May 19, 2008

Scarlett Johansson Covers Tom Waits, Gets Lost In Translation

A certain irony exists in criticizing the quality of someone’s voice when that person is singing songs of Tom Waits, whose gruff howls make one imagine Cookie Monster suffering from chronic emphysema. Nevertheless, Scarlett Johansson sounds downright abysmal on her debut album – a set of ten Waits compositions and one original – entitled, Anywhere I Lay My Head.

Whirring in a low, invariable drone, Johansson conveys a detachment that renders her timid at best and, at worst, lifeless. As well, her voice is processed with so much reverb that, instead of seeming exotic or ethereal, it just sounds awkwardly robotic. Even on her own creation, “Song For Jo,” she resonates to such an unremarkable extent that the track wafts into obscurity.

Not to heap criticism solely on Johansson’s vocals, the music warrants its own derision as well. Swathed in synthesizers and drum machines, each song sounds like the indulgent consequence of a shopping spree at Radio Shack. “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” comes off like a Depeche Mode outtake, its techno-throb diminishing this rambunctious rant to a disposable remix. The title track is underscored by what sounds like a toy keyboard running on a loop while a faux music box muddles a rudimentary version of “I Wish I Was In New Orleans” as if submerged in an echo chamber. “Falling Down” as well as “Fannin’ Street” both feature David Bowie on background vocals, but even he can’t save them from their soulless doom.

However, this album could have taken a different, ultimately more rewarding course. In 2006, Johansson contributed a coquettishly sultry performance of “Summertime” to a benefit album, Unexpected Dreams: Songs From the Stars. The production – voice and music – was unaffected, unpretentious, and uncomplicated or, in short, beautiful.

Had Scarlett Johansson approached Anywhere I Lay My Head in a similar way – perhaps by interpreting material with more naturalness and subtlety – she likely would have fared far better than she does. Also, in considering the songs she covers here, which favor more obscurities than classics, Johansson clearly admires the breadth of Tom Waits’ music. Unfortunately, her appreciation doesn’t translate to her yielding a satisfying album.