Wednesday night's audition episode was an interesting blend of some great talent, some frustrating judging, and the benefits of the new approach to editing. All in all I do agree with whichever judge said that the performers they're seeing suggest that this should be a great season of the show. However, as well all know, that can quickly go to hell once we get to Hollywood Week and the show's star-making machine takes over.
Before we get into some of the specific contestants, I think it's worth mentioning what I consider a significant change in the types of people auditioning for this show. Specifically, we're seeing a lot more musicians, not just singers. There could be several reasons for this. This is the first season people have been allowed to use instruments in the initial rounds (it took 13 years to do that; mindboggling). The producers might just be editing the show to show more of those kinds of auditions. Or perhaps the pop-music landscape is leaning more toward that kind of artistry again. AutoTune and EDM are certainly everywhere, but if you look at the chart toppers from the past few years -- Lorde, Adele, Phillip Phillips, Gotye -- these are people with serious musical chops and, in most cases, some quirkiness or originality. There seem to be a lot more of those types of people trying out this season. Or at least the show is suggesting that is the case.
Take, for instance, Alex Preston, 20, a self-proclaimed band geek. He's got a good Jason Mraz thing going on (I mean, early Mraz, before he went all schmaltzy), and he seems to lose himself completely when he sings. You can tell that music is his language. He seems like a very nice boy and I dug what he was doing. I'll be curious to see how he adapts to the social challenges of Hollywood Week.
Samantha Calmes, 25, did an original song with a spoken-word rap opening before breaking into a soulful, clipped voice. The piece was slippery - I couldn't quite get a hold of it. She then went on to sing the theme song from "The Jeffersons," which was a trip. The voice didn't wow me, nor the judges, but we all liked her musical style and originality.
Kenzie Hall, 16, did a John Mayer song I'm not aware of, and I just loved her. She's got a big voice, huge personality, is totally cute, and she can pull back and put on the gas - she is one to WATCH.
Casey Thrasher, 22, was heavily pimped all night. He did "Believe" by Brooks & Dunn. He's got a nice male country voice, and he got emotional in his audition. I question how large his range is, but he is very likable and very earnest. He has two tiny kids, but there was no mention of their mother. I found that very odd.
D.J. Bradley, 20, did "Hometown Glory" by Adele. I am generally against Adele songs for auditions - there's basically no way to live up to the original. But I like what Bradley did here; he turned it into something sadder, contemplative, longing. His pitch was flat on the high notes, but he has a good vibe/image with the "misunderstood rocker" thing. Keith Urban called it a balance between mysterious vs. disinterested, which I think is fair.
Dexter Roberts, 22, is about as country as it gets. He is VERY Oklahoma. He did a Casey James song. Good lord, this guy can sing and play. He's really terrific, and I was not expecting that. He's better than Casey James ever was, in my opinion. (I know Casey has his fans. That's great. I'm glad you love him.) Dexter was bluesy and country and undeniably good.
To me, those were the stand-out auditions of the night. But there were several instances where I found the judging confusing. Harry Connick Jr. - whom I really enjoy - was particularly off. He nixed several contestants who I thought had loads of promise, while giving a pass to others who seemed to be struggling already.
Specifically I'm talking about Jessica Barrett, 22, who has one of the prettiest voices I have ever heard on this show - I swear I thought it was a recording when she started singing. Sure, she's a little awkward. The "wattage" isn't there. But she was told no by both Urban and Connick, while Jennifer Lopez told them they were making a huge mistake. I think Lopez is right. That was a boneheaded pass for this show, especially considering some of the other people who got through.
Such as C.J. Harris, who did an Allman Brothers song in honor of his father. Harris seems very sincere and his voice has a nice whoop to it when he hits the big notes, but he slides off the pitch an awful lot. He can play guitar well enough, but you could hear him forcing stuff that shouldn't have sound forced. But he is unquestionably likable, and that's why he got through.
Similarly, Carmen Delgina, 24, is the daughter of Wonder Mike from Sugar Hill Gang, which is fabulous. She struggled through her audition of "Tainted Love." There is some talent there, but the breath control was way off and nothing about it felt like it was working. Jennifer called her "inconsistent." Keith said that there was a disconnect between the voice and the confidence. They gave her three yesses, and I'm just going to say it: that was all because of her backstory.
The biggest example of the inconsistent judging last night came from two young men with similar issues: they're blatantly ripping off the signature sounds of other artists. One was awful yet the judges liked him. The other was really good at what he did, yet got shit for it. BristonMaroney, 15, did "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Rolling Stones, and he has one of the most pinched, annoying voices I've ever heard. He sounded angry or in pain, like he was constipated. Keith wanted to hear "other colors" in his voice, and Harry was worried that he would blow his vocal chords singing with that affect. He had absolutely no business getting through to Hollywood. He's cute and seems nice, but that was actually unpleasant to listen to.
Meanwhile, Johnny Newcomb, 16, did "Last Kiss" by Pearl Jam, basically allowing the spirit of Eddie Vedder to possess him. THAT is how you do an affected voice without being egregious. He successfully convinced the judges to let him do a second song, and that was even better. Lopez said that Johnny was too good to say no to, but Harry thought he was too young and derivative - like there haven't been a million other derivative kids on this show. Keith blessedly gave him another shot. I think he's really good.
The weird Harry stuff continued with Kassandra Castaneda, 16, who did "Chasing Pavements" by, again, Adele. She too did a good job with the song. Really lovely voice. She should have turned down her creepy uncle's request to give JLo his number. Harry also didn't think she was ready. I just don't understand what he sees in some of these kids that he's not seeing in others. Thankfully Keith believed that she would blossom in Hollywood Week, and JLo put her right through.
Finally, let us all give thanks to the show for introducing us to Tequila Wilson, 24, a funeral-home singer who gives me life. She did "Someone Like You" by Adele and she came closest to doing Adele justice Wednesday night. It got a little shouty in parts, and a little flat in others. But there is great potential there. She had such huge energy when she came into the holding pen, and was awfully subdued in the actual audition. But she's got some sass. MORE TEQUILA!
TONIGHT: The auditions end. That was brief. Thank you, show.