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Scarlett Johansson - Anywhere I Lay My Head Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 June 2008
ImageIt says a lot that when New York Magazine attempted to compile their list of the 10 greatest albums made by actors, they were only able to come up with three. So when Scarlett Johansson announced her plans to release an album, the groans were understandably audible. If the music of Eddie Murphy, Billy Bob Thornton, and Bruce Willis has taught us anything, it’s that despite some overlapping in the areas of performance and theatricality, music and acting are entirely different disciplines. Sure, there have been some – like Juliette Lewis or Minnie Driver – who have proven that actors can recognize and recreate the rudimentary clichés of songwriting, but the days of legitimate double threats such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra are long gone. It seemed particularly odd for Johansson, an impeccably hip actress who has worked with underground directors and frolicked in a Bob Dylan video, to seemingly go the route of every mainstream starlet who naively believed that her success in one format would naturally replicate itself into another. And then it was announced that her album would consist entirely of Tom Waits covers, and what seemed like a misguided project became an utterly baffling one. What could she possibly be thinking?

Having already proven her solid taste in music by performing onstage with the reunited Jesus and Mary Chain at Coachella in 2007, it’s obvious that Johansson doesn’t approach music with the same would-be pop diva persona that her similarly-minded cinematic cohorts have. For her first official venture into the realm of full-length album making, she couldn’t have chosen a better model than Tom Waits, the gravel gargling troubadour whose flirtation with film has succeeded largely because he never attempts to do something that is beyond his reach as an actor. Here, Johansson does the same, making no attempt to recreate the boozy growl and junkyard jazz aura of Waits’ performances, instead focusing on translating the songs into a new context. To her credit, it mostly works. Everything about this album – from backing vocals by David Bowie to production from TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek -- insists that it is to be taken seriously by discriminating listeners, commercial concerns be damned. As Waits is shorthand for uncompromising integrity, the actress could hardly have done better in pulling from a catalog that will defy expectations and insulate herself from criticism, and reinventing these songs instead of recreating them proves she has better instincts than you might expect. But that’s not to say that her creative choices won’t be controversial all the same. What you make of her decisions will largely reveal what you think about the sanctity of Waits’ originals, specifically, and cover albums, generally. One thing you won’t think about much is how good of a musician Johansson is, as she has obscured her presence as much as possible.

As if to accentuate this point, the first track is an instrumental, a roller rink organ rendition of “Fawn” – the finale of Waits’ modern classic Alice – that climaxes in a crescendo of saxophones and drum rolls that grow wilder and more calamitous with every turn through the melody. Notably, Johansson isn’t one of the instruments you hear. Using her dark, throaty voice as another instrument in the mix, Johansson treads softly on the arrangements Sitek has crafted for her, largely allowing her breathy monotone to float atop layers of synth gloss and guitar reverb. “Town With No Cheer” introduces Johansson, her dark, smoldering voice falling somewhere between Chan Marshall of Cat Power and Blondie’s Debbie Harry as she maneuvers through the luminescent synths and swooning saxophones as they whir and buzz around one of the definitive tracks from Waits’ Swordfishtrombones. The ethereal shimmer continues through the raindrop piano notes and mewing guitar feedback of “Falling Down,” a duet with David Bowie that pushes the Waits’ original into a wind tunnel and inches it out toward open space. By “Fannin Street,” the album has left this orbit altogether, drifting off into wispy trails of soft monosyllabic backing vocals, softly thundering drums, sleigh bells, and washes of guitar reverb.

Some of the recreations work better than others. “Anywhere I Lay My Head” doesn’t do particularly well remade as an ‘80s power ballad, with splash back drum machine presets that distract from the potent beauty of the melody. Similarly, a version of “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” complete with skittering dance beats and synth handclaps seems more kitsch than substance, as if Johansson and her collaborators are trying a bit too hard to distance themselves from the original’s gritty immediacy. Far better is the darkly droning “No One Knows I’m Gone,” with flutes trilling around jackhammer thuds, and the lullaby synth tones of “I Wish I Was in New Orleans” – two tracks that gamely allow Johansson’s voice to sit high in the mix, and therefore allow Waits’ songwriting to come through that much more clearly.

Certainly, there are worse vocalists in many bands across the country – and because she’s singing already recognized songs, it’s clear that Johansson is noticeably flat a few times – but she sings with a confidence that makes her performances believable, if not exceptional. She even does well on “Song for Jo,” an understated and not particularly memorable exercise in ambient texture and vaguely poetic descriptions that is the only original on the album. For now, it was probably wise that she took her maiden voyage with a strong co-captain.

That an international film star such as Johansson has a much higher profile than a leftfield cult icon such as Waits makes her anti-commercial turn all the more brave, and she could hardly have picked an artist with more integrity to help safeguard her wobbly credibility as a musician. As if to prove how right she was to turn these renditions away from their source material, the only track where she and her collaborators attempt any sort of Waits comparison also falls a bit short, as the dark whoosh and earthy jangle provides an unconvincing sense of menace when compared to the Waits’ original.
Even if Anywhere I Lay My Head isn’t a great album, it certainly isn’t a bad one; it’s a release that justifies its existence by defying every expectation placed on it. For certain, the argument can be made that such treatments obscure and undersell the essential brilliance of Waits’ songwriting, leaving his lyrics as little more than dressing for Sitek’s dazzlingly layered arrangements. Additionally, for a songwriter who has always been willfully stuck in pre-WW2 America, these renditions provide just about the only opportunity to hear what he might sound like updated for modern ears. More than anything, though, these songs make one want to go back and rediscover the originals, as even an actor with no particular musical experience can’t do enough damage to distract from the brilliance of songs that are perfectly designed by a true master craftsman.

Cleaning up the broken down acoustic instruments and found sound textures of Waits’ originals, Sitek emphasizes the opposite qualities, layering gorgeously glistening synthesizers, hazy reverb and hissing feedback. To that extent it sounds like something that could have been released on classic British label 4AD in the mid-1980s, as everything has an airy and trembling quality, as atmospheric as Waits’ renditions are rooted to the earth. With high-end equipment, it sounds transcendent. No matter what you think about Johansson as a vocalist, you can’t deny the album sounds exquisite.

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