American Idol is an interesting phenomenon in that we, the audience, end up being more familiar with how the contestants sound live rather than in the studio, whereas usually we’d be more familiar with how an artist sounds with ProTools and Autonotes before encountering all kinds of imperfect singing in the artist’s live performance. The inevitable CD of the fifth season, called Encores, ends up exposing that the show may just have lost its best female singer at the start of the semifinals.
No, it’s not vocal powerhouse Mandisa, the overexcited Paris Bennett, the over-trained Lisa Tucker, or the bubbly Katharine McPhee that shines the most on this CD, it’s Melissa McGhee, the first contestant eliminated from the show. Her husky voice, reminiscent of that of a rough Patti Smyth, makes her stand out as someone with a somewhat different voice than those of the usual bland R&B divas and inoffensive pop princesses out there. Her cover of Heart’s What About Love is easily the best track on this CD. It demonstrates very well how her husky voice could be used most effectively in radio-friendly pop-rock songs as well as country. Listening to Ms McGhee, I am moved to say that she is no doubt the worst-robbed contestant so far in the history of this show. That makes the show’s treating her like an unwanted stepdaughter even more of a tragedy, if you ask me, because Ms McGhee has the best track here. None of the other female contestants’ tracks come close to measuring up to her song in this CD.
On the guys’ side, my favorite contestant Elliott Yamin unfortunately sounds pretty lethargic on the overproduced Moody’s Mood For Love. Chris Daughtry sounds like he always does on stage with his cover of Jon Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead Or Alive: always listenable, but unfortunately also with a blandness that makes many of his performances on the show – and this track – pretty forgettable. Bucky Covington fares better with a good old-fashioned Southern rock version of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, although comparisons to Bo Bice will not stop with that track, I’m afraid. However, the best track by a male contestant comes from an unlikely source indeed. On the show, Ace Young comes off as at best a middle-of-the-road boyband singer who missed his calling six years too late. His cover of George Michael’s Father Figure however, is sublime in how good it actually is. It’s actually – dare I say it? – nearly as sexy as George Michael’s original version of the song.
So there you go. If this CD is any indication as to how the contestants will fare in the studio, they miss out on a good thing in Melissa McGhee and to a lesser extent Ace Young. Perhaps with better budget, the other contestants can come off better in their future works (Mandisa, for example, comes off like a chipmunk in her ridiculously arranged and produced I’m Every Woman), but come on, let’s be honest here. Can anyone honestly imagine how Taylor Hicks will come out with any CD that will appeal to anyone other than those people waiting for the next Clay Aiken CD? In a way, this CD is representative of the great disconnect between the TV show and the post-show merchandise, where being the most popular entertainer on TV doesn’t necessarily mean that the entertainer in question will be the most popular music superstar. If anything good can come out of this CD, hopefully it’s some recognition of her talent that Melissa McGhee rightfully deserves. In a fair world, she should go somewhere with a voice like hers. Unfortunately, as I’m sure she’s learned by now, the world is never that fair.