Wednesday, 17 December 2008

I’ve been a long time fan of Tom Waits. Huge fan. When he comes out with a new album, I have to get it on release day. He’s got a stunning vision that gives each song a life of its own.

And, because I’m a guy, I have a certain appreciation for Scarlett Johansson too. She’s a beautiful, talented actress. And her voice! I could listen to her speak all day.

Combine the two: Johansson doing covers of Tom Waits songs, and it should be a winning combination. How could I resist?

I wish I would have, because mere words cannot convey how disturbing this album turned out to be. The hackish cover-art should have been a clue, but I failed to heed its warning.

First, I should give her a bit of credit – due anyone who appreciates Waits’ sometimes quirky and challenging work. But that’s where it ends.

I don’t know who should get most of the blame for this, Johansson or the producer. The whole album has this vocoder/harmonizer quality to it. Kind of an auto-chorus thing, but not very well done.

On every song.

I’m not sure if it’s because they thought her voice wouldn’t stand up on its own, or for some stylistic reason, but it turned out to be a distraction.

Anywhere I Lay My Head opens with an instrumental piece, “Fawn” from (Alice, 2002), which takes the simple, almost weepy original and turns it into something akin to a song from an old-time revival meeting crossed with a noise band.

The album also has one original track “Song for Jo,” in which I can see the inspiration. The song isn’t bad, aside from the auto-chorus, and it’s one of the only high-points on the album.

She does put her own touch on “I Wish I Was In New Orleans” (Small Change, 1976), and largely pulls it off. With sparse instrumentation, it has a certain lilting quality to it that actually works with the production style. In fact, it’s exactly what you would expect given her persona and the album concept. Unfortunately the song comes too late in the album (#8) to overcome the bad taste left by the songs leading up to it.

The next track, “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” (Bone Machine, 2002), takes on a Blondie-esque, almost disco quality, but not in a good way. Debbie Harry can pull off the sultry, sexy, husky thing, but Scarlett has a few years to go and needs some material that might lend itself to the task.

The title track, “Anywhere I Lay My Head” comes from 1985’s Rain Dogs, and the album contains a smattering of songs from all over Waits’ work. Alice (2002), Big Time (1988), Orphans (2006), Swordfishtrombones (1983), Small Change (1976), Real Gone (2004), and the previously mentioned Rain Dogs are all represented.

I wanted to like it. I really did. But in the end, this one goes on the list of albums I’m mildly ashamed to own. Scarlett Johansson fans will be disappointed; Tom Waits fans will be pissed off.