Early in the summer of 2007, Scarlett Johansson and her producer David Andrew Sitek entered Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana with a band of multi-instrumentalists – old friends of Sitek’s with whom he had collaborated in the past and ultimately handpicked for Johansson’s project. There, in the Louisiana bayou, this new, impromptu band lived together for five weeks, experimenting in the studio, rehearsing songs, barbecuing, swimming, and, ultimately, making an 11-song album. Ten tracks are covers of songs written by Tom Waits (many of them in collaboration with his wife Kathleen Brennan). The remaining song is an original, written by Johansson and Sitek.
“The back story to this project,” says Scarlett Johansson, “is that after I recorded the Gershwin standard ‘Summertime’ for an album benefiting Music Matters, Rhino approached me and asked if I’d like to do an album. We all have friends who would kill for that opportunity and I really felt like I couldn’t pass it up. So I began to think about what I might want to do.” Johansson’s initial thought was that she could continue recording songbook classics like “Summertime;” eventually, however, she became convinced that she had to sing the Tom Waits and Bette Midler duet “I Never Talk To Strangers.” “The Tom Waits song stood out because it wasn’t a standard but it was the only one I knew I wanted to do for sure,” Scarlett says. “I thought, ‘Maybe I could add more Tom Waits songs…’ Then it became, ‘Maybe I should just do all Tom Waits songs.’
“That’s how it came about,” she continues. “I’m not trying to prove anything on this album. I could never impersonate Tom Waits. I just love his music.”
After establishing herself as an Indie-film sensation, Scarlett Johansson has developed into one of Hollywood’s leading actresses who at 23 has already worked with a number of the industries biggest names. She’s young, hip, talented and a New York City urbanite. Making a music album seems like the next logic step, right? Well, maybe she should’ve thought twice.
Anywhere I Lay My Head, Johansson’s debut LP had a lot of promise. Hooking up with TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek seemed like the right move. Sitek’s own band won critical acclaim for their 2006 album, Return to Cookie Mountain and he has also produced albums for Indie-rockers Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Foals. However, an album of Tom Wait’s covers (with one Johansson original) is a tough task to pull off successfully for even a seasoned musician. And as it turns out, the results on Anywhere are mixed.
The biggest problem with Anywhere is its attempt to do too much. Many of the tracks are drenched in layers of instrument and sound that push the limits of each track’s melody. Opening songs “Fawn” and “Town with No Cheer” blend into each other in a sonic mess making it immediately clear that none of the tracks will attempt to be completely faithful to the Waits originals. At first, this seems like a good idea but resultantly it is too emphasized. This becomes most apparent on the latter part of the album. Each of the last four tracks are unable to break out from the layers of reverb to reveal anything interesting enough to catch our ears amidst the whitewash of sound.
However, the biggest problem of Anywhere is the surprisingly de-emphasis on Johansson’s voice. The stress on reworking these tracks left Johansson seemingly lost and unable to compete with the music. The result is an awkward mess that leaves her talent mostly unrevealed. When her voice does rise above the clanging and fuzz, Anywhere is at its best. “Falling Down” allows Johansson’s voice to rise with the crescendo of the music. Similar successful results are found on the lone Johansson original, “Song for Jo” which is a somber piece where music, mood and lyrics all complement her voice perfectly. It is at these rare moments that the album reveals Johansson’s strength that lies underneath all the overproduction.
Johansson’s first attempt at music isn’t bad but the album just doesn’t work. Nevertheless, if one thing does become clear after, it is that Johansson’s intentions of are not stooped in narcissism. This isn’t a gimmick album pulled off quickly to capitalize on her growing popularity. Rather, Anywhere is undoubtedly a genuine attempt at creating something richly artistic. It is this apparent aspect of the album that perhaps is its best feature. Anywhere I Lay My Head turned out to be an overly ambitious effort that ultimately fails to reach the heights it sets for itself. Nevertheless, it cannot be fully dismissed and its shortcomings are certainly not due to a lack of effort. Be guaranteed that the next time Johansson finds herself in the recording studio; the results are going to be intriguing and genuine, if not better.
Review by Saxon Baird