Review: Scarlett Johansson’s “Anywhere I Lay My Head”

May 21, 2008 10:39am

Actors who decide to make albums have an uphill battle ahead of them.  Often times these albums are dismissed as shallow vanity projects, and/or the actor in question gets accused of using celebrity-status as an undeserved advancement chip.  Many actors over the years have tried the singing game.  Recently it seems like there are more than ever.  Every now and then a brilliant record comes along like for instance Zooey Deschanel’s collaboration with M. Ward as “She & Him” or Jason Schwartzman’s excellent Coconut Records project.  Those albums are stellar and worthy of notice.    Most of these albums though, wind up as little, interesting footnotes.  Minnie Driver has released two decent but forgettable albums.  Juliette Lewis fronts her own band, the Licks.  Even Peter Gallagher did an album of pseudo-soul music.  These albums will find their fan bases, but are in no danger of overshadowing these actors’ day-jobs.  Of course, on the flip-side there are worse.  Ever heard Billy Bob Thornton’s music, or Russell Crowe’s band?  Some projects are “vanity projects” which should never see the light of day.  So, when Scarlett Johansson announced she was going to do a collection of Tom Waits’ songs, tongues started to flap.  People were automatically going to expect the worst before hearing anything.  The project had Waits’ approval, which would mean something if years ago he hadn’t stood by while Rod Stewart murdered his song “Downtown Train.”  Nevertheless, despite that infraction on his part, Waits is a hip, cool guy who seems like he wouldn’t say yes to just about anything.  Add to the fact that Johansson’s album is produced by David Andrew Sitek from TV on the Radio and features work from Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and you have an automatic seal of hipster cred.  I’m still a bit angry with Sitek for the over-hype of TV on the Radio’s “Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes,” but forgave him a little bit after hearing the excellent “Return to Cookie Mountain.”  Nevertheless, I accept him as an important artistic visionary of sorts.  “Anywhere I Lay My Head” is not the train-wreck some would lead you to believe, but it’s not going to change your life either.  It sounds more like an interesting experiment than a traditional album.  “Interesting” is a great, vague word to describe it, because it’s just an odd record.  If you consider the fact that Tom Waits is sort of an odd guy, maybe this is the kind of treatment he deserves.  He’s a man who gets by and thrives on being different.  That’s why people love him.  He’s one of the great, genius songwriters around and one of the most stirring performers as well.  Johansson’s voice is a deep, throaty instrument, packed with rasp, so you could say Waits’ material strangely suits her.  She can’t caterwaul or go off the deep end quite like he can, and there’s not as much bile in her delivery, but it sort of fits.  Johansson, most notably recently went on tour with the reunited Jesus and Mary Chain and sang back-up.  It seems to me that she also picked up some of their bummed-out, burned-out, bored-stiff shoegazer energy.  She’s about as deadpan as you can get.  Sitek’s arrangements are dense and owe a lot to other shoegaze innovators like My Bloody Valentine.  At times, Johansson sounds more like an eighties goth singer lost in the space/time continuum than an actress making a record.  Any one of these performances would have fit well on the woozy but hip soundtrack to her movie “Lost in Translation.”  Fans of French act M83′s latest album “Saturdays = Youth” might want to check this out as well.  The album opens with the instrumental, “Fawn.”  This is some sort of inside joke surely.  It captures a Waits-esque bewildered, unhinged circus energy, but there’s something truly ironic about a listed artist not actually appearing on the opening track.    “Town With No Cheer” begins with some spread-out, atmospheric sound.  When Johansson finally makes an appearance, she sounds like she’s smoked ten packs of cigarettes and like she could really use a stiff drink; perfect for covering Waits!  The doomed, somber tone of the song is felt in her cold delivery.  It’s as if she’s an observer looking down on this town, not caring what happens to its inhabitants.  She’s given some echo and reverb to make things a little spookier.  “Falling Down” is the single.  There’s something about the expansive, immense production and the slowness of the song which brings to mind the Cure’s masterpiece, “Disintegration.”  Of course, when the banjo comes in, that feeling gets put aside, but this is a record which is meant to be turned up.  It is meant to envelop you, if you’ll let it.  Johansson sounds like she’s leading a stunned church choir, wrapped in a swirling abyss.  The title track is next.  Remove the rinky-dink drum machine inside the track and the horn-section and it sounds even more like a reject from “Disintegration.”  Also, the tracks are so filled with sound, it’s as if Sitek is trying to craft his own “Wall-of-Sound.” I don’t know if Phil Spector’s production is an influence, but if he used modern technology, it might sound something like this.  Some would say Sitek is trying to cover Johansson’s voice, but I don’t.  Even buried, her voice is clear and somewhat unique in its register.  (She has a good voice in an untraditional sense.) I think the layers of sound are just meant to add depth to the project.  The version of “Fannin Street” here sounds like some sort of orchestral synth-pop girl-group hybrid.  Its appealing goth doo-wop, if you can imagine such a thing.  “Song for Jo” is the one song on here not written by Waits. Instead, it was crafted by Johansson and Sitek.  The good news is that it has an ever creepier energy, and that’s a good thing.  Johansson explores what I hope is her lowest octave over a swelling well of sound and a constant acoustic guitar pattern.  It’s a track built more on sonic tension than song structure, but it also shows a glimpse of a possible future beyond the Waits theme.  On “Green Grass,” Johansson connects with her inner Tom Waits with the best success.  Her voice is again shockingly low as she seethes and growls her way through the song.  Sitek’s spacey layers of echo and atmosphere only add to the track’s disarming quality.  Again, with a Tom Waits song, uneasiness is a desired feeling!  He has never been one to write feel-good pop songs.  Perhaps that’s another reason why initial response to this album is chilly.  Waits’ music has rarely pandered to the masses.  His world is often an ugly, darkly ironic, strangely off-putting place.  The average pop fan needs to be spoon-fed everything in quick doses.  Tom Waits’ songs are brilliantly cerebral as well as unforgiving.  They don’t go down easy unless you are ready to handle them.  Maybe that’s the essence of their greatness.  The fact that “I Wish I Was In New Orleans” begins with an eerie and discomforting, yet beautiful music box illustrates this point quite well.  It’s evident that Johansson, Sitek and all their various cohorts are trying to put emphasis on the darkness of Waits’ material.  They are doing so while giving it a new-wave gloss, which in turn makes it even more bothersome.  No wonder Waits said yes to this record.  For the wrong listener, it could be quite an uncomfortable ride.    Waits purists will definitely take issue with some of the risky arrangements, but they’ll just have to relax.  This is a loving tribute, not a cash-in.  When Johansson sings over the strange music box, it plays like a sweet lullaby version of a Dixieland stroll. Her voice almost falters as she sings, “I’ll drink you under the table,” but that kind of vulnerability has always been present in Waits himself.  He’s got a great voice, but it’s not a traditional voice.  Johansson is similarly, strangely gifted.  “I Don’t Want To Grow Up” fails, by drowning the song is strange drum machines.  It’s the one song that takes the synthetics to their breaking point.  It sounds more like an over-juiced disco hit.  The liner-notes claim that the sound was influenced by New Order, but it doesn’t quite work as well as it should. The integrity of the original composition is lost in the mess.  This is however, the album’s only massive mis-step.  “No One Knows I’m Gone” thankfully returns Johansson to slower, less frantic terrain.  This is where she excels.  The album closes with Johansson and Sitek singing “Who Are You?” together.  It is a fittingly bothersome way to end the album.  Together their voices blend and cover one another.  Both their voices are unusually deep.  The booklet that is packaged with the disc provides track-by-track insight on each track’s genesis, with commentary from both Johansson and Sitek.  That adds a whole other, much needed layer of understanding to this unusual album.  “Anywhere I Lay My Head” is not a travesty.  For the most part, it succeeds.  It isn’t horrible by any stretch.  It’s also not the greatest album to come around the bend.  It’s somewhere in the upper-mid-range of the scale.  It is indeed a worthy experiment.  As a side-note, may I add to, that I am not a particularly big fan of Johansson’s acting work.  I did enjoy “Lost In Translation,” “In Good Company” and “Match Point” a great deal, but I can’t say that Johansson was the reason, so rest assured that my judgment has not been clouded.  Like it or not, Johansson deserves credit.  This was a gutsy move!  Tom Waits is a legend and his songs are not meant to be thrown around lightly.  She could have taken the easy way out and made a really bad pop record like Lindsay Lohan.  The fact that she chose to take a chance and make a record like this proves that she has artistic vision.  “Anywhere I Lay My Head” is a better, more intriguing record than you probably think it would be.  It’s not as good as let’s say the brilliant She & Him album, but it is not an embarrassment either. It’s “interesting.”

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