Sometimes festival programmers present two similar-sounding groups at the same time to make sure the audience is evenly divided. The festival-goer must choose between Fleet Foxes or My Morning Jacket, and there are so many factors to consider. Some of the battles on The Voice can be equally difficult to gauge.
Of course, at other festivals, Radiohead is playing at the same time as Matisyahu and it’s a no-brainer. Tonight’s episode was mostly like that.
The proceedings get off to a promising start with what Christina Aguilera dubs The Battle of Power: Geoff McBride vs. Sera Hill. Geoff is the 51-year-old “last chance” case with solid gold Stevie Wonder pipes, and Sera is the diva-in-training whose Mary J. Blige cover so moved Xtina during her audition that the two ended up dueting. Tonight the contestants sing Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools,” an appropriately soulful choice. Celebrity advisor Lionel Richie freaks out about how powerful Geoff’s voice is, doing a pantomime of being literally blown away by some high notes. “There’s not even a microphone!” he says, faux-bbergasted (which is a fun word I just invented—pass it on!). Meanwhile Jewel advises Sera to bring “more story” to her performance, whatever that means. The two power vocalists sound complementary and nuanced together. They fight for who holds the last note longest, with Sera holding it to the point of desperation. Ultimately it works, though, and Xtina picks her as the winner.
Next up is bubbly Charlotte Sometimes against the more reserved Lex Land. Blake Shelton has forced this pair to sing Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” together, and the piano guy looks embarrassed playing it. Not that it’s a bad song, or even one we’ve all heard just about enough of — it’s just not exactly a vocal showcase. “I’m not as talented as her,” Charlotte says of Lex. “And she’s got better boobs.” Luckily for Charlotte, this isn’t a boobs contest (although, again, Xtina doesn’t seem to be aware of such).
Charlotte has a refreshing lack of BS about how much she respects her opponent. “I want to beat Lex so badly,” she says. “I want to win. I want her to lose.” Charlotte is very comfortable on stage, and the moment she starts singing, you remember her slinky voice and why all four judges turned around during her audition. Lex has a terrific voice as well, but here she’s all over the place — sometimes sultry and low, sometimes loud and more boisterous than the moment calls for. Blake picks Charlotte.
Cee Lo makes an astute song choice for his contestants with the Faces’ “Stay With Me.” Rocker girl Juliet Simms, who’d be played in a movie by Lizzie Caplan, has been told she sounds like a female version of Rod Stewart — which she does — and it’s the kind of song Sarah Golden can do something folky with, too. As soon as the two are in a room together rehearsing, it’s clear Sarah won’t be able to keep up with Juliet’s wailing, so she doesn’t try. Celebrity advisor Babyface tells Sarah to keep it country, which makes her happy.
Meanwhile, Ne-Yo schools Juliet on the importance of picking the right spot in the song to flex her chops. At the battle, Juliet commits the night’s biggest fashion WTF moment, coming out in leather booty shorts, the kind of halter a swashbuckling hippie would wear and a Janis Joplin headband so big it looks a hat with a convertible top that blew off. Sarah, meanwhile, looks dapper in formal menswear. Their fashion choices are just as different as their approaches to the song, which Juliet kind of dominates. Cee Lo picks her.
The next two singers have similar styles but couldn’t be more different people. Whitney Myer is a spritely redhead barely out of her teens, and Kim Yarbrough is a 50-year-old woman in the mold of Aretha. “We’re both powerhouse singers, only her house is bigger than mine,” Whitney says, and I honestly can’t tell if it’s a dig at Kim’s weight (feel free to weigh in, so to speak, in the comments). Adam and Alanis Morissette caution Whitney not to try to overpower Kim, and instead embrace her own uniqueness. Alanis also tells her to be “present,” meaning . . . don’t walk away mid-song?
Meanwhile, Kim makes a series of “bitch, please” faces while listening to Adam Levine and Robin Thicke say strange things about her voice (e.g., “She sings like she’s hanging off the edge of a cliff, and that’s where the tension lies”). When the two sing Mary J. Blige’s “No More Drama,” it really is like a boxing match. Whitney’s the scrappy upstart with more energy, but Kim holds steady, unleashing the big guns when necessary, as though swatting away a fly. “I truly felt like I was watching one of those diva concerts,” Blake says, before declaring Carson Daly the winner. Adam is the decider, however, and he gives it to Kim.
Whereas everything about the previous match made almost too much sense, Team Xtina’s next round is bizarre from top to bottom. The battle of the haircuts pits curly fro’d Lee Koch against Skrillexian Lindsey Pavao, and they probably shouldn’t have been paired off. His voice has a lilting bite to it like early Dylan, hers a more ethereal quality. But Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” was just not a song built for two. And hearing Jewel dissect the lyrics to help Lee connect with the material gave 13-year-old me an embolism. “‘I wish I could eat your cancer.’ That meant something to Kurt, and he sold it when he sang it,” she says, before telling Lee he needs to enunciate.
Xtina and Lionel Richie take turns telling Lindsey she needs to get out of her own head, until she starts saying it herself. The duet sounds like a contest to see who can make a Nirvana song sound less so, and they both win the crap out of it. Lindsey’s falsetto works better, though. Cee Lo compares Lee to Jesus and picks him to win. Blake admits he’s never heard the song before, but maybe he just didn’t recognize it here? Xtina ends up picking Lindsey because she’s more versatile, which makes a lot of sense.
How can you have a conversation with a person wearing bright red glasses without thinking “You’re wearing bright red glasses!” the entire time? Such is the problem with Jamie Lono, an affable goofball you want to root for, even if you can’t take him seriously. Here he faces off against his rocker friend Jamar Rogers, and it’s not much of a competition. Jamie’s voice cracks twice during rehearsals, stumping Babyface to the point where the best advice he can offer is “Do what your voice tells you.” Jamie’s not half bad, though, with a soulfulness that belies his Williamsburg sweater. Jamar has the sweeter, more traditionally viable voice, though, and he’s more consistent. Picking a winner here is as easy as deciding between Radiohead and Matisyahu at Bonnaroo.
Jamar cries after he’s declared the winner, calling himself “the luckiest guy in the world.” Jamie cries after his loss because he’s happy for his friend. It’s a bittersweet moment for both. Lest we walk away feeling bummed out, Jamie tells Cee Lo with all apparent seriousness, “Your coaching did not go in vain, and I’ll take it to heart every day of my life.” And all is right with the world.
Next week: The battle rounds are still going strong. Will there be an ickier performance than last night’s Nirvana debacle?