Despite the fact that American Idol’s watchability has steadily declined over the last few years (due mainly to the departure of the highly sarcastic, charming, and usually bang on with his comments, Simon Cowell)  , bright spots still burst through the gloom on occasion .
In 2011, at the beginning of the 10th season, it seemed that bearded teddy bear Casey Abrams—who delivered sublime versions of blues and jazz standards during audition rounds—and tail-wearing rocker James Durbin—who performed every song like he was fronting Van Halen—were all set to provide the musical magic. As it turned out, while both gave some excellent performances, the real story by the end of the season was the ascension of “The Growler,” otherwise known as Haley Reinhart.
American Idol contestants often do well when employing a long-distance runner strategy: stay in the middle of the pack, don’t make any drastic mistakes, build momentum and kick when you see the finish line. Haley attempted to do this, but even with solid performances early on, she failed to connect with the audience and continually found herself sitting with the lowest vote-getters on the silver “stools of doom.”
A few weeks in, she found her voice and absolutely slayed Elton John’s “Bennie And The Jets.” From there, she played to her strengths and slowly built a following, despite the fact that the judges appeared to actively dislike her, either nitpicking, or damning with faint praise. She fought her way through to finish 3rd, largely on the strength of her interpretations of Lady Gaga’s “You And I,” Ben E. King’s “I (Who Have Nothing),” and the traditional “House Of The Rising Sun,” a performance considered one of the best in Idol history.
You can tell from the cover that Listen Up! shoots for a retro vibe. And that’s exactly what it delivers as Reinhart’s producers smartly place her in the same throwback soul setting Amy Winehouse mined to such great effect. Horn sections and girl-group backing vocals come and go as Haley proves herself equally skilled at sexy come-hithers, wrenching ballads, and stomping uptempo numbers.
And lest you think Idol only produces manufactured tween-pop, draw your brakes and give Haley a chance since her vocals are always exceptionally strong—no auto-tune here—and the album successfully pitches itself to boys and girls of all ages. What probably impresses most, however, is the lack of filler—no weak tunes here—and the fact that Reinhart co-wrote nine of the ten songs on the album.
With a few notable exceptions, alumni of American Idol tend to have difficulty successfully following up on their debut. Fan interest wanes with the passage of time. Their record company expends less effort—and money—or just drops them completely. So it’s hard to predict what will happen with Haley Reinhart’s career. But based on what I watched on the Idol stage last year, she has a sense of humor, and she’s a fighter. The exclamation point at the end of her album title signals a command. You should obey it.
1. Another reason for the decline: Cowell was replaced on the judging panel by marionettes whose only purpose seemed to entail pushing the party line of the show’s producers. Do I take this show too seriously? You bet. And I’m not even close to the real obsessives. Seriously, though. Not. Even. Close.
2. Except for the most recent season. (My apologies to all those who voted for Phillip “Destroyer Of Melodies” Phillips. Me-ow! Bad blogger! Bad!) It’s a cliché—and a bit of joke—for longtime watchers of Idol to yell at the screen, ‘That’s it! I’m never watching again!” only to come crawling back the following week. I’ve been guilty of that exclamation myself. But last season, just past the halfway point, I finally gave up.