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CD Review

Just a little lost in translation

Scarlett Johansson takes on a new role as singer with her debut album, a selection of Tom Waits songs. Scarlett Johansson takes on a new role as singer with her debut album, a selection of Tom Waits songs.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / May 20, 2008

If the disaffected baritone scraping the cheerless depths of 10 Tom Waits tunes on "Anywhere I Lay My Head" belonged to anyone other than an A-list Hollywood blonde, the album might get a fair reception. But famous actors and their vanity projects are doomed to prejudgment, thanks partly to their own dismal track record - and also our petty urge to see the mighty fall or at least stumble stupidly like the rest of us.

Scarlett Johansson's musical debut, out today, is predictably cred-heavy and unexpectedly oddball: a wildly textural collection of totemic covers produced by an indie art-rocker (TV on the Radio's David Sitek) and featuring an assortment of his like-minded friends (the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner, Celebration's Sean Antanaitis, and some dude named David Bowie, a killer backup singer). The music was recorded in Maurice, La., on the bayou, and the small town's moist, murky landscape seems to have seeped straight into the songs.

Sitek situates Johansson smack in the middle of the mix, where she's shrouded in a languid squall of instruments - 20 of them on "Town With No Cheer." Her voice isn't anyone's idea of lovely. (Neither is Waits's.) It's deep and homely, pretty much bereft of style or nuance - and as such a weirdly compelling conduit for cemetery dwellers ("No One Knows I'm Gone"), disenfranchised dreamers ("I Wish I Was in New Orleans"), and the stiff-lipped drifter of the title song. The effect can be haunted; she's the very sound of a ghost in "Green Grass," materializing in an otherworldly veil of kalimbas and synthesizers.

But the balance is tenuous, and the "Tinkerbell on cough syrup" effect that Sitek describes in the liner notes as his aesthetic brass ring sometimes comes off more like Scarlett out of her league.

A fuzzed-out synth-pop version of "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" is rife with unpleasant reminders of the actress's awkward guest turn with the Jesus and Mary Chain at last year's Coachella festival. And the singer is nearly subsumed in the lumbering pageant of keyboards and banjos, jingle bells and bowed vibes, slide guitar and pump organ on "Falling Down," a harsh, alienating track and inexplicably poor selection for the first single.

The better choice would have been "Fannin Street," a charming, impressionistic pop song. Or "Song for Jo," a dreamy indie-rocker and the album's only original, but that would defeat the purpose of this iconoclastic valentine.

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com. For more on music, go to boston.com/ae/music/blog.

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