Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Voice: Season 4 Live Playoffs / Top 8 Contestants

After an overstuffed and underwhelming third season, rushed to air in the fall a mere couple of months after the second season finale so as to compete with The Britney Factor, NBC's singing competition show The Voice has regained its footing in its current fourth season, thanks in part to the fresh blood Shakira and Usher brought to the coaching staff and in part to a solid crop of contestants. The Battle Rounds no longer stretch tediously across the better part of a month, and the matchups in the Battle and Knockout Rounds have grown less arbitrary and more understandably strategic, with the addition of the Save option proving a useful safeguard against the occasional (albeit less frequent) bum call from the judges.

Oh, and Adam Levine, who famously overruled the viewer vote to send Tony Lucca to the Season 2 final over Katrina Parker in one of the more stomach-churning application of the "bros before hos" doctrine, entered this week's first live playoff rounds with arguably the strongest team of the four, made up entirely of X chromosomes. Cast off the shackles of yesterday; shoulder to shoulder into the fray!

Although I dropped out of Season 3 before the Battle Rounds even began, I decided to return this year and give the show another go, and I have been pleased with the current season's more streamlined format, more diverse and engaging contestants, and especially the fresh style of judging and coaching that Usher and particularly Shakira have brought to the show. Christina Aguilera's absence was a noticeable bummer for the first couple of episodes, but once we got to see Shakira and Usher settling into their new roles they proved more interesting than thinking about Aguilera not being there. Tellingly, Cee Lo's departure barely registers.

As with Season 2, I've put together a list of some of the best competitors that will be competing in the Live Rounds for viewer votes, ranked as of the completion of the Knockout Rounds. Unfortunately because of a bit of late timing, four of the top sixteen contestants will have been eliminated following the first live shows Monday and Tuesday of this week. Hopefully, of course, my taste proves so impeccable that all of the contenders below that make up the first Top Contestants List of Season Four will still be around to sing another day.

The Vertigo Shtick Top 8: Live Playoffs

8. Karina Iglesias

Something, or maybe everything, about Karina Iglesias screams "badass," and she has made it this far by embodying that style and persona the most consistently and comfortably of the handful of contestants attempting to pull it off. While Iglesias is more than competent as a vocalist, it is really her overall presentation that she's peddling in her quest for the crown. While she has been successful enough to make it to the Live Rounds, there is still something tentative about her performances that has kept her from really landing as "Karina Iglesias, motherfuckaaaaa" the way I keep eagerly waiting to happen, having gotten the impression that such was the type of badass Latina soul-rocker she was there to be. Iglesias might do well to take a bit of inspiration from Juliet Simms in Season 2, a similarly good but not remarkable rocker who suddenly came unleashed in the Live Shows with incredibly effective and immensely entertaining balls-to-the-wall rock performances that led her to a second place finish that everyone knew was really the win for the season.

7. Cathia

The last of this season's Shakira-inspired Latina singers standing, the telegenic and personality-heavy Cathia fills a vital role as the show whittles down its new stars in its final descent toward the finale that could prove much more of an asset as control shifts from the judges to the viewing public. Aside from Karina Iglesias, the rest of the Live Shows crop is a mellow-to-serious lot, and while this isn't entirely surprising on a show that at its conceptual core presents itself as a competition for serious vocalists, as opposed to the more "package"-based X Factor and diva-centric Idol, The Voice still has to keep its audience entertained for another four whole weeks. Cathia is reality television gold: easy to like, energetic, relatable, and funny, all of which could very well work in her favor as the voting gets underway. However, on a show that's no stranger to over-praising, I've felt that Cathia has been underrated thus far in the competition, and I'm glad that she has nevertheless been allowed the chance to make it this far via the "steal" option added last season; she, Iglesias and Caroline Glaser are success stories that prove this tweak in the format is good for more than just an extra week of programming.

6. Sarah Simmons

Sarah Simmons has the sort of big, glorious voice that has taken past contestants like Frenchie Davis, Katrina Parker, and Erin Willett to the semifinal rounds. So far she has managed to make an impression despite poor song choices that have neither been particularly engaging nor really allowed her instrument to stretch its legs fully. The judges have been far more enthusiastic about her performances than has seemed appropriate on my end of the television screen, but I attended a couple Live Show tapings in the second season and know firsthand how certain voices can come across differently in the sound stage than on television, so it's possible they're hearing something we at home, as yet, have been missing.

5. Sasha Allen

There was a moment during the rehearsal footage prior to her Knockout Round match against the dearly departed Shawna P. when something brilliant came from Sasha Allen's throat that I had not heard from her or any other contestant on this unfortunately black girl-deficient season (mollified somewhat by the concurrent season of American Idol, on which two of the final four were black women). Allen had seemed promising at first, but instead her performances in the Blind Auditions and the Battle Rounds left an aftertaste of missed opportunity and talent underutilized or wasted. Unfortunately, that spark from rehearsal never caught fire during her solid but ultimately underwhelming rendition of "At Last," which I thought was rather overpraised by the judges and would almost certainly have been her farewell song had Shawna P. not had the exact same problem with a performance of "Maybe I'm Amazed" that merely simmered just as it should have boiled over. Many of my fellow The Voice gurus, including Season 2's Katrina Parker, have been absolutely ecstatic in their opinions of Allen, and if she can just manage to let rip the formidable beast I'm pretty certain her voice could become, she could easily see her status upgraded to frontrunner.

4. Kris Thomas

Usually I hate boys with super high voices, the way they rub in my face how easily they're able to do what I long to but cannot. Then there are guys like Kris Thomas, whose voice resides at such a lofty point in the stratosphere that it's really a completely different instrument, and one that can achieve such a unique and appealing type of style and sound that all bets are really off. Thomas' crystalline counter-tenor is similar to the emerging UK soul singer Daley, and while as a personality Thomas is not the most immediately compelling or memorable, as soon as he opens his mouth the unusual and enchanting sound of his instrument casts something of a spell.

3. Michelle Chamuel

Michelle Chamuel is very cool. She plays up the nerd chic look with Tina Fey glasses and a hairstyle that changes drastically week to week to suit the emotional and stylistic demands of whatever she's performing (or, sometimes, to pointedly defy). She has all the carriage of the shy dorky quiet girl in the back of the room who never talks and no one really knows - until the music starts and she launches into her act, which combines extremely solid technical fundamentals with a healthy dose of "Whoa, I can't believe that dorky shy chick is rocking out like that" shock value. I'm leaning more toward evil genius than dour hipster girl just lucking into unexpected success on The Voice, but who cares? It WORKS. Chamuel not only fascinates and entertains in performance but leaves you simply clamoring to see more of her.

2. Judith Hill

This afro'd powerhouse and would-have-been duet partner to Jacko himself is an easy frontrunner, laying waste to two overmatched teammates in the Battle (Karina Iglesias, a worthy save) and Knockout Rounds (Orlando Dixon, who never stood a chance). Her near-flawless performances make it clear that Hill is in an entirely different league than the rest of the competitors, which makes her an easily appreciated musician but not always an especially interesting reality television personality. This is why, despite the part black, part Asian contestant is hardly a lock to win it all: her mastery of her craft surely inspires admiration, but not necessarily passionate viewer engagement, and voters may overlook the self-assured, reliably impeccable Hill in favor of more vulnerable contestants that might seem more in need of votes.

1. Caroline Glaser 

The coffee shop indie pop singer from Missouri is probably my personal favorite of the current season's bunch, although admittedly my attachment is as much based on character as artistry, if not more. Not that's she's a slouch in the music department, especially if you're fond of the mellow tone and creative vowel pronunciation characteristic of a certain brand of female singer-songwriter (not meant derisively!). It's a well-worn style, particularly among the ranks of The Voice contestants past and present, but Glaser has it mastered - and not just the musical aspect, but the persona that so many of the most successful indie females of the sort have embodied that it has grown into as much an archetype as the white boy-in-cowboy hat is to country music. Perhaps it is this canny concoction of musical style and personality that lends a certain je ne sai quoi to Glaser's performances, which somehow transcend the simple, subtle sound she creates to take a surprising hold of the viewer's emotional interest. Oh, and please more performing in glasses because it makes me so so happy.

The Voice airs Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night at 8pm on NBC. 

Learn more about the contestants on the official The Voice website.

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