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American Idol Recap: The Good, the Odd, and the Average. Oh, and the Bad

Last night American Idol zipped through eight female performers in one hour — not that anyone should complain about the abbreviated running time. Freed from tales of grandmas and babies, as well as demonstrations of cutesy quirks, the episode was devoted entirely to the music. Well, for the most part: The show opened with Ellen sitting on Simon’s lap and murmuring sweet nothings into his ear while he looked like he does at every other moment (somehow bored and furious at the same time). Any chuckles that her routine might have elicited (minimal to begin with) were dashed before Ellen even got to her “Oh, are the cameras rolling?” quip, as Randy launched into his rambling exclamations of fake surprise. Oh, Randy, you're not even witty enough to play the straight man, are you?

As for the singers, although everyone’s voice was strong and consistent, heroic risk-takers were hard to find. While the play-it-safe mentality might prove to be a strategically sound decision given that next week Idol shifts into finals mode, it certainly made for an underwhelming evening.

The Conspicuously Average:

Katie Stevens bored us with Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway” and the judges flip-flopped over what went wrong. Does the likable 16-year-old need more life experience? Was it that she didn’t convey the feelings behind the words? Does she need to find herself as an artist? Maybe … or maybe she just has one of those pleasant but unremarkable voices that isn’t going to cut it on its own merits.

Paige Miles sang Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” (praise goes to Seacrest for calling it a Chaplin song and not a Nat King Cole tune), and though she added a wispy, light vulnerability that the judges didn’t seem to pick up on, it’s just not the kind of performance that makes new fans. The main problem, however, was the arrangement: The pianist seemed to be riffing on an entirely different melody and the whole thing came across as bossa nova background music at a charity function.

The Odd:

Lacey Brown sang Brandi Carlile’s “The Story” with her legs crossed and dangling over the edge of the stage. That position — not to mention her wide, unfailing smile — brought to mind Kermit the Frog in his troubadour mode, if he had a makeover in a Houston mall’s Hot Topic. Her voice has a problematic nasally undercurrent, which isn’t fatal except that she doesn’t deliver any jaw-dropping moments to distract from it.

Lilly Scott sang Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” with a mandolin, and once again demonstrated that she is intent to do her thang no matter what the judges say, for better or weird. Last night was mostly weird; she overtly enunciated each syllable of the song as if she were teaching it to an ESL class. But she is one of the rare Idol contenders who is fully comfortable in her own skin.

The Satisfying:

Katelyn Epperly sang Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move,” clearly choosing that high-energy crowd-pleaser after her lovely, but slow take on Coldplay’s “The Scientist” left the judges nonplussed last week. Once again they were confusingly unresponsive toward her; they have no gripe with her voice but they seem to fault her for actually having fun onstage. Kara whined that Katelyn didn't even appear to be competing, which is really more of a compliment than a complaint: It’s always more entertaining to watch a singer having fun than a singer trying to impress.

After being torn to shreds last week, Didi Benami turned in an acoustic take on Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” that was her best performance since she sang the Kara-penned “Terrified” during Hollywood week. Though she barely ventured past grazing some basic chords on her guitar, her voice was reserved and alluring. Plus, she suffered through the indignity of Ellen saying, “Yes indeedy, Didi” with a polite face.

The Impressive:

Siobhan Magnus continues to confound expectations unlike anyone else. One week she’s doing a song popularized in a David Lynch movie ("Wicked Game"), the next she’s hitting that high note in Aretha’s “Think” like it was written for her, and last night she tackled the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun.” (Watch it below.) She took a huge risk choosing a slow-paced song that requires a full-bodied voice right before finals, but she pulled it off with surprising ease. Hell, she even accentuated the make-it-or-break-it danger by going a cappella on the first verse. The judges all dug it except for Simon, who claimed he was “underimpressed.” But previously he admitted he “misunderestimated” Crystal Bowersox, so he still has time to repent.

Speaking of this season’s most talked-about talent, Crystal Bowersox once again demonstrated why she deserves all the fuss. No, it’s not the dreadlocks: She’s simply leagues above the other girls (and guys) in terms of artistic development. Not to say her sound is more mature — actually, her stylistic range is more limited than Siobhan’s or Lilly’s — but she is so confident and comfortable being herself that her performances can’t help but shine in comparison. Last night she plugged in her guitar and sang Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason,” and even Simon went for those absurd percentage-related superlatives. He then told her, “The show is yours to lose,” which is his glass-half-empty way of saying she’s the front-runner.

Other Recaps:
Television Without Pity's Jacob describes Siobhan's strategy: "You want me to sing old-lady songs and yet distance myself from Crystal and Lilly? SHUT UP, here's a song about some whores."
Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak is already predicting the "Top 10 Idol Summer Tour: Crystal Bowersox and Siobhan Magnus (a.k.a. Simon's Anointed Child and That Other Chick Who's Threatening to Mess Everything Up For Him)."
The A.V. Club's Claire Zulkey felt last night's "episode was so all about Crystal Bowersox that it was a joke. You could tell by the intro to the show that she knew she'd blow the other chicks out of the water."

Photo: Courtesy of Fox