As Frank Sinatra might have said, let’s just get it out on the table. This week’s “American Idol” face-off had barely anything to do with its “Rat Pack” theme in form or spirit. For the most part, the songs chosen weren’t the ones Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. sang when they lighted up the Sands nightclub as part of the swingingest musical traveling card game in 1960s Las Vegas.
Yes, everything performed appears somewhere in the Rat Pack’s catalog, and Matt Giraud’s pick, “My Funny Valentine,” was one of Sinatra’s signature tunes. But a quick scan of Rat Pack compilations reveals that the sweet slow dances dominating the night were rarely featured in the gang’s repertoire, which more frequently focused on laughs, drinks and dames.
But then, what else could these aspiring crooners do but perform standards in the common way of young singers -- with technical grace, but only the most easily translatable emotions? The final five showed almost zero awareness of or interest in what Sinatra and his cronies granted pop in the autumn of their years, when the Rat Pack came to stand for fun of the most adult (and, in the background, melancholy) kind.
Instead, the “Idol” finalists mostly came across like prom dates: really adorable, precocious even, but corsage carriers nonetheless. Technically, the performances were among the best of the season, with Kris Allen, Danny Gokey and, unavoidably, Adam Lambert taking the top three spots. Lambert’s “Feeling Good” was pure rock star, and Allen showed off his savvy, though his soft tenor failed him when he tried to jump into Michael Buble’s well-shined shoes.
But Allison Iraheta had her moment too, finally connecting with the street-tough innocence of the girl groups with “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and finally embracing her youth. And a nervous Giraud turned inward to pull out some very astute phrasing on “Valentine,” even if he hit a few smeary notes.
All in all, decent. But not that deep. And there was no swing, which some might argue means it don’t mean a thing.
What stood in this talented quintet’s way? Not mentor Jamie Foxx, whose advice was solid; one suspected he may have chosen the theme, both to move a few DVDs of the Ray Charles biopic for which he won an Oscar (Charles had nothing to do with the Rat Pack, but that’s a classic “Idol” fudge) and to avoid having the kids bury him under a pile of R&B-style; melisma.
They did it anyway. Allen and Giraud, fine as both were, turned their standards into soul tunes. Gokey, at least, stuck to the rhythmically sharp but run-free style Sinatra favored, though, as always, Gokey turned into a human megaphone at song’s end. Until the volume went up, his “Come Rain or Come Shine” beautifully showed off the smoky tone and feeling maturity that makes him the sentimental favorite. And that’s what the Rat Pack was all about -- making music and merry, that suited grown-ups. Gokey was the one who came closest to that mandate.