Thursday, May 08, 2008

Amateur Hour

Anywhere I Lay My Head, by Scarlett Johansson, Songs by Tom Waits, Produced by Dave Sitek, Rhino/Atco, 2008

Believe me, in my dreams, this is not the ideal way I’d be writing a sentence containing the words “Scarlett Johansson” and “blows.” Nevertheless, Johansson’s epically misguided album of Tom Waits covers Anywhere I Lay My Head blows – and blows hard. From what I gathered of her vocal talents in film, when I first heard of this album, I’d conceived of some sort of smoky lounge act, a world-weary chanteuse putting a distinctively female touch to Waits numbers. Essentially, I guess, a female Tom Waits, but with a bit more reserve.

It’s not that the album didn’t manage to get my idea right. That’s not why this is an aurally repulsive addition to the catalog. I’ve tried out a few Tom Waits covers albums and many attempts take the songs and run them right into a ditch. Luckily for those hearty attempts, the band only gets one shot at it. Here we have 10 whole songs by one of America’s quirkiest masters and every last one is a disappointment. Least so is the rendition of “Fawn,” an instrumental track from Waits’ 2002 album Alice. This album opener with churchy organ and distorted strummed guitar that midway through punched out with a burst of brass and driving feedback. It promised much but rapidly squandered it and never regained it.

Sonically speaking, the music backing up Johansson is a dull droning buzz of synthesizer and guitars, occasionally perked up by some higher pitched tinkling that does little to give any song a distinctive feel. Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio bring little enthusiasm to what they’ve created here. There is such a painful, dreadful sameness to each track that if you were to put the album on in the background, you’d be hard pressed to note that a different selection was currently playing. Even the tempos are monotonously presented, a leaden thump thump thump that feels funereal and leaves the listener dying for something, anything resembling interest in the music being played.

But overall blame has to rest on the person whose name this dreck bears. One of the great jokes of our modern age is that celebrities as a whole no longer have anyone telling them when their ideas are bullshit. This often leads to hilarity. Someone, somewhere along the line, perhaps an ex-boyfriend or a guy looking to get lucky, convinced Scarlett that she did indeed have a fine voice and that she really should be a singer. Well, who doesn’t like to be flattered? (And if you’re a celebrity, take that kind of neediness and amp it a hundred degrees.)

What are we to make of this voice? Flat, unimpressive, toneless, Johansson’s robotic and narcotized alto flatly churns out the words in a kind of earnest rhythmlessness like a small child clapping or an English-as-a-Second-Language rendition of a poorly understood verse. There were times when it was painfully hard to determine if this were a real singer or Tom Waits lyrics fed into one of the female computer voices AT&T uses for their customer service lines, so stilted is Johansson’s delivery. While she claims to be an avid fan of Waits songs, her vocalizations have the feel of someone reading things for the first time, odd pauses and word enjambments giving the “singing” the feel of a small town high school poetry slam.

There is also something rather precious about a twenty-four year old attempting to tackle the world-weariness inherent in the material. When the forty-three year old Waits croak-screamed his “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” it crackled with a raw electric bitterness underscored with the faintest glimmer that the fates he described could still be avoided. It doesn’t even live in the same area code as irony to have such a youthful singer whining her way through the song and the whole conceit comes off as a tired, massive failure.

Some may say (and I’ll admit it) that Waits’ catalog offers very difficult challenges for anyone covering the work, especially his compositions since marrying collaborator Kathleen Brennan. Idiosyncratic, to say the least, Waits’ music presents such a stylized jumble –self-created instruments, jarring noises, jazz, country, rock, and show tune influences competing for dominance, his aggressively whiskey marinated variation on Louis Armstrong vocals – that covering him ought to be Herculean. One either falls under his sway or ejects everything wholesale save for the lyrics and the melodies (such as they are at times).

Johansson and crew have gone the second route almost with a vengeance and, in doing this in the manner they have, much of what makes Waits’ music pleasurable is lost completely. You don’t need to be a slave to your source (a fact Waits states quite aptly), especially when the original material is iconic (think Woody Guthrie), but here the relatively recent music is just simp-ified, dumbed down to the point of filler. It’ll probably lodge itself into heavy rotation as background noise at a Forever 21 or H&M, but I doubt it’ll score legions of fans. If this CD were to turn anyone on to Tom Waits, I’d be astonished. If it made anyone pine for a second Johansson record, I’d probably spontaneously combust.


Alley Cat said...

I see that Scarlett Johanssen was so upset with your review of her video she went out and got herself engaged to Ryan Reynolds. You'd better say something nice about her before it's too late. These rebound relationships never last.

The Critic said...

Nope. I'm done with her. Through. Kaput. There are just some things that go too, too far. Mr. Reynolds is welcome to her.