Two Go In, One Comes Out: American Idol XIII Top 2

Jena Irene and Caleb Top 2 Diptych

Michael Becker / Fox

For American Idol XIII contestants, the season is at the climax. Two went in, and only one would come out. It is hard to imagine the chummy finalists, Jena Irene and Caleb Johnson, actually coming to fisticuffs, despite the faux prom battle that kicked off the show, but each battled for the title currently owned by Season XII winner Candace Glover. Unfortunately, that lovely lady, who brought us moments like “Lovesong,” “I (Who Have Nothing),” and “Straight Up, has been seemingly cast aside by Idol management—a rant worthy of its own blog article.

Jena

Jena and Caleb: Faux Prom

Jena and Caleb performed three songs each: a Nigel Fuller choice, a repeat memorable performance, and the potential winner’s single. For once, American Idol creator, Nigel Fuller, chose wisely and the judging panel dished him platitudes as he sat smirking and nodding in the front row.

Nigel Fuller’s Choice

Jena Irene: Florence + the Machine’s “Dog Days are Over”

Florence Welch

Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine

Jena, you delivered an excellent performance. And Florence Welch’s vocals are hard to match. This is a word-rich, up-tempo song. You gave the song a dynamic arc and didn’t let the rhythm drive you. I agree with judge Keith Urban’s comments that you owned the stage. Opening the show is a difficult spot, and one you chose via the coin toss. That shows the confidence you have in yourself. It is remarkable how much you’ve grown after rewatching your audition, dear girl. You have absorbed everything positive Idol has had to offer you.

Watching your performance live, I found it difficult to make out the words in the beginning because of your propensity to sing softly in your lower range. Your intonation was a little slippery. I didn’t hear any bum notes, per se; rather, that your pitch was not as centered as it could’ve been. That said, when I rewatched your performance several times today with earphones, I did not detect the volume or intonation issues as much.  While I love watching your work the stage, be careful of bending over to shake hands with your fans because it can affect your breath support. Here’s an idea: Instead of walking, squat while keeping your torso as erect as possible. Sing to those individuals in front of you. Quality of connection is paramount, not quantity.

This was a quality performance and very much “You.”

A–

Caleb Johnson: Aerosmith’s “Dream On”

Steven Tyler Billboard photo

Steven Tyler

I thought that this was a predictable choice, but you handled the Aerosmith anthem well. Steven Tyler has a unique instrument, and it is amazing that he can sing night after night without blowing out his vocal chords. I was worried after losing your voice last week that you might not have that high note (Tyler’s G-sharp) in you, but you did! Like Jena, you built the energy throughout the number. A song needs a character arc as much as a story, and many of your performances, including this one, reflect your understanding of this necessity.

If anything was weak about this performance, it was the quiet introduction. You gave us a few wonky notes, especially in the line “like dust to dawn.” Remember to support your lower range, Caleb. I think this is what Harry was referring to in his comments about your lower register. You gotta restrain that power. It almost sounded like you were unsure of your artistic choices in some of the runs in that opening part, so your intonation went flat. Be sure of your choices before the performance and make the notes in your lower register as pointedly “on” as the glory notes. While you hit those glory notes, your voice sounded raspy and strident, not surprising given that you are probably still in recovery. Be careful of your instrument, Caleb. You flaunt it indiscriminately, and you must save it for performances.

This number was full of fun and intensity, but the beginning was shaky.

B+

Memorable Performances

Jena: “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” Elvis Presley

Jena Irene Top 2 Can't Help Falling 2

Jena Irene – Top 2

Jena, this sublime performance was just as strong as the first time you sang it. I agree with Harry, who said it was “just beautiful.” This song is so beloved that it would be easy to offend by making artistic choices that are too far off the beaten path, but you stayed true to the song while adding your complementary vocal flourishes. You have such a feel for the nuances of an arrangement, and somehow, at your young age you completely plug in to the emotional content of a song. We all know teenagers are full of strong emotions, but what sets you apart is your ability to harness those chaotic emotions, then set them free again in such a controlled way that we, as your audience, can appreciate and absorb them. You have such a command of tone and dynamics that I felt as though you were cradling my soul. I have absolutely nothing to critique about this performance. It was just perfect.

A+

PS: I did listen to Ingrid Michaelson’s adaptation of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” because you did receive some criticism in the blogosphere for not giving her credit for your inspiration. I don’t know from where you drew your inspiration, but I didn’t feel it was a carbon copy. There were a couple places where artistic choices were similar, but you truly made it your own.

Caleb: “Maybe I’m Amazed,” Paul McCartney

Caleb Johnson Top 2 Maybe I'm Amazed

Caleb – Top 2

As judged Keith Urban noted, this is a love song Sir Paul wrote to his wife Linda. The gentleness at the beginning gives rise to unbridled passion in the middle section, and as the former Beatles performs it, the end brings back the tender feel. You did a great job on this power ballad the first time around, and you performed this confidently again. You have the power to perform this anthem, but I agree with judging panel. You are powerful technical performer, but the soul, the nugget of love at the center, got lost for me. I should have gotten goosies, but I didn’t.

B+

Winner’s Single

Jena: “We Are One,” songwriter Jillian Jensen

I listened to the iTunes studio recording of “We Are One” last week, and I thought you did a good job on it, but I think the energy you bring to a performance really completed this song. I could hear the electronic influence in the studio recording, and while I could definitely hear this as a dance EP, I preferred your pop-rock performance. Your delivery showed your sensitivity to dynamics. You know how and when to pull back into a softer voice then re-crescendo to a new dynamic level. In the line, “In spite of you, In spite of me,” I love how you maintained your volume on the first phrase, then drew back on the second phrase. You crescendoed on the word “me.” This contrast gave greater meaning to the lyrics because it gave a sense of vulnerability to your first-person persona.

I earnestly encourage you to keep working on supporting your lower register so you can maintain your intensity and we can understand the lyrics. When you catapulted into your upper register on “Never felt so alive,” your voice became shriek-y.  Talk to your vocal coach about smoothing the transition from your undeniably strong chest voice to your pretty head voice. It sounded to me as though you tried to push the chest voice, but your soprano head voice you showed us in “Unbreakable Me” could have soared there! Also, be careful not to pull the mike away from your mouth before you finish a line. We lost some lyrics that way.

Jena Irene sings "We Are One" Top 2 Night

Jena Irene sings “We Are One” Top 2 Night

Jena, this was a really strong performance. At home, we could feel your connection to the live audience. I hope to hear this on the radio. Unlike Phillip Phillips “Home,” which has been a commercial hit on the radio and sampled in commercials like State Farm Insurance, some Idol winners are not graced with the raw material to make a hit record. I think this one has a real chance. I wish you all the luck in the word, Jena, and hope I get to see your perform live on tour.

A–

Caleb Johnson: “As Long As You Love Me”

You sang this well, Caleb, but the song itself was thoroughly underwhelming. Did the song have a middle eighth beyond the following two lines?

You will never have a reason to tell me I’m a fool. I will  never ask you not to do what you want to do.

Because it felt like a medium-power delivery with no emotional or dynamic depth. Listen to how Jena creates contrast within a single line, or even a single word. This song came at me the same way, the whole time, which grew old rather quickly. I realize some of this can be chalked up to the song itself, but know that as a performer you have the power to tweak phrasing, and, again, dynamics. I’m so glad your voice held up. I’m looking forward to you performing with KISS tonight.

B–

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