“The X Factor” gang (Fox)

[Ned Martel is filling in for Lisa de Moraes, who will be back blogging next week.]

“The X Factor” is down to a dozen and the show has gained momentum, merging methods of “American Idol” and “The Voice” and adding elements of mentoring plus back-up theatrics. It’s less bubblegum but not less contrived, nor less captivating. And Simon sang his own praises as he saluted the network for already guaranteeing his new project a second season, even as this first one is hitting its stride.

“Rhythm Nation” brought the night’s best band to the stage, though the quintet had a weird, thuggy, toy-soldier wardrobe. Says Nicole: “ ‘The Stereo Hogzz’ have landed, OK?” Uh, OK. Says Paula Abdul, aka Miss Smug, according to Simon: “I go to bed thinking of concepts for you… I’m crazy for you, I’m crazy for you.” Sounds dirty, but not as dirty as the series of Simon Cowell/Verizon commercials, which I call “The $-Factor.”

Chris Rene emerged as the contestant who left rehab about two minutes ago, and has the audience white-knuckling through his every appearance. We are not alone: L.A. Reid is worried about Chris and his diminished swagger, but somehow not about those white socks and clashing plaids. It felt so strange to imagine Chris listening to The Carpenters, much less hearing him sing “Superstar.” A man attempting a sad-girl song and feeling like a tiger trapped in a Hello Kitty-decorated room. I don’t know what is to be gained by all the infernal fire effects.

LeRoy Bell’s singing is static with some Ray LaMontagne and Michael Bolton: He shows the solemnity of the former and the hoarseness of the latter, especially as his R&B stylings dwell heavily in the b, as in blues. There’s just something so sincere and solitary about him. “A confidence issue” is what Simon called it. But damn, does he look good for his age, and show all the outward signs (and a homelife video montage) of a good person.

Random observation 1: A note to the Not Ryan Seacrest host with the Robert Scorpio accent: Just because you look like a Romney son does not mean you can do the Mitt Romney handsy, gotta-hold-on-to-you thing when invading the space of contestants after each song.

Rachel Crow adapts “Walkin’ on Sunshine” with hot pink eyeliner and candy-striped dancers. The 13-year-old is a cross between Shirley Temple and Queen Latifah, and as one might expect, it’s a package that can’t find the best qualities of either. She’s sweet and fun and “among the most charismatic people I’ve ever met,” in L.A. Reid’s words. I suspect she’ll do fine since girls her age actually vote.

Lakoda Rayne sings “Landslide,” and each member of the group embodies one of the four seasons, which was as off as can be. They don’t have the power of Stevie Nicks or Natalie Maines. They’re just off, like the Mandrell Sisters back-up quartet or models in a Wella Balsam shampoo commercial of that era who finally got a chance to sing. But they’re REALLY pretty, almost like if the Comedy Network made a cartoon about sorority sisters. Nicole is weirdsy and loved them as much as Simon hated what they’re wearing.

Random observation: I feel like the show has more people than it knows what to do with — the moderator, the dancers, the judges, the contestants, the audience.

Josh Krajcik sings “Jar of Hearts.” And he should think he’s someone special, the one to beat. Nicole is crying, “When you sing, I feel your voice in my veins.” Man From Oz says, “Hug me immediately. Wow.” Grab, grab.

Melanie Amaro sings “Desperado,” a capella style. By the end, she’s going all “You better let somebody love you,” a la Effie in “Dreamgirls.” She gets universal acclaim for substituting some gospel overtones where the dusty Don Henley rasps once were. And Simon even noted the writers only barely gave the show permission to use the song.

Brian “Astro” Bradley, the hip-hop princelet of Brooklyn, sings “Hip-Hop Hooray” by Naughty by Nature. It’s a perfect song, and the kid with the fly-girl dancers and hipster glasses and mongo headphones and lame leather pants jumped into “Get the Beat On,” a version of Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On.”

I love this kid.

Simon: “I think you are a total little star.”

The “Glee”-like ensemble is a hard lot to manage, and their name, “InTENsity,” suggested the value they would bring to “Kids In America.” Their red-and-black has less high-school musical than it probably hoped, as it shines only when its young African American male singer has center stage. Simon says it best about the ten-headed ensemble: “I shouldn’t but I really do like you.”

Drew (with Roberta, her Groupie Mother, within reach), sings Nelly Furtado’s “Just a Dream” on a bed of petals and hits careful notes that are so very of this moment, in the Era of Adele and Zooey Deschanel and that little girl singing in “Moneyball.” She rocks a tiered pink tutu and sings about dreams until her last weak but wonderful note. “I’m not her mentor, she’s my mentor now,” Simon says. “I’m learning from you.”

Marcus Canty sings some Bobby Brown, learning how to belt out sounds while busting moves. L.A. Reid, Bobby’s own mentor, gave him “Nothin’ on You” by B.O.B. to mash up with Bobby’s “Every Little Step I Take.” It proves hard. He does know how to pop his joints and flutter his voice, but it is not ultimately up to professional standards. It works on one person: “It brings me back,” says Paula, sounding like Maya Rudolph’s character in “Up All Night.”

Stacy Francis tends to use vocal chords and tear ducts in equal measure. Entering Wednesday’s show, she needed to lift her own spirits after a rough week, and gospel proved the proper channel to redemption. It is slow-moving until it gets high-pitched and choir-backed. “You were the shining moment tonight,” Paula offered, but the results from America’s mountains and valleys will be revealed tomorrow. No matter who wins, Simon asserted, he is the Almighty.


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‘X Factor’: Top 17 revealed

‘X Factor’ Wednesday’s episode delayed due to rain

‘X Factor’: 32 finalists revealed

‘X Factor’ boot camp begins

‘X Factor’: Brian Bradley and the last night of auditions

Wednesday auditions: ‘X Factor’ marches through Chicago, Seattle