Hicks's country-blues style makes him the frontrunner – but then again, there's Elliott's silky voice

By Tom Gliatto
May 10, 2006 08:50 AM

The Votes Are In…
That’s one crazy final three, isn’t it? Standing on the American Idol stage at the end of Wednesday night’s dramatic results show, Katharine McPhee, Taylor Hicks and Elliott Yamin almost looked as if they knew it. There they were, as grateful but stunned a group of survivors as ever broke through the hull of the overturned Poseidon. Still, they’re the final three I would have wanted.

Booted contestant Chris Daughtry technically has a better voice than any of the remaining singers, and a much more versatile one than his “rocker” peg would promise, but there was also something creepingly monotonous about him as a performer. He always seemed to be making his way slowly but surely to the same power effect. You might start out tracing a rivulet, but you’d end up in the echo chamber of the Grand Canyon. I liked Chris, quite a lot, and his rejection counts as an upset. Will I miss him? Mmm, no.

Instead we could now be looking at an Idol named … Taylor Hicks.

What about Katharine, you ask? How things change in Idol Town! Just last week I thought she and Chris were the unquestionable frontrunners. She can maybe last into the next week’s final two, but her brief solo vocal on Are You Lonesome Tonight at the top of Wednesday’s show was just another reminder of her clunky performances during Elvis Night.

Taylor versus Elliott? Well, last night Simon complimented Elliott as the one who’s developed a personality as a performer, but to me Elliott seems relatively unchanging from show to show: The eyes twinkle, the voice practically gushes out, it’s so rich – then the voice stops, and the eyes twinkle again.

Taylor is actually the one whose singing has a grain that could be developed into something original – some sort of country-blues. I mean, at the moment we’re talking about a pea buried beneath several dozen thick mattresses stuffed with corn husks. But it’s there. And I hope it’s not smushed.

Tuesday’s Show
The four American Idol finalists took a little trip to Graceland, home of the original American Idol, Elvis Presley, for Tuesday night’s show. But Elvis is also one of the great pop-star nightmares: The gloppy tentacles of success got their suction cups all over that one and pulled him down and away. The thought of Clay Aiken’s arteries clogged with fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches … it’s sad beyond description.

Idol understandably doesn’t touch on those kind of future ick-ironies. Priscilla Presley, greeting the contestants outside the mansion, told them the King would have loved their show – and it’s probably true. (Or, if he were not in quite the right frame of mind, he might have plugged some bullets into the TV.)

I liked the way pop impresario Tommy Mottola, who coached the performances for the night, pretended to be deep in conversation inside the house when Priscilla brought the contestants in and introduced them. It was so charmingly, unnecessarily false.

But there’s nothing phony about the Presley songbook: Great, flowing melodies, strong, snapping rhythms – and, given this lineup of singers, a comfortable fit for Taylor Hicks. I still think he moves horribly, but he had a blast on “Jailhouse Rock.” Even Simon Cowell seemed to agree with Randy Jackson that he’d found his groove – his heart – with a quiet “In the Ghetto.” I don’t know if Taylor can last into the final two, but I’ll bet he’s there for at least one more week. Or longer: The guy gets under the skin somehow, and that counts.

Of the other three, sole surviving female contestant Katharine McPhee was probably at a natural disadvantage singing Elvis. (What about a night of Cat Power songs, you ask? No, I don’t think that would work, either.) Katharine had a lot of fun tearing her way through “Hound Dog,” with a dollop of “Jailhouse Rock” tossed in, but she dropped some of the lyrics, and Simon hated it. I thought she’d have a better chance with “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” but she sang it with a certain whooping desperation. Viewers might want to give her one more week’s chance, anyway, to keep a woman’s voice in the mix. And she has a special sort of winsome appeal. And her father cries so much.

Elliott Yamin

I think the one to go this week – and I never dreamed I’d reason this way, but I’ve been eating fried PB&J while writing this entry – comes down to Chris Daughtry or Elliott Yamin. Chris was in good form on “Suspicious Minds,” although someone should have discouraged him from trying to accessorize his performance with sunglasses. But he misjudged on “A Little Less Conversation.” He meant to underplay the first half the better to build up the finale, but it just ended up sounding like half a song. (Surprisingly, he’s worn less well than Taylor.)

Elliott, to be honest, had the best night with the judges, first with “If I Can Dream,” and then “Trouble.” If I heard her correctly, Paula Abdul said they were both his best performances ever. Oh, Paula, you enchantingly reckless dispenser of superlatives! Simon, too, said Elliott deserved to move on to the next round. Okay. But why do I always feel like he’s performing on a telethon? Is it just me?