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'American Idol' recap: The top 7 perform 'Now and Then' songs

Phillip Phillips performs on "American Idol."After the justified outcry over Jessica Sanchez's near-ouster last week, "American Idol" wanted us to think of this week as "a new beginning for all." But who are they kidding? We've watched these seven singers for many weeks now. We've seen their best performances and their worst. And every time they step back onto that stage, we judge them, yes, on what they do right then, but also all we have seen and heard them do before.

Sure, in the remaining weeks before next month's finale, they will have a chance to reshape –- to stretch and refine -- their images and our impressions. But for the most part we've gotten a good grasp on who they are. Many of us have picked our favorites. And here's the truth of it, and maybe the underlying reason that someone as talented as Sanchez, who remains a definite contender to take the whole thing, could come so close to going home so early: At this point, there's really not a clunker in the bunch.

Their individual talents were clearly on display on Wednesday night's "Now and Then"-themed show, during which each contestant tackled two songs: one from the year 2000 until the present day, as well as a retro "soul" tune.

Texas-dwelling Liverpudlian Hollie Cavanagh, whom the judges had cast as the weakest link, had yet eluded the bottom three last week. She passionately ripped into Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" and proved herself worthy of the song and the competition. The judges were effusive, telling her she had finally managed to connect and show her emotions. (Conveying an emotional connection to a song would become the judges' topic of the night.) "You did it," Jennifer Lopez said triumphantly. For her second song, Cavanagh had fun with "Son of a Preacher Man," and if anything, the judges' liked it even better, saying she showed a new composure and is "ready."



Colton Dixon's autumn-red hair streak matched not only his pants but also his sister Schyler's 'do (Ryan Seacrest brought her up onstage to salute her bro) and the piano on which he accompanied himself for his second song, Earth Wind & Fire's "September." Much as the judges seemed to love Dixon's take on Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" –- "You are so in the zone right now," Randy Jackson told him –- they were less enthusiastic about his low-key version of "September." "It's not as exciting as we would have liked," Jackson said.

Elise Testone, who mentor Jimmy Iovine (guest-mentorless this week) noted had a "vacation home in the bottom three" and had to prove herself anew every week to survive, first pleased the judges with Alicia Keys' "No One," giving Lopez her "first goosies of the night."  But then she displeased them with her (very pleasing, I thought) take on Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On." To me, she seemed to be having a lot of fun with the song, but Lopez felt she wasn't showing her emotions enough –- and used her reluctance to cry about her dying dog on national TV as an example of her being afraid to show her vulnerability. (Testone rightly said she didn't think tears would have been appropriate in that moment.) Steven Tyler seemed more caught up in Testone's groove, saying she showed her "versatility" and probably caught the attention of many male viewers.

Phillip Phillips got a standing ovation from the judges for his rendition of Usher's "U Got It Bad," which Lopez called "sexy" at least three times. Jackson hailed Phillips as "a true artist" and an original. "You don't need to listen to anybody," he said. "You are Phillip Phillips, and, dude, you are da bomb." After Phillips' second song, Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour," which he sang sans guitar, Jackson and Lopez again gushed about his originality and musical instincts. But Tyler had the best praise, saying everybody loves Phillips because of who he is "deep down inside": "Brilliantly awkward. Beautiful." Or at least I think that was praise.

Before Jessica Sanchez sang her first song, Iovine told us she wouldn't deserve to be in the bottom three even if she sang "Yankee Doodle Dandy," but allowed that she had to be prepared to blow the audience's minds this week. Judging from the extended cheers following her performance of Alicia Keys' "Fallin'," the audience's minds did, in fact, appear to be blown. The judges patted themselves on their backs for saving the teen power vocalist. Jackson called her talent "otherworldly," and Lopez admired the way she played with songs "like you're juggling balls in the air," adding, "I'm so glad that you're here with us." They waxed tenderly about her take on the Otis Redding version of "Try a Little Tenderness" too. "Good God almighty. Bless my soul. You've done it again," Tyler said, encouraging Sanchez to focus on winning hearts. "Come on, girl. Come on."

Iovine thought Skylar Laine "came off like a front-runner" last week, expressing hope that she'd continue her hot streak. Laine did, singing Lady Gaga's country version of "Born This Way" in a way that made it sound like her own personal anthem, fitting her like a pair of custom-made cowboy boots. Noting her "crossover appeal" as "a rocking country girl," Jackson said Laine was "so beyond ready." Critiquing Laine's performance of "Heard It Through the Grapevine," Jackson also praised her ability to connect with a song. "Every time you come down onstage it's a party," he said. Or, as Tyler put it, Laine is "like a wild horse that refuses to be tamed."



Last up in both song rounds was Joshua Ledet. Having unexpectedly landed in the bottom three last week, Ledet was "a little bit of the deer in the headlights right now," Iovine said. He told Ledet to "dig deep" and "be stellar" every single week. Ledet's performance of "I Believe," by his "inspiration" Fantasia, brought the judges to their feet. Jackson commended him on his song choice and his restraint, calling him "one of the most gifted singers that we have ever had on this show." Jackson led his fellow judges in another standing O after Ledet's take on Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come." Tyler told Ledet that his voice "climbs inside everyone" and changes them. Jackson liked the way he let the song "marinate and then burst it open at the end." And Lopez was left begging, "Please, America, don't send this boy home. Please."

We'll learn who America will send home soon enough. Who do you think should go?

"American Idol" vs. "The Voice"

Each week our experts and readers rank the best of the best between the two blockbuster singing competitions. Last week, after nearly 50,000 votes, readers ranked "Idol's" Jessica Sanchez first with 43% of the vote.

Who will come out on top this week? So far "The Voice's" Jesse Campbell, sent packing by his mentor Christina Aguilera on Monday night, is far out in front. Use the poll below to vote. Check out last week's performances and see what our judges had to say at latimes.com/idol-voice.

RELATED:

Full coverage: 'American Idol'

'American Idol': Jessica Sanchez earns a dramatic judges' save

'American Idol' recap: The top 7 perform songs from this decade

-- Amy Reiter

Photo: Phillip Phillips performs on "American Idol." Credit: Michael Becker / Fox.

 
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