When the news came that Scarlett Johnasson was finally making the transition into music with her first album, Anywhere I Lay My Head, a collection of Tom Waits covers, geeky music critics everywhere began sharpening their pencils in anticipation. The thing is, Johansson surrounded herself with so many shiny hipster things (Tom Waits songs, TV and the Radio producer, David Bowie), that she helped to charm more than a few of her potential foes. (Of course, it doesn't hurt that she's both beautiful and brainy.) Their reviews of her album — which went on sale today — after the jump.
Most every track filters Waits's sepia-toned, Charles-Bukowski-at-the-circus style dissolute folk through an echo chamber of 1985 shoegazer reverb, with Johansson's possibly quite lovely voice buried underneath, like an afterthought. The end result is strange but not unpleasant. It's like what would happen if Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval decided to release a solo album assembled by a group of carnival barkers and hobos.
Anywhere I Lay My Head, actress Scarlett Johansson's debut CD, is an extravagant act of camouflage: a covers album where the interesting objective of reimagining Tom Waits songs with Arcade Fire-type soundscapes plays second fiddle to disguising her expressionless voice. With her low monotone, ScarJo aims for Nico but comes off like Sin ad on sopors — never more so than on the zombielike ''I Don't Wanna Grow Up.'' In burying Johansson's vocals so deeply in the druggy ambiance, producer David Andrew Sitek (of TV on the Radio) means well but ends up obscuring Waits' great tunes
On several songs, Johansson gets lost in Sitek's swelling production, which may suggest a weak interpreter or a dearth of vocal personality but adds to the album's pervading dreaminess. Ultimately, her ambitions prove more musical than professional, and her willingness to make herself a secondary player here— behind Waits, Sitek, and TV on the Radio— makes the whole enterprise seem like a lark, an anti-vanity project. There are no tacky pronouncements of stars-are-just-like-you realness here, no statements about herself or her celebrity or really anything at all. The only thing we've learned about her is that she really, really likes Tom Waits. That's more than enough to avoid catastrophe, but not quite enough to make Anywhere I Lay My Head much more than a curio.
The girl's got indie cred, no doubt. Lost in Translation wrapped her in a dynamite alt-rock soundtrack, and she's sung with the Jesus and Mary Chain. So it makes sense that, for her debut, Scarlett Johansson takes on the indestructible songbook of indie totem Tom Waits. Produced by TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek, the experimental result finds her draped, sonically speaking, in costumes as ornate as those 16th-century period gowns she rocked in The Other Boleyn Girl. It's a reasonable strategy, since Johansson's voice is unremarkable and her pitch sometimes unsteady; she's a faintly goth Marilyn Monroe lost in a sonic fog. Sometimes that's fine: "I Wish I Was in New Orleans" is carried by a haunting music-box melody, "Fannin Street" has lush choral vocals bolstered by David Bowie, and "Song for Jo" (the set's sole original) sweeps the singer along in sound whorls recalling "Tomorrow Never Knows." But the synth-pop version of "I Don't Wanna Grow Up," famously covered by the Ramones, makes you wish Joey was still around to take the mike.
As a singer, the actress lacks personality. Johansson's voice, often low and sometimes seductive, is inexpressive throughout. She doesn't exactly sound bored, and she sings in tune. It's just that she adds no color or texture to her vocals, letting the music do all the work. Her approach clicks on "Song for Jo," where the narcotic music and vocals become one. The sun-kissed synth-pop of "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" vaguely recalls Debbie Harry's sexy deadpan performance on the Blondie classic "Heart of Glass."
Elsewhere, Johansson just melts into the music, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
On Johansson's album, Dave Sitek's production heaps on dislocated synths that camouflage Johansson's voice. Under the circumstances, who would blame him if he went one better and removed it entirely? Or elected to feature more instrumentals, beyond the sonic establishing shot of Fawn? Would that a similar tactic had been deployed on Fannin St. Instead, a bleat that only a deaf mother could love is hitched to a vocal cameo from David Bowie. If you find that your estimation of Dame Dave hasn't plummeted so sharply since he yelled "South Americaaaa!" on Dancing in the Streets, you may find the opposite happening with your feelings towards Tom Waits. One can only marvel at the ability of these songs to withstand this sort of A-list attack.
Anywhere I Lay My Head is released today.