Carole King night on “American Idol” turned out to be just what the favorites needed to prove their ability to put their own spin on some American standards.
The danger in going with this kind of theme is that if the singers don’t put their own spin on the songs, it becomes the stuff that high-school talent show third-place finishers are made of. That was especially true for the guys, who probably saw the list of choices from the prolific singer-songwriter’s handbook and had to look a little harder for something they could work with.
Scotty McCreery, for example, didn’t find a lot of obvious country numbers to choose from. So he did the next best thing, in taking “You’ve Got a Friend” and using the arrangement and his distinctive voice to make it a cover worthy of Nashville radio. This turned out to be the best thing possible for him. In forcing him to pick something besides a country standard, the challenge allowed him to prove that he can fit anything into his comfort zone.
That holds true for James Durbin as well. Shockingly enough, King did not write a whole lot of numbers for the metal acts that Durbin enjoys. He gave his own treatment to her first major songwriting hit, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.”
The way Jennifer Lopez was moving around, it was obvious that her answer was going to be a strong “yes.” Randy Jackson was also impressed by the effort, saying that the rocker had proved he’s a great singer. “You know what I think, guys? This guy might win the whole thing!” he suggested.
It was hard not to love this version because it showed Durbin could succeed without the flash and dash he’s exhibited in previous weeks. The finish wasn’t as good as the start, but it was still an excellent performance.
Lauren Alaina was also strong again, even though she was surprised when Miley Cyrus crashed her session with mentor Jimmy Iovine. “You will always hear mean comments,” Cyrus told Alaina, like when someone goes on national television telling a fresh face that they should crush you when covering your song. Oh, right … Iovine did that a couple of weeks ago when Alaina sang “The Climb.” Awkward!
Guest mentor Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds was also there in the weekly “Tell Lauren Alaina to Trust Her Abilities and Go For It” confidence course. He laid everything on the table when she said she was nervous about hitting certain notes.
“Have you ever gone for it and not hit it?” Babyface asked.
“No,” Alaina replied.
“Duh,” Babyface said, verbalizing the audience’s thoughts.
Alaina sang “The Gilmore Girls” theme “Where You Lead (I Will Follow),” pulling a 19-year-old male fan onstage for greater effect. It was a winning effort, though host Ryan Seacrest did make a point of reminding the young man that Alaina was just 16 and that her dad was in the audience.
Your (likely) bottom three
Neither Alaina, Durbin or McCreery have been in the bottom three yet this season, and since each sang well on Wednesday, that likely means the remaining singers will have to sweat a little bit more on Thursday’s results show.
Steven Tyler loved Haley Reinhart — “I just saw God. I heard God in your voice,” he said — and she did fine work with “Beautiful.” Reinhart’s strength is that she always looks like she’s thrilled to death to be performing live before such an awesome audience. That will help her cause, but she also has the least margin for error of anyone.
Casey Abrams found something that worked for him in “Hi-De-Ho (That Old Sweet Roll).” It was a vintage Abrams performance, over the top and corny while still showcasing his vocal range. While previous judges might have slammed his act for being too self-indulgent, this crew continues to buy whatever it is he’s selling.
It was definitely entertaining. Iovine noted that Abrams always lives on the edge in terms of his creativity. One of these weeks that’s going to do him in, but in the meantime, he’s consistently the most fun “Idol” finalist to watch.
The singer in the biggest trouble is probably Jacob Lusk. The most memorable part of his cover of “Oh No, Not My Baby” was his wardrobe. It contained every color under the sun in something that looked like it came out of a cartoon.
Teamwork doesn’t pay
In addition to their solos, the “Idol” six each sang a duet. That turned out to benefit ... well, nobody, since none of the three efforts were great.
The best of them was the first, the Abrams-Reinhart rendition of “I Feel the Earth Move.” The chemistry between the two onstage is the best of any of the “Idol” pairings this season. While this wasn’t as good as their effort a couple of weeks ago, it was the most entertaining of the night.
McCreery and Alaina should, theoretically, work well together. That’s why the producers keep pairing them off. But even though both live in the country arena, their voices don’t blend as well together. “Up on the Roof” was fine, but it wasn’t as good as either managed in their solos.
Durbin and Lusk drew the short end of the stick, as they had to sing “I’m Into Something Good” with each other after the two remaining girls were assigned elsewhere by the producers. They gamely tried to make that work, but it’s tough being the two guys left standing by the bleachers as everyone else pairs off with the partner of their choice.
In the “gotta love the live acts” category, Reinhart’s solo was delayed for a moment because of a problem with her earpiece. And by “problem,” I mean it fell back into her dress.
At least, that’s the explanation Seacrest tweeted. Fortunately, some techs reportedly fished it out and the performance went off without a hitch.
Craig Berman is a TODAY.com's "American Idol" correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @CraigBerman as he live tweets each episode.