‘The Voice’ Semifinals Recap: The Fateful 8

In this sudden-death semifinals week, the Voice top eight will become a Voice top four in less time than it takes for Blake Shelton to refill his “Starbucks” cup, for Gwen Stefani to find a great new boyfriend, or for NBC to steal superstar panelists away from American Idol’s just-announced reboot. This Tuesday, half of Season 12’s very talented hopefuls will go home, all at once — and judging by how things went on Monday’s top-eight performance show, there may be some unexpected and painful cuts, particularly for the once-unstoppable Team Gwen.

It can be argued that — despite losing one of her contestants, Troy Ramey, very early on — Gwen had the strongest team this season. Hunter Plake ascended the iTunes chart week after week with his brilliant and inventive remakes (Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” deconstructed to sound like a Weeknd witchhouse remix, Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” reimagined as a fragile, Damien Rice-like lament), and 15-year-old Brennley Brown seemed positioned to be the new Danielle Bradbery and maybe even the first non-Team Blake country singer to win The Voice. But this crucial week, both contestants shed their signature special styles, “switching things up” at the exactly wrong moment. Sheesh. Why didn’t Gwen just give them Korin Bukowski-inspired platinum-blond makeovers while she was at it?

Yes, it’s still likely that Team Gwen will be represented by at least one artist in next week’s finale. But after almost all of the contestants gave stellar performances Monday — and the underdogs had both bark and bite, and the dark horses seemed to be sprinting directly toward the winner’s circle — Hunter and Brennley’s success no longer seems to be a given.

Thankfully, both of Gwen’s contestants sang fantastic duets — Hunter sharing a sweet and lovely moment with Team Blake teen Aliyah Moulden, Brennley holding her own alongside Season 12 frontrunner Lauren Duski — and that might help their chances, since duet downloads and special namesmash-hashtags tweets counted as votes for both singers in each pairing this week. So #AliyahHunterDuet and #BrennleyLaurenDuet, y’all!

Here’s your pre-bloodbath recap.

SOLOS

Hunter Plake (Team Gwen)

Just in time to probably-not-coincidentally celebrate The Joshua Tree’s 30th anniversary tour (and give Gwen a chance to brag about that time when No Doubt toured with U2), Hunter did that album’s most iconic and instantly recognizable track, “With or Without You.” And, oh, it was recognizable, all right. Too recognizable. While Hunter has always stood out thanks to his radical song-flips, this week he took Gwen’s odd advice about adhering to the melody (an obsession of hers all season) and did a faithful, ultimately underwhelming version of the song. This was generic, at least by high Hunter Plake standards.

Honestly, Hunter might have been doomed no matter what he did here. If he had tampered with U2’s beloved classic, it would’ve backfired. But playing it safe wasn’t the way to go, either. Additionally, Gwen said she’d picked this tune so Hunter could really showcase his voice (as opposed to his production and arranging talents), yet his vocals didn’t sound very impressive here. Was the show having audio issues? Hunter’s whispery low notes were barely audible over the cranked-to-11 house band — and that made unfavorable comparisons with Bono’s big, booming voice almost inevitable.

Blake was actually impressed by Hunter’s voice, saying, “Dude, that is by a mile your best vocal performance.” Blake also appreciated that Hunter “honored the original.” But Adam Levine expressed mild disappointment. “When the song started, it was probably the most straightforward production you have done so far. You like to take things and twist them around and make them your own and do the ‘Hunter treatment’ to them, and I love that. I was missing that at first,” admitted Adam, before quickly adding, “But then I was like, ‘It’s so great to hear someone sing that song and do that vocal the way it is really supposed to be done.’ I like the fact that it was kind of a classic take on the song.”

Well, if viewers didn’t like Hunter’s performance, maybe The Voice can just pull a Songs of Innocence move and force it onto everyone’s iTunes, so he gets the iTunes bonus anyway. Whatever it takes, I say. To loosely borrow a phrase from Bono, I can’t live without Hunter in the finale.

TSoul (Team Blake)

TSoul probably has the slimmest chance of making it to the top four, but if Monday marked his last performance on the Voice stage, he certainly went out with a bang, not a literal whimper. The showboating soul stylist has never given a timid or half-hearted performance, but he really “swung for the fence,” as Blake put it, with this week’s wild-eyed, evangelical cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way.” (“TSoul is singing to the last second!” host Carson Daly later remarked, as if he knew this was TSoul’s swan song. Oh, the shade!) TSoul even pulled a woman up onstage and begged for her affection, and it was a memorable, theatrical flourish. Once again, his pitch was not flawless, but his quirks and ticks and imperfections seemed to come from a place of passion, from letting go and losing himself in the big song, so none of that bothered me.

“I don’t know that I have ever actually said this to you, but man, I’m so proud of you. TSoul told me early on in this competition that he had this vision and this dream of making it in music. He always thought if he could just get on The Voice, if he could just get on this stage and people could see what he can do outside of YouTube, if he could just show people… Dude, you are in the semifinals right now. Congratulations,” Blake said. As was the case with Carson’s comment, Blake sounded like he was already bidding a fond farewell to a presumed also-ran. But TSoul is such a dynamite performer, I think if he squeaks through to Tuesday’s middle pack and gets a shot at singing for the Save, he might surprise everyone.

Brennley Brown (Team Gwen)

Brennley has excelled with wistful ‘70s folk-country balladry, so why did Gwen think that this week, of all weeks, was the right time to have Brennley go cheerful, modern, and uptempo? Once again, Gwen puzzlingly employed a “if it ain’t broke, break it” strategy to a seemingly sure-thing contestant. (“It’s gonna be a different Brennley that they’ve never seen before, and I feel really pumped up!” Gwen gushed during rehearsal.) Brennley’s smiley, pageanty, slightly manic cover of Sara Evans’s “Suds in the Bucket,” about a road-trippin’, Vegas-bound free spirit, felt lightweight and inconsequential. Yes, it was fun, commercial, and marketable, but this “Suds” performance was all froth. Brennley really needed another “River” or “Long, Long Time” this week.

But Blake, Gwen’s ever-supportive boyfriend and Brennley’s former coach, of course loved this, saying, “Tonight, for the first time, just visually and also your personality onstage and the way you sounded, it felt like we were watching a 15-year-old. That’s what I think you needed to do, is remind people, this girl is 15 years old, and she has made it this far.” (That didn’t sound like praise to me. Hadn’t Brennley’s appeal always been that she was an old soul, wise beyond her years?) Gwen’s critique was also confusing, as she argued, unconvincingly, that upbeat songs are especially difficult to sing: “I want everyone to know emotional songs are in a way easier, because you just fall into the song and you release into it. To entertain and to do a song that’s uptempo and has a lot of personality takes a lot of confidence. I’m so proud that you were brave enough to just tackle it.”

Lauren Duski (Team Blake)

Lauren, on the other hand, went the emotional route, and of course it worked. Blake — the most successful coach in Voice history, with five wins and perhaps a sixth one coming soon, thanks to Lauren — knows not to mess too much with a good thing. Doing her second Alison Krauss song of the season, “Ghost in this House” (originally recorded by Shenandoah), Lauren looked like a Nashville goddess as she began her exquisite performance sitting regally on a dry-ice cloud. She then took a grand processional walk to microphone stand, all the while accompanied by tasteful lap steel and wearing a beaded gown that Carrie Underwood’s stylist is probably frantically trying to acquire for next month’s CMT Awards. Everything thing about this performance felt glamorous and polished — and yet still so real and warm and connected. That’s what’s so great about the likable Lauren. She always keeps it classy.

“It seems sometimes these days like grace and simplicity and just getting up there and doing what you do in such a beautiful way is going out of style, and it is so nice to see you do that… This is pure and genuine and doesn’t require much effort at all, which I think is the most exciting thing about a vocalist. I think you are amazing,” said Adam. “There is a handful of songs out there — real country music fans know which ones they are — they are those untouchable songs. And that’s one of them, right there. It is scary to do one of those. That is not an easy song to sing. That song is impossible. What you just did was absolutely monumental,” said Blake, looking understandably thrilled.

Chris Blue (Team Alicia)

Chris also took a total 180 this week, following last week’s swaggalicious, dancetastic “24K Magic” with gospel singer Tamela Mann’s Kirk Franklin-penned “Take Me to the King.” But this was a smarter switch-up than Hunter’s or Brennley’s. After all, religious songs tend to resonate with Voice viewers (examples: Craig Wayne Boyd’s “Old Rugged Cross,” Jordan Smith’s “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” Paxton Ingram’s “Break Every Chain”), and since Chris’s one drawback might be a certain perceived superficiality or disingenuousness, this was a song that would het him be vulnerable, serious, and connected — that would show “the pure side of Chris Blue,” as Chris himself put it, or that “tender, sensitive, higher power,” as Alicia Keys said. I did miss Chris’s old over-the-top flash and pizzazz, but this was a raw, powerful, and honest performance.

“I knew you could do it — just let all the walls down and tap into that place in yourself that’s so pure and true… I’m so proud of you, Chris. You just got out of your way. You just let the source come through you, and it was so moving,” raved Alicia.

Vanessa Ferguson (Team Alicia)

Vanessa also switched things up this week, and she probably needed to. I’ve adored her hipster indie-R&B vibe all season, but apparently most of America has not, since she has always landed at the bottom of the iTunes chart — and she nearly went home last week after doing a Lauryn Hill song. So this week, Vanessa slipped into an elegant red dress (her grandfather’s request) and crooned Leon Russell’s all-time-classic singing-show staple “Superstar.” The result was old-fashioned — but not uncool. The usually reserved and stoic Vanessa needed to sing something vulnerable this week, and this was a perfect song choice. Her delivery was passionate, her phrasing and timing impeccable, and there was enough drama onstage to make TSoul look like Mark Isaiah. Was it enough? Sadly, probably not. But I sure hope it was. I love her, I really do.

“I was losing my mind, going crazy, jumping up and down like a lunatic, but because I know what you went through to find this beautiful place and for you to just uncover yourself in this way… I feel like you are blooming and blossoming and opening and becoming unafraid of your greatness and the phenomenal woman that you are… I want you to stay. I want to you show America more. America, vote for Vanessa. She is amazing!” pleaded Alicia.

Jesse Larson (Team Adam)

As the last man standing on Team Adam, Jesse’s days seemed numbered. But after this week, he may leapfrog over some “frontrunners” and make it to the top four. “I Was Wrong,” off Chris Stapleton’s brand-new and critically acclaimed From A Room: Volume 1, was, as Adam put it, a “gold mine” of a song for the bluesman, tapping into all the best soulful qualities of his voice and giving him a chance to shred on his guitar, something I’ve truly missed from Jesse over the past few weeks. This was the right, ripe time for Jesse to become a guitar hero again, and he let it rip. This was pure fire, Jesse’s finest performance of the entire season, a classic case of a contestant peaking at just the right time.

“My belief in Jesse is so real… I genuinely believe that this guy is the best we have got. The fact that there is even a slim chance that he may not be in a finale is a crime to me. I’m telling you guys at home right now, help me make sure that this guy gets to the promised land and makes it. I promise you if he does, we are going to blow your minds,” proclaimed Adam.

Aliyah Moulden (Team Blake)

Also going the religious route, Aliyah did CCM band MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine,” and it was a solid, credible follow-up to her teary breakthrough performance of Labrinth’s “Jealous” last week. Blake’s revelation may have come too late in the season, but he finally realized that despite her young age and inexperience, Aliyah is better off singing weighty, ambitious ballads — not peppy novelty songs. Backed by elaborate awards-show staging and a gospel choir, Aliyah delivered one of her strongest vocals of the season this Monday. It might not have been enough to advance her to top three, but her newfound maturity and confidence, her pimp-spot position, her mastery of MercyMe’s glory notes, and the godly material will likely earn her a chance to sing for the Save on Tuesday.

“I signed on to do this show as a coach in 2011, hoping that someday I would be able to meet and work with an artist like you — somebody who comes into this show with talent and that we can actually see a development and a change and a growth throughout the course of this competition. You are the model Voice contestant, bar none, that we have ever seen on this show. Your development is unbelievable,” said a proud, beaming Blake.

DUETS

Chris Blue & Vanessa Ferguson (Team Alicia)

If Vanessa survives, it will probably be because of this number, the most dynamite duet of the night and one of the most dynamite performances of the entire season. These two were stunning on Alicia’s own “If I Ain’t Got You.” This felt like a Grammys performance. (Someone ought to give this a Grammy, actually. Or an Emmy?) I was worried that the more extroverted Chris would upstage Vanessa, but instead they complemented each other wonderfully. There was no coach commentary after Monday’s duets, but this performance’s four-way standing ovation said it all, and Carson was so impressed he couldn’t keep quiet, saying, “Outside of Alicia, that [song] might never have been in such good, capable hands.” Carson even suggested that Chris and Vanessa form a “super-duo!” after The Voice, and Mark Burnett ought to give him a raise for coming up with such a fantastic idea.

Hunter Plake (Team Gwen) & Aliyah Moulden (Team Blake)

This was a redemption song of sorts, after Hunter’s U2 karaoke fell flat. James Bay’s “Let It Go” was a lovely fit for both Hunter and Aliyah, hitting the sweet spot between his chill indie-kid vibes and her Labrinthian soulfulness. While their duet didn’t pack the punch of Chris and Vanessa’s, this was pleasant, pretty, and calming. Nice job.

Jesse Larson (Team Adam) & TSoul (Team Blake)

This pair’s cover of “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder was a little hokey (Stevie songs are hard for most contestants to do in a fresh, modern way, and Carson observed that this “felt like a Blues Brothers sort of deal”). This was an throwaway number that felt more like an intermission between the serious, genuinely competitive performances, but it was groovy, goofy, and high-energy. Jesse and TSoul exhibited great chemistry and seemed to be having a ton of fun.

Brennley Brown (Team Gwen) & Lauren Duski (Team Lauren)

A cute sister act of sorts, Season 12’s resident country golden girls and former Team Blake Battle Rounds opponents reunited for Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings’s “Good-Hearted Woman,” and their smile-inducing performance had a lot of heart, indeed. This time, Brennley’s girlish spunk worked, as she brought a bubbly young-Dolly Parton sensibility that was perfectly tempered by the calmer, cooler Lauren. This was kind of adorable.

And now, it is prediction time. And this one’s a toughie. On Tuesday, three contestants will automatically advance to the finale via the public vote; the bottom two vote-getters will go home; and the middle three will sing for a fourth open spot in the finals. I’m guessing that the top three will be Lauren, Chris, and (based on his loyal fanbase, overall body of work, and my crossed finger/prayers), Hunter. The bottom two will probably be TSoul and Vanessa, and among the three remaining contestants — Brennley, Aliyah, and Jesse — Brennley is my prediction to win the Instant Save.

But this one could go any which way and could come down to the wire, so I wouldn’t bet any of your hard-earned cash on my predictions. Instead, I suggest you spend that money on iTunes downloads for your Season 12 favorite contestant(s), because they’re going to need your help.

See you Tuesday.

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