The Semifinals are full of surprises, both from frontrunners and from singers you might have counted out.

By Ariel Kay
December 08, 2015 at 03:58 PM EST
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The Voice

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The Voice will declare this season’s winner in just one week, and by now you’d think we’d know what to expect from our nine remaining artists. But during the Semifinal performances, many singers made surprising choices — both for good and for ill.

The Top Nine kicks off with Barrett Baber, who I’ve been thinking of as a finale shoo-in for weeks now. But his chances are looking a little less certain after his unsteady take on Ella Henderson’s “Ghost.” When Barrett first announces he’ll be singing this soul-pop record, I’m excited at the possibilities. On paper, it sounds like a great choice to surprise viewers who’ve grown used to his particular style over many weeks. (And how could anyone not be hooked by Barrett’s promise to make the song “swampier”?) But in practice, the performance doesn’t quite come off. “Ghost” has rhythm and real broken-hearted power behind its lyrics. Barrett can’t muster the energy to deliver a version that will inspire iTunes downloads, and the song ends up looking like an odd fit for him.

Shelby Brown, who sings next, has never been a frontrunner. Last week, I even said the announcement that she’d made it through felt melancholy because there’s so little chance of her getting to the Top Four. I still believe that (Twitter votes don’t lie), but if there was ever a performance that could carry Shelby to the finale, it’s this one. She chooses to sing “Even God Must Get the Blues” by Jo Dee Messina. At first, she’s fretful over choosing a lesser-known song (and I’m nodding along with that fear). But her anxiety is unnecessary, because “Even God Must Get the Blues” is a fantastic song choice for her. I get a Carrie Underwood vibe as she gives herself over to the raw emotion of this number. Normally, I’m not a fan of melodramatic ballads, but Shelby sings the pants off this song. Whether or not she moves forward, she just gave herself the biggest boost she possibly could have.

After Shelby comes Team Gwen’s Jeffery Austin. I’ve been pulling for Jeffery since Auditions, and this was his moment to clinch his position in the finals. Unfortunately, there was no clinching. The glorious stream of musical excellence I expected to burst forth from Jeffery’s lips did not come. Instead, his performance of Cher’s “Believe” was one of his worst of the season. I was interested to hear what he’d do with Cher, an underrated diva in today’s music culture and on The Voice. Once Gwen said Jeffery’s arrangement sounded like Elton John, I was fully on board. But his “Believe” was missing all the subtlety and finesse we’ve heard from him before. It sounded overwrought. Jeffery wants this so badly (and if he moves on, he’ll certainly deserve it), but tonight that desperation sounded like screaming, particularly at the song’s peak phrase, “I don’t need you anymore.”

NEXT: A season highlight

All of the performances so far have been surprising, and Braiden Sunshine, who’s up next, continues the pattern. After being last week’s Instant Save, few would have guessed he’d amount to anything more than an easy bet for bottom five this episode. That suspicion would have only grown once his overly safe, completely riskless song choice, “Amazing Grace,” was revealed. But once again, those doubters would be wrong. What pours out of Braiden is angelic. His voice is so much clearer and more technically sound than on his past rock performances. I still don’t know what “Amazing Grace” has to do with the kind of music he’d want to make or the type of artist he wants to be (other than a golden-voiced cherub who sings from on high), but there’s no denying the purity and beauty of what he did tonight. This was a season highlight for Braiden (and for me).

Even Zach Seabaugh got the memo about changing things up tonight. He debuts his first non-country performance, Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb.” There’s no Elvis impression tonight. Zach is all guitar-strumming sincerity on this inspirational song about uphill battles. It’s quite on the nose, considering the singer’s current position. It’s also a good reminder of what made the coaches turn for Zach in the first place, before he had a single lovesick fan: That stirring baritone still makes the room vibrate when he goes for deep notes. Still, “The Climb” doesn’t distinguish Zach enough amid the highs and lows of the Semifinals to make a real splash, which tells me he probably won’t be back next week.

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Following Zach is Team Pharrell’s sole remaining competitor, Madi Davis, who’s singing “Big Girls Don’t Cry” by the Four Seasons. During her audition I compared Madi’s voice to Frankie Valli’s, and that similarity has stuck with me throughout her time on the show. This could have been a moment, like Carole King’s “It’s Too Late,” to really show off what makes her tone so unique. Instead, Madi and Pharrell make an odd choice to focus on the visual. They build an entire set for the performance, complete with a whimsical cafe and background actors. Despite the grandeur, Madi doesn’t seem very animated. She takes more than half the song just to mosey to the front of the stage. The performance is too wrapped up in this scene, and Madi’s too focused on the act (which includes getting cutesy with the accordion player) to fully connect with the audience. Her voice still sounds beautiful stretching over Valli’s highest notes, but she could have done more to prove herself worthy of the next round.

Following Madi comes Team Blake’s most likely shot at a win, Emily Ann Roberts. This week, Blake bestows upon her a real gift: Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” a song with so much personality it could net a mannequin a top-10 hit. Emily Ann says she’s nervous to sing a Dolly song when the queen of country herself is performing tomorrow, but she needn’t have worried. Her performance is fun and full of life. It’s also the only really upbeat song of the entire evening, which automatically weighs in her favor. Emily Ann still doesn’t look entirely comfortable playing the part of sassy songstress, but with “9 to 5,” she’s showing she can get down with a jukebox joint just as well as a hymn. That diversity will serve her well.

NEXT: A glimpse into Amy’s heart

The penultimate performer, Amy Vachal, takes the opposite approach from Emily Ann. After weeks of high-concept versions of frothy pop songs, Amy dives deep on her Semifinal performance of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love.” The understated song has no bells and whistles, no jarring rearrangements or ‘90s nostalgia. It’s a pure, unfettered take on a classic. It’s also one of the few times we get to hear how big Amy’s voice can actually get when she lets it. I’m so used to her breathy half-whisper that her fuller notes come as a pleasant surprise. Those dynamics allow her to connect emotionally on a whole different level. “Make You Feel My Love” is her best performance yet. It feels like we’ve gotten a glimpse of Amy’s heart.

The final singer of the night is, of course, Jordan Smith. We can talk all we want about a Top Four, but every other performer is really just competing for the three remaining finale spots not occupied by Jordan. The guy has been narrowing in on victory since the very first time he appeared on stage. And just in case you forgot who owns this season, he’s here to remind you tonight. Adam gives Jordan “Somebody to Love” by Queen, and it’s like letting loose a lion on a particularly delectable meal. This song is a production (complete with a full gospel choir), and it offers plenty for the singer to dig his teeth into. Jordan explores more of the deeper end of his range, as well as giving us those soaring high notes and high-powered runs. By the end, he’s on his knees, and the crowd is on its feet. This performance would have made Freddie Mercury proud.

Extras:

  • Anyone who keeps up with The Voice online has known next week’s drastic cut was coming — but this episode was the first time Carson actually announced on the show that half that the singers will be leaving tomorrow. Viewers who don’t engage with The Voice online must have been shocked
  • Gwen’s hairstylist is just trolling us now
  • Carson also announced that there were six Grammy nominations among the four judges: one for Adam (via Maroon 5), one for Blake, and four for Pharrell (three of which are for producing Kendrick Lamar)

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The Voice

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

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