Continuing their season-long effort to find mentors more appealing to baby boomers than people who actually watch the show, “American Idol” brought in the legendary Neil Diamond this week to work with the remaining five finalists. But unlike Dolly Parton and Andrew Lloyd Webber before him, Diamond got to watch each contestant sing two of his songs instead of one.
His goal was to encourage the finalists. “Don’t be nervous at all … the songs are written to be joyful, and for you to enjoy singing them,” he told the “Idol” hopefuls. More enjoyable for the viewers: the 10 songs in one hour of TV time left little time for banter among the judges.
That was a good thing, too. In offering quick criticism after the first round of songs, Paula Abdul told Jason Castro that she didn’t like either of his two songs, which made her either confused, Nostradamus, or perhaps she was basing her opinions on rehearsals.
After a week in which there have been reports that the show is contemplating changes for next year, this wasn’t one of Paula’s finer nights. Fortunately, the contestants generally did a better job with the Neil Diamond songbook.
David Cook turned the tables on his pre-performance interview and got Ryan Seacrest talking about how he prepared for Neil Diamond instead. Ryan revealed that he used to ride in his parents’ station wagon and sing those songs while sitting in the way-back, and the millions of kids who know only SUVs and minivans responded with a giant “Huh?”
When Cook took the stage, he sang “I’m Alive” and followed up with “All I Really Need is You.” “I got goose bumps,” Diamond said about Cook in rehearsal, and while not many in the audience would go that far, Cook did his usual good work in taking an older song and making it sound contemporary.
In particular, “All I Really Need is You” isn’t one of Diamond’s better-known songs, but Cook’s take on it was refreshing and modern, especially since he followed a Jason Castro number that was neither.
“I’m so proud of you. I feel like I’m already looking at the American Idol,” Paula said.
“I thought the second song was brilliant,” Simon Cowell agreed. “You actually made it feel like that song was written this year. That was smart. Well done.”
At this point, David Archuleta could only draw criticism from the judges if he decided to pose with Miley Cyrus for Vanity Fair. He picked the two Neil Diamond songs guaranteed to please audiences, “Sweet Caroline” and “America.”
On “Caroline,” the audience helped a lot — the squeals and cheers added to the ambiance, and helped hide a performance that was, at that same moment, being done with equal skill by wedding bands across the country. It was much stronger by the finish, however, an Archuleta trademark. “America” was not great, and looked and sounded like a cruise ship performance, but the audience ate it up and so did the judges.
“That was a smart choice of song,” Simon said. “I’ve got to hand it to you. That was clever. It ticked the boxes. It was absolutely the right choice — check, check, check.
“All I can say is that for a young man, you are definitely in the zone right now,” Randy Jackson added.
Syesha Mercado is getting better every week, but still has a lot of ground to make up after being in the bottom two a week ago. She slowed things down with “Hello Again,” and then closed the show with the upbeat “Thank the Lord for the Nighttime.”
With “Hello Again,” she showed a wide vocal range, but the song itself isn’t memorable, which won’t help her chances. Her encore, however, was better.
“It’s infectious — you can’t help but clap along,” Diamond said of the latter song. Mercado certainly made it sound that way, strutting and clapping around the stage.
“What I’m loving about you in this moment is that you’re finally discovering who you are,” Randy said. But while Simon liked it as well, he also thought that it didn’t stand out and that she might be in trouble. What else is new?
It’s a good thing for Brooke White that she got to sing two songs instead of just one this week. She played guitar on “I’m a Believer,” and went with the piano on “I Am, I Said.” Had they had had a third song, perhaps she would have broken out the accordion.
She went lower in her register than normal for “Believer,” but her facial expressions went wild while she performed … it was hard to tell if she was playing to the audience or grimacing in disbelief that her musical future on the show was going to be determined in part by a song the Monkees made famous when her parents were little kids.
White then wrote some of the lyrics to “I Am, I Said” on her hand, like a middle-schooler trying to pass a spelling test. Maybe it was the cheat sheet, but she sounded much better on this one. Some of her best songs have been when she’s been sitting at the piano, which speaks to both how vulnerable her voice sounds when she’s there and how much it helps her not to have to move around on stage.
“What you just did, as opposed to the first song — it does show your vulnerability and how you connect to the audience. That just works,” Paula said. “It works, works, works.”
“This was the Brooke we like. Sitting behind the piano, singing a song we like. It wasn’t incredible, but it was much better than the first one,” Simon added.
During Jason Castro’s initial session with Diamond, he forgot the lyrics to “Forever in Blue Jeans,” only to look down and find the words to his second song, “September Morn” instead. Not a great start for someone who doesn’t always look like he’s taking this seriously.
When it counted for real, “Blue Jeans” sounded fine but it probably would have been better had he minimized the band and went solely with the acoustic guitar. The judges were unimpressed, and minutes after hearing a quick breakdown of the judges’ criticism of his first performance, he was back on the stage for his encore. “September Morn” was inoffensive, but Castro’s voice doesn’t have the strength of most of his rivals, so it may have been understated to a fault. Both performances were pleasant, safe .... and forgettable.
Even Paula was critical. “I felt like you took the same liberty on both songs. It was safe, and you need to get outside your comfort zone,” she said.
Simon followed by saying, “We don’t recognize you at the moment. For the last two weeks, this isn’t the Jason we placed into this competition.” If the voters make their decision on what’s been happening lately, he may have run out of chances to break the mold.