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).
Anywhere I Lay My Head
(Rhino; US: 20 May 2008; UK: 19 May 2008)
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.