In the spirit of Fox's "let's just get this over with" approach to this show, I'm going to dive right in to the performance reviews–and by the way this week our bands' assignment was to do one original and one Elton John/Bernie Taupin song, in that order–and pick up any stray observations in the section pre-assigned for such nonsense.
Sixwire: During the intro, we learned that "sixwire" is the band's nickname for a guitar, which further pinpoints what kind of musicians these guys are. They've got the slangy casualness of pros, who enjoy what they do but don't necessarily live it. I wouldn't be surprised to find that some or all of Sixwire's members keep their coffers full by doing session work, or running themselves through Nashville songwriting mill. I saw a lot of that kind of punch-in/punch-out approach that during my years in Music City, and in a funny kind of way, I respect it. Sixwire's original song, "Gotta Get Away," is a truck commercial waiting to happen, but the band performs it with skill, and even though they turn "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" (minus the "On Me," according to the lead singer), into another truck-commercial-to-be, they do it Ford Tough.
JUDGES' REACTION: Raves across the board, with Sheila E. calling the band a "warm blanket," and Dicko sowing the seeds of future dissent by singling out the frontman for praise. If my experiences with band politics are any guide, the passive-aggressive infighting should begin…oh, let's say about an hour ago.
Très Bien!: Continuing the "how did you get your name" theme, the band tells a rambling story that can be summed up thusly: "It's French." (And I can some up my reaction thusly: "No shit.") I'm glad Très Bien! survived the cull because they delivered my favorite performance last week, but this week I wasn't that blown away by their original, "How I Feel," which was appropriately energetic, but seemed like more of a rote retro-garage exercise, not modernized in the slightest. I was more impressed with the garage-y rearrangement of "Love Lies Bleeding," though the lead singer sounded off-key. Très Bien! could definitely hold their own with just about other band of their ilk, at least from a getting-the-crowd-moving standpoint, but I'm still not convinced they're anything special, compared to, say, The Reigning Sound or The Detroit Cobras.
JUDGES' REACTION: Johnny digs it, but wants the lead singer to lose the guitar (a point that Sheila E. and Dicko agrees with), while Dicko proves he's one of the savviest judges in TV talent show history when he warns them, "Don't steal from The Yardbirds too much, because they will get cross."
Franklin Bridge: Last week I questioned whether this obviously talented, frequently explosive band could do more than just shoehorn funk, hip-hop, R&B; balladry and hard rock into songs that plod around until the solos start. I'm still not sure. Franklin Bridge's original song, "Love's Fall," has a more laid-back, soulful feel than last week's original, but once again it doesn't come to life until the coda, at which point all pretense of structure gets abandoned. Yet curiously, I prefer the stretched out, gospel-fied "Philadelphia Freedom" more at the start than when it reaches FB's standard "and now let's get our Prince/Hendrix thing on" climax.
JUDGES' REACTION: Johnny tries to praise the band by saying that he was disappointed that he couldn't hear the whole song, but the audience, conditioned to boo anything that sounds remotely negative, starts their catcalls before he can finish his thought, which causes Johnny to throw a hissy. (As I wrote last week, I'm not sure the judges can hack this format much longer.) Sheila E. begins to cop to the cracks in the FB façade by pointing out that they're overplaying, which Dicko affirms. The band seems emboldened by the audience love, and probably won't change a thing next week.
The Clark Brothers: Gee, I wonder how they got their name? In the absence of a great origin story, they just share the names they didn't choose. ("Sassafrass?") And then, their original: "Country Time," a new entry in the "hick pride" subgenre of C&W; that I generally abhor. But the song contains a few good lines, and as with Sixwire, I can't help but admire The Clark Brothers' basic level of craft. Keeping the "country" theme, the band covers "Country Comfort," and finds that the free-ranging melodies of Elton John don't suit their voices, which quickly go off-key. They over-twang the arrangement too, hitting the point too squarely on the nose, and flattening it. I liked these guys last week, but I have to call this week a botch, mainly because of the second song, which proves what a delicate balance outright kitsch requires.
JUDGES' REACTION: Johnny and Sheila E. think both the original and the cover are goosebump-inducing, and Sheila actually praises the vocals, which blows my mind. Dicko shows the limitations of his musical knowledge by calling the original "a window into your lives and values." As somebody who's heard far too many songs like this played by far too many bands like this, I think Dicko's being naive. Remind me sometime to tell you about my days working at Opryland, and the "wholesome" gospel act that used to do four shows daily and then spend the rest of their shift chasing teenage tail.
Light Of Doom: I guess there was no way these teenyboppers were going to get cut–they didn't make my "in trouble" list last week, after all–but as the chaff gets separated out, it's going to become more and more clear that the Light Of Doom boys are out of their league. I appreciated the throwback headbanger quality of their original, "Light Of Doom," and they did play much tighter than last week. But the lead singer still smiles too much (and couldn't remember Bernie Taupin's last name), and the band pretty much obliterated "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting." Light Of Doom doesn't suck by any means, but there's still a "kids playing dress-up" feel to their act. They're coloring within the lines, not drawing freehand.
JUDGES' REACTION: Johnny and Sheila E. are feeling it big time, but Dicko is rightly skeptical, saying, "I don't want to say 'it's good for a bunch of kids' any more than I want to say Rocket are 'good for a bunch of girls.' … It's a good gimmick, but it still feels like a gimmick." Bingo, Dicko.
Dot Dot Dot: Shit shit shit. These idiots survived. True to their assholish form, they reveal in the intro segment that they swiped their name from a defunct band. (With that band's permission, granted–a point intended to prove that Dot Dot Dot are so awesome that their fellow musicians are thrilled to give up their identity to them.) This week's Dot Dot Dot-penned tuned is called "Stay," and it's at least more earnest than last week's dippy love song, though it sounds a little like a calculated hybrid of The Killers and Scissor Sisters. Then Dot Dot Dot jumps into a fairly reverent version of "Your Song" (despite a tempo shift at the midpoint), and suddenly I can see who this band really is: They're a bunch of musical theater geeks, playing to the back row of their high school auditorium. How much do you want to bet that every single one of them has a copy of the Rent soundtrack–not even the original cast album–loaded on to their iPod?
JUDGES' REACTION: Johnny offers tepid praise, Sheila E. praises them relative to last week, and Dicko admits that he'd hoped they'd be voted off.
Cliff Wagner & The Old #7: Once again, Wagner raises my fears of all-jokey-bluegrass-all-the-time by introducing the band's original song "Little White Chapel" with a dedication to Britney Spears. But as with last week, the song itself is pretty good. It's a simple (too simple, but whatever) piece of underclass character sketching, graced with some nice imagery. I like it much better than The Clark Brothers' similar stab at white trash chic. And I have to give it up for The Old #7's"Honky Cat" cover, which makes a song I've always disliked into a laconic redneck anthem. I'm still not a rabid fan of "Honky Cat" or Wagner and his boys, but I certainly don't mind spending time with either.
JUDGES' REACTION: Johnny uses the word "funnest," Sheila E. dittos him (and points out, smartly, that The Old #7 is one of the few bands who've arranged their originals to fit the show's two-minute format well). Dicko joins the kudos-fest.
The Muggs: As in "up in this mugg," as the band explains in the intro. (Is that how you spell that word in that context?) This week's original, "Should've Learned My Lesson," is dedicated to Howlin' Wolf, and it's about as straightforward a howling electric blues workout imaginable. Well-played, but bland until it gets to the double-time instrumental break. Then, in keeping with the "let's pick an Elton John song that relates directly to who we are and/or what we do" vibe of the night, they absolutely butcher "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," forcing it into an untenable arrangement. For variety's sake, for this week at least, I'm glad these guys are up in the mugg. But I'm still not a believer. Last week I put them on the "in trouble" list. I'm putting them back on this week, and fully expect that we've heard the last of them.
JUDGES' REACTION: Johnny compares them to Mötörhead and Led Zeppelin (which seems a little off to me), then he lashes back again at the audience, which boos when he disses the Elton John cover. Shelia E. slags The Muggs' vocals and tells the lead singer to drop it to a lower key, which causes the singer to boo. Dicko completely shreds the band, and the singer boos some more. Oh yeah, they're totally gone.
Rocket: When our host called Rocket's name to come to the stage, I knew that both the bands going home this week would be from last week's "in trouble" list, which gave me some fleeting satisfaction. (But why not Dot Dot Dot? Dear lord, people.) I'm betting that Rocket's going to stay off that list for a while, even though they're still not all that good. This week's original, "Future Ex-Boyfriend," was a serviceable piece of girly brat-punk, much more in-the-pocket than last week, if still kind of Disney Channel Original soundtrack-fodder. And their Elton John cover? "Rocket Man," natch, which they Rocket-fied in a thoroughly predictable way. (Frankly, it was excruciating.) Still, whoever's in charge of the lighting effects for Rocket's performances deserves a raise and a promotion. Visually, the band's turn this week was pretty dynamic. Once again it seems that the producers are coddling these girls.
JUDGES' REACTION: Or maybe not. Johnny complains that the vocals lack conviction; Sheila E. calls the vocals "horrific" (after babbling about the marketability of sex appeal kind of pointlessly); and Dicko references Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer to make Johnny and Sheila's point about "good vocals" more clearly. I don't think the judges' scorn has cost Rocket another week on the show, but I'm glad they're getting tough and not letting the gals skate by on audience love.
Denver & The Mile High Orchestra: Dot Dot Dot aside, doesn't it seem like the bands that made the cut this week are all kind of niche-y? Anyway, in a nod to Sheila E.'s request that he be more sexy, Denver encourages her to get up and dance while he serenades with her with "All Night," a lame slice of soft rock braggadocio, poorly sung and embarrassingly faux-sexy. ("You know I've got it goin' on?" Really, Denver? You want to go there?) Then the band lounges up "I'm Still Standing," and makes the fatal error of slowing down a song that only works when it's peppy. The Mile High Orchestra turns it into The Love Boat theme, and adds a clumsy break in the middle that seems like they're trying to wrap up early.
JUDGES' REACTION: John sticks with "amazing," Sheila E. trumpets the horn arrangements (rightly, I have to confess), while Dicko registers my complaints, but is basically cool with what he heard. (Just so you know, I pause the show and write my reviews before I hear the judges. So with me and Dicko, it's a case of great minds, etc.)
CUT! The Hatch and The Likes Of You. Their response? Kind of pissy. The Hatch's main dude says, "I'd like to say that America has spoken, but I can't really say that's true. I think about 300 people in Nebraska have spoken." Meow!
Who's in trouble: The Muggs and Dot Dot Dot. That's right, just two. Ballsy, huh?
Best of the week: No one really blew me away, but for overall performance, I'll pick Cliff Wagner & The Old #7, with a nod of approval to the tautness of Sixwire. (Honestly, I'm mainly excited by the judges at this point, but I have faith that the music will improve.)
-Since NGAB is following the Nashville Star model of not letting the cut acts know they've been cut until the end, all the bands sit in the green room, waiting for their names to be called to perform. It kind of sucks that The Hatch and The Likes Of You worked up performances they didn't get to give. (Especially since the latter raved about Elton John in the episode intro.) It also must've been hard for all the other bands not to know when they were going on, or if. I have to ask though: Why not let the bands go in the order of their vote totals? Like its parent show American Idol, The Next Great American Band is way too tight with the numbers. It's all very suspicious.
-Just as the judges seem to be balking at the "let's boo the critique" TV talent show cliché, they also seem like they're not going to have much patience for the "Well, I'm just being the best me I can be and I don't agree with your comments" mouthiness of the contestants, none of whom really took criticism well this week. (Not even Franklin Bridge, for whom the complaints were relatively minor.) As for The Hatch's "whatever dude" response to getting cut: Trust me guys, America really has spoken.
-I've got to give it up some more for Dicko, who gives such precise critiques–explaining what it means to be a frontman, citing other bands that have done what these bands are doing–that I'm almost ready to give him my job. (But I don't think he'd want the pay cut. Or the responsibility of coming up with 120 words of comment on the indie-pop band du jour.)
-As the contestants dwindle, I think we're going to be left with a really superior level of talent for a show like this–unless the final three are Rocket, Light Of Doom and Denver–so we're going to have to start talking soon about what comes next for these people, and whether they're really stars in the making, or just six-week wonders. (Or is that spelled Oneders?)