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by Bill Gibron

4 Jun 2008

The old adage that actors want to be rock stars (and visa versa) has produced some equally clichéd results. No one is championing the cringe inducing drunkness of Bruce Willis’ lame ‘Bruno’ alter ego, nor are the Blues Brothers well-placed in their genre defying (or desecrating) dopiness. There have been some successful crossovers - at least to fans of Jared Leto - but for the most part, such efforts are seen as the product of pure and unapologetic vanity. And without a thriving ‘musical’ movement to keep the vocally astute performer happy - or employed - we will probably see more of these medium-traversing mash-ups. 

The latest entry in the star as chanteuse dynamic is Scarlett Johansson. Frequently voted one of the most beautiful young actresses working today, the starlet has quite the resume. From a small part in the notorious Rob Reiner bomb North, to her recent successes in efforts like Lost in Translation, The Girl in the Pearl Necklace and The Prestige, at 23 she’s considered a burgeoning superstar. While she gets glowing critical notices, some can’t get past her basic blond aura (and accompanying curvaceousness).

So the question of her cutting a record might seem ridiculous, until you do a little research. As a graduate of the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan, Johansson had a fair amount of training. She was even considered for the role of Maria in the recent UK revival of The Sound of Music. She appeared on the compilation Unexpected Dreams – Songs from the Stars (singing “Summertime”) and even added back-up for an unexpected Jesus and Mary Chain reunion at Coachella 2007.

Yet no one could have expected Johansson to head off to Maurice Louisiana, hook up with a ragtag group of marginal to mainstream musicians, and cut a collection of Tom Waits covers. Any one of those factual statements sound suspicious at best, specious at the very worst. It’s the oddest sonic amalgamations since Soft Cell’s Marc Almond recorded an entire collection of Russian romance ballads. Yet when viewed outside of the entire movie star/surreal subtext argument, Anywhere I Lay My Head is actually pretty great.

The album starts off, oddly enough, with an instrumental. “Fawn”, derived from Waits’ 2002 work Alice, sets the mood of what’s to come effortlessly, the 12 piece combo creating a noise that’s both melancholy and mad. Highly reminiscent of David Lynch’s sonic statements, there’s a real calm before the storm quality to the aural backdrop. Yet when you consider the subtext here - the track was written for a stage play version of Alice in Wonderland, the appropriateness for what Johansson is aiming for is clear (even the cover art seems symbolic). We’re about to go down the rabbit hole with the heretofore unknown diva, and anything can happen.

“Town With No Cheer” begins the entire Dietrich dilemma. If Johansson has a vocal muse, a personality she filters her fragile yet throaty lilt through, it’s the magnificent Marlene. Though the setting sounds suspiciously like an outtake from Julee Cruise’s catalog, our star sells Waits’ words (from Swordfishtrombones) in a clipped European call. It’s a style she will revisit often throughout the course of these songs. “Falling Down” draws on the actress’s openness and fresh faced allure, especially when matched against David Bowie’s bravura backing vocals and Sean Antanaitis’ banjo. It’s the closest the album comes to mimicking a certain genre or type - call it countried folk.

Rain Dogs is represented next, and the organ-heavy title track to this collection comes across as a solid statement of defiance. Waits’ lyrics, reflecting the inner strength of someone struggling against the traumas of life, fit the actress naturally. So do the rambling travelers blues of “Fannin Road”. Bowie returns to add his own ephemeral grace, his well honed pipes producing a nice contrast to Johansson’s more mercurial tones. With its drone like instrumentation and air of uncertainty, it’s a fine musical moment.

Next up is Anywhere I Lay My Head‘s sole original, a track written by Johansson and project guiding light David Andrew Sitek (from indie rockers TV on the Radio). Named for the actress, “Song for Jo” struggles against the might of Waits’ work. But with its fancy flute trills and distorted thunder guitars, it embraces the implied drama present in the rest of the recording. Things wander directly back into Waits’ aesthetic with “Green Grass”. Its clunky percussion and off time tendencies definitely doesn’t offer the sincerest form of flattery. Yet when a similarly ambient take on Alice‘s “No One Knows I’m Gone” shows up, the gentle guitar wash and machine beats provide a wonderfully weird setting. Here, Johansson’s tiny timber works to her - and the material’s - advantage.

If the album has a pure genius stroke, it’s the reimagining of Small Change‘s “I Wish I Was in New Orleans” as a sad, salutatory lullaby. Composed in 1976, the current post-Katrina aura infuses Johansson’s pretty picture pouting with all manner of meaning. Such a strategic switch-up doesn’t quite work for the synthpop silliness of “I Don’t Want to Grow Up”. The Bone Machine effort, flawlessly covered by the Ramones after Waits’ own semi-successful interpretation, barely survives the Samantha Fox teen queen revamp. Johansson’s reading of Machine‘s other contribution, “Who Are You” comes off much better. Sitek’s vocals add a nice maturity, complementing the lead lines effortlessly.

Overall, one has to give this actress credit. She didn’t need to take such strategically difficult sonic subject matter and threaten her promising reputation over it. In interviews, she’s claimed a legitimate fear of what Waits would think, and while reports indicate he’s been very “supportive” and “quite pleased” with the results, a direct comment from the man has yet to arrive. It may not be the kind of support Johansson is looking for, in the long run.

Sometimes, it’s better when an artist can stand on their own, outside the sphere of influence created by their creative mentor. In this case, Anywhere I Lay My Head stands solidly outside what Tom Waits managed with this always engaging material. Scarlett Johansson may not have a future as a rock star, but there’s nothing to be embarrassed about here - unless you consider the frequent riches this LP contains.

by Jason Gross

4 Jun 2008

With the occasional bits of news that get out about the trial of R. Kelly, one pertinent detail about it is how the defense is trying squeeze Chicago Sun-Times music columnist Jim DeRogatis into testifying as part of the trial.  The troubling aspects of this aren’t just that this could put DeRogatis in an uncompromising position about his work and reporting (as detailed by Bill Wyman’s Huffington Post blog) but also how DeRogatis is being harassed in many ways as being involved in the whole process (as documented by the Daily Swarm), not to mention the fact that Kelly’s been openly feuding with him for a few years now.  This conveniently moves attention away from Kelly and tries to corner DeRogatis as a wrong-doer (this Guardian piece has good details about how DeRogatis was originally involved in the whole case).  This shouldn’t just be concern to music scribes but the journalism profession in general.  How I feel about Kelly and his legal troubles is summed up pretty well by the Boondocks, one of the finest shows on the small screen today (I happen to agree with Huey’s take and know that Riley’s take is a parody of a lot of fans out there).  By the way, if you’d like to send DeRogatis some words of support, you can contact him through his website.

by PopMatters Staff

4 Jun 2008

The Dandy Warhols
The World Come On [MP3]
     

N.E.R.D.
Everyone Nose [Streaming]

Coldplay
Viva La Vida (Live) [Video]

Love Psychedelico
Standing Bird [MP3]
     

From Bubblegum to Sky
Even the Sunbeams [MP3]
     

The Baseball Project
Past Time [MP3]
     

by John Bohannon

4 Jun 2008

This clip taken from a 1981 documentary titled Imagine the Sound is a rare document of one of the avant-garde world’s greatest piano players, Cecil Taylor. Most footage that has been released of Taylor is of him with one of his illustrious bands - known for blowing the hats of and outraging any devout be-bop player and/or critic. But the reason this video needs to be revealed is because it gets down to the very core of Free Jazz in it’s essence.

With Free Jazz, many times people will claim is just a series of random notes or a giant wall of noise. But in fact, its anything but these absurd claims. As not only jazz music, but other genres of music have seem to have lost the true meaning of “improvisation” - Taylor reminds them that it is a reaction to feeling and emotion. This is something that can’t be taught within our school systems and only those that stretch to understand it, will be satisfied with its rewarding attributes.

Watching Taylor from the director’s point of view above the piano shows him nearly talking to the piano. He’s having a conversation with it rather than just playing it - sometimes there are moments of silence, at others its as if the room just crowded and the conversation picked up. Unfortunately, the representatives of the jazz world in 2008 (see Wynton Marsalis) are taking us so many steps back, that jazz in the mainstream world is becoming obsolete - its being talked about like classical music is talked about, as if its an art form that can be taught in schools.

There are remaining soldiers out there such as David Ware, 8 Bold Souls, Matthew Shipp, and even some of the veterans such as Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, and even Cecil Taylor himself. We must place them outside of the realm of the term “jazz” and bring them in with our alternative world. They should be playing with the slew of avant-rock bands out there creating a buzz, to an audience that would actually give them a chance. Free Jazz is still as free as it ever was, it just needs to take that freedom down a different road.

by Nikki Tranter

3 Jun 2008

I’ve pushed aside all scheduled content today to post what I think is the funniest book-related story I’ve read in ages. It involves distinguished author Ian McEwan coming up slightly rosy-cheeked upon finding out his new, unfinished novel actually lifts a scene from the works of Douglas Adams.

Does anyone else think that is just the most perfect thing?

The story goes that at a reading at Hay Literary Festival in Wales, a member of the audience remarked that a scene McEwan recounted was very familiar. The scene involved a man on a train eating a bag of chips. The man is shocked to see another passenger eating from the same bag, and making no effort to disguise the fact. A confrontation occurs, and when the man leaves the train, he finds his unopened chip packet in his pocket.

After some investigation, McEwan discovered the scene appears in Douglas Adams’s 1984 book, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish. The story is apparently a famous urban legend, only instead of chips, most tellers (like Adams) give the traveller a packet of biscuits.

The Australian points readers here to a short film, called Cookies, based on Adams’s scene.

McEwan’s new book is not due for publication for another two years and is reported to feature climate change as its central theme.

 

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