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American Idol Recap: Who Had ‘the Moment’?

With the season-finale showdown of American Idol a mere one week away, last night’s episode was — at least according to Simon’s repeated assertions — the most important night in the lives of these top three contestants. At least in terms of Idol fame, Simon was right to put special emphasis on last night: What happens this week is easily more significant than what will go down during the next. That's because while Idol runners-up often match the winner when it comes to real-world popularity, especially in recent years (David Cook/David Archuleta, Adam Lambert/Kris Allen), let’s take a stroll down third-place finalist lane: Vonzell Solomon, Nikki McKibbin, Kimberly Locke, Jasmine Trias. These aren’t artists peppering your iTunes library, they’re names that spark a “what ever happened to … ?” conversation. Or, more likely, elicit blank stares. So when Simon spoke of life-changing moments, this time it was actually true.

Since we last checked in with them, Crystal, Lee, and Casey visited their hometowns (Elliston, Ohio, Mount Prospect, Illinois, and the improbably named Cool, Texas, respectively) to bask in local adoration and sign autographs. But gone were the extended montages of parades and triumphant returns to their old high schools; now they just flew in to stand in front of their local AT&T stores while learning which song the judges had chosen for them. (Lee didn't even touch down; he just got his assignment while on a private jet, perhaps circling over his town before zipping back for rehearsal.)

In addition to the judges' pick, each singer was allowed to perform one number of his or her own choice. No matter how many seasons of Idol pass, it never fails to astound that the contestants always sound more professional and accessible when singing the judges’ choices than their own. But then again, you can’t always trust artists to know their own strengths.

Casey James started off the night by covering the relatively obscure “Okay, It’s Alright With Me” by singer-songwriter Eric Hutchinson. He informed us this song would give us a sense of his own material, and indeed he did sound comfortable while performing. So comfortable, in fact, that he forgot to make the song exciting for us or personal in any real way to himself.

The real issue with Casey, however, is his voice. Although Idol is not primarily the singing competition Simon insists it is (Idol is as much about choosing someone you love as a person and package), vocal chops are important at this late stage in the game. Given that Casey’s range is about as rigid as his body posture, he’s going to be the guy going home tomorrow.

Crystal Bowersox picked Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Window,” a song choice as shocking as one of M. Night Shyamalan’s recent plot twists. Her vocals were characteristically powerful and heartfelt, but the band wasn’t doing her any favors. The backing instrumentation was unforgivably lame light rock, and the mix sounded oddly muffled and lifeless, like listening to one of those first-run CDs from the eighties before they figured out remastering.

Randy and Ellen said they loved her voice but felt let down. Kara — for the third time this season — referred to Randy and Ellen as “the guys”, which is going to become funny sometime after “fetch” happens. For his part, Simon complimented her for never compromising her artistic integrity. Then to prove she really was in the game to win it, Crystal brought up her son when Ryan read off her voting numbers. Game on!!

For his choice, Lee DeWyze sang Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man.” The epic arrangement and his throaty vocals played off of each other well, and it was admittedly more cohesive than what Casey or Crystal had just done. Still, the whole endeavor was rather unremarkable. People with Lee’s voice have been doing Skynyrd covers for decades — usually with more charisma and emotion, too. That being said, his song was certainly more of an impressive “moment” than the others simply by virtue of its gritty bombast.

Kara told Lee he won this round, and never one to be one-upped (or allow Kara to be entirely correct), Simon told him, “You didn’t win round one, you just crushed the other two!" Which can only mean Crystal is still obscenely ahead in the voting since the judges refuse to give up on this whole “this season’s champ is anyone’s guess” thing.

Randy and Kara chose John Mayer’s “Daughters” for Casey because, as Kara aptly put it, his “audience is women and girls … they want to see your vulnerable side.” Then she urged him to “give it to them,” which marked a jarring end to her otherwise well-phrased explanation of why Casey should cast himself in the blues-inflected soft-rock vein.

Casey’s take on the John Mayer song was assured and comfortable, leagues better than his own song choice. Casey is definitely the kind of singer who needs to be wrangled instead of allowed to roam free. In the real world, this white bluesy-lover stuff is about as authentically moving as confrontations on Jerry Springer are authentically angry, but in the context of American Idol his performance was actually kind of lovely.

The judges all liked it, but Simon took issue with the song itself, deriding the fact that the song’s climax was a “limp guitar solo.” While he’s right, Kara was closer to the truth when she pointed out that fans don’t love John Mayer for his blistering guitar solos or his astonishing vocal prowess; these songs are about creating a mood and selling it, and Casey succeeded on that level. And if he can keep mining that stuff, he could have a real shot at a future. After all, limp-dick blues-rock may never be en vogue, but it always sells.

Of all the contestants, Crystal looked the most ecstatic to be back home. While back in Ohio, she received a text from Ellen (courtesy of AT&T, don't forget!) that she would be performing Paul McCartney’s first solo hit, “Maybe I’m Amazed.” At first this seemed like a rather questionable choice from Idol’s non-musically inclined judge, but as it turns out Ellen couldn’t have made a better pick.

The dreadlocked mom didn’t do much with the arrangement, using the simple elegance of the original instrumentation to emphasize her commanding voice. She kept the gender in the lyrics but instead of going falsetto when Paul does, she went the Etheridge-growl route and gave the whole song a bit of bluesy dirt. With just a few slight touches, she gave a performance more soulful than anything else during the episode.

Randy and Ellen loved it, and Kara gushed that “you showed parts of your voice we haven’t heard yet." Simon told her, “You may be thanking Ellen for putting you into the finals,” but truthfully, she should be thanking all the judges for placing her in a wildly underqualified top 24 this season.

As Lee hovered over Chicago (or just as likely sat in a grounded jet at the Burbank airport to mimic travel), we learned that Simon had chosen “Hallelujah” for him to sing. For a judge so particular about song choice, it was a bit shocking he would pick something we’ve already heard so many times on Idol, but hey, Simon has The X Factor on his noggin — he's long since stopped giving any creative thought to this show.

The song got off to a great start — the strings were lovely and it was nice to see Lee perform without a jacket, although he still insisted on wearing layers. (Watch it below.) His voice inhabited the passionate song nicely and he certainly pulled off the biggest surprise of the night. Instead of indulging in that Nickelback-style throatiness when going big, Lee revealed he can keep his voice clear and sweet while still hitting those high notes.

Randy loved it so much he started talking about gauntlets and druids and chainmail armor (well, at least one of those three things), and Ellen seconded her love for the song but in plainer terms. Kara informed Lee, “You are the heart of the show this season,” which explains why Idol’s cholesterol count has been rising. Simon gave him the “I’m proud, kid” wink.

When talking about his initial reticence toward the song choice, Lee told us (in a variety of sentence fragments) that at first he was like, “oh man,” but now he’s like “thank you.” It’s definitely time to get this kid a manager or a thesaurus. Overall, Lee clearly won the night in terms of performances even though Crystal’s were more promising artistically. But in terms of audience reaction, Lee has boasted more “wow” moments lately, and his victories stick out more than hers because he has that season arc of going from “irritating” to “actually pretty good.”

Hopefully it won’t hurt Crystal that she’s been delivering finale-ready performances for months now, and hopefully Ryan Seacrest won’t do anything weird to Justin Bieber tomorrow night.

Other Recaps:
The AV Club's Claire Zulkey was glad to see on "Hallelujah" that "It all really came together for old Lee. Except for one little moment where he seemed to lose it a bit on a high note his voice sounded perhaps the best it's been all season."
Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak on Lee's "Hallelujah": "Simon's banty-rooster intro promised us calla lilies; Lee's eventual delivery of high-quality carnations could only be a let-down by comparison."
Television Without Pity's Jacob thought "Even with the tympani and the general outrageousness of the 'Hallelujah' performance, Lee: you have done it. So much mess, and Lee in the middle tying it together."

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX