Jun 042010

In Defense takes a second look at a much maligned cover artist or album and asks, “was it really as bad as all that?”

Scarlett Johansson cannot sing.  Let’s just get that out of the way up front. You know it, I know it, and I suspect Scarlett knows it. After desecrating George Gershwin’s “Summertime” on a 2006 charity compilation, she learned her lesson about trying to be Ella Fitzgerald (her Jesus and Mary Chain performance a year later is disqualified on the basis of being inaudible).

Critics panned Anywhere I Lay My Head, her album of Tom Waits covers, for largely this reason. Entertainment Weekly called it the worst album of 2008. But here’s the thing: she doesn’t really try to sing. Her sultry monotone wraps the songs in a dreamy haze, aiming for mood over melody. Johansson takes you out to dreamland just as your mother did when she sang you to sleep (and you didn’t criticize her pitch, did you?).

The album showcases songs that fit this mood. With one notable exception (the offensively bad “I Wish I Was in New Orleans”) she wisely avoids Waits’ jazz-bop ‘70s material. Anyone expecting a Norah Jones-esq piano tribute was in for a shock. Six of the ten selections come from albums Waits released since 2000, which is the popularity equivalent of a Dylan covers album that focuses on his ‘80s output. These songs benefit from her lazy meandering better than “Tom Traubert’s Blues” ever could.

Then there’s the production. Anyone not turned off by the singing likely lost it here. Dave Sitek of T.V. on the Radio washed the songs in electro-fuzz. His sonic fingerprints cover everything; this album should rightfully be labeled “Dave Sitek ft. Scarlett Johansson.” Once you wrap your mind around the idea of techno-fied Tom Waits songs though, there’s a lot to appreciate. Sitek focuses on the minute, adding up tiny snippets to create sweeping soundscapes. Witness the tinkling xylophone that slips in around the swirling drone of “Falling Down.” Open an ear of to that spacey effect in “Who Are You” that sounds like steel drums in a wind tunnel.

Let us not forget that Waits himself has been experimenting with vocal loops and effects in recent years. “Fawn,” the instrumental opener that questions whether you can call this a vanity project, might particularly intrigue him. A Hammond B3 traces the melody line, noodling around the ambient atmospherics. It’s all very mellow. Halfway through though, a timpani roll calls in the cavalry. Blaring horns and crashing cymbals submerge the melody in pomp and circumstance. The moment provides this album’s equivalent of the “In the Air Tonight” drum break, giving a hazy toss-off a dose of adrenaline.

So be not so quick to dismiss Anywhere I Lay My Head. No, it’s not the best Waits tribute out there (Billy’s Band wins that prize), but it’s one of the most creative. What by all rights should have been a cash-in vanity project became a unique recording project that, while imperfect (again, “I Wish I Was in New Orleans”), boasts inventive arrangements and nuanced production in the service of some lesser-known songs.

Oh, and if none of that did anything for you, can we at least agree that Scarlett looks gorgeous on the cover?

Check out a few samples below, then tell me why you think I’m crazy (or not) in the comments.

Scarlett Johansson – Anywhere I Lay My Head (Tom Waits cover)

Scarlett Johansson – Who Are You (Tom Waits cover)

Scarlett Johansson – No One Knows I’m Gone (Tom Waits cover)

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  8 Responses to “In Defense: Scarlett Johansson’s Tom Waits Album”

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  1. The biggest problem isn’t that she can’t sing, it’s that she completely fails to give the words any sort of emotional depth whatsoever and the arrangements suggest that she has no idea of why the songs were so powerful in their original form. I don’t know anyone who would argue that Tom Waits is a great singer, and a few people I know would go so far as to say that he pretty much can’t sing, but what everyone agrees is that he’s a fantastic vocal actor and storyteller which is what his songs require. Scarlett.. well, she isn’t, and that’s what makes all the difference.

  2. I agree with much of what you say, Totz. I don’t think her voice carries anywhere near the emotion, nuance, or power of Tom’s. Not even close. I do think, though, that the soundscapes Sitek creates emote the same feelings in unusual ways. “No One Knows I’m Gone,” for instance. It couldn’t be more heavily produced, but the heavy drums plus her far away voice projects the appropriate sense of loneliness.

  3. Sorry Ray, on further review, it still just sucks. I listened to ‘No One Knows I’m Gone’ again, and it is barely even recognizable. The Techno production does a good job of masking her vocals, but who wants to hear Techno versions of Tom Waits songs?
    I’m still passing. I’ve read a number of your posts over the years, so I know you are a Tom Waits fan. What surprises me is that you even gave it a second listen.
    Yes, it really is as bad as all that.
    Regards, Dave.

  4. Nice article/revisiting Ray!

  5. Eek. That’s terrible. She sounds like a troll who’s swallowed a hunk of granite. Seriously, it IS as bad as all that.

  6. I was in a record storel back in 08 or 09 browsing and getting into the song playing on the stereo. Suddenly I heard a backing vocal that had to be bowie. I asked one of the employees what song it was, and he said ‘scarlet johanssons album’. I looked it up and realized it was all tom waits music, which shocked me. I had to think for a minute to let it all sink in.

    It was Fannin street, which I had never heard (I got into waits through the bone machine album, thanks to an epsode of beavis and butthead who saw the video for I don’t wanna grow up, which the Ramones covered. They mistook him for the noid, a character from a pizza commercial).

    The rest of the album may or may not be as good (never listened to the other tracks), but that one song, without knowing it was a cover (and due in part to bowies vocal, though I like hers too) is something I’ll always enjoy hearing.

    As I’m writing this I’m hearing her version of I don’t wanna grow up, which sounds like human league. Originality is numero uno for covers, and they seem to have succeeded there. Plenty of albums more deserving negative reviews.

  7. Everyone going into the project knew Scarlett wasn’t a musician. Dave Sitek, for all his acclaim, didn’t offer any guidance on how to use her unique voice as an instrument. The end result is bad, but I think she gets more fault than she’s due.

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