working subtitle: Easy On The Eyes, Not So Much On The Ears
What is it with movie stars making records? Do they get bored with making movies? Do they get so far up their own ass that they think they can spread their talents around and make a smash success out of everything they try? Or does some marketing schmuck behind a desk decide that this is another way to cash in, pure and simple? Surely there’s a whole Masters thesis in this for someone out there with more time on their hands than I have.
There’s a long history of these attempts, going in both directions – actors making records, and singers making movies. Most of them are rather unfortunate. Point: Did any of you buy Minnie Driver’s album? Or Robert Downey Jr.’s? Did you even know these existed? Exactly. Point: Anybody remember Madonna in Who’s That Girl? Exactly.
And then there’s a middle ground, for the ones who really can sing (despite what type of music they choose, the talent is definitely there), make a record, and it still gets ignored. Anyone remember Emmy Rossum? Exactly.
Now, some have found great success at this, too. Could Frank Sinatra act? Well… But can you argue with his legend, at this point? Discuss. Or more recently, for what it’s worth, look at Jennifer Lopez’ cross-over work. The films? Meh. The albums? Meh. But some people love it, she’s made bazillions off of it, and I suppose that’s all that matters.
Our culture absorbs and forgets so much so fast that I sometimes wonder why people bother to create anything at all. Seriously, our attentions spans are little longer than a gnat’s, these days. This is not a good thing. But for those of you playing along at home, yes, there is an unending list of other examples too, and I’m sure you can think of them all and good for you.
So here’s Scarlett Johansson, super-star hottie who can pretty much get any movie she wants now just because everybody wants her. She’s a Name now. Can she act? Well, sure, I suppose. She’s got that breathy voice and a fantastic figure and sometimes it’s possible to believe her character, so it’s all good, as far as these things can take you. There are many who are far, far worse that still get screen time, to be damn sure.
Choosing to do an album of Tom Waits covers is, I gather, supposed to prove to us that she is diverse, quirky, and attuned to the bits of culture that skirt the mainstream but really only have a cult following. I mean, I know Waits is hugely popular, but when was the last time your local hits radio station played anything by him (that wasn’t a shitty Rod Stewart cover of him, that is)? Exactly. So from this choice I suppose we are to believe that she is chic and indie and cool. Well, sure, Scarlett. Whatever you like. And it may be what she listens to in her own time, and that’s great too. But if this is what her homage to Waits’ distinctive work sounds like in her head, she’s kinda missed… the entire point, actually.
Tom Waits is messy and gritty and admittedly awful to some ears. We love him, and I can still say that with confidence. He plays with rhythm, sometimes even what my lovely wife calls ‘anti-rhythm,’ and he alters your expectations with every turn. And still he manages to record just how dusty everything is in the corners of his mind (and probably his studio).
And this record? It’s like the electronic accompaniment version of a one-tone lounge-y torch singer’s attempt at capturing some of Waits’ cool (and mostly failing). It doesn’t sound anything like Waits’ songs. I mean, does the world need what amounts to a dance mix of I Don’t Wanna Grow Up? One would hardly think so, yet here it is. This stuff would have sounded just fine if Johansson had had a lesser role in Lost In Translation, as the lounge singer, perhaps. No one would have been listening but fans would have picked out the tunes with their sharp ears and then dissected each track in their chat rooms and blogs. Or these tracks would have sounded perfect during those montage scenes in that same flick, the ones with all the moping and sitting by the hotel window, looking out over the cityscape. But as a stand-alone record? For me, it just isn’t working.
Oh sure, it’s entirely forgettable. Seriously, I was listening to it while I typed this up and one song melded into the next and I couldn’t even tell you what the previous song had been. My lovely wife read somewhere that it was pretty telling that they started this record off with an instrumental track, which is true and amusing. Johansson’s voice does well enough in one pitch, but she never really leaves it. I suppose they were ‘going for something’ with that. Add in the trudging pacing of most of these songs, and it gets tired pretty quickly. The instrumentation in the background, which mostly drowns her out, sounds fake and plastic and generic.
Poor Scarlett. I know she’s really tried to make a good record, here. Put her heart and soul into it, and all that. She may even be the world’s biggest Tom Waits fan and own all his records and love his poetic weirdness and everything, but she really would have been much further ahead just to leave him well enough alone and just have somebody write her a bunch of new songs that sound like what we have here. Even having David Bowie and a Yeah Yeah Yeah show up for this project didn’t help.
I don’t like to make predictions in these pages, because I’m usually way off. But my gut tells me that a year from now her publicists won’t even be including this on her resumé, and that the great unwashed collection of nits we call society won’t even remember that this exists.
02 Town With No Cheer
03 Falling Down
04 Anywhere I Lay My Head
05 Fannin Street
06 Song For Jo
07 Green Grass
08 I Wish I Was In New Orleans
09 I Don’t Wanna Grow Up
10 No One Knows I’m Gone
11 Who Are You