say they hear God when he sings, and Adam declares Jordan is not just a singer, he’s a figure who unites people (okay, buddy, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here). The show ends with a standing ovation from all four coaches.
- Considering who returned, the comebacks feel like an unnecessary distraction at this point. I like both Ellie and Chance, but I didn’t feel the show was worse without them
- Thus far, there have been no mentions of Blake and Gwen’s new relationship. I don’t know which would be more awkward: jokes from Adam or the weird silence around the issue
- Who do you think Pharrell and Blake should bring back tomorrow? I’m hoping for Nadjah Nicole and Tim Atlas
A rotating chair-full of judges search for the next great superstar singer on this NBC reality show.