CD Review of Anywhere I Lay My Head by Scarlett Johansson
Recommended if you like
Tom Waits, Nico, David Bowie
Label
Rhino/Atco
Scarlett Johansson:
Anywhere I Lay My Head

Reviewed by Jason Thompson

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F
irst off, I’d like to say that I’m not super-familiar with Tom Waits’ body of work, aside from a few tracks here and there and a couple of albums. I’ve seen the guy live on TV a few times and an old buddy from high school was really into the guy way back when, but I personally have never ventured very far into Waits’ recordings. That said, this (mostly) all-covers set of Tom Waits songs by actress Scarlett Johansson is getting a listen with a fresh set of ears that are able to hear the album for what it is, not what it may be trying to be or ultimately inspired by. Now that we have that sorted out, let’s see what we’ve got.

To sit back and point out that “Scarlett Johansson can’t sing” is too easy and unfair. When we live in a world where artists like Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and Tom Waits himself are heralded for their work (including their voices), going for a cheap shot against Johansson’s voice isn’t going to cut the mustard. Instead, what you have to take in is the performances overall. After all, these are “reinterpretations,” so how do they hold up as a unit? Well, producer David Sitek has dressed up the arrangements in various coats of paint, be they semi-gothic, dance-inspired, folkish, or just plain pop. For that, he can be commended, as the music is adventurous enough without going too way out there, and the performances are tasteful with a sort of ragtag vibe lying underneath.

Sitek chose to place Scarlett’s voice in the center of the mix, rather than on top, as the rather pretentious liner notes point out (“Scarlett’s voice appears – handsome and forceful – but somebody has positioned it inside the music rather than on top of it. For the duration of five weeks she was the eye of a storm.”) “Handsome and forceful” is an interesting way of putting it. Johansson’s voice definitely registers in the deeper end of the pool, but forceful it ain’t. Like Nico, she has a semi-montone delivery that sometimes works and sometimes fails outright.

Two songs here, the title track and the original “Song for Jo,” are the album’s highlights. “Anywhere I Lay My Head” percolates with electronic percussion and a gauzy wash of synth strings adorning the background while Scarlett applies her best gothic persona to the lyrics. It works like a charm, and makes one wonder why the whole album didn’t stick to this approach. It’s almost like early Cocteau Twins minus the brashness that a number of those songs contained. The mood and instrumentation fit her voice perfectly. “Song for Jo” mines a similar route, though more mythic folk-like than gothic. It’s creepy enough, as the muted acoustic guitar plunks away in the background and Johansson half-whispers the words. Again, it’s working to her strengths as a vocalist and is quite enjoyable.

Scarlett Johannson

Yet the rest of the album is unfortunately mostly a string of misses, such as the lead single “Falling Down,” where Scarlett’s voice sounds like a siren (the firehouse variety, not the singing kind). David Bowie shows up to apply some supporting vocals on “Fannin Street,” and one can’t help but figure he’s the one more suited to this sort of thing overall. And “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” is presented as a sort of bad ‘80s dance track, and Johansson just can’t really apply herself too well to the sound. Whoever’s ideas these were – whether they were Scarlett’s, Sitek’s, or someone else’s – it’s a shame that they didn’t work out better. You have to at least admire the team for their adventurous spirit.

Anywhere I Lay My Head isn’t a total mess, but you can really hear the potential waiting to burst forth. With perhaps a more sympathetic producer, Scarlett Johansson could easily have an interesting (and possibly even successful) career in music -- yet this album isn’t going to push her in that direction. It’s interesting in spots, and very good in the two places cited earlier, but overall, this is merely another curio released by an actress who wants to dabble in music. At least that’s how it comes off. Johansson has what it takes -- she just needs the right project to make it shine.

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