When did cover versions become a bad thing? Judges get tough as The Voice goes epic
Seal has some words of wisdom for Kieran Fraser and Sam Ludeman.
Like most battles, The Voice lasts much longer than anyone anticipates.
As the judges agonise over their decisions as if channeling Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice, the supermoon waxes and wanes, the stars grow old, and cities crumble. There was a baby in the audience that had entered puberty by the time the show shuddered to a close. Last night, we finally saw a certain spark, if not in the contestants, then in the judges, who have started well, judging the contestants.
All the rehearsal footage from The House of Voice felt like one of those endless fever dreams full of strange rooms stocked with symbolic objects. Why, during the evening mentoring scenes, do some of the contestants face a plate of grapes, and others contemplate a bowl full of spiked balls? Why are the couches in the selection so low that everyone sits with their knees around their ears? Why the constant jump cuts to the fence outside, high and sharp and forbidding?
Sarah de Bono hits a note during her battle with Yianna Stavrou.
The arena, however, has a shiny sci-fi look, a mash-up of the boxing ring from Rocky IV and the judgment-on-Krypton scene from Superman 2. One false move up there, and Delta - who has both the name and look of an icy Marvel arch villainess - will teleport you back to Clarkville.
TEAM JOEL: Carmen Smith vs Michelle Serret-Cursio
Song: We Found Love by Rihanna
Frenemy hugging: Brittany Cairns and Kelsie Rimmer.
This, explains Joel, "is the battle of what used to be backup singers who are now stars in their own right in my mind".
I know right? Punchy. When Mr Madden tires of life as a talent show judge, he can write search-engine-optimised headlines.
Carmen wins best hair, even in a close fight with Joel, who has dyed his undercroft a deep purple to match his deathless lyrical prose.
Michelle wins best sport for smiling bravely every time she's introduced as a "mother-of-two" even though she's been singing professionally for way longer than Carmen.
Carmen strides out in a leather breast plate and a flowing skirt, like a warrior girl from medieval fantasy Game of Thrones. Michelle is a more After 5, in a little black dress. Joel has swapped his sleevless denim jacket for a black tuxedo and a red poppy, like a barista on his wedding day.
Both women have the platinum lungs needed to carry off the song, triggering The Voice's patented soulful head swaying from all four judges - they should totally release their own noddy dolls you can put on the TV. But neither, frankly, has that steely confidence Rihanna uses to steamroll her way through all the songs she records. They both sing the ballad pleasantly. As both Keith and Seal recognise, Carmen is able to inject a little 'tude - "effortless swagger", says Keith - so she wins the day.
TEAM SEAL: Sam Ludeman v Kieran Fraser
Song: Viva La Vida by Coldplay
This is the most entertaining sing-off of the night, not because it is the most accomplished but because it comes the closest to shifting from a metaphorical battle to an actual punch-up.
Or at least, that's what it feels like when karaoke king Kieran channels his inner Dolf Lundgren (who is not buried all that deep) and gives Sam "musical theatre" Ludeman the "watching you" fingers mid melody.
Kieran is dealing with mixed messages. He had to get out of trackie daks and wear something stylish because it's not just about the voice, apparently - goodbye, premise of entire show! However, Kieran also cops grief for his karaoke showmanship - "which I can't stand," says Seal.
Kieran sings Coldplay's sweeping attack on kingly hubris with an emphasis on the "rule the world" bit and forgets all about the humility that is supposed to be the song's take-away message. Sam Ludeman grips his microphone like a lifeline and let the fear in his eyes give his lines a little emotional heft. Sometimes, when the rivals go big, it's smarter to lower your voice and pull focus that way. His too-short trousers help too, making him seem as vulnerable as an adolescent who'd just had a very sudden growth spurt. Pretty boy, huh? Sam wins.
TEAM KEITH: Brittany Cairns vs Kelsie Rimmer
Song: Turning Tables by Adele
It is a song choice to bring out the emotion in the voices, and a pairing to bring out the tensions in the backstories. Kelsie is the bullied school loner who found her calling after extensive facial surgery. Brittany is the perky blonde with the steel larynx who was celebrated at high school for her talents. So it's the one where the lonely one competes against the popular one.
Work has to be done to make Brittany's story more compelling, so Keith and Megan spend the rehearsals picking on her for her perfect pitch and cooing over Kelsie's more emotionally developed delivery. "They said it was like a cover version!" says Brittany, who was alarmed to discover that, in a show about cover versions, this is apparently a bad thing.
By the time the two girls stumble into the spotlight, both of them have raging insecurities they could mine to deliver the big notes. While Kelsie dresses like Joni Mitchell and swoops around the lyrics with her eyes shut, Brittany, in day-glo yellow, sings the brassy notes into submission. Kelsie is often more entertaining to watch, but Brittany ends up best on field. This duel also gets points for the most intense frenemy hugging.
TEAM DELTA: Matt Hetherington v Jerson Trinidad
Song: Higher Ground by Stevie Wonder
"The gloves are off," according to Delta, who pairs her pubbiest Oz Rock singer with her most soulful singer for a manly scramble to the end of Wonder's trippiest slab of funk.
She also channels her own stern teacher persona by donning the biggest pair of nerd glasses we've seen since the fake nose fell off the Groucho Marx mask, which she pairs with dluoro pink palazzo pants. Lady, Mr Wonder did not judge on appearances but these boys could see you and I'll bet they too were silently judging.
Judging from the responses on Twitter, Matt's win was the big upset of the night, fighting off the challenge from Jerson's cocktail-hour vowels by channeling his inner Barnsey and giving the soul classic a bracing, Grand Final Day attack. They both make the word "higher" sound more like the cry of a karate battle - hiiiiyaaaaaaa!
TEAM JOEL: Sarah de Bono and Yianna Stavrou
Song: Heavy Cross by the Gossip
It was several episodes before I learned the name of the genial host with the mild brogue who wanders around backstage with a microphone, and I've already forgotten it, but I think he is using his Australian accent to announce this, the "battle of the bewdies".
These may be blind auditions, but Joel does not let it escape mention that the two lissome contestants paired for this sing-off are sexy, attractive, beautiful, "every teenage boy's dream" and "hawt".
Neither of them are fans of plus-size diva Beth Ditto, and they are both underwhelmed by their song, indie belter Heavy Cross. By the end of the rehearsal, you can tell they both hate the song.
Instructed to find "that little bad streak", Yiana expresses in a red dress so short the cameras could only film her from above. Sarah sets off her Marvel cartoon hair with a silver Barbarella bikini. While the little red dress draws all the focus, Sarah is the one who sings like she'd studied the lyrics and ultimately smashes her saucy rival in the "whoah-off" at the end.
TEAM KEITH: Brett Clarke vs Darren Percival
Song: Shower the People by James Taylor
Brett's a little bit country, Darren's a little bit awesome. The fix as probably in the minute Megan Washington dissolves into tears during rehearsal at the limpid, liquid loveliness of Mr Percival's voice. No pressure, young Brett!
This battle wins points for the most understated outfits: Brett looks ready for a shift pulling beers, Darren wears a geography teacher's corduroy jacket.
Kudos to the Tamworth blonde for giving the Taylor love-in a gentle, heartfelt introduction, proving himself a thoughtful interpreter, but the minute his rival opens his golden throat the show is over. Only Darren's own children, asleep in their chairs, remain unmoved. The way the man clutched his family, sobbing, after his victory, is almost distressing.
It is a little weird to watch a song built on harmony, both literal and musical, turned into a competition, and it suffers for it a little. Go listen to the original sometime, where loving choirs convince you that Sweet Baby James is the wisest man in the universe.
TEAM DELTA: Ben Bennett vs Jesse and Ashleigh
Song: Fireflies by Owl Cities
What's the word for a duel between three people? You might think that Ben, who looks like he was engineered as a spare part for One Direction, is in trouble, singing against two other adorable teen poppets with shiny hair, but it worked in his favour.
The whole duet thing never worked in this show, so at least this battle finally puts the conjoined twin shtick to rest. Jesse struggles to keep up, playing Finn to Ashleigh's more capable Rachel, and the pacing is a mess. So is the choreography, which involves knee bobbing alternated with arm waving.
It doesn't help that they are given such a twee song. The Owl City number relies on autotune for its cutesy charms, which are marginal at best, and to have the asinine lyrics exposed like that on the stage is not pretty.
Still, yay Ben. Hope they give you better material next time.
TEAM SEAL: Emma Louise Birdsall vs Casey Withoos
Song: At Last by Etta James
Singing the late Mizz James' greatest torch number is the vocal equivalent of a backwards triple twist with a half pike off the high diving board. So much can go wrong. But Seal uses his supersexy charms to persuade his most soulful songbirds to make the leap.
While it seems at first that nobody could resist the stately, pure voice of Casey, she fails to bring it in the final battle. Did she not hear Seal's many exhortations to own her sexiness and embrace her hotness and make love to the audience with her voice? I get the feeling that Casey, who has the pure soprano of a singing nun, is not the sort to vamp her audience.
Emma Louise, however, has the sultry purr of an Eartha Kitt, if not an Etta James, and she is quite happy to bring sexy back. Some of the sleepy smiles she exchanged with Seal probably require an MA 15+ rating. So it is a battle where the winner is not the better voice but the right voice for the task - all smoke and wine. Goodbye, Miss Withoos, departed like many of the better singers. But watch that Emma Louise, she's clearly saving up a few more surprises.