Beatles songs have the uncanny quality of sounding perennially fresh. Forty years after the band's active era ended, whenever its catalog is popped open, there's a surprising amount of fizz. Those sophisticated melodies and slyly syncopated beats help even stolid interpreters get on their feet, and the truly creative -- Earth, Wind & Fire, Elliott Smith -- can ride that effervescence to a new place.
So it was a smart decision to revive the old theme of Beatles Week (well, Lennon-McCartney Night) for our beleaguered survivors on this year's "Idol" island, who, though certainly an individualistic bunch, have trouble being original during their performances. As we advance toward the point in the season when we should feel like this is really a competition, too many finalists still seem underconfident and artistically stuck. Could the Fabs' gold-plated songbook make for moments of real discovery, as it had for Season 7's friendly rivals, Davids Archuleta and Cook?
It did, sort of, almost. This show was by far the most entertaining of the season, with some left-field moments unlike any other in "Idol" history. Crystal Bowersox welcomed jazz musician and "Idol" semi-regular Ernie Fields Jr., to play the aboriginal didgeridoo, and then Lee DeWyze topped her by trotting out an unnamed bagpiper to help him get through the endless outro to "Hey Jude."
Crystal's risk on the arrangement made sense, given her staunch dedication to hippie-ism; the didgeridoo has a contemporary champion in Australian vegetarian jam bander Xavier Rudd and is the kind of item you can pick up at the Oregon Country Fair. Lee's was more left-field, and helped the earnest groaner shake his sad-sack aura. On the other hand, it could mean he really likes miserable rap-rockers Korn, who've rocked the pipes in the past.
These fun, odd choices didn't really amount to much musically; Crystal's drone soon got lost in her arrangement, and Lee's Scottish turn seemed wholly for effect. The night's other notable turns were reiterations of past triumphs. Casey James delivered a surprisingly raw, predictably bluesy version of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy" -- a brave choice that the judges and the audience seemed to only partially grasp. Michael Lynche did his sweet soul thing on "Eleanor Rigby," but his consistency is starting to work against him, as there's so little heat this season for any strong R&B contenders.
As he often does, Simon Cowell kept yammering on about contestants making songs "current" -- an "Idol" cliche right up there with the singers' most frequent lie, "I had fun." Simon's usually right, but not this week, not on that point, anyway. The Beatles are not current. They're timeless, classic; but their songs have sunk deeply into the fabric of our lives, they own our memories, and they can't ever be truly current. Besides, the "Idol" zeitgeist won't be truly current until a serious rapper (sorry, Blake Lewis) and/or a really great dancer makes it to the Top 10.
What was rewarded this week, instead, was the most traditional of singers' gifts: the ability to calm down and let a song lead you. That's what Katie Stevens did with "Let It Be," receiving the greatest praise since her earliest days on the show. Siobhan Magnus took that approach, too, and though her "Across the Universe" wavered at times, the sweetness of her tone served her well. Even irritating Tim Urban benefited from tunefulness of "All My Loving" over any corny moves.
The other contestants all did fine; no major gaffes. They can thank the spirit of John Lennon, and their great-uncle Paul McCartney, who offered a goofy recorded intro and told them, yes, to have fun. Well, fun is timeless. And it's current. So maybe it really is the right spirit to cling to as the "Idol" season grows more tense.