‘X Factor’ makes house calls, meets Rihanna


Guest judge Rihanna and LA Reid work with contestants on “ X Factor.” (Jeffrey Niera/Fox)

Owing to rain delays in championship baseball play, Wednesday’s first night of Fox’s “X Factor” rounds at the four judges’ “homes” is being brought to us Thursday night, and what was supposed to be Thursday’s show – Night 2 of the “Homes” competition – won’t be shown until Sunday.

Here’s the setup: the “X Factor” judges have scattered to the four corners of the world – LA Reid to East Hampton, NY; Simon Cowell to Undisclosed Location, France; Paula Abdul to Santa Barbara, CA; and Nicole Scherzinger to Malibu, CA (OK, that’s three corners, anyway) where, we’re told they all maintain fabulous residences we’ve seen in teaser shots for weeks.

Paula and Nicole live in big California Hacienda Piles. LA lives in a sleek modern pad that appears to be on the fairway of a golf course there’s so much lawn. And though we don’t get a very good look at Chateau Simon, it appears to be by the sea.

And we know the X-Factor contestants have been summoned to the three corners by categories—Girls, Boys, Over 30s, and Groups—for their next round of judging. So we’re settling back in our chairs for some show-of-shows experience that combines “Amazing Race,” “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” “Big Brother,” and, uh, “American Idol.”

Disappointment. The travel part turns out to be a few establishing shots (the girls -- at the Eiffel Tower!) and the lifestyles part just a look at the backyard swimming pools. And Big Brother, forget it: group shots in the kitchen is as real as it gets. Oh, wait, unlike us, the X-Testants don’t know whose house they’re at, nor who their celebrity judges are. So moments of joy when the Girls learn their mentor will be Simon (big group hug a la “Sound of Music”), the Groups will get Paula (massive group hug a la Angelina Jolie coming home for the night), kinda tentative hug for the Over 30’s with Nicole (well, they’re older and may still not be sure who she is), and for the Boys, righteous fist clasp/back slap hug with LA.

More surprises! Each judge will team up with a celebrity assistant. For LA, it’s pop superstar Rihanna. Nicole gets Latin superstar Enrique Iglesias, while Paula’s paired with producer/rapper Pharrell. And, for Simon? “It was going to be Mariah Carey,” Simon announces. Who will not be appearing. Because of Hurricane Irene (cut to news footage: yes, there really was a hurricane). But it’s okay, Simon says breezily because, “I have chosen myself to be my guest mentor.”

Guest Mentor Simon must be the Simon With No Connections in the Music Industry and Willing to Do a Substitute Mentor Gig On Short Notice because surely that couldn’t happen to the Simon we know.

The Reading of the Rules:

1) Each contestant has been given a song and given the choice to sing to a live accompaniment of a pianist, or a recorded accompaniment of a full band. And from the teasers, we have also learned that

2) Each contestant must sing outdoors at a lush poolside or garden setting, while their respective judge relaxes in resort-type seating wearing resort wear and looking like they’re waiting for the canapés and white wine coolers to be delivered. And, despite the setting the performers must Always Keep It Real.

Yup, and to kick off the incongruity fest, little squeak-rapper Brian “Astro” Bradley, who’s a brave little fellow, telling Rihanna “We will be doing a collab one day, remember that!”

Brian tells us he’s decided a house like LA’s will do nicely for him and his mom when he wins the competition’s $5 million prize. You and I know $5 million might buy LA’s guest house. But don’t tell Brian now. What do you want to do -- disillusion the child?

This is the kid that LA said at the auditions was “too young” to be a convincing rapper, and out here, on the fairway at LA’s place, he’s even less convincing.

“He’s so cute – I can’t even comment right now,” Rihanna says when Brian’s finished. “So cute” – not exactly how a rapper wants to be described. Anyway, LA wonders if a rapper will be perceived as a novelty, not a potential winner, when this show gets down to viewer voting. This is occurring to him NOW?

Whooshing sounds and we’re in France, where Simon is sitting alone with himself on upholstered couch near the pool. We last saw Simone Battle completely forgetting her lyrics in audition yet she got sent to France because she’s very spunky and very pretty. She is going to perform the Beatles “Help!” by the poolside, dressed in a black one-piece bathing suit and the ghost of a dead skirt. It’s a slow and kinda droopy version of the song and she seems to want to be taken literally when she sings, “Help me” at the end. It turns out that Simon has thought better of inviting Guest Mentor Simon to join him and has instead collected three yes-men -- two music producers and one vocal coach – to assist him in making decisions. They come out after Simone’s number and kneel at his feet (seriously, they do) and whisper hesitantly to Simon something about his being swayed by her looks, but they lose their nerve and go with “she’s great.”

Zooming half way round the world to Santa Barbara, Paula and Pharrell listen to The Anser, three nice guys from Salt Lake City, one of whom wears red glasses. Except he’s not wearing the glasses. Pharrell wants to know what happened the glasses – he “thought it was cool.” The glasses aren’t going to happen. And, under that cloud, they cover Pink’s “]Expletive] Perfect Lyrics.” Pharrell says the kid who forgot the red glasses is the weakest of the bunch.

We’re off to Malibu for the Over 30 auditions, where 49-year-old Dexter Haygood (Skid Row Class of ’92) is going to bring his gruff, James Brownish, keepin’ it real stylings, poolside, with the cliffs of Malibu and the bright blue sea stretching out behind him. And a backing track that’s louder than he is. And an arrangement that leaves him with virtually no lyrics. “I would have liked to have heard the song a bit more,” Nicole says. On the bright side, Enrique notes, he’s entertaining. Dexter begins to weep on show host Steve’s shoulder. Steve is being magically transported from continent to continent, to console or congratulate each singer after his or her performance.

Skyelor Anderson, poor guy, gives a very shaky country performance of Babyface’s “Nobody Knows It But Me.” On “X Factor,” unlike “Idol,” after each singer performs, they just walk off with no critique to their faces. Everybody goes silent while they walk off, like something embarrassing just happened that no one wants to mention. It makes for very uncomfortable viewing.

After Skyelor’s out of sight, Rihanna and LA make diplomatic conversation about him. “The dimensions of his voice are incredible,” Rihanna says. We get the feeling she has no idea what that means.

Now here’s somebody we remember from auditions -- Tora Woloshin, the heavily tatted car mechanic. We get to see her working under a car in a little sundress. We’re betting that was a shot the “X-Factor” cameraman has been wanting to take all his adult life. Tora performs for Simon, in red short-shorts, a smoky version of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” but she could have worked it more. On the other hand, if she’d worked it more she would have ended up in the pool. “It doesn’t quite get to me,” Simon tells his yes-men. They nod in agreement.

Back to Paula and Groups. As you may remember, an apparent shortage of talented groups prompted Simon to put together two Insta-Groups from singers under age 30 who were cut after auditioning as soloists. The first of these match ups are four chicks who have been saddled with the name Lakoda Rayne because, one of them explains, “ ‘Lakoda’ means allies, friendship and unity, and ‘Rayne’ means blessings from above,” in somebody’s language. We’re hoping when the lawyers for the Lakota tribal people up in South Dakota hear about this, it means “copyright violation.”

Anyway, the girls sing Gaga’s “Born This Way” and demonstrate that performing as a group is more than just performing together. They look stiff and ill at ease. After the performance, one of them makes a little speech to the judges about how they’ve grown to be “like sisters.”

Stacy Francis is one of The Overs who’s been given a lot of screen time on this show for her big voice, and crying finishes that leave her with a memorable sad-clown runny-makeup look. She’s also a single mom whose father died at the start of auditions. Stacy’s so struggling, she says, that she had to borrow a dress and shoes for this appearance at Nicole’s house and – wait a minute, $5 million at stake and “X Factor” doesn’t give the X-Testants wardrobe support?

Stacy belts out “Purple Rain” and successfully makes you forget the poolside/seaside surroundings, which is some kind of achievement, because you’re too busy wondering why she sounds like she’s recorded it in a studio and is now lip synching. Nicole is teary. “I think the neighbors heard that,” Enrique says. They both mull Stacy’s weeping.

Nathan and Justin Brewer -- The Brewer Boys -- have faces and hair ready made for wall posters in teen girl bedrooms, and they harmonize very well, so it’s all looking good for them. But Paula’s going to fix that. She’s given them Rihanna’s “The Only Girl In the World” to sing, in a salute (or contractual obligation) to tonight’s guest superstar. And, she’s made them get up and dance a little. It’s not really in line with their folk vibe, but they gamely work through it. Pharrell pretty much says that all the boys have going is good harmony. And Paula says, we believe, “Good is the most difficult place to be because sometimes it isn’t good enough,” or maybe it was something different but, anyway, we’re living our life according to that principle from now on!

Phillip Lomax is a crooner and, based on our years of viewing “Idol,” those types always wash out when the competition makes them sing pop songs. LA has apparently decided to accelerate that process by giving Phillip the task of singing Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop The Music” -- an uncroonable tune – which he will have to sing – to Rihanna. It’s better than if LA had made him croon Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” but is still a pretty painful experience. “Very charming” she says generously when he’s done. But LA says he’s “not sure it works commercially”—what a sense of humor that guy has!

Fifty-three year old wedding singer Elaine Gibbs gives a strong performance of Oasis’s “Stop Crying Your Heart Out” followed some debating between Nicole and Enrique as to whether Elaine can become a superstar. We’re pretty sure she’s not the next Gaga, as, we think, are they.

Next up before Simon’s sofa is 21-year-old Caitlin Cook, the husky rugby player with the angelic face, who gives a quiet performance of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” that rises to a strong finish. She gets more impressive with each performance, though she does stay in the quiet range. “Her pitch, her tone was fantastic. I loved her phrasing!” Simon enthuses to his yes-men at his feet.

Nick Voss also forgot his lyrics during boot camp and yes, miraculously, beat out tens of thousands of other competitors to make it to LA’s house. Nick’s haircut reminds us of that guy in “Avatar” with the big claw marks on the side of his head. Nick’s version of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is extremely weak. Rihanna and LA, who really should be sent to the United Nations to represent us, elliptically discuss his performance:

“You’ve seen him sing and perform before,” Rihanna notes, trying to dodge this one. “I’ve seen him better,” says LA. “Is he $5 million prize caliber,” Reid wonders, rhetorically. We think he’s $165 dollar airplane ticket home caliber.

Back to Paula’s place: 4Shore, four amiable guys who sing well and move around passably well, but lack, something – let’s call it The X-Factor – sing a Brownstone song. Paula says she wants to dirty them up. Pharrell says he too would like to dirty them up. Do the two of them mean the same thing? We think not. Pharrell also says they’re “really technical, and that s what you need to really bring a song to life.” Well, guess he ought to know.

James Kenney, one of The Overs, sings Rihanna’s “Russian Roulette” – my, she’s a popular choice tonight! This guy’s interesting: a waiter/apartment manager/accountant by profession, and we can really see the accountant part coming through in the taped bit. This man is cut and dried, even talking about how much he loves his family. Anyway, surprise, he uncorks a passionate performance and Enrique says he “could totally see him as a rock star” in the Maroon Five mold.

We end -- of course -- with Simon, at Chateau X. He’s auditioning 14-year-old Drew Ryniewicz, who is looking commercially frail and vulnerable; she sings, in a plaintive voice the duo Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love.” Simon: “Amazing – 14 years old!”

Cue that crazy-making theme music from “Carmina Burana” while we get teased about the heartbreak of X-Testants being sent home on the next episode and it’s bye-bye to the Hamptons, France, and beachside Haciendas and fade out to our humdrum little life.

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