Like many live shows that aired this week, The Voice began on a somber note. Carson, the coaches, and the contestants all gathered for a moment of silence in honor of the victims of the Paris terror attacks. It was a brief but powerful occasion of somberness before a night of performances, both serious and lively, began.
First to take the stage is Gwen’s 15-year-old powerhouse, Braiden Sunshine. Gwen tell us that Braiden came in this week asking for a rock song after all that Bread and Bublé. She complies with Styx’s “Renegade.” I had hoped Adam had already used up this season’s ration of cheesy stadium anthems on Manny Cabo and Keith Semple, but alas, there was more prog-rock where that came from. A funked-up, bluesy jam would have served Braiden better and been more tolerable for the audience. “Renegade” demands an attitude big enough to fill the theater, and the kid doesn’t have that type of personality. Much of his performance fell flat, and I have to wonder if, again, that’s because Gwen is styling him into someone that he’s not. The difference between the way Braiden looks in rehearsals — curly mop, glasses — and the way he looks onstage — straightened hair, bare-faced — is the antithesis of the show’s “be yourself” mantra.
Next, the four coaches’ saves all perform in a row. First is Amy Vachal of Team Adam. Adam surprises me with his song choice for the first time in a long time: he gives Amy Drake’s “Hotline Bling.” Immediately, this becomes way more interesting than anything Amy’s done so far, and she hasn’t even opened her mouth yet. A jazzy reinterpretation of a current hip-hop jam sounds exactly like the type of song that could go viral. But to take it to the next level, Amy has to play along. She has to acknowledge that this performance is a little tongue-in-cheek. Instead, she plays it completely straight and loses out on the fun of the song. Despite all that, it’s still her most affecting performance to date. She brings out an eerie edge lacking in the original, and she looks powerful on stage. My biggest gripe: She didn’t do the Drake dance!
Directly after Adam’s save comes Pharrell’s, Mark Hood, who sings “Against All Odds” by Phil Collins. Mark says it’s time to show a different side of himself. This time, there will be no jumping around the stage or throwing every trick he knows at a song. His plan is just to give a meaningful performance. It’s his best strategy: Mark was the most controversial save last week, and he needs to prove himself to those who aren’t happy he’s still here. In that, he did not succeed. Without all the bells and whistles, Mark is still a good singer. But is he anything more than that? I felt no connection to his song, and I spent most of the performance imagining what wonders Darius Scott could have done with it instead.
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Then it’s Team Blake’s Emily Ann Roberts’ turn at the mic. Blake gives her a song that lets her get a little sassy — “Blame It on Your Heart” by Patty Loveless — and it’s the right choice, especially after last week’s slowed-down hymn. This song needs a really clear attitude: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” But Emily Ann is so sweet, even her most brazen vocals come off as more cute than mad. She could have pushed “Blame It on Your Heart” much harder. With her distinct bluegrass tones, Emily Ann has a sound that could take her far — but I don’t know if she has the vocal instincts or ability to back up her natural talents.
NEXT: Gwen creates a Mini-Me
The final coach’s save, Korin Bukowski of Team Gwen, has more than a new song in store for us: She’s got a whole new look. Gwen forces convinces Korin to go blond, and she matures about a decade as a result. It’s a startling transformation, but it could grow on me. What’s less appealing is Gwen’s heavy hand in all of her artists’ appearances (Jeffery Austin also got a dye job, though his is much more subtle). Korin is given “Titanium” by David Guetta, featuring Sia. It presents a whole different side to this singer, and it gives a much better indication of why her coach saved her last week. Korin gets to belt out huge notes, which I hardly realized she was capable of, and the song also has room for her signature breathy high notes. She gives the best performance of the four saved singers and may have carved out a new fanbase in the process.
Next up, from Team Blake is the most consistent country artist in the competition, Barrett Baber. The more I watch this guy, the more convinced I am that he could win the whole thing. He can’t hit a wrong note — literally or metaphorically. Blake has Barrett do his smallest song yet, “Right Here Waiting” by Richard Marx. Although Barrett stands unmoving behind the microphone, he still commands the room. The singer packs every syllable with meaning and passion, and I just want to follow him on whatever journey he’s going through each time he walks on stage. Adam says that Barrett “attacks” his performances, whether they’re sappy romantic serenades like “Right Here Waiting”…or sappy romantic serenades like “Walking in Memphis,” “Colder Weather,” or “Angel Eyes.” Okay, so Barrett clearly has a lane, and I’d love for him to explore beyond it. But there’s no way to deny the power of his voice in all these songs.
Next up is another standout, this time from Team Pharrell. Last week, I said Madi Davis needed to diversify her sound to stay on top, and that’s just what she did for her Top 12 performance. Pharrell gave her a reggae-d version of Jewel’s “Who Will Save Your Soul,” a choice that no one would have predicted but which makes perfect sense for Madi. The arrangement feels a little disjointed, between all the lines that are spoken and the long notes, but it’s so thrilling to hear her do something besides classic singer-songwriter stuff, I’m not bothered that there are a few issues. The island beat fits the rhythmic quality of her voice well, and the bouncing, happy melody presents Madi’s lively, fun side. If she keeps experimenting like this, she’ll be sticking around for quite a while.
Gwen saves her most promising artist, Jeffery Austin, for last this week. Thus far, Jeffery has walked the well-trodden road of Sam Smith ballads, so when we find out he’s taking on “Let It Go” by James Bay, I’m intrigued. Bay is known as a solo folk rocker, not exactly Jeffery’s genre, but the performer proves he can do justice to any record. There’s room in “Let It Go” for Jeffery’s trademark falsetto, but the real peak comes when he lets out his lower, surprisingly gritty chest voice. The whole record is a tight balance between sensitivity and strength, and Jeffery pulls it off without a hitch. In terms of emotion, the song feels similar to Mark Hood’s heartfelt take on Phil Collins, but I believe Jeffery much more.
NEXT: Time for a moment
At the beginning of rehearsal with Adam’s next singer, Shelby Brown, he tells her it’s time for her to have “a moment” on this show, and he believes she’ll get one with Jamey Johnson’s “In Color.” Shelby is pumped to do the song, but all the pressure starts to get to her, and she ends up breaking down. She gets right back on track, but her mini-meltdown really brings home how tough this competition is and how much is riding on each performance, especially for the youngest singers. Shelby doesn’t have much to worry about, but “In Color” isn’t the pristine vocal performance she and Adam were hoping for, either. Most of the song sounds beautiful — Shelby puts that roar of hers to good effect — but she gets shouty at the end, and both Blake and Adam point out that she got ahead of the band at one point. Still, just one singer is going home tomorrow, and it won’t be Shelby.
Pharrell’s last singer of the episode is Evan McKeel. After the coaches’ comments last week that he needs to be more authentic onstage, Evan is desperate to show he’s not losing steam as the season continues. Indeed, his performance of “This Is It” by Kenny Loggins (who, honestly, I only know as the guy who wrote “Footloose” and the Top Gun theme) is definitely more natural. He looks like he believes in what he’s doing, rather than just making moves because he thinks they convey the emotion he’s going for. It’s actually fun to watch Evan dance around — his moves could rival Mark Hood’s. Still, the song stays in a small range relative to Evan’s abilities, and the vocal itself is forgettable, even if the visual is not.
Following Evan is last week’s highest-charting singer, Jordan Smith. Jordan is undoubtedly the one to beat so far this season, but he chooses a song that doesn’t do much to capitalize on the success of last week’s “Halo.” He selects the Christian hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” which his college choir had the honor of performing at the Vatican. I can understand the connection Jordan has to this faith-based song, but this is not a record I’d ever feel a desire to pick out of my music library (and obviously, casual listening from a Jewish TV critic is probably not what the original composers had in mind either). The performance is designed to heighten the song’s emotional reach: Jordan performs the opening a capella, on a darkened stage under a stark, white spotlight. After he performs, Blake says thank you for giving him hope during a terrible week, and Adam echoes his sentiments.
Last of all is Team Blake’s Zach Seabaugh. He performs a song his coach says the younger generation has never heard before: “My Love” by Little Texas. After hearing it live, I know exactly why we’ve never heard it before: It’s not that great a song. There are a million love songs to stir the heartstrings (Barrett Baber has sung half of them on this very show), so why go for one as bland as this? Because of the poor song choice, Zach is less animated than last week. Too often, artists think slow or down tempo means low energy, but singers need to learn to fight against that and deliver a performance that still captivates and entertains, no matter its speed. Zach is probably safe this week, but the episode ended on a letdown.