Down in the Bayou
When word first leaked in late 2006 that actress Scarlett Johansson — who had just been immortalized as the hottest hottie of hotropolis by both Esquire and FHM magazines — was planning an album of all Tom Waits covers, it sounded like a hipster comedy sketch from Andy "Dick in a Box” Samberg. Comely young celebutante + America’s weirdest/ greatest/ crotchetiest living songwriter = viral hilarity.Sure, she’d crooned karaoke with Bill Murray in Lost in Translation — though her take on the Pretenders’ "Brass In Pocket” was more flirtatiously adorable than, y’know, good — and even done a decent enough cover of Gershwin standard "Summertime” on some charity compilation.
Still, nobody paid the project much mind — not with Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton records still piled high in remainder bins — until Coachella 2007 when Johansson unexpectedly appeared onstage with a reunited Jesus and Mary Chain to sing backup on "Just Like Honey.”
Was a gauntlet being thrown? Could this actress-slash-singer be demonstrating — egads! — musical taste? Did she, in fact, have musical aspirations beyond starring in Bob Dylan and Justin Timberlake videos? If these answers were affirmative, then perhaps Johansson might not simply churn out yet another dance-pop atrocity about the perils of paparazzi.
Of course, that hardly kiboshed the scepticism that haunts all actors who dare to step inside a recording studio — and not without reason. God-awful albums from the likes of Eddie Murphy, Bruce Willis, Don Johnson, Steven Seagal, Russell Crowe, Kevin Bacon and that dude who played Jordan Catalano on My So-Called Life have soured the public’s appetite for such gluttonous exercises in vanity.
Hipsters, haters and Perez Hilton were pooh-poohing the project long before the tape ever rolled, but Johansson claims to have been unmoved by such mockery.
"I have a very dim perception of how people feel about that,” she says, her husky voice caressing the phone line from New York City. "A lot of singers who I love, even Tom Waits and David Bowie have had their fair share of screen time. Think about singers like Judy Garland or even Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich. It seems like a seamless transition that actors would sing or singers would act or painters would write or musicians would sculpt. Creative people, at least for myself, like to explore different outlets for that creativity. Why limit myself?”
Why, indeed. Zooey Deschanel has gotten away scot-free with a similar dual role this year because a) she’s not all that famous; b) she had already blown minds singing "Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in Elf; and c) her collaboration with M. Ward is called She & Him, not "Zooey Deschanel.” (Milla Jovovich also released an unexpectedly cool album — 1994’s Divine Comedy — but that proved an aberration as the model/zombie-slayer she never attempted a second.)Johansson, on the other hand, inhabits a mansion far higher up in the Hollywood pantheon. She may have starred in indie classic Ghost World, but she was too pretty, too curvy, to ever be a Winona Ryder or a Parker Posey (or a Zooey Deschanel, for that matter).
She has largely avoided the paparazzi-plagued club scene and is no TMZ fixture, but she does model for L’Oreal and Louis Vuitton. Plus, she’s famous enough to garner reams of press over her recent engagement to bland Canadian boy-toy Ryan Reynolds — which means famous enough to be dismissed by the cynical masses as a narcissistic hack, even if a Waits cover album could only be considered a celeb cash-in in Bizarro World.
So let’s get this out of the way off the bat. Johansson is no Amy Winehouse (though who would want to be these days?) and her somewhat limited vocal skills alone would not likely have gotten her a record deal if she weren’t already well known. And yet, Johansson has defied (low) expectations and emerged with Anywhere I Lay My Head, an exceedingly eccentric, surprisingly dark and, yes, rather wonderful album.
Produced by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek with David Bowie on backing vocals and Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner on guitar, Johansson’s detached Nico-esque singing is not necessarily the star attraction. Yet you will find yourself drawn in by it as she croons Waits’ indelibly evocative lyrics, her low voice floating dreamily through Sitek’s acid-soaked atmospherics reminiscent of Cocteau Twins-era 4AD (whose legendary label founder also happened to handle the sequencing).
Perhaps Anywhere works so well because Johansson is something of a muse. She’s certainly elicited invigorating work from the likes of Bill Murray and Woody Allen. Dave Sitek has proven similarly inspired, creating a Gothic soundscape so defiantly odd you can actually imagine Tom Waits spinning it in his workshop (though you’ll never imagine what he’s building in there). So yeah, ScarJo ain’t no LiLo.
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