The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Reviews

Scarlett Johannson
Anywhere I Lay My Head Chris Roberts , May 3rd, 2008 00:00

Alt Text It's the 2007 Grammy Awards: I’m watching this nauseating crap on telly because I’m being paid to write a biography of Scarlett Johansson and, for a brief period, have to document the actress’ every profound public utterance. Scarlett, though infinitely less skint than me, also has to sell her soul sometimes, and is presenting an award to The Dixie Chicks, alongside Don Henley. The pair begin their scripted banter. “So”, says Don, “you’re making your first record, Scarlett?” “Yes”, replies Scarlett, peering for the autocue, “you got any advice for me, Don?” Don pauses and replies, “No.”

There is an awful moment where the audience are supposed to laugh and, quite understandably, don’t. Scarlett is visibly confused, embarrassed. You can see her young brain whirring, saying: what the fuck am I doing here with all these old farts? Why was I talked into it? I comprehend that I am not just A-list tits-and-ass but also a signifier of “alternative cool” among a certain demographic, but this is not helping. Also, when you think about it, I have made, in my career, about five completely shit films for every good one. What I really need to do is chuck away the album of standard lounge covers of Tom Waits songs I’ve just done, and start afresh with some fashionably non-mainstream types, the kind of names to whom music journalists on both sides of the Atlantic give blanket approval. Yes, that’s it.

At least she may have been thinking that. Or she may have simply been thinking: Don Henley is boring me, I need to ditch this sucker and go snog Justin Timberlake in his new video to the point where Cameron Diaz gets hacked off with me. Then, cheque cashed, I’ll counter that and redeem my cred by joining The Jesus And Mary Chain onstage, maybe squeeze in a Dylan video.

So Scarlett Sings Tom Waits - as it was once to be called - is now a borderline hip piece of indie art-rock called Anywhere I Lay My Head. Scarlett has a useful contacts book. This was produced in Louisiana by David Andrew Sitek of TV On The Radio, who brought in a fleet of musos. Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner guests, as does Celebration’s Sean Antanaitis. Sitek says he shot for something akin to Debbie Harry singing for This Mortal Coil. It’s also been tagged as Nico backed by The Flaming Lips or Marianne Faithfull fronting My Bloody Valentine. These descriptions err on the side of generosity but do, in fairness, give you an (idealised) entry point. There is also the small matter that backing vocals on two tracks (the interesting, grower single 'Falling Down' and the excellent, dramatic 'Fannin’ Street') are provided by David Bowie, who, in my mediocre book, Scarlett named as her childhood idol. Well, him and David Hasselhoff.

Sitek’s music throughout is pretty good, always inventive, striving to avoid cliché, not quite able to shake off its debt to the pioneers of shoe-gazing and heyday 4AD (Ivo sequenced it). There is a clear, commendable attempt to re-imagine the Waits songs ('I Wish I Was In New Orleans' with grit, 'I Don’t Want To Grow Up' as Caucasian electro-disco, 'Who Are You?' with pathos) rather than simply let the songs’ own merits do the heavy lifting. Obviously the lyrics are great and the tunes are either brilliant or non-existent: that’s Waits. This is a tasteful homage, not lapsing into laziness. Sitek’s done a fine job and will from now on doubtless be the go-to guy for starlets wishing to show their dark side. Let’s remember, 23-year-old Scarlett, who reads Dostoevsky on her coffee breaks, could have done a Lohan and extended (or killed) her brand by popping out a puddle-shallow r&b confection. Only Juliette Lewis has been - in context - this bold. Keanu Reeves, Johnny Depp, Russell Crowe, Minnie Driver - none of them has made music this interesting.

The flaw is: what does Scarlett actually bring to it? She’s the masthead, the genius marketing stroke, the commercial synergy, but her vocals are - here’s the thing - poor. At best they’re blank, robotic: which at least allows music journalists a perfect blank canvas on which to scratch those desired Nico/Debbie references. Sitek works around her, despite her, he hides her amid waves of churning sound. At worst, she sings with comical, flat, stoned, ineptitude. If I hadn’t just emailed someone to say she sings “like a buffalo with strep throat might sing, were it giving birth to triplets in a sandstorm”, I would use that line again here. On the other hand, if she could whistle through a million octaves in her sleep like Mariah, wouldn’t that just suck? Wouldn’t that be more irritating than her plainly being a bit rubbish? Loads of good-looking people make splendid pop stars without being able to sing. Bowie describes her voice as “mystical and twice cool”, but then he always had a way with words.

What’s wrong with Scarlett’s Waits-lifting isn’t that a movie star has made a record. It goes without saying really: Richard Harris, with 'MacArthur Park', made the greatest record of all time. Renaissance men and women and egos which flex themselves are good things, even if the more predictable, jealous elements of the media generally scent easy blood. If nobody ever did anything pretentious, nobody would surprise us, and everything would be just OK, just middling, neither grand folly or coup de theatre. If Scarlett wants to show us her paintings next, fine, bring them on. In fact if Megan Fox or Natalie Portman want to exhibit their sculptures, great, I love comedy. There will be plenty worse albums than this made this year, and plenty that are sonically less challenging, and many of them will be raved about. No, all that’s wrong with it is that she’s the weak link, which is a pity, no more, no less. To balance that out, if she wasn’t there to front the videos, it’s very unlikely that that panting creep Salman Rushdie would have wanted to lick David Sitek’s ear, and therefore nobody would be watching, or, by extension, listening. The sheer fascination value alone of this peculiar album ensures that, for Scarlett, tomorrow is another day.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.