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Music Review

Scarlett Johansson: 'Anywhere I Lay My Head'

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Scarlett Johansson: 'Anywhere I Lay My Head'
Released on Monday, May 19 2008

Russell Crowe, Keanu Reeves, Eddie Murphy, Bruce Willis: the thread connecting these seemingly disparate Hollywood stars is that they've all had a crack at a pop career. Of course, the other thing they have in common is that they all failed... spectacularly. Just as we wouldn't want to watch Die Hard 5 starring Pete Doherty, so there's nothing more awkward than seeing some thespian type strapping on a guitar and yelling "Hello Wembley!" at the top of his voice. Consequently, when Scarlett Johansson confirmed that she was making an LP of Tom Waits covers earlier this year, eyebrows were raised to say the least.

On paper it seems incredibly foolhardy: Johansson, a woman best known for dancing around in her knickers and having a fling with Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, tackling the back catalogue of someone as critically lauded as Waits? What? The project becomes even more baffling when you're confronted with her flat, timid, utterly unremarkable singing voice. Waits always sounds like he's washed down a plateful of broken glass with a bottle of export-strength vodka: how will she keep up?

It's incredibly fortunate, therefore, that Sca.Jo thought to recruit producer David Sitek. Though he was ditched by Oxford maths-rockers Foals for apparently making them sound like they were playing in the Grand Canyon, the TV On The Radio guitarist offers a real musical masterclass on Anywhere I Lay My Head. Rather than thrusting Johansson to the forefront, getting her to pout her way through these tunes, he revels in her fragility and nervousness, wrapping her vocals in epic, spiralling soundscapes and dreamy electro-pop goodness.

The most common mistake for a covers album is to be too honourable to the originals. While Johansson is clearly a devoted follower of Waits - you only have to read her lengthy liner notes to realise that - Sitek ensures that this album is more than a mere karaoke tribute. Instead, it re-explores Waits' canon from the perspective of a 23-year-old starlet from New York - with impressive results.

On 'Falling Down', which Sitek says he wanted to sound like a duet between Kermit the Frog and David Bowie, Johansson is surrounded by twinkling bells, a banjo and yes, David Bowie. The result? She sounds every bit the accomplished indie rocker. Likewise, the title track captures all the drama of Waits not through Johansson's vocals, but via a sparse mixture of pump organs, drum machines and brooding brass. Other highlights include 'I Wish I Was In New Orleans', where Johansson sounds like she's been locked in a children's music box, and 'I Don't Wanna Grow Up', which is turned into a sparkling disco gem.

This album may be a success more because of its guest stars and collaborators - Sitek, Bowie, Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs - than any innate musical ability from Johansson, but, with results as good as these, it's not unreasonable to turn a blind eye. Whether she has a future in pop remains to be seen, but 'Song For Jo', the one original track on the album, fits snugly enough among Waits's songs to suggest Johansson wouldn't embarrass herself if she had a second crack at this music malarkey some time in the future.

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