Friday, 9 May 2008

Anywhere I Lay My Head - Scarlett Johansson

Scarlett Johansson - Falling Down

When I was a wee lad my Uncle, who worked abroad and so was often coming home with curiosities, stuck a tape on our stereo (ah, tapes). It was the Tom Waits album Blue Valentine which opens with a lushly orchestrated version of Somewhere from the musical West Side Story. When that unmistakable lisping growl intoned the first line 'There's a place for usssssss' I burst out laughing. Surely this was a joke. Quite a few years later I am a great admirer of Tom Waits, one of the preeminent songwriters and a man who can tell a story in song like no other.

Maybe this is why Hollywood starlet Scarlett Johansson has chosen to perform an album of Waits cover versions as her musical debut (apart from a version of Summertime which I heard a while back). Maybe she felt that as an actress she could bring her skills to song interpretation. She's even enlisted backing vocals from showbiz chum David Bowie and top production values from Dave Sitek. There's just one problem with that. Actually there's more than one problem with this album.

It opens with Fawn, an instrumental which begins with an organ before big horns come in; it's a fanfare of a start but we're waiting for the voice. Town With No Cheer has an extended intro before slow keyboards reminiscent of Twin Peaks bring in Scarlett's entrance. But wait; is that her? Is that a her, it sounds like a him. I'm experiencing that same shock again. She sounds flat. Why have they set the song too low even for her alto voice? Oh dear, not good, and no amount of over production can hide it (and they've tried). Falling Down has more wall of sound production but there's that voice again. She is flat. I know Nico made a career out of it but that doesn't mean we'll accept it another time. Bowie makes his first appearance, just, he's very low in the mix. The title track begins with a drum machine from a Bontempi organ by the sounds of things and then, a little clearer this time, Scarlett struggling again. Bowie comes to help her again on Fannin' Street by warbling like he's in pain or having a nightmare, perhaps he was. Song For Jo is the only original track on the album and its, well, not bad just a bit dull really.

The production is impressive, in fact in many ways this is Sitek's album especially as Scarlett's voice is often only just audible under the booming soundscape. There are hints of the Cocteau Twins, and even a New Order style I Don't Want To Grow Up but it doesn't matter how hard he tries if you keep smirking or wincing at the vocal. I could be wrong, I was very wrong about Tom Waits, perhaps this album is destined to be a classic. But I don't think so.

Tom Waits - Falling Down


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