Scarlett Johansson – Anywhere I Lay My Head
Atco / Rhino Records (5/20/08)
Rock / Alternative
Perhaps the most notable thing about Anywhere I Lay My Head is not that it’s not particularly good; it’s a debut album by an actress best known for being remarkably good-looking, so you expect it to not be a good album. Another notable thing about the album is what they do with those expectations. In opening this album, putting it on, looking at the cover notes, experiencing the album, you have to make a decision as a listener. You either have to accept what they’re telling you at surface value, or else you have to take a more cynical view of the whole process.
First off, Anywhere I Lay My Head is, with one non-remarkable exception, an album of Tom Waits covers. Here’s the thing, if you’re not a fan of Tom Waits, and you know any of his songs, you know someone else covering them; Bruce Springsteen, the Eagles, Rod Stewart, whomever. An uninitiated listener trying to jump into a Tom Waits album is like someone who can doggie paddle jumping into a stormy sea. Tom Waits fills his songs with discordant notes and harmonies, using instruments improvised from household items and junk, and sung with a voice that sounds like Fozzy Bear, if Fozzy Bear drank whiskey every day since The Great Muppet Caper came out.
My point is, the original songs don’t sound good. It takes the pressure off a cover artist if they’re not covering songs particularly pleasing to the ear. If they in turn mangle the song, they can claim they’re staying true to the original. And that’s pretty much what it seems they’re going for here.
Let’s be clear, though, as the whole album is presented with the greatest of reverence for Tom Waits. The cover notes contain commentary by Scarlett Johansson and producer David Andrew Sitek on each song, as well as introduction describing the environment and how it influenced the music (more on that later). These commentaries tell how the original songs influenced and touched them, and why they were included on the album. This could be truthful, or it could be, as it seems to me, complete lip service to shore up what amounts to a vanity project. I get the impression that Scarlett Johansson likes Tom Waits not because of his songs, but because it’s just kind of cool and off-beat to do so.
Into the songs themselves, they’re total messes of synthesized processed noise, with Scarlett’s voice hidden amongst the music, rather than standing out in any way. Not exactly a strong statement from the person who’s name is on the front of the album. The songs themselves aren’t bad, per se, but that’s more a testament to the originals, and to the talent and ingenuity of the backing band and producer. In fact, the first song on the album is an instrumental track, almost screaming, “Hey, we know this might be a piece of tripe, but we’re talented, we swear!”
As for that musical talent, it’s there, I guess, and the producer/creator of the album’s sound, Mr. Sitek, is definitely a guy with ideas, who’s not afraid to try things. That I can appreciate. But in the beginning of the cover notes, they talk about the environment in which they recorded the album (see, I told you I’d get back to it). In this case, they recorded in a studio in a Louisiana swamp, and proceed to discuss how they recorded the ambient sounds of nature, the birds chirping, the bugs buzzing, the rain, and how they put all that in the music. That the very essence of the environment in which they recorded would be felt in each and every song. I thought to myself, “Oh God, it’s going to be one of those albums, isn’t it?” And Anywhere I Lay My Head is, in many ways, an artist’s exercise with a pretty doll prop in front of it.
The album isn’t totally without merits; it’s interesting to listen to, the songs have variety amongst them, the lyrics are decent and the music is sound. It’s just… so unnecessary. Instead of listening to this album again, I’m just going to put the film The Island on mute and listen to Tom Waits tell me how he’s “Big in Japan”. It’s a better way to spend your time, trust me.
Tags: Eagles, Scarlett Johansson