The X Factor NZ: Power Rankings #6

Beeeeeny

Well, it was always going to happen. With the X Factor’s writers and judges acknowledging very early in the piece that the ‘Over 25s’ category was thin, verging on catastrophically so, it seemed only a matter of time before Stan Walker became the first mentor to be liberated from the responsibility of actually mentoring. Anna Wilson fought valiantly throughout the contest, her performances never far from perfectly executed, but unfortunately never close to convincing either. It’s a shame that those in charge of her songs and styling realised so late that they’d been cultivating something closer to a stellar ‘Stars in Their Eyes’ contestant than a potential pop star, and while their acknowledgement of her pre-show efforts and penchant for motorsport did seem an effort to clarify a character, it unfortunately came too late. Still though, I’m sure she’ll stick around in some form. Post-exit she’s already hinted heavily at an appearance on Stan’s upcoming tour, and if all else fails, there’s always Christmas in the Park (no backhand intended, because Anna will definitely be performing at Christmas in the Park).

So onto the rest of this week’s acts, in order from best to worst, or thereabouts. For a show ostensibly celebrating the New Zealand Top 40, it made me pretty glad that the only radio stations I can regularly listen to are Mai FM and Newstalk ZB. Too heavy on the power ballads, too light on the flood of weird shit happening at the moment, this week saw another unfortunate dip in song selection. Thankfully, most of the acts did well with that which was in front of them, but would it have been too much to ask to hear that new Paramore? Iuno man, I just really like Paramore. Anyway:

No one man should rank all #thatPOWER:

1. Whenua Patuwai (Boys, 4) – performing ‘Impossible’ by James Arthur

I’ve written in earlier columns, at length and repeatedly, about the need for acts to take risks. Though generally speaking, this can be interpreted as “all of these songs are boring as hell, please sing one that is not”, Whenua’s performance this week was a great example in an entirely different way. Treated in the early stages of the live finals like a sub-Ruben Stoddard soul-by-numbers nice-guy-finishing-close-to-last, his performances prior to last week were generally powerful but with the edges rounded off, partially showcasing his voice but never in a way that dared show any degree of grit. As mentioned in the previous power rankings, his rendition of When a Man Loves a Woman was the first post-pre-records sign of any rawness, and this week he exponentially upped that. Probably assisted by the lack of choreography and the pared-back staging, finally able to reclaim some of the acoustic guitar handsome troubadour territory so ably occupied by Benny Tipene, Whenua was in all sorts of zones on Sunday. He and Ruby appear now to have a clear and combined vision for his performances, and though ‘Impossible’ is a song so self-pitying that it’s close to unbearable, he’s so emotionally inside his songs that it’s hard not to be moved by anything he does. For the love of music, and for the love of haircuts, Whenua is shining.

2. Moorhouse (Groups, 2) – performing ‘#thatPOWER’ by will.i.am and Justin Bieber

Considering how stilted and unnatural Moorhouse’s first few live performances were, it’s pretty insane how comfortable they’ve made themselves here. It never seemed that they were unaware of the adulation of their fans, but it seems like they’ve finally managed to transfer the manifestation of that awareness from their earlier nervous energy to almost the opposite. It’s something that’s noticeable in most aspects of their presentation, but I think most obvious in their continual mean-mugging. Where it initially seemed corny and oblivious, it’s now hammed up to a point comfortably in self-parody territory, and it’s charming as hell. I don’t wanna start having to invoke One Direction every week, but this is exactly why people love the British Moorhouse. They’re a bunch of dudes with reasonably ok voices, who can kind of dance, but who are very handsome and appear to give less fucks about being great pop artists than they do just being nice boys / looking after you / treating you right / having a laugh. Not to reduce their music, because it’s regularly great, but it’s far from the only thing that makes them huge. To briefly, actually, talk about the performance, it’s probably hard to make ‘#thatPOWER’ sound like anything greater than an incoherent mess of slogans without a real chorus, but they sounded better than bad and seemed to be having fun. Their styling was right where it needed to be, and despite some ratchet opening choreography, it was visually one of the best executions on the show so far. Though I don’t think they’ve hit a hunna yet, the competition is far from over, and Moorhouse are staking a pretty strong claim.

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I should probably take this opportunity to officially apologise for the pitiful GIF sizes. No excuses. Still though, GIFs, stop complaining. And look at dude face and point. Moorhouse forever.

3. Jackie Thomas (Girls, 3) – performing ‘Stay’ by Rihanna

Damn, so continues the renaissance of Jackie. All of the acts still in the show have demonstrated some degree of development, a central point in both of the rankings above Jackie’s, but hers has maybe been the most dramatic. In my post-live debut conversation with Duncan Greive, I put forward Greymouth’s favourite daughter as a potential winner of the show. He was far from convinced, and I was openly reasonably clueless about the prospective arcs at that point, but with each week it seems less of an insane prediction. This wasn’t vocally as strong as her soul week performance, but in terms of engagement with her material, she’s never been better. Now that it’s been revealed as an actual thing, for their sake I’m going to refrain from infringing on the Jackie and Tom story, but it bears mentioning that in the context of a burgeoning romance between two young contestants on a weekly-elimination talent show, the sentiment expressed in this song probably feels very real. She felt all of this, and despite an unnecessarily overblown arrangement (Ruby was 100% on that point), you can’t overshadow that kind of real emotion. In a competition with surprisingly few duds, she was probably the judges’ biggest gamble. At this point, everyone has to be happy with how that’s working out.

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“Brrtz” – Jackie Thomas

4. Benny Tipene (Boys, 1) – performing ‘Lost’ by Frank Ocean

Well, this could’ve been a lot worse. In the hands of an artist with less care for the words he was singing, or less ability to confer emotional weight, this had potential to be a tongue-in-cheek insult, a mishandling of a deceptively light chord progression under a deeply dark lyric. As it stood, it was the first time Benny’s been ‘just OK’ since probably judges’ retreats. With the arrangement stripping out all of the original’s absolutely necessary funk, leaving what sounded closer to a Placebo x Kate Bush OC moment than anything else, it was clear throughout Benny’s performance (and his subsequent critique session and backstage interview) that although he wasn’t taking lightly Frank Ocean’s bleak tale of a girl wrapped up in the drug game, he didn’t really feel like being there. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over the next few weeks, because as long as he’s performing at this level I wouldn’t expect to see the back of him anytime too soon, but he’s obviously very assured in what he wants to do, and sees no reason to adapt any further than he already has. If he were to leave tomorrow, he’d undoubtedly leave having created a great platform to continue his fledgling pre-X Factor solo efforts, but the competition would undeniably be the weaker for it. Hang in there Benny, you’d look great in that Kuga.

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Benny throwing serious shade, powerful yawn.

5. Cassie Henderson (Girls, 5) – performing ‘Pompeii’ by Bastille

I’d never heard this song, and since the show I’ve had no desire to seek the original, because it’s a bad song. Cassie, though, did her thing. It was nice to see her looking a little less world-weary and for the judges to focus their critiques on her actual performance rather than the shortcomings of her mentor (however justified they may have been), but for me this was just OK. I’m sure it slayed for her demographic, but as inferred, I have no idea who listens to this band or why. Really I’m just bitter at the aforementioned lack of Paramore. Cassie’s cool and I genuinely think she sings well and she’s remarkably composed and would sell a shitload of records, so I don’t think she’s at any risk. The field is just so tight right now that it’s hard to rank something I felt so ambivalent about any higher. This is a very roundabout way of saying “Hey, yeah, cool I guess”.

6. Tom Batchelor (Boys, 7) – performing ‘Ho Hey’ by the Lumineers

I’ve been pretty hard on Tom to date, but this was good. As with Cassie’s, I have no love for this song (although I was at least aware of its existence), but it was nice to see a change of mood. The songs performed by Tom to date have been, for the most part, aesthetically quite varied, but we’ve still seen very little in the way of distinction in his actual execution. It was nice to see a more relaxed side of the contest’s most personally relaxed act – though the bare feet seemed to fall a little too far on the ‘affected’ side of his persona – and nice that he was able to change things up without losing any of his personality. For mine, this was the first time Tom was able to transcend the ‘pub singer’ label, and his continued presence in the contest is going to be largely dependent on his ability to carry on along that trajectory. I wouldn’t call Tom a weak act, at all, but given the strength of his competitors, it may prove just too little, just too late.

7. Gap 5 (Groups, 6) – performing ‘Blurred Lines’ by Robin Thicke ft. Pharrell and T.I.

This could’ve been so great, but it just wasn’t. Upon review, my initial belief that the girls had been ill-served by the TV mix was vindicated to a point, but the greater evil was the bizarre, unnecessarily challenging arrangement of what’s a reasonably straight song. Had the lower harmonies been mixed to a level slightly closer to audible, it may have been a different story, but Nicole struggling to transpose ol’ Thickey’s flat delivery into an increasingly high register made for uncomfortable viewing at times. As always, every other aspect of their performance fucking ruled. I’ve got them ranked at the bottom based mainly on form up to Sunday night, but had I placed greater emphasis on Monday, things could’ve been different. Though their spark’s never been in question, they hit their notes much more consistently, and looked every bit the crazy natural performers they are. Hopefully that signals a second wind for objectively New Zealand’s greatest ever girl group, because like Benny, we’d be lost without them.

So that’s us for week five of live shows. The contest continues to get tighter, and I somehow continue to have a lot to say about an ever-dwindling number of two minute live performances. Long may these twin trends continue. Next week is apparently movie week, which will probably mean every act consecutively singing ‘My Heart Will Go On’, so look forward to that. As always, we’ll be on that tweets throughout, hit @_thecorner if you like good commentary and funny quips, hit “Delete Twitter Account” if you don’t. See you in the trenches.

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Walky Walky Walky, can’t you see? Sometimes your gurning just hypnotise me

MVTs

15 Comments

  1. LindsayBrohan says:

    I hear Hadley Donaldson, of ‘Hadley Donaldson: Stand-Up Comedy’ fame really loves the new Paramore album too

  2. Cassie a great voice? no way, give her a few year maybe but shes flat.

    • matthew says:

      i didn’t say she’s got a great voice though. cassie’s closest analog is (obviously) taylor swift, a woman who sings well if not acrobatically on record, and from the examples i’ve heard the same but a little worse live. of course it’s not wise to suggest that we base judgments on what we assume acts may be capable of in the studio, but i’d suggest that cassie’s singing ability (and as stated above, i think she sings well, or at least well enough) is only a component of what endears her to her audience. no doubt she’d need work post-show if she were to win, but that’s what record labels and producers and coaches and engineers and managers (et al) are for.

  3. My only requirement for movie week is that the song are ones that were actually written for a movie, not selecting existing songs that just happened to be on the soundtrack of a film. The US X Factor is really bad with that, having “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” because it was on the soundtrack of the Britney movie “Crossroads”. No.

    • matthew says:

      i get what u mean, but disagree. songs written for movies are near exclusively awful, and if a song’s closely associated with a particular film then t’s probably going to be a better option than “gonna fly now” or “circle of life”.
      i’m honestly struggling to think of good non-score pieces written specifically for films. anyone?

      • Dan Taipua says:

        Like half a dozen Lionel Richie and Phil Collins joints

      • matthew says:

        like that one from tarzan? bruh you lyyyyyin

      • matthew says:

        Was “I Believe I Can Fly” written/released for Space Jam? If so, Whenua definitely singing that, huh?

      • Julian Blade says:

        My money is on Skyfall.

      • matthew says:

        for whenua? na, he sang adele in first week, surely they wouldn’t do that again. i really hope no one sings that song, though it seems kinda inevitable. it’s just a massive boring turd of a track.

      • Dan Taipua says:

        We all seriously over-estimated the status of picked songs

    • Joseph says:

      Maybe somewhere in between? Like it has to be MAINLY famous for association with the film. Guys on US X Factor doing “Teenage Dream” cos it was on the Katy Perry doco was some buuuulllshit. This is the show that had 1/13 NZ #1s on their “Number One” show so who knows how they’ll stretch this rule.

      • matthew says:

        yeah good point. it’s a fine line for sure, but the song choices so far have definitely stuck pretty loosely to the designated themes.
        on a barely tangentially related note, just noticed via some minor research that, aside from the lumineers (signed to an indie label but decca-distributed in the uk, hence some universal connection), the only act covered on sunday’s top 40 show that’s not signed to a universal subsidiary was james arthur, aka the winner of the uk x factor. probably only interesting to nerds like me, and not surprising/malevolent at all, but u know.

  4. Jilly says:

    A number of these guys will probably perform for Christmas in the Park this year. And I will totally go and watch. Better get myself a picnic blanket.

  5. Jordan says:

    Gap 5 have got to go, so bad last night! I reckon them and Tom Bachelor will be in the singoff tonight, but they have gotta go.

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