Thursday, July 31, 2008

Scarlett Johansson, "Anywhere I Lay My Head"

I had no idea what to expect from this album, and it's safe to say that nobody really did. Hollywood celebs dabbling in music has become fairly commonplace, and some element of predictability comes with that regularity. But ... a Tom Waits cover album? Why Tom Waits? It's simple -- she's a big fan, and wanted to do an album of his songs. Simple as that. But still, why Tom Waits, i.e. a musician with approximately zero hits to his name that were not sung by Rod Stewart? No matter the quality of the resulting music, at least nobody could accuse her of trying to cash in.

So when expectations are completely up in the air, sometimes it takes me a bit longer to convince myself of the quality (or lack thereof) of the music. Actually, this was the easy part. I quickly became convinced that "Anywhere I Lay My Head" was a good album after a couple of weeks of trekking around with it on my iPod. The harder part was convincing myself that in 2008, as impossible as it may seem, Scarlett Johanson is making better Spiritualized albums than Jason Pierce.

The chaotic jazz freak-out of album opener "Fawn" could have been made by the band that recorded "No God Only Religion". The mushy, gated drums (and the way they seem to glide in and out of the mix) recall the dream-rock sound of "Run" and "I Want You". Even if it was produced by Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio, I still need to pinch myself to be reminded that I'm hearing free-jazz freakouts, the semi-conscious neo-gaze of latter-day Slowdive, and David Bowie's background vocals on a Scarlett Johansson album. One can certainly complain about her vocals, which are flat and undynamic in parts, and claim that they don't add anything of substance to the tracks. For the most part, I think she shows just the right amount of restraint and is able to sell the emotion of the song without any attempt to oversing and oversell the tone of her voice -- which is more or less exactly what Tom Waits does on his own albums. Her sighs of disappointment during the chorus of "Fannin Street" turn the backing track from a coulda-been lullaby into a true dirge. It's not simply a sad song sung in a sad way, rather, Johansson brings a deeper level to the song by conveying the inevitabilty behind the lyrics, i.e. you can issue all the warnings you want, but that person's life is headed to the shitter regardless.

"Anywhere I Lay My Head" is what the new Spiritualized album would have been like if Jason Pierce had favoured the kitchen sink drama of "Borrowed Your Gun" instead of the bedroom folk of, well, most of "Songs in A&E". This should be taken as praise for Johansson, not as a backlash against Spiritualized (who are still one of the best bands around). But I can't help it if I miss what SPZ used to sound like.

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