The Voice's ninth season mixed up the elimination order, giving us a top 11 this week. The new format, which allows more singers more time on the show, also allows for more mediocre artists to squeak through for a lot longer. There was a lot of good here, but you had to listen to a lot of crap first to get to it.
Which is to say, just wait for the last three performances to see who the real contenders are. Here's a rundown of the top 11:
Shelby Brown, "You and I": Adam Levine desperately wanted a country singer on his team to beat his frenemy Blake Shelton, but he never really knows what to give poor ol' Shelby Brown. She took on the talent show staple "You and I" by Lady Gaga, and her lower register and twang actually worked well with the lower notes of this song and she sang it with a loud passion. That actually carried through to those big powerful notes in the chorus. But, all that belting clearly worked against Shelby in the end, her final two lines had no power at all. She was clearly just tired.
Evan McKeel, "Smile": Evan McKeel may be one of the most boring performers on this show. Part of his total and complete dullness are Pharrell's incredibly dated song choices for him; we had Kenny Loggins last week and now we have some Nat King Cole. I mean, those artists are timeless, but they're not especially exciting. Evan was similarly solid here but the most interesting thing happening her was the ballerina dancing behind him. It's not great when a silhouette is more gripping than you are. Evan's totally down the middle vocals, mixed with his inability to connect to the inherent sadness of this song (he sang it very straight) made for something so forgettable. I mean, The Voice only has one singer going home this week, so he may be fine, but when no one can even remember your name... will you get votes?
Barrett Baber, "Delta Dawn": Team Blake's Barrett Baber has an inherent country tone to his voice, so I have no idea why he decided to pump this up and go full throttle on this take of the classic hit "Delta Dawn." While at the start of this song, Barrett exhibited some control, he totally lost that and the melody once the big, bombastic chorus came in. This performance wasn't horrible, but it was all over the place. While Blake may have screamed out of his excitement after this performance, the inherent fact that Barrett just couldn't find the right notes overshadowed any other theatrics, no matter what Gwen says.
Korin Bukowski, "Only Hope": Korin Bukowski is hanging into this competition by the skin of her teeth. She was saved by her coach, then saved by Twitter last week. So, this week she really needed to tap in to that magic of her "Samson" performance and regain American's love. She decided to go soft and tender again with this Mandy Moore A Walk to Remember track. While she nailed the sort of tenderness and softness of this song, she struggled with some of the notes. "Only Hope" has a lot of big range jumps in it, and it takes a sort of special singer to do it, and Korin only 80 percent pulled the high notes off. And, while Pharrell said that she had stripped off some of her nerves, I could still feel it through the screen. Please, give this girl her glasses back.
Amy Vachal, "Blank Space": Amy Vachal was a close call for continuing in this competition. She bounced between teams and was saved by her coach Adam before the live playoffs. Last week, Amy found something that worked; she remade Drake's "Hotline Bling" into a jazzy new song. So, she tried to tap into that game again with another chart-topping hit, Taylor Swift's "Blank Space." The sort of folk-y stripped down arrangement of this song is actually really refreshing, and if Taylor ever goes back to country, this is something that she could take a page from. But what makes "Blank Space" a great song is the sense of irony and bite that Taylor Swift has in her version. And that was totally absent from Amy's rendition. She missed the sassiness and the stink and instead tackled this as a straight love song. So, pretty song, but she didn't totally hit the mark.
Zach Seabaugh, "Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not": Wow, so Zach Seabaugh may know how to work the camera and work the audience for that ultimate swoon-factor, but maybe he should work less on his heartthrob factor and more on his vocals. Though he was able to hit the notes occasionally, he kept transitioning between this talk-singing and a country vocal but totally going all over the place when he returned to singing. He was all at once flat and sharp and totally off melody. This was a mess. The audience ate it up, as did the coaches (but will they ever say anything critical anyway?). Zach was pretty low in votes last week and despite the passionate country voting block on The Voice, he could still be in trouble. This was bad.
Madi Davis, "Love Is Blindness": It seems like failing to connect with the emotional meaning of their songs was a common theme this week on The Voice, and Team Pharrell's Madi Davis was just the latest to slightly miss the mark on this U2/Jack White song. Her vocal was buttery and sweet and dynamic, which all worked very much in Madi's favor. However, there is a lot of pain and struggle in the lyrics of "Love Is Blindness," and it would have been nice to hear some of that strife and passion in Madi's delivery. She didn't play this straight or anything, but she gave this like a B-effort when she should be studying up for an A.
Braiden Sunshine, "True": Braiden Sunshine is somehow an audience favorite, despite Gwen's awkward song choices for him and his total lack of stage presence. Given, this was not last week's Styx cover, but it's not like Spandau Ballet's "True" is much more cool or modern. Braiden said his biggest struggle with this song was learning how it goes, and he did seem mostly concentrated not on messing up the lyrics or basic melody in his performance. He wasn't nervous, per se, but he was focused in another world and definitely a little stiff. His vocal was... OK. He did some nice Michael Buble-style croons, but in the basic part of the melody, he got lost in the backing band. And, seriously, Gwen, give Braiden his glasses back.
Jordan Smith, "Who You Are": Jordan Smith is a favorite for season 9, both for The Voice producers and the audience. And, that's not undeserved. His vocals are crystal clear and pitch perfect. From a technical standpoint, there's nothing that he did incorrectly on this Jessie J cover. He sounded really quite beautiful. Like everyone else on this show, Jordan failed to bring 100 percent of the pain and insecurity of this song to the stage. This is a kid with a lot of baggage and emotions to him, his B-roll stories are enough to show that. And, even though he wept at the end of his performance, I missed that total rawness in the vocal. It would have been nice to hear.
Emily Ann Roberts, "Why Not Me": I like this bluegrass version of Emily Ann Roberts, and it was smart of Blake to strip this song down and little bit in its instrumentation to allow Emily more room to riff on the melody all on her own. She had a shiny personality to this, and the answer to "Why not me?" is "Why not? Yeah!" She was one of the few performers this week to really sort of connect to the meaning behind a song, and that worked very much to her benefit. Emily was clean, twangy and classic here. Of the first 10 performers, she was far and away the best.
Jeffery Austin, "Dancing on My Own": "As a gay man, singing Robyn on television, this is a dream come true!" Jeffery Austin exclaimed during his rehearsals for the top 11. But, Jeffery took this dance hit and tapped into its lyrics and emotions and gave this a gripping, ballad makeover. It was actually really heartbreaking and emotional, which once again, was a nice relief for this episode. Jeffery tapped into his Sam Smith-ness here with a smooth, rich tone that cut through all of the music behind him. He's a rising star on this show for sure, and while there is the Jordan Smith juggernaut to beat, Jeffery is a real contender.