'American Idol' recap: Top 5 tackle the '60s and the Brits
We learned so much on "American Idol" on Wednesday night, when the final five contestants took the stage to sing two solo songs each -– one from the '60s and one by a British artist -– plus either a duet (the boys: Joshua Ledet and Phillip Phillips) or a trio (the girls: Hollie Cavanagh, Skylar Laine and Jessica Sanchez).
Just to name a few of those things:
1. Jimmy Iovine and his old pal Steven Van Zandt (this week's guest mentor) are like a couple of backslapping, noogie-exchanging teenagers cracking each other up and making silly trouble when they get together, as the contestants noted when they attended hilarious rehearsal sessions with the duo.
2. Phillip Phillips has a girlfriend, whom Ryan Seacrest, still apparently uneasy that his own girlfriend found Phillips "yummy," pointed out in the audience. But those who were disappointed to learn that Phillips is off the market might take heart that he had the decency to look uncomfortable when Seacrest reduced his female friend to a hair color. "He's into brunettes," the host, whose girlfriend is blonde dancer Julianne Hough, said.
3. Phillips and Ledet, who did a sort of peculiar though ultimately good duet of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," don't have the smoothest rapport. Phillips looked dyspeptic (sure, could have been the old kidney acting up) when Ledet said something about him messing him up on the song before they took the stage together. But then Ledet looked seriously uncomfortable when Phillips jokingly moved to put his arm around him at the end of the song. Phillips naughtily pressed on. I guess he really does like brunets.
4. If one of them doesn't win this thing, thus becoming, as Seacrest reminded us, the first female "Idol" winner in years, Jessica Sanchez, Hollie Cavanagh and Skylar Laine -– who seemed to have a lot of fun with Jackie Wilson's "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" -- could form a powerful/adorable girl group. It did seem a bit diminishing when Jennifer Lopez said they looked like "three little dolls," though.
5. "Idol" really seems to be pumping up the production values this year: lots of big backing bands onstage and backup singers and dancers -– and even the occasional set, as Laine had when she took the stage with Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me."
6. Steven Tyler had never heard Leona Lewis's hit "Bleeding Love," which Hollie Cavanagh -– seated on a piano, emoting, and singing spot-on and crystal clear -- really shined on.
7. Lopez had never heard the Box Tops' "The Letter," which is why she had no idea how much Phillips had changed it up and flattened out the melody.
8. Seacrest, A, doesn't know a tulip from a daffodil and, B, thinks we've all been waiting to see him put on Jessica Sanchez's ridiculously high-heeled shoes.
Oh, we could keep going like this all night, but we have many performances to discuss, so let's get to it:
"River Deep, Mountain High": During rehearsals for the rousing (and frankly, risky) Ike and Tina Turner number, Van Zandt advised Cavanagh to stop singing to please people, and just sing for the sheer joy of it. It worked. She showed a new stage command as she strutted and belted. The judges loved it. Tyler thought she'd learned to use her blues. Lopez thought she came across as a "different type of Hollie," ready to lead. Jackson said Cavanagh "wore it out."
"Bleeding Love": This time, Little Steven's advice to Cavanagh was to sing the Leona Lewis song as if she were singing to only one person. Bingo again. Cavanagh's vocals were clear, her emotions accessible. Tyler toasted Cavanagh's "beautiful ballad voice." Lopez complimented her "beautiful runs" and suggested Cavanagh may have surprised even herself. Jackson said she was peaking at the perfect time. "You've been a dark horse all season, but I'm telling you something: You're two for two tonight," he said.
"The Letter": Phillips decided to make the Box Tops' song his own. Iovine wasn't impressed, but Van Zandt's a fan. "Leave him alone. He's good," Little Steven told his pal. Phillips probably didn't need to be told that. He went out and did his own thing with the song. There was a full horn section. And after a lackluster couple of weeks, Phillips seemed to have some of his old fire back. Jackson liked the originality, missed the melody. Lopez, who didn't know the song, thought Phillips was compelling to watch. Tyler said he had good news and bad news. The bad news was he missed the melody, but "the good news is you get away with it." He compared Phillips to the Stones, complimenting him for waving "his freak flag."
"Time of the Season": Phillips didn't do a ton of Phillip-Phillipsing to this Zombies song, sticking pretty close to the original and straining to reach a few of the high notes on the chorus. Van Zandt thought he might scare people by singing the melody. But the judges seemed pleased enough. Jackson called it a "nice performance" -– relaxed, subdued -– but admitted he wasn't "jumping up and down." Lopez thought Phillips did a "good job." Tyler was "glad" he sang the melody and said he "sang it really well."
"Fortunate Son": After an initial song-choice misfure, Iovine and Van Zandt encouraged Laine to tackle this Creedence Clearwater Revival tune. Iovine explained that it's a "real song of rebellion" and "Skylar in this group is that girl of rebellion." He also said she needs to "put a jetpack on" to stay out of the bottom three. Laine gave it everything she had: belting out the notes, stomping her boots, slapping hands in the audience. Lopez loved her energy, her comfort onstage, and her willingness "to be fearless out there." Tyler admired her dress, her voice and her "boot scoot." Jackson said, "John Fogerty and the boys" would be proud, adding that Laine is truly in her element onstage, as if she was born to perform. Even Seacrest offered an assessment, saying Laine is "so entertaining to watch."
"You Don't Have to Say You Love Me": I love Dusty Springfield, but Laine's version of this song just seemed stagey and not very exciting to me. Maybe it was just me, because even though they didn't have to say they loved Laine, they said it anyway. Jackson called the performance "flawless" and "amazing" and said he was "transfixed" by Laine's performances. "You want to win, don't you?" Lopez asked. "With performances like that, you just might." Tyler said he was pleased that Laine had brought the Springfield song "into the 21st century" and that the performance was "just more proof that it works when you work it."
"Proud Mary": At first, Van Zandt tried to talk Sanchez out of tackling Tina Turner's trademark take on this CCR song, but ultimately, she won him over, so he just suggested a few stylistic tweaks. Sanchez stepped out in a slinky dress and Turner-worthy heels and shimmied and shook as she sang. Vocally, she was spot-on, as ever, but something about it (perhaps the fact that she's only 16 and trying to channel Tina) seemed a little off. Lopez enthused about how "grown up" Sanchez looked and said it was great to see her move. Tyler creepily commented, "The only thing that gives experience a run for its money is a 16-year-old." But Jackson called it "just OK," complimenting Sanchez's vocals, but saying the rest of the performance didn't sit right with him.
"You Are So Beautiful": There was some fear expressed in rehearsal that the Joe Cocker version of this song might come off as "lounge-y" in Sanchez's hands, but it didn't. It was pure and simple and honest-sounding and so beautiful: delivered barefoot, sitting on the stage floor, surrounded by candles. Basically it was everything Sanchez's first song was not. Tyler said she showed America how beautiful her voice is, adding, as an unclear afterthought, "You're gonna be No. 1, girl." Lopez liked that she took her time with it and did "some beautiful things" vocally. Jackson gushed that Sanchez had shot to "the top of the leader board," adding that she has skills people who've been singing professionally for years don't have and calling her "wisdom" and talent "unbelievable."
"Ain't Too Proud to Beg": It was a particularly good night for Ledet. After hearing Ledet tackle this Temptations song in rehearsal, Iovine was moved to declare that Ledet "has a gift." Ledet, looking supersharp in a stripey-sleeved suit and flanked by backup singers, worked it out and showed us all what Iovine meant. "Joshua, you've gotta be one of the top two best 'Idols' of all time," Tyler said, making me wonder whether his frame of reference reached back before he joined the show last season. (I doubt it.) Lopez said he was "like a throwback to another era" and that his talent was "so sick; it's crazy." Jackson compared Ledet to Terence Trent D'Arby and said he "could actually bring R&B back" into vogue.
"To Love Somebody": Ledet wanted to sing Tom Jones, but Iovine snickeringly called that a "bad idea." (Perhaps he was worried about panty throwers?) This Bee Gees song, which Ledet had never heard before Iovine and Van Zandt suggested it, was among Ledet's finest "Idol" moments. In rehearsal, Van Zandt called the version of it Ledet sang after having heard it only 15 minutes prior, "one of the greatest performances I've ever heard in my life." Ledet slayed it onstage, too, earning yet another standing ovation -– the only one of the night –- from the judges. Jackson called Ledet "one of the best singers ever on this show." Lopez tops him, saying, Ledet is "one of the best singers I've seen in 50 years." (How old is she, again?) And Tyler brought it back down to earth, saying Ledet's song "would have been a hit record" right off the bat.
All in all, an evening of pretty good performances. Nevertheless, someone has to go home. Who do you think it will be?
Each week our experts and readers rank the best of the best between the two blockbuster singing competitions. Last week, "American Idol's" Jessica Sanchez came out on top. Who will be the favorite this week? 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.
-- Amy Reiter
Photo: Jessica Sanchez performs in front of the judges on "American Idol" on Wednesday. Credit: Michael Becker / Fox