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Idol Banter: A hard day's night with the Beatles

March 12, 2008 | 11:10 am

The Beatles “tribute” edition of “American Idol” on Tuesday night taught us three important lessons. “Chosen One” David Archuleta is human after all; the "Idol" judges, echoing former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous pronouncement about porn, can’t define a great vocal, but they think they’ll know it when they hear it; and even songs from the hallowed Lennon-McCartney canon aren’t indestructible.

Ever-winsome Archuleta stumbled musically for the first time this season with his attempt at Stevie Wonder’s arrangement of “We Can Work It Out.” His languid phrasing sacrificed the rhythmic spark of Wonder’s vocal, and Randy Jackson duly — if obviously — noted that it’s nigh on impossible to beat Wonder at his own game. Simon Cowell simply called it “a mess.” That means perhaps there’s a contest this season after all, now that so many pundits had virtually handed Archuleta the crown following his winning early performances.

But Jackson, Cowell and Paula Abdul, if truth be told, constituted a mess of their own Tuesday. After criticizing one combatant for taking too many liberties with one of the Fab Four’s classic melodies, they’d savage another for a “boring” performance that didn’t take enough.

They previously advised Oregonian Kristy Lee Cook to exploit her countrified charm, then when she countried up “Eight Days a Week,” they slaughtered her for making it too country. And after writing off Kady Malloy previously for being “forgettable,” Cowell told Kristy Lee that “to change that song like that was just wrong.” Her performance may have missed the target, but “forgettable” it wasn’t.

In fact, it was one of the most boldly original moments amid the largely cookie-cutter musical mentality of “Idol” to date — even if it ultimately failed. That was the fault of the house band, which lumbered its way through an arrangement requiring a deft and nimble touch, dragging Cook down into the morass with it.

What matters, ultimately, isn’t whether a singer puts in enough vocal flourishes or injects too many, but whether either choice serves to make the song, and thus the singer, connect with the audience. Chikezie, he of the beatific smile and Grand Canyon-like dimples, proved that with his left-field treatment of “She’s a Woman,” which opened sparsely bluegrass and wended its way to the Who’s rock grandeur, complete with Roger Daltrey-like stuttered lyrics. Along with Kristy Lee’s song, it was one of the very few arrangements that even hinted at an original vision behind it. His worked, not just because of his ebullient vocal, but because the "Idol" band knows what to do with rock, far more than how to handle fleet-fingered country.

As much as the music of the Beatles is beloved, it’s not foolproof, as several contestants discovered the hard way.

David Hernandez deserved to be sent packing this week, not because of recent revelations that he once worked as a stripper, but for his clueless approach to “I Saw Her Standing There.” Despite positive feedback Tuesday from the "Idol" troika of judges, rocker David Cook’s “Eleanor Rigby” was a bloated, Creed-like screamfest magnificently unsuited to McCartney’s haunting lyric musing about “all the lonely people.” Ramiele Malubay had the misfortune of following Chikezie’s house-afire performance, which she only compounded with a somnambulistic reading of “In My Life.”

Turns out — surprise, surprise — this stuff wasn’t quite as easy as those lads from Liverpool made it look.

-- Randy Lewis