Earlier this week we watched a tribute concert for Serge Gainsbourg. Turns out a tribute album is on the way too. His son Lulu curates From Gainsbourg to Lulu, which features everyone from Marianne Faithfull to Iggy Pop and now the first track has hit the Internet. It features Scarlett Johansson joining Lulu for a cover of “Bonnie & Clyde,” arguably Serge’s best-known song.
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 first post of the month features covers of every track on a famous album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
My first experience with Tom Waits was listening to Rain Dogs my freshman year of college. I didn’t even make it through two songs. The voice grated on my nerves and the off-kilter rhythms made me feel seasick. Needless to say, I’ve come around since, even flying down to Phoenix for two concerts in ’08, but you never forget your first time.
Buck 65 – Singapore
Canadian rapper Buck 65 doesn’t seem like an obvious choice to cover Tom Waits, but his lazy snarl grinds its way through this sing/speak perfectly. [Buy]
The Veils – Clap Hands
When a song with this title appeared on Beck’s 2005 album Guerolito, I was hoping it was a Waits cover. Sadly, it was not (though terrific in its own right). Maybe he’ll do a Waits album in his Record Club series. [Buy]
Rubber Donut – Cemetery Polka
This song tends to get covered a lot because it’s so catchy. Except when Rubber Donut does it. Then it’s just confounding. [Buy]
The Blue Hawaiians – Jockey Full of Bourbon
Southside Johnny with La Bamba’s Big Band – Tango Till They’re Sore
A cover of this by Billy’s Band was our Shuffle Sundays pick a few weeks ago (more from them below), so this time we’ll can the Eastern-Bloc cabaret for some brass-fueled swing. La Bamba’s Band, for those who don’t know, are the folks who play with Max Weinberg every night on Conan (R.I.P.) [Buy]
John Hammond – Big Black Mariah
John Hammond is the son of John Hammond, Jr. which must have caused endless confusion around the Hammond home. A longtime friend, Waits produced Hammond’s Wicked Grin covers album, even giving Hammond an unreleased song or two to tackle. Fun fact: Hammond is the only person to ever have a band featuring both Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. [Buy]
Firewater – Diamonds & Gold
Tom Waits would be about the last person you’d expect to have a thing for diamonds, but they sure crop up a lot in his songs (as metaphors at least). “Diamonds on My Windshield,” “Diamond in Your Mind” and this. Maybe one day we’ll see a “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” cover. [Buy]
Lucinda Williams – Hang Down Your Head
Tom’s wife says he writes two kinds of songs: grim reapers and grand weepers. This is the latter. [Buy]
Waitswatcher – Time
Billy’s Band – Rain Dogs
The aforementioned Billy’s Band has done an entire album of Waits songs: Being Tom Waits. This song is not off it, but rather from their live album Открытка от. I’d love to know what he’s saying at the intro here. [Buy]
The Silver Hearts – Midtown (Instrumental)
The dealbreaker of many full-album candidates is just this: the short instrumental. Luckily, The Silver Hearts have covered the entire Rain Dogs album, so we turn the two brief instrumentals over to them. [Buy]
Max Seilhamer – 9th and Hennepin
A very unusual take on this spoken word piece. Seilhamer puts some grunge-goth guitar behind the scratchy vocals, stopping just short of giving them an actual tune. The source of one of Tom’s most-quoted lines: “All the donuts have names that sound like prostitutes.” [Buy]
Luke Doucet – Gun Street Girl
Doucet’s gritty blues avoids predictability by bringing in a chanteuse to rise above the grime. [Buy]
The Yayhoos – Union Square
Dave Alvin – Blind Love
Bob Seger had a hit with this in 1991. It sounds like a Bob Seger song though, so we’re going to avoid it (sorry Detroit). Alvin’s reverb-drenched blues suits this song better. [Buy]
Toy Shop – Walking Spanish
Tom: “Walking Spanish is an expression they use when you don’t want to go somewhere. It’s 5:30 in the morning and the baby just woke you up screaming and you drag yourself out of bed, you’re walking Spanish. Somebody says, ‘Listen, buddy, give me all your money’ and your hand goes back around toward your wallet, you’re walking Spanish.” [Buy]
Hell Blues Choir – Downtown Train
If the word “choir” turns you off, hopefully the fact that the choir calls themselves “Hell Blues” will make you think again. Against all odds, this Norwegian chorus’ Greetings From Hell: The Tom Waits Song Book is a fantastic tribute, tackling some of Tom’s most difficult tunes (“God’s Away on Business,” “Swordfishtrombones”) with swagger and class. [Buy]
The Silver Hearts – Bride of Rain Dog (Instrumental)
This instrumental could make a great jam tune. My evidence of this is later instrumental “Russian Dance,” with Gogol Bordello and Les Claypool dragged out for fourteen minutes at the 2008 Bonnaroo “Superjam.” [Buy]
Scarlett Johansson – Anywhere I Lay My Head
Much ink has been spilt on Johansson’s 2008 Tom Waits tribute album Anywhere I Lay My Head. Saying it received mixed reviews puts it mildly. With TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek behind the boards though, no one can fault it for lack of ambition. This track works better than some. [Buy]