'The Voice' Recap: Creative Renditions and Too Many Compliments Crowd the Top 20

Adam Levine and Blake Shelton pick hits for their singers’ stripped-down performances. Clearly, coaches don’t always know best.

Maybe it’s because the judges haven’t done a live episode in a while, but all four judges had nothing but compliments for the performers Monday night on The Voice. Some were well deserved -- and well delivered when such was the case -- but it was clear when a coach was ignoring his or her critical instincts and simply reaching for empty praise to fill time onscreen. Constructive criticism can be nothing but helpful at this point in the game; why sacrifice it to randomly praise The Voice as the best television show ever?

Season five's top 20 took the stage for their live show this week, with Adam Levine and Blake Shelton’s teams first to try stripped-down performances -- as in, no dancers, set pieces or Cee Lo Green-like costumes -- leaving some to crumble under the pressure and others to soar with truly creative covers.

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After Flo Rida and Christina Aguilera kicked off the night with “How I Feel” (talk about a creative rendition of “Feelin’ Good”), the evening’s 10 singers tackled their first live performances of the season on a much bigger stage than the boxing ring they’ve grown accustomed to.

Team Blake

The sassy Southern hairstylist Shelbie Z returned to the stage as a blushing bride, bringing her rock-country attitude to Reba McEntire’s “Fancy.” Clearly putting her initial nerves aside, Aguilera praised her growls, while Green called her “consistently charismatic” and said, “as much as I hate to say it, you really make Blake’s team look really strong.”

Nic Hawk -- whose Twitter fans are now called the “Flawk” -- was assigned the singing and rapping sections of the massive hit “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, Pharrell and T.I. Just as he revamped Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” during the knockouts, Hawk brought his creative phrasing to the otherwise repetitive song. The other three judges sat shocked that he performed each musician’s part -- “minus the boobs,” joked Levine.

Small-town single father Ray Boudreaux tried his own “swamp pop” timbre on Marc Broussard’s “Home” -- though he sounded solid, he seemed occasionally overwhelmed by the audience's enthusiasm throughout the performance. The judges praised him for mastering the track’s inherent grit but offered no constructive criticism.

Scooter tour guide Austin Jenckes, who excels at emoting beyond his acoustic guitar, was assigned The Black Crowes’ “She Talks to Angels.” Once again, he effortlessly slapped his rasp on the song’s long notes, adding conviction to his performance, the judges said. (Green also felt compelled to proclaim at this point that The Voice is the best show over. Okay, then.)

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The consistent and quirky prodigy Cole Vosbury touted his acoustic guitar onstage for Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” delivering another skilled performance that left no room for error. The judges went beyond throwing handfuls of compliments and simply logged him as a front runner. (We don’t disagree; we’re just weirded out by their feedback this evening.)

Team Adam

Levine asked techie James Wolpert to combine his experiences singing in a collegiate a cappella group with his struggles busking for money on Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.” Sitting on a stool and strumming his acoustic guitar, he kept his dynamics and styling completely under control, with a closing riff of amazing vulnerability. “You really grounded yourself in this song,” Aguilera said. “Being simplified can run the risk of being boring, but you made it a safe haven that drew people in.”

Hoping to break her out of her wedding-singer comfort zone, Levine challenged Grey to rock Paramore’s “Still Into You.” Though the song bears musical similarities to the two Kelly Clarkson tracks she’s performed thus far, she struggled with pitch in rehearsals and in the live show. Still, the judges flooded her with empty compliments, saying she dominated onstage singing a song unfamiliar to Green. What does that mean? How is that helpful to her?

Son of Chicago band member Bill Champlin, Will Champlin -- who revealed that his wife has cancer -- returned to Team Adam with a bare-bones version of OneRepublic’s “Secrets.” Creatively arranged and emotionally phrased, the song began with Champlin on a vintage Rhodes piano and ended on an unexpected high note. “The way you hit that one note -- and you know which one I’m talking about -- that was the money one,” Aguilera told him. We think this rendition is worth downloading.

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Christian rock band guitarist Preston Pohl put his gritty tone on both the singing and rapping sections of B.o.B. and Bruno Mars’ “Nothin’ on You,” and though he stayed on beat and on pitch, he didn’t seem as comfortable as Hawk in balancing the two on the awkward song choice. It’s almost as though he knew his unique sound was in the spotlight here. While the judges still complimented his performance, his coach made sure to highlight the fact “no one sounds like Preston; no one sounds like you -- you can’t coach that.”

Of course, the show-stopping Jamaican powerhouse Tessanne Chin closed the episode, raising the key of “Many Rivers to Cross” by Jimmy Cliff, her former stage boss. Her climactic performance brought tears of joy to her eyes, and suddenly the judges were filled with genuine compliments: Levine called it mind-boggling, and Green said “they saved the best for last.” Aguilera considered it no surprise from Chin, who has risen above her competitors since her blind audition.

What did you think of tonight’s performances? Which singers deserve to advance, and which should be sent home? Which coach gave the most irrelevant feedback? Sound off in the comments below.

Twitter: @cashleelee