American Idol went "Back to the Start" Wednesday, tasking the Top 8 finalists with performing the song that they auditioned with — as well as pairing them up to perform duets. (Eesh, hold on to your hats.)
Let's follow Ryan Seacrest's lead and get right into the songs!
Song: "Blue Eyed Lie" (original song)
The performance: If Jessica's Atlanta audition was a nice appetizer, her performance tonight is a three-course meal that highlights how much she's blossomed as a singer in a couple of months. The song is catchy and a perfect choice to showcase Jessica's gritty vocals, but she needs to be a little more loose with her movements.
What the judges say: Keith Urban tells Jessica she needs to move a little more, but Jennifer Lopez calls the performance "perfect" and says she already has an idea of what Jessica's album will sound like. Harry Connick Jr. disagrees with Keith about adding more movement, but wonders if there was a misstep towards the end of the song.
Song: "Soul Shine" by The Allman Brothers Band
The performance: C.J.'s voice has that lovely rasp to it on the verses, but he gets a little overshadowed by the band on the choruses. He also continues to struggle with pitch problems, albeit far less so than in previous weeks.
What the judges say: J.Lo and Keith agree that the song was much better than the first time around, and Harry notes that C.J.'s pitch has improved considerably.
First duet: Jena and Alex
Song: "Just Give Me a Reason" by Pink and Nate Ruess
The performance: Duets are always a little groan-inducing, but Alex and Jena's voices complement each other nicely, with the odd dynamic of hers being deeper and stronger than his. But — MAYDAY! — that chorus comes in like a derailed train, as the pair can't harmonize to save their lives.
Song: "Lego House" by Ed Sheeran
The performance: Sam offers a slower version of "Lego House" than he did in Boston, and it's still pitch-perfect, with an added layer of confidence that indicates the teen may slowly but surely be embracing the heartthrob label that's being oh-so-unsubtly foisted upon him by TPTB. (Also his grandparents are so cute.)
What the judges say: Harry again criticizes Sam's lack of "connection" and urges him to pick an audience member to focus on, while Keith praises Sam for continued improvement week after week. Jennifer mostly gets drowned out by screams and an amazing Long Island diva impression courtesy of Harry.
Second duet: Jessica and Caleb
Song: "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" by Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty
The performance: What a great choice for these two. If Jessica could channel Ms. Nicks every week, we'd be happy. But surprisingly, usual showstopper Caleb seems a little subdued for this number, and literally has to stop himself from putting his hand in his pocket at one point(!). Maybe he's saving his energy for his solo number? It's serviceable, but doesn't go beyond a good duet at bar karaoke.
Song: "Ain't No Way" by Aretha Franklin
The performance: Malaya gets off to a rough start by coming in too early on the first verse. Her vocals are on point from there, although she occasionally gets swallowed up by the stage and needs to learn to work it a little more. But, she's considerably improved her control and notes that would have been screechy a couple of weeks ago are instead right in the zone.
What the judges say: "Malaya on fiy-ah!" quips Keith in his swoon-worthy Australian accent before he calls the song "fantastic." J.Lo says Malaya's becoming a star in front of their eyes and predicts that she's going to "run away with this competition." A bold assertion! And Harry also loves it, but advises Malaya to work with the band to perfect her runs.
Song: "One Mississippi" by Brett Eldredge
The performance: This ballad from Dexter couldn't have come at a better time in his Idol run, after several weeks of boot-stompin', guitar-playin' country from the Southern crooner. And even though he's just sitting on a stool the whole time, Dexter manages to be captivating and appropriately emotional, while conveying an authentic connection with the words he's singing. (Take note, Sam.)
What the judges say: Jennifer is thrilled to be proven wrong by Dexter accepting the judges' challenge to go outside of the box. A more crass Harry says Dexter "sang the crap out of that song," and Keith tells Dexter to focus less on the sound of his voice and more on the message of the lyrics.
Third duet: Malaya and Sam
Song: "Lucky" by Colbie Caillat and Jason Mraz
The performance: Well, this is a different tone for Malaya, and she should consider doing a softer song as a solo in the coming weeks. But they're mostly singing in different keys — and sorry, but Malaya and Sam have less chemistry than Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey. Sigh, duets.
Song: "Rollin' in the Deep" by Adele
The performance: Here we go. It's always a crapshoot when singers tackle Adele on Idol. And Jena's take on "Rollin' in the Deep" in her audition was ... fine. But, THIS. First of all, Jena makes a great decision to totally change the song's arrangement and turn it into a haunting ballad. Second, we hate to throw around comparisons to Candice Glover willy-nilly, but Jena's performance tonight calls to mind Candice's reworking of "Lovesong" from last season. It's not quite there, but close — and it brings the house down.
What the judges say: Harry says he's gotten used to Jena's tone, which he initially thought was a speech impediment. (That was a compliment.) Keith praises Jena for making the song her own and resisting the temptation to revert to the original arrangement, and J.Lo point-blank tells Jena that she could win the competition if she puts her mind to it.
Fourth duet: C.J. and Dexter
Song: "Alright" by Darius Rucker
The performance: Oof. This is horrid. Did Dexter and C.J. not have time to rehearse this week? Their vocals sound like two birds flapping off in different directions, while occasionally crashing into each other on a (likely accidental) synchronized note. Plus the "Alright" marquee behind them is distracting and laughable.
Song: "Chain of Fools" by Aretha Franklin
The performance: There's just something about Caleb, is there not? Out of this entire group, he seems like the one candidate who's most poised for arena stardom. His slowed-down, bluesy rendition of "Chain of Fools," with an a cappella interlude, is simply a joy to watch.
What the judges say: Keith, in awe, calls Caleb a "rock 'n' roll Viking" and thanks him for delivering every week, and Jennifer agrees that it was "perfect." Harry loved the performance but challenges Caleb to sing something a little softer "just once." We agree!
Song: "Fairy Tales" (original song)
The performance: Of the singer-songwriter types in this year's competition, Sam may have the looks, but Alex has the emotional resonance and storytelling shtick. Written about a romance that ended when Alex and Unnamed Lady went their separate ways to college, "Fairy Tales" is a decent song that gets elevated by the sheer passion and pain that Alex jams into it, while still keeping a tight rein over his vocals. And that last run is a gem.
What the judges say: Jennifer is impressed by the level of comfort Alex displays. Harry loves Alex's vibrato, and Keith notes that many of Alex's competitors were singing right along with him and "that's a good sign."
And that's a wrap! From where we're sitting, this was the strongest overall performance night of Season 13 so far. What did you think? What were your favorite songs of the night? Aren't forced duets the worst thing ever? And who should be sent home tomorrow? Sound off in the comments!