Joshua Ledet

Cue the Dire Cliche Title Cards we’ve come to expect to lead off these final “American Idol” episodes:

The further we go.

With just 4 remaining.

It will be a fight to the finish.

So this is it: The Furthest Foursome. The Antepenultimate Idol.

But first -- the Judges’ Entrance.

Steven Tyler, all in white, looks like some elderly pool boy. Jennifer Lopez is wearing a slinky. Randy Jackson is in a very loud plaid jacket and a clashing plaid tie. He looks like a fight in Scottish bar.

“It’s hard to believe that in just two weeks, the next American Idol will be named,” host Ryan Seacrest says, wearing a conservative dark suit, because, as a member of the NBC News team he no longer knows when he might have to fly off at a moment’s notice to cover the United Nations or something.

Tonight’s two themes: First round, songs about California, or songs performed by bands from California, or songs ever heard from the next car by anybody stopped at a red light in California that made them roll up the window. Second round, songs the Idolettes wish they had written or that have inspired them.

First up, Phil Phillips to perform Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain.” It’s a pretty good fit for his rough voice but he sounds weak, like he’s straining to produce some volume.

At the end, he rolls his tongue around in his mouth like he’s parched.

“You’re living proof that the road to success is always under construction,” says Tyler, which may be the closest thing we’ve heard all season to a knock on a Phil 2 performance.

“Yeah, I got cotton mouth,” Phil says.

“You sound like that with cotton mouth?” asks JLo.

Phil: “Yeah, I’m pretty nervous.”

She says he sounded fine and “Joe Cocker”-ish, to her.

Mixed review from Randy who says Phil started rough then brightened up later in the song.

Phil takes a swig from a bottle of water.

Hollie Cavanagh has chosen Journey’s power anthem “Faithfully.” She’s working her mid-range, which is her comfort zone, and somehow has the side effect of making her seem older -- a good thing. And she pulls some modified Celine Dion gestures to show emotion. It works for her.

“You’re peaking at the right time,” Randy says enthusiastically, by way of warming up to make the point that he once played with Journey. “Hollie wants to have the whole thing!” he concludes, in yet another attempt at a trademark phrase.

“I’ve been waiting to see that from you, where you’re ready to share your gift with everyone,” JLo says, complimenting herself for her belief in Hollie since she first auditioned for last season’s Idol.

How thoughtless of us. All these weeks, we’ve been watching “Idol” without a care for Jason Derulo, who has been busy slaving away to create “this new hit song” using suggested lyrics from the “Idol” audience, we are reminded in a taped bit sponsored by Coke. We hear a little preview: “Whoa, whoa, I’m undefeated,” he sings. Two weeks left to finish the song and, to quote the departed Elise Testone, “that’s all you got?”

Up next, Joshua Ledet. If there’s one dependable bit of entertainment on “Idol,” it’s Joshua’s success at batting away every attempt by Seacrest to elicit smarmy showbiz responses from Joshua. If Joshua makes it through this round and gets to visit his home town in Louisiana, what is he most looking forward to, Seacrest asks. The humidity, says Joshua

Josh’s will sing Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up,” and right away he’s going to back to the gospel vibe that launched him so well this season. But, this performance is a bit pitchy and uncertain. Josh is unusually restrained – - just one of his trademark leg-lift-on-the-high-notes moves --- but he brings it home at the end with a strong finish.

Randy and JLo say Joshus is great in various ways. And Tyler, who is allotted one memorable line a night, delivers this one: “They say courage is fear that’s said as prayers, and you have said your prayers and the world is accepting you now like nobody’s business.”

Jessica Sanchez will perform Etta James’s “Steal Away” and – talk about guts -- the tiny 16-year-old has shrugged off last week’s dings by Mentor-In-Chief Jimmy Iovine , who called her performance of “Proud Mary” too pretend adult. This week, she rolls right into a very adult version of this song. “I know its late but don’t make me wait, come on let’s steal away,” she sings, giving a come-hither beckon with her hand. She’s even thrown in some growling.

“How old were you when you started growling?” JLo asks.

She says she was 7.

“That was crazy, crazy, crazy,” JLo enthuses. “…When I think about all the great female singers who would be your contemporaries at this moment, you are just one of the best. “

Randy compliments Jessica for tapping into such emotions at age 16, but his better trademark sayings have gone out of his head, because he ends with the weakest of the lot “that girl right there can sing the phone book!”

Phil and Josh, last weeks Uncomfortable Two, will duet again – this time on a Maroon 5 number, and this time they seem to be really enjoying themselves.

“The marriage of voices was perfect,” Tyler compliments the two guys. “Idol” Producer In Chief Nigel Lithgoe takes credit for coming up with the song choice.

Next duet: Hollie and Jessica, singing The Bangles “Eternal Flame”.

It’s their turn to be the Uncomfortable Two. The number starts off with them in swings, which is kind of effective as a start, but they just keep swinging and swinging, until eventually they launch themselves off the swings without breaking a leg, then kind of mill around the stage to finish off a very dull number.

We blame Nigel Lithgoe.

“I just didn’t like that, I thought it was weird,” Randy says, speaking the truth.

“Four months into LA, you turned into our favorite swingers,” Tyler jokes which is even weirder, given the whole girls-on –the-playground theme.

Hey, isn’t it about time “Idol” crams a movie promo down our throat?

What ho! Is that Ryan Seacrest’s girlfriend Julianne Hough we spy sitting in the audience, accompanied by the director of her upcoming film “Rock of Ages”? Sure, we will permit Ryan a little small talk/movie pluggery in the audience with his girlfriend -- seems harmless enough.

But no, this must be drawn out into whole “thing” in which the movie’s hyperventilating director, Adam Shankman goes to visit the Idolettes at their Palazzo Forecloso. Shankman’s director’s notes to himself must have been “Act as if you have to take a pee at all times” because he is quite the bundle of squirmy energy. He insists that Phil kiss a poster of Jennifer Lopez. No, seriously, he insists. Phil looks revolted.

Anyway, the gimmick here is that he’s screening for the Idolettes the trailer for the film, which we get to see too. Tom Cruise playing a burned out rocker? Alec Baldwin playing a manipulative rock manager? We are so there! Idiotic, unfunny dialogue? Oh -- never mind.

Will this dry patch of “Idol” never end?! Now all four Idolettes are being forced to sing Foreigner’s “Waiting For a Girl Like You,” straight out of the Broadway production of “Foreigner: The Musical.”

Finally, after many hints that Phil is in bad health, we are going to get some details. Seacrest asks how he’s feeling.

“I’m making it. I’m feeling pretty good,” Phil says wanly. If there’s a sympathy vote for Phil, it just got reinforced.

The next round of songs are supposed to be ones that have inspired the Idolettes. For Phil, that would be Damien Rice’s “Volcano”. This is indeed in Phil’s groove, seated, hunched over his guitar, singing hoarsely. It’s the best he’s sounded in a while.

“You just sung like you really dug the way you sing,” Tyler says.

JLo over-compliments him for achieving “one of the most beautiful poignant moment a contestant has ever had.”

Hollie is going for “I Can’t Make You Love Me”, by Bonnie Raitt. “Idol” Mentor in Chief Jimmy Iovine says she’s got to come from behind and perform this tune magnificently, adding, “she can’t just do okay – no chance. Her performance is just okay.

Three thumbs down from the judges; Randy calls it “The wrong song choice at the wrong time.”

Joshua Ledet will do James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World” in honor of his mother, who’s in the audience. In a taped rehearsal bit, Josh also manages to shrug off Iovine’s attempt to go all Hollywood on him, telling Josh to call him if he needs anything. Josh laughs in his face; Iovine wants to know what’s so funny. “I don’t have your number,” Josh says.

Josh starts channeling James Brown right away. He’s got the voice, the movis, and the emotional intensity. Actually, he’s got a better voice than James Brown. We sort of expected him to walk off stage in the middle and be brought back in by an attendant -- an old James Brown gag. Anyway, it’s a kick.

Standing O from the judges, and JLo makes bowing motions in Josh’s direction.

“I can go home right now,” says Tyler. “I never heard anything like that in my life.”

“One of the best performances in the history of any singing show!” raves Randy.

“I actually went to church,” JLo says of his performance. “I saw the Lord.”

But little Jessica Sanchez is aiming high, too. She’s going after “And I’m Telling You” from Dreamgirls, the career-breakout vehicle for “Idol” success story (and non-show winner) Jennifer Hudson.

Get the message?

She tears this song up. Another Standing O from the judges.

“One of the hardest songs in the world to sing and you slayed it!” Randy marvels.

“Julian Lennon’s in the house,” Randy continues. “Julian, this is what Idol is all about!”

Cut to Julian Lennon in the audience. Remember him? Right, it took us a minute too. Well, he doesn’t have the pull of Julianne Hough, but still, there he is, having his Moment.

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View Photo Gallery: The 11th season of “American Idol.”