This was bifurcation night on American Idol. It was a tale of two halves: Each of the Final Five contestants sang two songs, one contemporary and one classic.
If you tuned in late, you didn't miss much. The contemporary half was a bust for most of the singers.
The All-But-Coronated James Durbin sang "Closer to the Edge" by 30 Seconds to Mars. The result took James to the brink of disaster: It was pitchy, and screechy, and forgettable. The best one could say is that it was energetically performed. But the three American Idol judges gave no critique. Hand them some pom-poms and they'll be recognized for what they've become: James Durbin's Cheerleading Squad.
No one but Scotty McCreery really stood out in the first half. Scotty nailed "Gone" by Montgomery Gentry. It was a performance that was full of energy, and confidence, with none of the unevenness that the other contestants exhibited in the first round. This week's guest vocal coach, Sheryl Crow told Scotty that "you have a big career ahead of you."
As they dove into the Classics songbook, they all emerged with familiar ballads and took it up a notch.
James Durbin left the rocker behind with a sensitive rendition of Harry Nilsson's "Without You." An emotional song for him because he's seen so little of his wife and young son in recent weeks, as he explained in the video package. He kept it together until the end of the performance, where he squeezed out a couple of tears. The judges (surprise, surprise) ate it up. "Emotionally perfect," said Randy Jackson. A
Jacob Lusk gave another over-the-top emotional performance, this time of "Love Hurts," first recorded by The Everly Brothers in 1960. Jennifer Lopez noted his "bobble" in the middle but praised his vocal "tricks" at the end. The emotional quotient felt less authentic after James's performance. C
Lauren Alaina stayed in the safe zone with a performance of The Righteous Brothers version of "Unchained Melody," which as coach Jimmy Iovine noted, is familiar to most people as the theme song from the 1990 movie "Ghost." The song was first performed in 1955 and as the theme song for the prison movie, "Unchained." Lauren actually sang around some of the more signature notes in the piece, which took some of the air out of the performance. The judges, of course, praised her performance, albeit without an lot of enthusiasm. B
Scotty McCreery gave a well-executed rendition of "Always on My Mind," a song covered by Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson, among many others. It was a little sleepy, but the judges gushed. JLo said she was "captivated with your sweet voice," Randy told him that "I love it, dude," and Steven Tyler said that Scotty's country songs are "takin' us up and down the trail. Perfect." B+
Then came Haley Reinhart. She brought down the house, and brought the judges out of their chairs with her jazz-inspired interpretation of "House of the Rising Sun." The origins of this song are unknown, but The Animals, who made it a hit in 1964, claimed it was a 16th century English folk song. Judge Randy called it the best performance of the night. This blogger would call it her best performance yet on an American Idol stage. It was powerful, moving, and best of all, Haley resisted the urge to growl. JLo gushed that this "song has never been performed like that before." A+
Who's going home Thursday night? No question: Jacob Lusk.
The buzz around Thursday night's result show is already building because Judge Jennifer won't just be telling American Idol contestants how it's done. She'll show them. She says she'll be performing a cut from her newly released album, "Love."