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'American Idol' Recap: Big Voices and Forgotten Words on Detroit-Honoring Night (BILLBOARD)

The good news with "American Idol" this week? Apparently 'Motown Week' means less ballads on the singing competition, which after the last few weeks is a welcome respite indeed (let's thank Smokey Robinson, the mentor this evening). The bad? It's down to the top eight and still needs to fill two hours, so it's time for group performances! While that may not sound like a poor proposition, remember that this is the ...
"Idol" season where remembering the words to songs during Hollywood Week was tougher than usual, for reasons unknown. Remember also that this is a group of contestants who tend to wear on their sleeves the fact that they didn't know a song they sing that week before, you know, that week. Through two songs into the equation, and it's going to be a recipe for disaster for some.
Though, surprisingly (or unsurprisingly, if you've been watching this season), the contestants in the poorest shape aren't exactly the ones who couldn't get the lyrics down.
In the final group of the evening, the three remaining guys, Lazaro Arbos, Burnell Taylor and Devin Velez, took on Motown classic "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch." Shocker -- Arbos didn't get all the words down before the performance, leaving Velez to pick up the slack, or so he claimed. After a fierce lashing from Nicki Minaj ("Don't ever do that again! All three of you, go. Get off the stage!"), Taylor kind of muttered that he didn't want to "throw anyone under the bus, but..." and Velez added that he learned his parts and "tried saving a couple people."
At this point you might think, "Well, they were sticking up for themselves and America isn't gonna take that from Lazaro!" Hahaha... probably not. We've seen Arbos get through on incredibly weak performances the last two weeks and has a sizable fan base pulling for him. If anything, this will backfire on Velez and Taylor. Remember how Curtis Finch was kind of a tool to Charlie Askew during the group round of Hollywood and then was voted out fairly early in the show? Yeaaah...
The groups are always kind of bad anyway, so to mention the other two in passing before we get to the solos: Janelle Arthur and Kree Harrison's "Like a Prayer" was OK but Harrison unsurprisingly stood way out above her counterpart, while Amber Holcomb, Candice Glover and Angie Miller did the Supremes proud and meshed well, but their solo turns were far more interesting -- so let's get to them.
1. Janelle Arthur - "You Keep Me Hanging On"
AM I MAD? After weeks of being just kind of OK with Janelle, she shoots up to the top of the heap this week! It's not because she did anything particularly flashy; rather, it's because she really sounded like an artist this week. Apparently she first came up with the arrangement when she was 14, and if I was coming up with anything this good at 14, my fan fiction would be getting turned into feature films or something. It was a country update of the tune but not to the extent where the song was unrecognizable, with Arthur on acoustic guitar. Finally, a Janelle performance I can get behind.
2. Candice Glover - "I Heard it Through the Grapevine"
I'll be the first to admit that this wasn't Glover's best showing especially compared to the last two weeks, but still placing her in second probably shows how ahead of the rest of these guys and gals she is. It was a bluesy arrangement; Candice continues to stray slightly from the soul/R&B she was originally pegged at probably doing most of the time. That's good! Plus, it's still in her wheelhouse, so it's not like this sidestep is not beneficial. Still, just wait until she gets back to the dramatic intensity of songs like "I (Who Have Nothing)."
3. Burnell Taylor - "My Cherie Amour"
Once I knew what this week would entail musically, I had no doubt Taylor would be in a comfort zone. In fact, I actually expected him to slay whatever he did. While he didn't exactly go super beast mode crazy, he was still the best guy of the evening (like he tends to be, you know, every week). I love when Burnell hits the sweet spot in his vocal, the point where it's a slight rasp that he really carries for positive effect. Plus, he finally came out of his ballad streak to do something slightly more upbeat. But wow, I never thought I'd say it, but those hand gestures do start to get a bit annoying after awhile....
4. Kree Harrison - "Don't Play That Song"
Pimp spot, ladies and gents! Kree went last Wednesday evening and pulled out this Ben E. King tune. The vocal was spot-on, but that's what Harrison always is, so that's no shocker. That said, there's little intensity from her here and in many past performances, which is something I think we need to see if she's really going to win. Otherwise, you get a partial package with her, and less of a connection to the songs, or so it seems. That's what I'm waiting on from Kree at this point.
5. Amber Holcomb - "Lately"
Good. Pretty good. Standing ovation worthy? Hmm. But that's what Holcomb got from all four judges, so I might be missing something here. I have a feeling I'm not, though; in fact, I think many are going to look at Amber's performance the same way I did: kind of boring. I'm not going to dispute she has a great voice, and her vocal was especially sweet-sounding Wednesday -- totally spot-on with each little ministration. Was there any kind of connection to the audience, though? To the song, even? Was she memorable? Has she ever been that memorable? I think you know my answers at this point.
6. Devin Velez - "Tracks of My Tears"
By Devin Velez standards, this was a home run! But compared to his counterparts, he's still not standing out very much, and like Holcomb, is a fairly sleepy performer. There's too much restraint every week, and this was no different, with Velez doing a pitch-perfect take on Smokey's song, but doing little else with it. He's got the voice (actually, it's one of the best voices [at least, tones] in the competition), but now he needs to find that way to really connect in the way, say, Candice does.
7. Lazaro Arbos - "For Once in My Life"
Hey, Lazaro finally took a step forward. Nice! You can tell when he knows a song and actually enjoys it, because his vocal is way more on point and we don't hear nearly as much criticism from the judges afterward. But come on, even with a good Arbos performance, he's still not as strong a singer as the rest of them, and while that worked fine for Phillip Phillips last season, Phillips was more of an artist than Lazaro, who still hasn't really shown a major strength or direction. A little pitchy here and there, but I doubt it's going to matter, since he's gotten through on much worse performances.
8. Angie Miller - "Shop Around"
Speaking of pitchy, dawg. Miller decided to change it up a bit, doing a louder, more upbeat number than what we're used to from her. While I'm glad she wasn't stuck in ballad land again, it's become apparent that her strengths lie there (or, at least, in softer, adult-alternative material that you hear on that radio station that claims to "play everything"). No connection to the song or audience, with a vague deer-in-the-headlights look about her. She chalked it up to trying to have fun, but that doesn't excuse poor song choice. She'll be back though; no worries.

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