'American Idol' recap: The Top 6 first go rock, then country

The "American Idol" Top 6 made like Donny and Marie Osmond, circa 1976, and went a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n' roll (the perfect fresh reference for pulling in that young demographic the show's been aiming hard for this season) on Wednesday night, though not in that order.

It was a drawn-out, slackish evening that felt every bit of its two hours and more. Sections between performances were filled with noisy coach banter and appearances by the band R5 and a very sedate Grumpy Cat. The extremely non-frisky, permanently bemused feline was held by host Ryan Seacrest, kissed by contestant Caleb Johnson, imitated by Jennifer Lopez and awkwardly carried on for a final appearance by Randy Jackson, who exclaimed, "The dawg holding the cat! I love cats!"

And then there was the singing.

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Jena Irene led off the rock songs with a performance of Heart's "Barracuda" that showed her power and range. Keith Urban called it a "great way to start the show," "the perfect song" for her voice and range, and a "killer performance," but said, in a theme he would return to all night, he wished she'd "released" more physically. "You can cut loose, baby," he said. Harry Connick said Irene's "strong voice" was a "perfect match for that song." Lopez encouraged her to keep pushing herself further, saying that's what would help her win. "Last week, I feel like Jena did some things that showed people that she could take the whole thing," Lopez later said.

For her country song, Irene tackled Carrie Underwood's "So Small," messing up a bit at the end. It wasn't her best performance, but Urban and Lopez didn't seem bothered. Urban told her she was "such a good singer" and represented "everything that 'Idol' has ever been about." Watching her "get better and better and better every week," he said, was "like the best journey." Lopez said she'd gotten "the goosies" and that Irene's powerful vocals had sucked her so deeply into the song and story that it was as if the band had gone away. Connick thought Irene's interpretation was overly ornamented and that those ornaments "didn't really match what was going on underneath" her. It "didn't work" for him, but it probably wasn't going to matter much, he told Irene, because "a lot of people love you."

Reluctant designated heartthrob Sam Woolf, who just celebrated his 18th birthday, sang Imagine Dragons' "It's Time" in the rock round, showing increasing comfort onstage and eliciting lots of screams from the crowd. Lopez got "goosies," said she "believed" Woolf when he sang, and contended that he'd finally come into his own and had given a "full-blown performance." Connick called the song choice "perfect" and said Woolf was "starting to add layers" to his "sweet, humble, kind guy" persona, and "blossoming." Urban urged him to tap into his "real emotion" -- pain, anger, frustration – and channel it into the song. "When you tap into that and sing like you do, it'll explode," he said. "You've just got to release it."

For his country go, Woolf sweetly sang Shania Twain's "You're Still the One," connecting with the audience directly by touching a few outstretched hands. Urban thought it was a good song for him "lyrically" because it drove his young fans "crazy," but said he'd still like to see him relax and ease into the music more. Lopez gushed about Woolf's cuteness and said she wanted him to tap into his feelings and make himself blush more. Connick wished for less perfection, more dynamics, telling Woolf he'd gotten the hang of connecting with the audience and should now focus on connecting with the lyrics.

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C.J. Harris' rock entry was "American Woman" by the Guess Who, which he performed with his usual blend of intensity and "intonation" issues, as Connick later noted. The judge said he'd felt Harris' "energy," liked the song choice and had come to find comfort in the "cry" in his voice, but he urged him, again, to work on "singing in tune." Urban noted that there was a "disconnect" between Harris' natural sweetness and the song's swaggy attitude, urging him to find the emotion somewhere, even if he "couldn't be that [not nice] guy to that girl" in real life. Lopez liked Harris' look and thought he'd pulled the performance off after a shaky start, even though rock wasn't really his thing.

For the country round, Harris gave a middle-of-the-road performance of the Zac Brown Band's "Whatever It Is." The judges were disappointed. "I have to say, I expected a bit more from you," Lopez said, adding that the performance had not "hit the mark." Connick agreed, advising Harris to choose songs he knew were "going to kill," should he be "lucky enough to stick around." "You can't get by … with songs like that anymore, I don't think," he said. Urban said Harris' "good heart" and "good spirit" always came through, but that he had "more to offer." After the judges had offered their critique, Harris told Seacrest that the song had been dedicated to a "girl back home" who'd just died.

Alex Preston had his way with Neon Trees' "Animal" during the rock round, giving a more upbeat performance than usual. Urban sought more "release" and greater domination of the song. Lopez felt there was "something missing" and that Preston had been a little "contained." Connick contended that Preston, a "sensitive, thoughtful performer," deserved "a pass" because he was "so good all the time." He thought maybe Preston had encountered a problem getting enough breath, but was thrilled to hear him do an up-tempo song, saying the aspiring singer would need to be able to do that when performing. "Now I know you can do it," Connick said.

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Preston fared much better in the country portion of the evening, when he put his acoustic, singer-songwritery spin on Willie Nelson's "Always on My Mind," reminding me vocally, as he sometimes does, of Paul Simon. It was among his very best performances. Connick was as gushy as Connick gets, telling Preston the feeling he'd gotten from hearing him sing that song had made it "a good night" and that he felt "very lucky" to have heard it. He commended him on his beautiful singing and his admirable artistry. Urban called Preston's style "strong," but said he'd wanted to hear more "heartbreak." Lopez, though, called it "really beautiful," "the perfect balance of Alex and a great, beautiful song that everybody loves."

Caleb Johnson's performance of the Black Crowes' "Sting Me" was also impressive, if somewhat over the top. At one point, he apparently lost and recovered his microphone, though he clutched fast to the mic stand, and he ended on his knees in front of the backup singers. Lopez gave Johnson a standing ovation. "That was some real rock 'n' roll stuff right there," she said, saying he'd  "created a moment" and calling the performance "awesome." A "perfect song choice" coupled with "an incredible performance" could prove "virtually impossible to beat," Connick said. Urban said the way he'd "spackled right over" the "big crack in the performance" was "killer." And Jackson piped in from the sidelines that being "reckless and wild" was what rock 'n' roll was truly all about.

Johnson's country follow-up, Carrie Underwood's "Undo It," was less well received by the judges. Lopez said he'd done a "great job," but that it didn't really compare with his "epic" first performance. Connick said "magic moments" were "fleeting," and that while Johnson had had one in the first song, he hadn't in the second. It "just felt a little bit more forced," he said. The resident country-music judge Urban got in a wry dig on behalf of his genre, telling Johnson he couldn't wait "to hear what country song you do later."

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Jessica Meuse delivered her rock number, Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love," somewhat more convincingly than she has other songs in the past. "I practiced some dancing," she proudly informed Connick, who'd requested that she do so. Connick said Meuse had a "fantastic voice" and had presented it in "the strongest possible way," complimenting her on the way her body – finally -- had informed her "rhythmic delivery." Urban called the performance "vocally" and tonally "strong," but kept up his plea for "more release." He still felt there was a disconnect between what was coming out of Meuse's mouth and what was going on behind her eyes. Lopez sought more "freedom" and "feeling." "Your voice is so powerful and so beautiful, and you look so beautiful up there singing, that we want everything else to match with that," she said.

Meuse closed the show with Dolly Parton's "Jolene," a natural fit for her voice. Connick was again complimentary, telling Meuse he "really felt" she was "thinking about those lyrics" and had delivered the song "in a convincing way." Urban agreed that Meuse's vocals had been "strong," but said he hated the band's arrangement, which he believed was unnecessarily dark and weighty. Lopez thought Meuse had taken the judges' advice and tried to show "something" in her eyes. Meuse's voice she called "magnificent."

I think C.J. Harris could be headed home this week, with Meuse perhaps keeping him company in the bottom two. What's your prediction?


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