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Last week, Jeff sang, “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me and I’m feeling good!” After weeks of kvetching about The X Factor and Khaya’s and Rachel’s and Lillie’s premature departure and the crappy arrangements and the overly glitzy production numbers, I’m turning over a new leaf. Perhaps it’s the holiday or the fact that, since my favorites are gone, I’m forced to reevaluate but I’m - to quote that song again - feeling good.
Wednesday night, we got to see the top six perform twice. The first was singing a “diva” song. The second was be an acoustic, unplugged number. While the first set might draw some good performances, I was most interested in how the acts would stand out unplugged and without back-up dancers and wild projections.
Because each act performed twice, I’m going to recap each song separately but list them together for ease.
Restless Road: * * * / * * * ½
Diva Round: In their first outing, Restless Road sang Taylor Swift’s “Red.” Yes, the producers of The X Factor thought Swift was a diva. Does that say something about their musical knowledge? Oh wait, I promised to be nice tonight. Never mind. The country trio put their “man band twist” on it and, I gotta say, they sounded better than I’ve heard them in a while. Their harmonies are getting better and the group is definitely gelling more. But, boy, was the whole thing dull, dull, dull.
I had more energy mere moments before my tryptophan-fueled Thanksgiving nap than the boys had during their song.
Unplugged Round: After that, they performed “Wake Me Up” by Avicii. It was a very serviceable cover and a really nice arrangement of the hit. They even sounded better than on “Red.” I still find them dull, though, and attest that I could find dozens of better Avicii covers on YouTube from amateurs with an acoustic guitar and a webcam.
Rion Page: * * * / * *
Diva Round: As I’ve said for weeks on end, I really want to love Rion. She has an incredible personality, lights up a room and has real country chops. But I think she’s about 7 years early for her shot at stardom. Her voice needs to mature and strengthen through years of practice and coaching. First, Rion sang “See You Again” by Carrie Underwood. It’s a fine song but she strained through just about the whole thing. It was just too big for her. At least they had her simply standing and singing (although I’m not sure I get the circus theme) in a beautiful gown.
Unplugged Round: Unfortunately, Rion’s night went from bad to worse. The good news is that Rion’s take on “Glass” by Thompson Square was about as pure and believable as reality show singing can be. She meant every word of the song (which, by the way, has gorgeous lyrics). The bad news is that her singing ranged from serviceable to painfully off. It was pitchy, screechy and sloppy. I don’t know if emotions got the better of her, but, as much as I hate to say it, the song was downright unpleasant.
Jeff Gutt: * * * * / * * * *
Diva Round: Every time I hear “Without You” all I can think of is that hysterical ”Ken Lee” version. The thought of Jeff covering Mariah seemed like a terrible idea but he mostly made it work through an arena rock arrangement and some powerful vocals. Sure, there was something dated and a bit cold about the whole thing, but Jeff sounded surprisingly good on it. I sort of agree with Paulina (well at least I think I do, I could only understand about 15 percent of everything she says) when she said she wants “blood” during his next performance. Although her meaning was disputed by her fellow judges, I agree that he needs more gritty authenticity in his performances.
Unplugged Round: Elton John’s “Daniel” is one of my favorite songs and it resonated for Jeff in unexpected ways. What a coincidence that he really has a brother named Daniel who’s in the service! I loved seeing Jeff play the guitar and connecting so deeply to a song. There were things to complain about here too, but Jeff showed a softer side and listened to my advice from a few weeks ago, so I’ll let it slide.
Ellona Santiago: * * ½ / * * * *
Diva Round: Ellona’s personal diva was an adorable little toddler named Adelle. Problem is, I’d rather listen to Adelle’s take on Gaga’s “Applause” than Ellona’s. Singing amidst monsoon-level wind, on a giant, red carpet covered staircase and sporting a Princess-Leia-In-Her-Jabba-The-Hutt-Slave-Outfit-like hairdo, the whole thing was cluttered and confused. Ellona’s vocals, too, were riddled with messy runs and awkward flips from chest to head voice. Afterwards, Demi said she “couldn’t be more prouder” of her. I wonder if sitting next to Aunt Pow Pow has somehow worsened her grasp of the English language through osmosis.
Unplugged Round: What Ellona lacked in “Applause,” she made up for in “If I Were A Boy.” And this was perfect timing, as this unplugged performance was the time for her to show America that she can perform without dancers and gimmicks. Vocally, Ellona’s no Lady B but she delivered her best vocal in weeks.
Alex & Sierra: * * * * ½ / * * * * ½
Diva Round: It’s no secret that Alex & Sierra are my favorite remaining act and they hit home runs in both their songs. First up was another laid-back acoustic cover of a pop track, this time Destiny Child’s “Say My Name.” I loved the arrangement, I loved the chill vibe and their smooth vocals. But what I love most about A&S is that, if they never went on a televised singing competition, they would still be singing these kind of covers on some Florida boardwalk.
Unplugged Round: There’s really not much to say about “Say Something.” It was beautiful and simple and nearly flawless. The connection between the two was palpable, too, while resulted in an incredibly strong performance.
Carlito Olivero: * * * ½ / * * * ½
Diva Round: Continuing in the corny Latin anthem vain, Carlito performed JLo’s “Let’s Get Loud.” It’s a good thing Paulina switched songs, ‘cause this one suited Carlito very well. Despite that, “Let’s Get Loud” was like the musical equivalent of a microwave burrito: cheesy, generic but tasty too.
Unplugged Round: Next, Carlito returned to his Spanish roots with a bilingual cover of “Stand By Me.” It was sung fairly well, but after hearing dozens of that song on other shows, this one won’t be remembered come morning.
If it were up to me, I’d send Restless Road and Rion home. But my guess is that Rion and Ellona will leave the competition.