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Clone-free zone

‘American Idol’ men have styles that span the spectrum. By Linda Holmes
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Wednesday night, it was time to meet the men of this season's "American Idol." While several of the strong women were soulful belters, the strong men were all over the map, as were the ones who struggled.

First up was Patrick Hall, who decided that he didn't want to be eternally known as the really soft guy who sang a Bread song and made girls weep, but he bit off substantially more than he could chew with "Come To My Window." Unfortunately, nothing makes you look weak like picking a song that swamps you, and Patrick was entirely lacking the power he needed. Particularly with a song audiences are used to hearing in a strong, self-assured voice, a reedy warble sounds doubting, and Patrick did himself no favors.

Also doing himself no favors: David Radford, not the strongest singer in the competition to begin with, surviving mostly because he's a highly stylized crooner with his routine down flat. He went for a departure with "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," but he delivered it in precisely his usual finger-snapping, winking, faux-Sinatra way, resulting in a strange and unsuccessful showing. The judges didn't like it, with Randy going out of his way to deliver a meandering rebuke describing just how much he hated the performance.

David did at least enunciate, which is more than can be said for Bucky Covington, who mumbles badly enough to pass for a character on "King Of The Hill." Straggly-haired and meticulously "natural," Bucky sang the expected Lynyrd Skynyrd song, doing all he could to capture the Bo Bice vote. Bo, however, was a good singer and a skilled, confident performer. So far, Bucky is just a guy growling a lot, and it appears that a good bit of the growling is not in tune.

The next Clay Aiken?
The current front-runner for This Year's Clay Aiken is Will Makar, a young, peppy lad Paula Abdul compared, not inaccurately, to Bobby Brady. He donned his keen polo shirt and jacket, and he sang "I Want You Back." It wasn't distinguished, but it certainly was endearing, and it's a safe bet that girls all over the country started writing "Mrs. Will Makar" on the backs of their science notebooks.

Next up was Jose "Sway" Penala, one of the few contestants to ever survive a complete meltdown in Hollywood during which he forgot just about all the words to what he was supposed to be singing. Sway went with a very risky choice: Earth, Wind & Fire's "Reasons," performed almost entirely in falsetto. It's a heck of a way to introduce yourself to America.

The experiment wasn't entirely successful, as not all ranges of his falsetto are as strong as they could be, and there were pitch problems as well. But the fact that he didn't sing "Ribbon In The Sky" or one of those creaky old "Idol" standards is worthy of praise in and of itself.

Chris Daughtry happily lost his hideous facial hair along the road from his audition to his performance of Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead Or Alive." Having cleaned up thusly, he performed a very faithful facsimile of the original version of the song, just as he reported that he often had done in bar bands. The problem, of course, is that you can hear a bar band by going to a bar, so a bar-band guy needs to bring something else to the table in order to hold people's interest. Chris seems like a good guy, and he would be aces at fronting somebody's Bon Jovi tribute band. Whether anyone needs to own a Chris Daughtry CD, however, is a different question.

As different as he could be from Chris, Kevin Covais is the other sort of teenage contestant from young Will. If Will looks like Bobby Brady, Kevin looks like a darker-haired Cousin Oliver. He seems enormously nervous every time he goes on stage, and it's not clear yet whether he can master the surprisingly soulful voice that sometimes bubbles out of him. He doesn't have much in common with, say, Bucky Covington, but he has a funny, nerdy appeal that has clearly worked its magic on the female contestants, who watch him from beside the stage with protective adoration.

One of the most surprising song choices of the evening came from Gedeon McKinney, who sang "Shout." (Yeah, the one with "a little bit softer now" and so forth.) While he performed with enormous energy, the vast majority of the song offers little opportunity to do a lot vocally. Aside from the brief break in the middle, there are a lot of punchy, short phrases that don't tell you as much about breath control, pitch, or phrasing as you learn about contestants who sing more conventional music. Gedeon did show a lot of charisma, though, and there's something to be said for that.

Best of the nightMusically speaking, the strongest performance of the evening came from Elliott Yamin, who took on Stevie Wonder's "If You Really Love Me" without making himself look silly. On the contrary, he sounded terrific, he looked comfortable, and he sang with confidence. The judges couldn't say enough about how much they loved it.

From the strong to the not-so-strong, the genial Bobby Bennett performed "Copacabana," which would be a risky choice for the very strongest singer. And Bobby is frankly not the very strongest singer. His performance was not especially in tune, he never seemed confident, and the entire thing was overcranked, as if he the song got away from him and he couldn't slow it down. Prediction: Bobby will not see another week, unless Simon's merciless criticism creates a major backlash, which wouldn't be unheard of. Just ask Master P.

Resident pretty-boy Ace Young made a good choice with George Michael's "Father Figure," standing simply in the center of the stage in jeans and a T-shirt and doing all he needed to do in order to keep his swooning following excited. "Idol" has a history of showcasing men who are sexy in an adolescent lunch-box sort of way rather than in an adult way. Ace is probably the first they've had in some time who is legitimately gorgeous the way an adult should be gorgeous and is also a talented singer.

Last but not least, Taylor Hicks is a polarizing figure. Some love him, some hate him. Some find his weird, twitchy affectations sort of endearing, and some find them horribly distracting. His performance of "Levon" probably showcased his seasoned, gravelly voice as well as anything on "Idol" will, and he continued to prove that he has a quality that no one else on the show has or has ever had. Taylor is a strange phenomenon for this show — a strong contender who looks like he could be Carrie Underwood's father. Watching him should be, if nothing else, incredibly interesting.

Tomorrow night will bring results for both the men and the women. If past experience is any indication, the boring will go first, which is particularly bad news for Patrick and David. Look for the eliminated to come from among those two and Bobby, who really should have stayed away from the Manilow.