“It’s a whole new ballgame,” Adam Levine says at the top of The Voice‘s first live show this season. As if to underline the point, he and the other judges look way different than before. Adam’s hair is shorn off, Christina Aguilera is svelter and more sensibly cleavaged, and Cee Lo has donned a Rick James wig and red Brady Bunch jumpsuit with fringed sleeves. Okay, I guess Cee Lo doesn’t look that different. (Keep doing you, Cee Lo!)
All the members of Team Christina and everyone from Team Blake must perform a song, vying for viewers’ votes, and it’s up to the home audience to call in and vote for who they want to keep around. Because the stakes are higher now, the performances have much more sophisticated backing music and production values, giving them the feel of VMA show pieces rather than recitals at the school from Fame. Let’s look at Team Blake first.
Soft-spoken stud Jermaine Paul kicks things off with a Bon Jovi classic. “I feel like I am living on a prayer,” he says about the difficulty of supporting his kids with music money. After emerging from beneath the staircase like a secret agent leaving headquarters, he belts out a powerful version of the song, darting around the crowd and getting all up in their mix. Xtina thinks he sounded great but she didn’t connect with the song choice. Blake disagrees and dares her to check iTunes in an hour for how the song is selling, which is some pretty tame fighting words, but I’ll take it.
“We’re gonna punch America in the face with country!” says blonde, teenage sparkplug RaeLynn. (Why is everybody on this show intent on punching us in the face with some form of music? Leave our face alone!) RaeLynn does a fun country cover of Maroon 5’s “Wake Up Call.” She puts a lot of gusto into it, stomping her feet and grinding her hips, but the deep, guttural voice she uses at times doesn’t sound natural. “You’re a sassy little thing,” Christina says, and she means it as praise. Blake tells her she is representing the new generation of country well, whatever that means.
Pop-reggae princess Naia Kete has a distinct voice, but Blake instructs her to remain faithful to Adele’s vocals on “Turn the Tables,” which she does as best she can. Despite an entire violin section, it’s not a very showy performance. There’s a fine line between subtly restrained and a little bit dull, and I’ll leave it to a gloriously passive-aggressive Christina Aguilera to describe the results: “Um, it was cool. I actually would’ve liked more of a reggae choice if that’s her thing. There were some moments in there that weren’t great. Cee Lo?” Ouch.
Jordis Unga is the kind of singer who probably self-identifies as “fierce.” Before the performance, she asks Blake whether they can rig actual fireworks to go off when the beat comes in on “Alone” by Heart. Jordis’ vocal fireworks should suffice, though. She wails every note she can, but saves a big Roman candle for the end. “That was the opposite of playing it safe,” Blake says, approvingly.
Erin Willett is a powerhouse vocalist who has proven adaptable to different styles. Here she sings Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” in the middle of what appears to be a Broadway show about a Memphis speakeasy. It’s an appropriately funky rendition of the song, which she starts off singing at a piano, and she nails every one of her runs. Blake rightly singles it out as the best technical vocal performance of the night.
Charlotte Sometimes says she wants to showcase her ability to arrange songs, not just sing them. “I want to make it a little more haunting because this song is so sassy,” she says of Paramore’s “Misery Business.” Fittingly enough, the stage is flooded with smoke like a fogbank in a Friday the 13th movie. Charlotte has an odd vocal style here, somewhere between talking and singing on the verse. Adam says she had some flatness and pitch issues, but Xtina and Blake are both on board with the artistry of it.
Over on Team Xtina, we’re reintroduced to the vaguely Bradley Cooper-esque Chris Mann. He’s the opera singer who used to try to shrink his voice down to fit in, but decided to just be himself on this show. Here he puts an operatic spin on “Bridge Over Water” (because of course he does), with plenty of vibrato at every turn. There is nothing shrunk-down about it. All the judges are impressed.
“Since I proved myself with singing in the battle rounds, I’m gonna show the other things I can do tonight,” says rapper Moses Stone. He does Kanye West’s “Stronger” as a kind of rock song, growling through the verses with lots of intensity. The lyrical censoring is a hilarious distraction, though (my personal favorite: “Go nuts, go apebits.“) Adam thinks Moses has more potential as a singer than a rapper, and Blake agrees. Xtina uses this as teachable moment about how the whitebread gentleman folk of The Voice know nothing about hip-hop, where a rapper who can sing now has an advantage. Point Xtina.
Lindsay Pavao covers Gotye and Kimbra’s recent hit “Somebody That I Used to Know.” She says she wants a trip-hoppy, dubstep-sounding beat, but thankfully there are no major bassdrops on the synth-heavy song. There are, however, backup dancers in porcelain doll masks, some with beaks and bowler hats. It’s the closest The Voice comes to an opera written by The Knife. Christina looks a little bored during the proceedings but after it’s over she has nothing but effusive praise. “I can listen to her all day,” she says.
Soul singer Sera Hill says it’s her time to shine, and she literally does – her necklace looks like a chandelier. She has a Mary J. thing going on, both vocally and with her white ladybusiness suit. Voice contestant James Massone already did Drake’s “Find Your Love” earlier this season, but not with disco guitar licks and a chorus line of shirtless dudes in jeans, which Blake Shelton seems taken aback by. “You know you liked it,” says Xtina. “I have to admit I did,” he says.
It’s nice for Alanis Morissette that she is still the arbiter of teenage bitterness, even for so-called Millenials. “This is your moment to get a little angsty with it and have a little grrr,” Xtina says to 17-year old Ashley De La Rosa before her performance of “Right Through You.” Ashley nicely channels Alanis’ particular vocal lilt, ably backed by two guitarists dressed like 1993, and so many lasers. Adam votes her the most improved. Xtina agrees, and she and Adam have a truce for once. (It is disrupted two seconds later.)
Finally, good-guy-with- great-voice Jesse Campbell closes the show with a dynamite version of “What a Wonderful World.” Before the performance, Xtina accuses Jesse of holding back slightly, which he takes as a personal challenge to buh-ring it in full force. He kind of scrubs the pathos off of a very emotional song, but then he has one hell of a showstopping final note and it doesn’t matter. All the judges are blown away, with Adam calling Jesse the one to beat. Cee Lo does him one better, saying, “Your voice is almost as beautiful as my hair.”
Tomorrow: Whoever gets the three lowest votes from each team has to sing to stay on, with the coaches sending home two from each team. Who do you think will get the boot?
Last episode: Let’s Keep on Rocking