May 24 2008

Scarlett Johansson’s Anywhere I Lay My Head

Published by at 5:10 am under Blog,Music,Music Review

It is perhaps fitting that I begin listening to Scarlett Johansson‘s album of Tom Waits’ songs on the day Waits announces details of his first Irish gigs in 21 years.

Scarlett JohanssonOver the years I had heard many Waits’ tracks, often sung by others, some by the artist himself, but it was his 2004 album, Blood Money, that grabbed my attention and made me a real fan. God’s Away On Business was a track I watched late one night on telly – it was a dark, twisted track with amazing lyrics matched by the gravelly voice of Tom Waits. I ran out the next day to buy the album (how much easier life is with the advent of music downloading).

Anyone, let alone a young Hollywood starlet, taking on the feat of doing an album entirely of his work, was always going to ruffle a few feathers among the Waitsian fan base, a devout following. Johansson has the advantage of cult status however, having been so perfect in the incredible Sophia Coppola movie, Lost in Translation, with Bill Murray. This was a movie that showed her to have the beauty and innocence of youth coupled with her wise eyes and a maturity that made the films’ pivotal relationship so wonderful to watch. But does that allow her the audacity to borrow from Waits’ catalogue? Each fan will have to make up their own mind.

Track by Track

The opening track, Fawn (from 2002’s Alice), is an instrumental piece and feels a little pointless, as if they are taunting us slightly. I was waiting for it to cut into the meat of the dish. Fawn is a cute intro though, that serves more to introduce us to the album’s producer, Dave Sitek, than to Ms Johansson. It’s clear that we are not going to get any of Waits’ creepy, haunting, beats that seem to hunt you while you sleep. Instead we are presented with a misty, southern states, drunken jazz atmosphere that fits very well with Waits’ pseudo-melodies and intelligent lyrics. The inclusion of Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s and David Bowie on some tracks can only help the situation.

The Town With No Cheer, from Swordfish Trombones (1983), is one of the best tracks on the album and it is understandable that this song is chosen to introduce us to Scarlett’s smoky bass tones and masculine pronunciations of the lyrics. Quickly we learn that Scarlett’s vocal range is somewhat limited – she struggles with higher notes and her pitch is shaky at times. But, when we consider the gruff nature of Waits’ original vocals, we can look past this, as long as there is enough quality in what we hear throughout the rest of the album.

There is truth to the old adage, put your best foot forward. This is clearly what Sitek and Johansson have chosen to do here. Tracks 3 and 4, Falling Down and Anywhere I Lay My Head are truly remarkable.

Falling Down (from 1988’s Big Time) has a wonderfully strong start with near-synthetic piano overlaying a repetitive accordion piece. The lyrics are inspired and delivered beautifully by Johansson, but it is the inclusion of David Bowie’s backing vocals that truly lift this track and make it an immediate classic. Bowie’s backing vocals begin lightly and gently rise to a wonderful finish which has his voice match Scarlett’s in the lead, without taking over at any point. Apparently, Bowie, Johansson and Sitek are good friends, having worked together on previous projects – both Bowie and Johansson were in The Prestige with Christian Bale, while Sitek and Bowie worked together on TV on the Radio.

Anywhere I Lay My Head (from 1985’s Rain Dogs) is probably my favourite track on the album. You sway along to the tune and the chorus seems to sweep you into the music. Johansson’s multi-layered contralto voice is at its best here. It is followed by Fannin Street (2006’s Orphans) which is a song of regret, looking back over life’s mistakes and her voice is so perfect at selling the imagery that you forget she is only 24 years old. I can see a smoky bar and an aging band, led by a femme fatale and her glass of single malt whiskey, dreamily remembering her past.

Song For Jo is the only original track on the album and is written by Johansson and Sitek. This track is perhaps a hint that Johansson’s foray into the limelight of the music charts is not a one-off event. This is a strong track and although it lacks the punch of some of the other tracks on the album, it does have some dreamy qualities that shows the potential for something grander.

Green Grass is a track from the excellent Real Gone album from 2004 and I was destined to be critical of this track. It is from one of my first Tom Waits albums and an album I was particularly fond of. Green Grass is one of the poorer tracks on the Real Gone album and I am surprised to see Johansson choose it. She handles it admirably, but adds very little new. On future listens, I will skip forward to the next track.

I Wish I Was in New Orleans (1976’s Small Change) is perhaps the last great track on the album. Painting a picture of the streets of bourbon street, late at night as the music man plays his old wooden music box, clanging out a tune that sounds more like a demonic lullaby than any tune that would whisk a child off to sleep. The album’s general atmosphere is best summed up in this track which is a mixture of sadness and hope.

I Don’t Wanna Grow Up (1992’s Bone Machine) is immediately recognisable as a hit from the Ramones, so there is definitely additional pressure on Johansson and Sitek to pull out something special. Sadly, for me, this is the flattest track on the album. It is lifeless and feels like they knew they couldn’t make it better than either the original or the Ramones hit version, so they just threw something together. It’s a shame that this recognisable track should be the one to bring the album to a screeching halt.

I Don’t Wanna Grow Up is followed by No One Knows I’m Gone (from 2002’s Alice) and Who Are You (from 1992’s Bone Machine) and while both are better than their predecessors, neither reach the heights of quality attained earlier in the album.

Overall, this is more than a simple piece of curio – it is an album of great songs, preformed very well and arranged cleverly, and while I can’t see it hitting the bargain bins anytime soon, I certainly don’t see it reaching chart-topping heights.

But, of course, there’s no doubt that Johansson knew this early on. She chose to do an album of Tom Waits songs. She did not follow in the pop-princess heels of Lohan, Miley Cyrus or that other silly poppy ‘actress’/’singer’. The album was never likely to be a mainstream draw and if all we ultimately take from listening to it is that it is a fan’s tribute to an artist she really likes, then that’s not too bad.

I suspect this album will perform one service though – to introduce a number of new people to the incredible talents of Tom Waits. If that is this album’s legacy, then Johansson has plenty to be proud about.

Sidenote: How hot is Johansson? Does anyone want to see pics of Sitek, Bowie, Kinner? I doubt it!

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5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Scarlett Johansson’s Anywhere I Lay My Head”

  1. darraghon 24 May 2008 at 12:14 pm

    how hot? Very hot. Very very hot indeed.

    It will indeed be interesting to see how the album does given both type and form, but doubtless it will feature somewhere on my cd shelf eventually.

    Is this a move for her to musicals? Collaborations with Justin Timberlake etc? She’s no Emmy Rossum but she’ll do.

    Nice review. You’re getting great at this 🙂

  2. Andrewon 24 May 2008 at 12:50 pm

    Ah now that’s just a real shame that you’ve chosen to stick so many photos of young Scarlett on your page. It should be about the music, man. fortunately for all my browsing readers I would never stoop so low as to inlude gratuitous pictures of attractive young ladies on my page. No way.

  3. B'dum B'dumon 24 May 2008 at 2:47 pm

    I just started scrolling through the Scarlett pictures, then Tom Waits pops up. when you’re expecting Scarlett and Tom Waits pops up it’s a bit of a surprise to the system.

  4. Darrenon 27 May 2008 at 12:02 pm

    @Darragh Thank you very much, Sir.

    @Andy I apologise! There will be far less scantily clad ladies in future.

    @B’dumX2 You know you like it…durty!

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