It's time for the Top 9 to take the stage with some guidance from mentor Dolly Parton on tonight's American Idol. (I'll just skip right over host Ryan Seacrest's lame April Fools' joke.)
Dolly meets with the contestants and says she hasn't been on the show before because she doesn't want to be critical. We've seen that some of the best mentors in past seasons are those who can be constructive -- perhaps Dolly will be one of them? Time will tell.
Brooke White is first, and she practices "Jolene" with Dolly, who finds her take on the song very honest. For her performance, Brooke sits on the stage with her guitar, a fiddler, a backup singer and a guy playing a drummish-type instrument. (No, I'm not a musician -- how did you ever guess?) The simple arrangement works nicely with the simplicity of the song, but as far as Brooke's performance goes, it's not much new from her. Judge Randy Jackson says this music suits her voice, but he didn't think it was "a stellar performance. ... It was all right." Paula Abdul says she is consistent, and, "You are who you are." She appreciates Brooke's emotional connection to the music. Simon Cowell says he feels like the performance was entirely lacking in emotion and that she looked like she was busking.
David Cook talks with Ryan Seacrest about how he's chosen arrangements of his songs. He says he's been looking around online, which allows him to name-check those bands whose arrangements he has performed in recent weeks. He tells Ryan that his song tonight is Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow," and the arrangement is his own. In the practice session, Dolly loves his arrangement and praises his voice. His performance is more spare than usual -- not acoustic or anything, but fewer of the rock-star trappings of some past ones. It's a nice approach to the song, and one that feels like it still relates to the original. Not to mention, he handled the high notes better than I would have expected. Randy says he likes the arrangement, and also appreciated that David went into his falsetto range. Paula says she likes his haircut. Also, she goes on, she enjoyed hearing this song from a man's perspective. Simon says he made a song about sparrows good, so, "Congratulations."
Ramiele Malubay says she was very starstruck meeting with Dolly, who says that Ramiele's small size won't stop her from doing big things. Perhaps not, but the performance is pretty boring, and I expect the judges to pull out their favorite word: "pitchy." Randy: "I wasn't jumping up and down, but I wasn't mad at you, either." Randy gets mad? Paula says she is proud of her because she had fun and connected with the audience. Simon: "Look, we're not going to remember that in 10 years, are we? ... It was cute, you sang it quite well; overall it was forgettable." Simon doesn't say anything about "pitchy," but he does go with the old "cruise-ship" chestnut.
Ryan Seacrest shows Jason Castro some of his fan mail, specifically a bunch of postcards from one woman. He practices "Travelin' Through" with Dolly, and she thinks it's a natural choice for him. His performance is nice, but not particularly exciting. Randy says it started rough, but he got it together in the end, and, "I started believing you." Paula says she thinks it was one of his strongest, most confident performances. Simon says, "This is the point where I lose my season pass to Dollywood. I didn't like that at all. It sounded actually like the same song from before. I don't think you sang it particularly well." Paula and Randy balk.
Carly Smithson works on "Here You Come Again," and Dolly thinks she "killed it" in practice. In performance, too, I'd say. I mean, none of these are the most energetic songs, but this one really suits Carly's voice. Randy: "I do believe that will probably be one of the better performances of the night. Good job." Paula calls her glorious. Simon: "I thought it was good; I didn't think it was great. ... I also think you need to have a word with whoever is dressing you." He says at this point, she should start looking like a star, and he isn't seeing that "progression."
David Archuleta sings "Smoky Mountain Memories" for Dolly, and she tries desperately not to cry. He sings in his usual, clear voice, and, like I said with Jason, it was nice, but not particularly exciting. Randy says: "David Archuleta is back, and I stand corrected. That was the best performance of the night." Paula says he is glorious, and Simon says he is "absolutely on the money." So it's one of those nights where I'm not on the same page as the judges. I don't think it was bad, just not enthralling.
Kristy Lee Cook sings "The Coat of Many Colors," and Dolly thinks Kristy felt the song and made it her own. She sings most of the song sitting on the edge of the stage, and it seems like it's affecting her breathing or something. She's kind of rushing through the song. But this week's theme suits her, and she does a decent job, but I'm still pretty bored. Randy says: "This is definitely your wheelhouse." Paula says she looks stunning, and, "This was your best performance." Simon says last week was her best performance, and this was "pleasant but forgettable." I think most of the performances tonight have been "pleasant but forgettable." For some reason, Kristy Lee blows kisses at Simon.
Syesha Mercado takes on "I Will Always Love You," and Dolly thinks it's a nice combination of Dolly's and Whitney's approaches. And yeah, Dolly's not wrong. This is the performance of the night, I think. Randy: "You took on the biggest tiger of the night, and I think you did pretty good. ... It was all right." Paula says she looks gorgeous, "and let's talk about your voice. Your voice has, when you are in that, it's like a velvety tone to your voice, it's your ..." OK, she likes it. Simon says you forget what a great songwriter Dolly Parton is because this is one of the best pop songs of all time. He says the beginning part was great, but the second part paled in comparison to the Whitney version, so he doesn't think it helped her much. Really? This was one of the first performances of the night that wasn't mostly boring, at least to me.
Michael Johns tells Dolly that she was his first concert in 1986, and he's a little starstruck. He sings "It's All Wrong, But All Right." He's definitely feeling the song and its emotion, but I think for only 90 seconds of it he could have varied it a little more because it gets a little repetitive. But his voice sounds good. Randy says he brings it up a notch every week; "blazing hot performance." What does Simon think? Too bad because the show went over, and my DVR cut off. Sigh.
So what of Dolly Parton night? She is a great songwriter, but I think these kids could have done with some more instruction on how to approach her songs in a new way. She mostly told everyone that they were "just great," which didn't lead to the most interesting performances.
The ones that stand out for me are Syesha and David Cook. And I think Ramiele could be in danger tomorrow.
What do you think?
(Photo by Michael Becker / Fox)