Last month, I had a few not entirely coherent things to say about the leaked cuts from Scarlett Johansson’s Tom Waits tribute album, Anywhere I Lay My Head. And ultimately, I had no idea what to make of it.
So the album dropped on Tuesday, and while I had it in hand last weekend, I had to wait through a brief addiction to the new Death Cab For Cutie before I could get around to listening to it in its entirety to try and get a better idea of what the fuck to file it under.
She can’t sing worth a damn… Some artists make that work. William Shatner makes up for it with an abundance of conviction that can only be described as William Shatner-y. And the basically retarded Daniel Johnston manages to produce listenable, touching albums despite being, well, basically retarded… By doing everything so obviously and directly from the heart. But for every William Shatner among the singers that can’t sing, there are 100 epic failures, like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, or Billy Bob Thornton. So the odds are definitely stacked against ScarJo here. But she has some eyebrow-raising help from able producer Dave Sitek of TV On The Radio, and guests including Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and David Fucking Bowie.
Her decision to do not one, but a whole fucking album of Tom Waits songs immediately qualifies her as batshit insane, a trait we love to see in musicians. This beats Petra Haden covering The Who Sell Out, and gives Björk a run for her lunatic money. Hell, to even listen to Tom Waits on a regular basis you have to be a little nuts.
Scarlett doesn’t sing on the opening track, Fawn. Zinner supposedly plays guitar on it, but I can’t hear it. It’s actually a great rendition of the song, originally on 2002’s Alice. The original was basically just a sparse, squealing violin epilogue. Scarlett’s version, twice as long, replaces the violin with an organ and then explodes into a sweaty New Orleans anthem, an orchestra of brass and percussion, that I’m pretty sure Tom Waits would not only approve of- but be challenged by. The catch of course, is that, as far as I can tell, Scarlett had absolutely nothing to do with the track at all.
Fawn flows into Town With No Cheer, which is a great Tom Waits song from 1983’s absurdly named Swordfishtrombones. Like Scarlett’s Fawn, the music is actually richer and more layered than the original- in fact the music by itself is undeniably great, and really well produced. If it were a Coldplay song, people would call it beautiful. Scarlett’s voice is actually not too bad on this one. It lacks the whiskey-soaked soul Tom Waits’ claims his fame with, but if you take it completely out of context, it complements the music well. With music so great, it would be a great feat for Scarlett’s voice to not ruin it. But she gets by.
Falling Down is the single, and the first song from the album that I heard. David Bowie sings backup (of course?) and Nick Zinner plays some slide guitar. Despite this, the song blows. It surely meets most of the public’s high expectations for suckage. The music falls a bit limp, and Scarlett’s attempt at an octave a little higher than sea level sounds like awkward caterwauling. She’s a lot better off laying low.
Anywhere I Lay My Head is a good track. On the music side, it adds a touch of pop dynamics that the original, from 1985’s Rain Dogs, lacked. Not that it’s a huge credit saying that you managed to be more accessible than Tom Waits or anything. But Scarlett’s voice once again makes the cut, and her vocal melodies provide a wince-free 3 minutes and 38 seconds.
With Fannin Street, an obscure Tom Waits B-Side, the suck returns, as does David Bowie and Nick Zinner. It’s not exactly butchery, it’s just a lackluster performance that drags by for a solid 5 minutes without any surprises. It’s hard not to blow your brains out or hit the skip (or eject) button before it’s even halfway through.
Song For Jo is the only original song on the album. You’d expect it to suck the worst of course, but it’s surprisingly one of the best tracks. Scarlett does her too-cool-to-break-a-sweat whispery thing through the first verse accompanied by feather light guitar and a beat that’s barely more than a click track. Then the drums open up, some horns blow through, and her voice becomes an instrument, layering a melody over top that actually manages to take the spotlight on an album where the music has thus far been the strong suit. It makes me want to hear more original stuff.
Of all the cover songs, Green Grass might bear the most resemblance to the original version. This is the only problem with the song. ‘Cause when the music is on par with the original, not bringing much of anything new to the table, all things are equal and it comes down to Scarlett’s voice against Tom’s, which is audibly about 10,000 shots, 1,000 cigarettes, and 100 soul-enriching experiences ahead. It’s definitely a listenable track- a good one even- just hard to respect if you’re familiar with Tom Waits’ superior version.
The original version of I Wish I Was In New Orleans sounds like a dirty old man drunk on christmas eve… A tearjerking ode to warmer settings over violins and piano. I’m sure it’s unintentional and probably just me romanticizing, but Scarlett’s version sounds like that drunk dirty old man’s very sober and innocent estranged daughter, singing herself to sleep that very same night, to the tune of her music box. It’s a cute scene to imagine, but to be a little more objective, I prefer the music of dirty drunk old men when given such a choice.
I Don’t Want To Grow Up sucks worse than the original. It’s hard to get through. She took Tom Waits’ goofiest lyrics (don’t get me started on the video for that one) and put them to a Blondie-ish spacey sugary dance beat. It kinda fails. If you’re low on room on your pink iPod shuffle, you can leave this track off.
Mercifully, No One Knows I’m Gone is a good composition. The backing music sounds a bit like something A Perfect Circle or Nine Inch Nails might come up with. It’s dark and textured. Scarlett’s voice doesn’t really break out of the box at any point though, so the track kinda drags on a bit like Fannin Street. Better than that though. Listenable.
On Who Are You, Scarlett’s voice drops to the lowest end of her range, accompanied by David Sitek’s voice, and it works out pretty well. This is one of my favorite Tom Waits songs, and it features my favorite of all his lyrics:
Are you pretending to love?
Well I hear that it pays well…
How do your pistol and your Bible and your sleeping pills go?
Are you still jumping out of windows in expensive clothes?
If I can bear to listen to Scarlett’s version of a song that’s so dear to me, she must have pulled it off.
The iTunes version of the album features two additional covers: Yesterday Is Here and I’ll Shoot The Moon. I went and downloaded them. Yesterday Is Here is the better of the two, and should have been on the album, preferrably in place of I Don’t Want To Grow Up. The song is uniquely upbeat (compared to everything except I Don’t Want To Grow Up), and Scarlett’s vocals, while not exactly impressive, are playful and sassy, and it’s nice to get that after 40 minutes of forlorn howling.
I’ll Shoot The Moon is originally from the play The Black Rider, and I wasn’t familiar with the play or the song, so I went and checked out the latter on Rhapsody (which is like iTunes without commitment). Something tells me that the song would be less forgettable in the context of the play, a fault that Scarlett’s version obviously shares. Oh well. It’s a “bonus track” so what do you expect? I was lucky to get one good one.
The final verdict? I probably won’t throw this album on too much, but I could see a song or two making it onto a mix CD here and there. It’s a lot better than you’d reasonably expect it to be, but really only great compared to all of the other catastrophically embarrassing celebrity music projects. It has a place in my music library… You know, right next to Captain Kirk and that retarded guy.
Anywhere I Lay My Head
Periwinkle / Rhino
Released May 16, 2008
2. Town With No Cheer
3. Falling Down
4. Anywhere I Lay My Head
5. Fannin Street
6. Song For Jo
7. Green Grass
8. I Wish I Was In New Orleans
9. I Don’t Wanna Grow Up
10. No One Knows I’m Gone
11. Who Are You
12. Yesterday Is Here (Deluxe Edition Bonus Track)
13. I’ll Shoot The Moon (Deluxe Edition Bonus Track)
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.