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Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
»Screaming Females
Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
»Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
Halcyon Digest
No Age - Everything in Between
»No Age
Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
The Walkmen - Lisbon
»The Walkmen
Fat Possum
Scarlett Johansson
Anywhere I Lay My Head

Rating: 7.5/10 ?

May 16, 2008
Upon first hearing that Scarlett Johansson was releasing an album of Tom Waits covers I quietly shook my head, fearing the worst. I don't think there's an artist around that can pay proper tribute to the dusty tool-shed genius of Waits. How could Hollywood's hottest starlet know anything about the tortured hobo souls that haunt records like Swordfish Trombones and Rain Dogs? Sure, after the family-friendly movies she started her career with (North, Home Alone 3, The Horse Whisperer) she reinvented herself and began anew as an indie-film darling (The Man Who Wasn't There, Ghost World, Lost in Translation), but does that hold weight? Seeing how she has, over the course of fifteen years, become Woody Allen's shining star and (gulp) Ryan Reynolds's fiancÚ, does that mean that, at the age of 24, she has the experience needed to properly capture the soul of the songs in the Waits catalogue? Anywhere I Lay My Head says not quite, but what Johansson lacks in experience is more than made up for by producer David Sitek, of TV On the Radio, who buoys the album.

Sitek and his special guests (Nick Zinner, Sean Antanaitis, David Bowie) created a dark and lush soundscape for Johansson's young, but surprisingly mature, vocal style. Apparently Sitek dubbed Johansson's delivery the "Tinkerbell on cough syrup" sound, a description which fits perfectly for the songs "I Wish I Was In New Orleans," and the album's title track Although Johansson's delivery is certainly different, there is not a vast departure on Anywhere I Lay My Head; in many places the reinterpretations of these songs live on the same block as where they originated. Sitek does a great job recreating the general Waits mood while never resorting to cutting and pasting the sounds from the originals. Paying honest tribute to such a unique artist as Tom Waits while establishing a new voice and not overtly biting his style is an ambitious undertaking, and to their credit the crew behind Anywhere I Lay My Head largely succeed.

Although it may send an odd message about Johansson's confidence in her own singing ability, the album begins with her take on the instrumental song "Fawn," (Johansson is credited as a vocalist only) which exchanges Waits' seaside saw shanty for a Southern organ dirge. Though odd as in instrumental opener, the track serves as an appropriate introduction to the unique (though generally predictable) production style of Sitek. TVOTR-style horns come in at the end of the song, courtesy of Martin Perna from the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra (who are a mainstay on Sitek-related albums).

In keeping with the true roots of the songs, the overall mood of Anywhere I Lay My Head is that of a rainy day filled with observation and introspection. The collection spans moments from Waits' recording career beginning with his fourth album (Small Change, 1976) with "I Wish I Was In New Orleans," and going through "Green Grass" (from Waits' 19th album, Real Gone, 2004). Johansson touches on a few of the legend's most famous songs - "I Don't Want To Grow Up," "Who Are You," and "Anywhere I Lay My Head" - and also digs deeper into the archives for songs like "Town With No Cheer."

In the middle of all the Tom Waitsian hoopla is an original song penned and performed by Johansson and Sitek, titled "Song For Jo." At just over four minutes, the song finds Johansson singing, sans effects, over a prettily strummed acoustic guitar. It's a stripped down, late-night walk home from the bar, just the way Mr. Waits would want it. If song's provenance wasn't so strongly touted, one could imagine "Song For Jo" as a song penned but never recorded by Waits himself.

All in all, this would be a gutsy debut album for anyone, but I'm sure being one of the most sought-after actresses in the current media limelight helps alleviate some of the pressure that comes with interpreting one of music's legendary performers. Whether you were looking forward to it or not, Scarlett Johansson's recording career has arrived, and she's got the money and connections to rope in Sitek, Bowie and as many contributing artists as she needs to actually pull it off. While Johansson's debut is not as pleasant as Zooey Deschanel's work with M.Ward, Anywhere I Lay My Head will surely surprise Johansson's doubters; having grown to appreciate Scarlett Johansson for being more than a pretty face and mediocre actor, I can speak from experience.

Reviewed by Bob Ladewig
Having been introduced to good music by his sister in the early years, Bob Ladewig has been searching out all the best in indie music ever since. He also rides a skateboard and performs/directs comedy shows and, like all great men, he\'s afraid of really growing up.

See other reviews by Bob Ladewig



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