American Idol: Top 9

So this week is Dolly Parton week on American Idol, most likely because the 62 year-old country diva has an album to promote a genuine passion for guiding young talent. (She really does have an album to promote.) This means that our nine remaining contestants will pick songs from Parton’s catalogue and that the busty balladeer will appear in everyone’s lead-in clip for what’s sure to be an entertaining night.

That entertainment, however, might come more in the form of failure than anything else. Outside of Kristy Lee Cook and the recently-axed Chikezie, none of this year’s hopefuls seem particularly inclined towards country songs — which means that the competition’s worst contestant will once again slide through another week while one of its best might face an early departure. Check after the jump for live coverage of tonight’s performances, as well as predictions for who might be in trouble come tomorrow night.

Brooke White: “Jolene” (from the album Jolene)
Simon made the call on this one: Brooke rushed through her performance without emotion. “Jolene” is a song about a girlfriend absolutely terrified that a better woman’s about to steal her man — full of paranoia and fear, neither of which showed up in Brooke’s voice. Instead, she performed the song in the same way she performed “Every Breath You Take” — which she sung in the same way she did “Let It Be.” So at least she’s consistent, and consistency is enough to carry her through to next week without a hiccup. But I’d like to see a change-up sometime soon to prove that she’s not just trying to pass off reincarnations of her show-stopping “Let It Be.”

David Cook: “Little Sparrow” (Little Sparrow)
Now here’s a change-up: David, fresh off multiple weeks of stretching his vocal rasp to its farthest limits, decided to treat “Little Sparrow” more delicately — relying heavily on his surprisingly smooth falsetto. Randy complimented him for the move, Paula complimented him for the haircut, and Simon complimented him for “making a song about sparrows good.” (Particularly flattering considering his absolute disgust when Carly Smithson sang about blackbirds.) But more than anything, David dodged a potential bullet tonight — and I can’t personally think of any theme that will burden his slow march to the top of this competition. (Outside of Mariah Carey night, if that actually happens.)

Ramiele Malubay: “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” (Heartbreak Express)
Just pitiful. How Ramiele is still around mystifies me — maybe Danny Noriega is casting millions of votes per week. This time around, Ramiele took on a “cute” song, and the best compliment Dolly Parton could give her was that “she’s small — just like me!” Unforunately, Ramiele’s voice is just as small, meaning that once again she turned in a pitchy, pathetic and unprofessional performance of a forgettable song. I can only hope that America realizes its mistake and finally casts her off the island.

Jason Castro: “Travelin’ Thru” (Transamerica OST)
Jason is quickly becoming the most divisive figure on this season of Idol. This week alone, Paula liked him, Randy thought he was so-so and Simon absolutely hated him. This brings to mind last week, when Castro ended up in the bottom three just a few days after Simon named him as one of this year’s top contenders on Oprah. So regardless of whether America loves or hates him, they’ve at least got an opinion on him. And speaking with the knowledge that America listens to Simon much more than Randy or Paula, I think we might see another appearance by Castro in the bottom three come tomorrow night.

Carly Smithson: “Here You Come Again” (Here You Come Again)
A quick gripe before reviewing Carly’s performance: Idol has done a terrible job tonight of actually naming the songs that our contestants are singing. I thought I was losing my mind when Ramiele’s choice wasn’t identified in her lead-in clip, but Carly’s song also went unnamed throughout her entire appearance — her clip, her song, even the judge’s reviews. And speaking of those reviews, Carly might just earn the highest marks of the night, all because she managed to sift through the Dolly Parton catalogue and find a song that allows some semblance of vocal runs. (The track, of course, was not written by Parton herself.) That said, I thought the performance was decent at best; the better moment was when Simon bashed Carly’s wardrobe, giving off a little of his personal agenda against her in this competition. (He’s never dropped her name as a competition frontrunner, he didn’t like her during this year’s auditions, and he has shown an unfailing ability to critique some aspect of her performance each week.) It’ll be interesting to see where Carly ends up this week, as her livelihood seems more or less dictated by Simon’s opinion of her — recall that her only week in the bottom three came when her lamented her for “Blackbird.”

David Archuleta: “Smoky Mountain Memories” (Live and Well)
We’ve seen David struggle through some embarrasingly bad weeks, from forgetting song lyrics to picking forgettable songs. So when he does actually connect with a melody, the judges go wild. That was the case this week, when he seemed to make it through “Smoky Mountain” without a hitch. Still, I’m not totally sold that the kid’s a great performer; a great singer, sure, but he hasn’t got the same charisma and confidence that we see in David Cook — who I’d classify as less of a singer but twice the performer. Whatever the case may be, David has no reason to worry come results night.

Kristy Lee Cook: “Coat of Many Colors” (Coat of Many Colors)
Wow, a whole lot of shit just went down that had nothing to do with Kristy Lee’s performance. First, Randy said almost nothing about her singing and instead commented that tonight is “Kristy Lee night” — more or less denoting that she has no chance at winning this competition but might be able to scrap a Kellie Pickler-style country career out of it. Then Simon reprised his praise for last week’s “God Bless the USA” performance instead of talking directly about this week. And then Ryan noticed Kristy’s bare feet and name dropped a French manicure — lobbing a softball to Simon for what could have been a brilliant gay joke. (No such luck.) As for Kristy’s actual singing? Enough to skid by, but well short of Carrie Underwood — short of even Pickler for that matter.

Syesha Mercado: “I Will Always Love You” (Jolene)
Syesha won the strategy award tonight, opting to avoid the full-on Whitney Houston version of “I Will Always Love You” — which she would have fallen well short of inevitably. She did, however, incorporate some impressive vocal gymnastics; the highlight was a seemingly endless high note that segued into the final line of her performance. That said, the judges weren’t entirely sold on her performance, and I fear she’ll be in hot water once again tomorrow night due mostly to her inability to create a true fan base through these first four weeks of single-elimination Idol. That’s not to suggest she’s the weakest singer of the bunch; I’d put her in the top 5, but America won’t.

Michael Johns: “It’s All Wrong, But It’s Alright” (Here You Come Again)
This performance was absolute ear candy. It brought to mind season five’s Taylor Hicks craze, when all of America got behind the competition’s oldest contestant whose strongest suit was singin’ the blues. As for the judges, Randy and Simon hit the nail on the head: this is Johns’ best night, and he’s perhaps the one contestant this season to improve from week to week. That’s a tough trick to pull, and it might just launch him into Top 5 contention in the press. He’s safe for sure tomorrow night.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Before I get to tonight’s highs and lows, I’ll make the point that this might be one of the more deplorable theme choices on behalf of the Idol producers. That’s not to say that Dolly Parton isn’t a legendary songwriter — but when Ryan Seacrest’s first line in her bio complimented Parton for being a “pop culture icon,” we knew immediately that we wouldn’t be dealing with any show-stopping melodies. So instead, we got a night of unrecognizable songs, made worse by the fact that more than one of them went completely unnamed throughout the entire show. This may be the last time that “Country Night” is morphed into a solo night for any artist, regardless of their own integrity as a country star. Fittingly, then, the best performance of the night was a blues song — Michael Johns’ take on “It’s All Wrong, But It’s Alright.” The worst goes to Ramiele Malubay, who at very least should be in tomorrow night’s bottom three. Joining her will be Syesha Mercado and one of two other contestants familiar with the bottom three: either Carly Smithson or Jason Castro. And as for who gets axed, I’m predicting an unfortunate early departure for Syesha.

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