The Voice recap: The Live Playoffs, Night 2
With standout performances from Team Blake and Team Pharrell, now it’s anyone’s game
From the Blind Auditions on, there’s been a general consensus among Voice viewers that Team Adam is the standout group this season. Once Team Gwen picked up Viktor Király, its star rose as well. But Team Blake and Team Pharrell both came hard during the second live episode, and now it’s anyone’s game.
Pharrell starts off the night with one of his frontrunners, Darius Scott. From the rehearsal footage, it sounds like Darius chose his own song, Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown.” The singer-producer created an original arrangement as well. I’ve always respected Darius for demonstrating his producing chops as well as his musical talent, though I can’t say that setting himself up in comparison to über-producer Kanye is the smartest idea. Darius’ version certainly does more to show off the vocal than the original, though. I just wish he’d chosen a less repetitive song to play around on. There are only so many ways you can sing those same four words. But Blake is a big fan, saying he thinks Darius is the guy on Team Pharrell the other coaches have to worry about.
Team Blake’s first singer, Ivonne Acero, didn’t start out a frontrunner like Darius. But her journey from meek girl into this powerful performer is the more interesting story. Ivonne showed the first glimpses of what she’s capable of during the Knockouts, when she sang Katy Perry’s “Part of Me.” And she only grows stronger during Lives. Blake gives her Joan Osborne’s “One of Us,” and Ivonne is happy to get a faith-based song. (So many of the Voice singers come from church backgrounds, I always wish the coaches would advise some of them to consider careers in the religious side of the industry.) Ivonne builds on the hype from her last performance, delivering an even stronger vocal this time. She knows, naturally, how to build a song to its peak and to keep the audience right in sync with her. Ivonne is showing the most progress of anyone in the competition, and I think she’ll go far.
Following Ivonne is no easy feat, but Blake’s next artist, Morgan Frazier, is up to the task. Blake gives her Jack Ingram’s country cover of Hinder’s “Lips of an Angel.” The rock anthem translates surprisingly well, and Morgan is the right singer to take it on. She lets loose with her strong, no-nonsense vocal right from the start, accompanied by a Carrie Underwood strut for good measure. I’d like to see even more of that scorned-woman attitude from her as this competition continues. It’s an angle that easily crosses over, not to mention it’s a lot of fun. Morgan is able to keep the song’s intensity high, without resorting to belting the entire thing. She’s a natural, and she always leaves me wanting more.
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Then, it’s time for Evan McKeel of Team Pharrell to debut his live performance. Except, this ain’t exactly a debut. Pharrell gives Evan Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed,” which the coach also asked him to sing during his audition. Pharrell says people now want to hear the whole thing. But what I think people actually want is something fresh. We’ve already heard half of this performance (and the show promoted the hell out of it back during the Blinds). A second take on “Overjoyed” doesn’t add any more information about Evan than we already have, whereas every other singer is showing off something new tonight. That said, it’s one of Evan’s better performances. He calms down a bit on the theatrics (though Gwen still says he could look more honest on stage) and gives a solid take on a difficult number.
NEXT: More Irish yodeling, please
Up next is Pharrell’s singer-songwriter, Madi Davis, whom he assigns “Songbird” by Fleetwood Mac. During rehearsal, Pharrell says Madi’s voice can veer into an Irish yodel (a sound I would only encourage — it’s beautiful). That high, unique tone has been a real advantage for Madi so far, but as her sound becomes more familiar each week, she has to do more to keep up her early momentum. One way to stay on top would be to take on songs that play against her folk vibe, so her individuality could continue to surprise. How would it sound to have Madi Davis cover, say, Alessia Cara? But Pharrell stays squarely in Madi’s comfort zone. Of course, Madi is still infinitely listenable, and that crooning cadence is sure to carry her through to next week.
Rounding out the top hour of the episode is Pharrell’s comeback artist. It’s Celeste Betton, who lost her Battle to Mark Hood a few weeks ago. Pharrell gives her “Something in the Water” by Carrie Underwood, an interesting choice that isn’t exactly in her wheelhouse. Celeste makes it work, however. She dials the track up to maximum volume, delivering the biggest notes we’ve heard all evening. I would have liked to hear a mix of more inventive runs, like the phrases that made her Battle so special, and fewer blasts of raw power. But what this performance lacked in finesse, it made up for in emotion. Celeste wants this, bad, and her drive is infectious.
We shift back to Team Blake for a performance by Zach Seabaugh, who had the honor of being the only montaged Knockout singer. Maybe Blake’s choice of Steve Holy’s “Brand New Girlfriend” was a reminder to the show’s producers not to skip over this performer again. Finally, someone delivers an upbeat song. Even more exciting, Zach manages to insert some humor into his act, with an Elvis-style hip thrust or three. (Zach’s dance moves inspire Carson to actually make a funny comment: “Way to gyrate your pelvis with your mother in the room!” It’s the only time I can remember the host sounding like anything other than a life-sized automaton.) It’s not easy to bring all that personality and spunk to a number and also deliver a strong vocal. But Zach sounds fantastic, and Blake tells him he just bought himself a ticket to continue on.
After Zach comes Pharrell’s twice-stolen singer, Riley Biederer, who performs Tori Kelly’s “Should’ve Been Us.” It’s the perfect song choice to play up Riley’s saucy side, and it’s also a welcome change from many of Pharrell’s dated picks. I know I say this every week, but I’m continually struck by Riley’s consummate stage presence. She doesn’t have the No. 1 voice in this competition, but she dances and sounds like she could be dropped into Little Mix or Fifth Harmony at any moment and fit right in. Unfortunately, I don’t know if this song was enough to move Riley forward. As a one-chair turn who’s been let go twice, she’s got a lot of strikes against her, and something is missing from this vocal. It’s not as forceful as the original and, other than one big run, Riley doesn’t show the oomph this song desperately needs.
NEXT: The final comeback artist is…
Now it’s time to reveal the final comeback artist, returned from the land of dead recording contracts. After her outstanding Knockout performance, there probably would have been riots in the street if Blake didn’t bring back Nadjah Nicole. This time around, the coach mixes things up and gives Nadjah an up-tempo, playful number: “Upside Down” by Diana Ross — which Nadjah says she used to listen to in high school and dream of performing. This song is meant to bring out more of her joyful personality, but it doesn’t have as much feeling as we’ve seen Nadjah deliver before. She comes out with a new look, sporting Rita Ora-style hair extensions and bopping gamely along, but after “A Woman’s Worth” the whole thing feels underwhelming. Nadjah squeezed all her runs and dynamics into the second verse, but the rest sounds like she isn’t pushing herself.
Following Blake’s comeback artist is his youngest singer, Emily Ann Roberts. Emily Ann chooses to sing her grandfather’s favorite song, the hymn “In the Garden,” which has been covered by everyone from Perry Como to Elvis to Johnny Cash. Adam remarks that Emily Ann’s performance made him forget they were watching a reality show for a moment — but, for good or ill, that’s exactly what The Voice is, and singers need to excite the audience to get votes. Slow and meandering doesn’t do that well, even if the song has personal meaning to an artist. What I’d like to hear from Emily Ann is more bluegrass, which sets her apart from the straight-country crowd.
Pharrell’s final singer of the evening is the ever-exuberant Mark Hood. Mark gets another fun, unexpected song choice from his coach: Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” a welcome respite from his slew of classic records. Like Regina Love’s performance of “Hello” last night, Mark runs a risk by taking on such a popular, current song. But Bieber, while undoubtedly talented, doesn’t carry the same weight as Adele. And Mark departs enough from the original (which is heavily filtered through electronics, anyway) to be judged on his own merits. Mark starts out at the piano, and it seems we’re finally going to get something a little less over the top. But just a few lines in, he stands up, and the rest is all flailing limbs and quick runs. There’s so much going on, it’s hard to tell if this was a good performance for him. But Gwen is moved to tears, so we’ll call this one a win.
The final slot this episode goes to Team Blake’s Barrett Baber. Blake saddles him with an emotionally heavy track, Lee Brice’s “I Drive Your Truck.” As always, Barrett’s super-rich tone and spot-on emotional impulses drive the song. Beyond just having rare vocal ability, his real talent lies in tying the emotion of a song to his voice. He seems more driven now than ever before. Blake delivers high praise, saying the only other performer he’s seen give that much on a song is Garth Brooks. It’s a fine way to end the season’s first live showdown.
- Carson announced that last season’s winner, Sawyer Fredericks, will perform his debut single, “Take It All,” off his new four-song EP, on tomorrow’s episode
- Pharrell finally moved into the 21st century this week. For the first time all season, he gave his team songs written in the past decade — four of the six, in fact
- As of Tuesday night, Jordan Smith is the only Voice artist to make it to the iTunes Top 10, securing his spot. Jeffery Austin has the next-highest number of downloads, followed by Amy Vachal