[20 May 2008]
One thing’s for certain: The fact that a Hollywood starlet chose to make an album covering her favorite Tom Waits songs, with only one original track on the album, is gutsy. There’s no in between for this one; it will go down as one of those love it or hate it records.
Opening up with the instrumental “Fawn” off Alice, Anywhere I Lay My Head gets off to a good start. Rather than immediately jumping into Scarlett Johansson’s attempts at tackling Waits’s lyrics, a slightly extended version of the original is presented as a true homage to his music, featuring a church organ, guitar, saxophone, and tinkling bells. Throughout the entire album, Johansson and her producer, David Andrew Sitek (TV on the Radio), chose to keep Waits’s lyrics, but vamp up his often bare-bones instrumentation as opposed to doing straight covers. Sitek’s sequencing on the album is masterful, with each song flowing perfectly into the next. Had it been put into different hands, the album could have taken an entirely different turn.
Guest musicians along for the ride include David Bowie, Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Antanaitis from Celebration. Having previously made his acquaintance for a guest spot on TV on the Radio’s 2006 album Return to Cookie Mountain, Sitek was able to record Bowie on “Falling Down” and “Fannin Street” after Anywhere I Lay My Head had already been recorded, and yet the two tracks with Bowie are truly standouts. “Falling Down”, off Big Time, starts with a softly padded xylophone, adds a banjo, and slowly but steadily builds up into a whirling shoegaze affair that fades down into the chorus looped over and over. From the three-disc compilation Orphans, in “Fannin Street”, Johansson and Bowie warble about the dangers of the named street in Houston. Though Bowie mostly sings background on this track, his presence rounds this song out.
Both “Green Grass”, off Real Gone, and “No One Knows I’m Gone”, off Alice, have the feel of PJ Harvey songs, with Johansson’s breathy contralto making them ethereal, lush, and just a bit creepy. Some have said she doesn’t have a good singing voice, but I beg to differ. On certain songs, she sings just as well as she can act. On “I Wish I Was in New Orleans”, from Waits’s Small Change, she sings along to a music box, and her voice is bittersweet and reverent, probably somewhat due to the fact that the album was recorded at Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana, about 150 miles away from New Orleans. Who knows if a 20-something can feel all the emotions that Waits conjures up, but it truly seems as though she tried to.
From the album Bone Machine, “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” is the track that will probably anger the diehard Tom Waits fans the most. The Ramones doing it was one thing, but turning it into a shimmering ‘80s song might push them over the edge. Drum machines, synthesizers, and ScarJo singing over it all, with one verse whispered—I would not be at all surprised to hear a mash-up of this song on the dance floor.
Somewhat ironically, the shining star of this album is quite possibly “Song for Jo”, co-written by Sitek and Johansson, with the often indiscernible lyrics taking backseat to the dreamy rhythmic guitar and percussion and just letting it ride. It gives a glimpse into what Johansson is capable of doing, should she choose to record another album of original material with Sitek. Just think of the celebrity guest stars the two of them can recruit for the next project.
The album ends with a fairly straightforward version of “Who Are You?”, pulled from Bone Machine. Scarlett sings: “Go on ahead and take this the wrong way / Time’s not your friend”. Hopefully, Johansson will take this advice and decide to put something else out while she’s still young.