As a rule, we’re as suspicious of actors making records as we are of, well, rock stars appearing in movies. But Scarlett Johansson’s previous, if brief, forays into music have at least demonstrated both flashes of talent and an unnerring grasp of cool. There’s an abiding memory of her in a pink wig singing karaoke to The Pretenders’ “Bass In Pocket” in Lost In Translation, or seen in fuzzy Youtube clips providing backing vocals for “Just Like Honey” at the Jesus & Mary Chain’s comeback show at last year’s Coachella festival. She also recorded the Geshwin standard “Summertime” for a US compilation and even starred in a Bob Dylan video, “When The Deal Goes Down…”, to support his Modern Times album.
Now she’s recorded her debut, an album of Tom Waits’ covers (and one self-penned track), produced by TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek and featuring guest spots by Yeah Yeah Yeah’s guitarist Nick Zinner and, on two songs, David Bowie, with whom she co-starred in Christopher Nolan’s movie, The Prestige. Although the songs here run as far back as 1976, most of them actually come from the later part of Waits’ career; only one song pre-dating 1983’s Swordfishtrombones.
Here, then, is our track by track preview at what you can expect…
TRACK BY TRACK: Scarlett Johansson: Anywhere I Lay My Head
(Taken from Tom Waits’ 2002 album, Alice)
A bit of a cheat, this, as it’s an instrumental track. But, it does efficiently set out the album’s sonic template – loosely, late period Cocteau Twins, with touches of Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs and Marianne Faithfull. A gentle organ intro before a wave of brass comes crashing in, then straight into…
2. “Town With No Cheer”
Scarlett privileges the storytelling aspect of Waits’ original, recalling here Marianne Faithfull as she half-sings, half-speaks the lyrics. Waits’ version is pretty sparse – just his voice recounting the lyrics accompanied by keyboard and accordion. Initially, this version doesn’t stray too much from that: the backing is organ, and keyboards with the occasional burst of guitar, but gradually Sitek layers on sax and drums and pushes the organ further up in the mix.
3. “Falling Down”
(Big Time, 1988)
This was the only studio cut on Waits’ ’88 live album. Here, Scarlett sounds very like Liz Frazer, which is effectively the vocal setting she operates in for much of the album. Her voice is perhaps deeper and less sharp than Frazer, but it works convincingly in the musical context, which Sitek describes as a “cough medicine tinker bell vibe.” And, yes, her voice sits surprisingly well with Bowie’s harmonies. There’s sleigh bells and a xylophone, while a haunting guitar motif towards the end recalls Mercury Rev’s “Endlessly”.
4. “Anywhere I Lay My Head”
(Rain Dogs, 1985)
Instead of the opening drunken trumpet reverie of Waits’ original, we get a soft, drum pattern intro and the swish of a keyboard and accordion. Scarlett sings defiantly “I don’t need anybody because I learned to be alone” against a stunning church organ crescendo.
5. “Fannin’ Street”
(Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers And Bastards, 2006)
The drum intro is worryingly reminiscent of “Feed The World”, but let’s accentuate the positive. Scarlett’s take on one of the “blues” tracks from Waits’ triple album is suitably downbeat, again half speaking the lyrics by way of privileging the song’s narrative, Bowie adding rather mournful backing vocals, gently cautioning her against visiting that titular address.
6. “Song For Jo”
The only original composition on the album, written by Johannson and Sitek. “Do you remember how we fell asleep on the bathroom floor/It wasn’t always pretty/On the white tiles…” Scarlett half-sings, half-whispers over soft acoustic guitar loops and soporific drums that reminds of the blurry folk of Sebadoh’s Weed Forestin’ album. The vibe is woozy, approximately a bottle of Benylin’s worth.
7. “Green Grass”
(Real Gone, 2004)
Against the soft whir of cicadas, a loping xylophone melody and occasional bursts of surf-style guitar, this sounds like it should be on the soundtrack to a mid-period David Lynch film.
8. “I Wish I Was In New Orleans”
(Small Change, 1976)
One of the most atmospheric tracks on the album, and the earliest Waits’ song included here. Sitek replicates the piano line of the original on a music box, which provides pretty much the only backing here, aside from layers of swooshing ambient sound. There’s something quite funny, too, about hearing Scarlett announce “I’ll drink you under the table”, in the same breathy, “Happy birthday, Mr President” style as Marilyn Monroe.
9. “I Don’t Want To Grow Up”
(Bone Machine, 1992)
Also covered by the Ramones, on their last album 1995’s Adios Amigos!. With Eighties’ pop keyboards and drum machine patterns (reminiscent, variously, of New Order and Pet Shop Boys), this is most uptempo song in the collection; Bowie was also meant to contribute but declined – he couldn’t think, apparently, of anything to add. “How the hell did I get here so soon?” marvels Scarlett, aged 24.
10. “No One Knows I’m Gone”
This could sit on The Cure’s Disintegration album; it has the lush atmospherics of “Prayers For Rain” or “Same Deep Water As You”. A stately accompaniment of keyboards, Velvets-y guitar, sleigh bells (there’s a lot of sleigh bells on this record) and weirdly distorted drums.
11. “Who Are You?”
(Bone Machine, 1992)
Features drum beats half-inched from Roxy Music’s “Angel Eyes”. There’s something about the sepulchral keyboards here and slow bass riffs at the end that inevitably brings to mind Joy Division. Elegiac, which is always a good way to end a record.
Anywhere I Lay My Head is released by Rhino on May 20