Anywhere I Lay My Head
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2008, Volume 15, #6
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Fri June 27, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
Scarlett Johansson’s Anywhere I Lay My Head is not the first ode to Tom Waits to hit the market. Plenty of other tribute sets have preceded it, though none of them have ever quite gotten it right. Because Waits has such a distinctive voice and because he has left such an individualistic imprint upon pop music, anyone attempting to interpret his works is faced with certain obstacles from the outset. He has spent his career refining a stylistic approach that combines the aesthetics of beat poetry, vaudeville, and Brecht-ian theater, and any decision to jump in and interpret his canon simply on these grounds is doomed from the start. After all, Waits has crafted a persona for delivering his junkyard songs that is so unique that anyone trying to mirror his performances would sound like a second-rate act.
The most successful tribute sets devoted to Waits’ material have been those that have played to the strengths of the artists interpreting his songs. John Hammond’s Wicked Grin, for example, succeeded for the most part because Hammond chose to tackle tunes that were based in the blues and, therefore, were located solidly within his comfort zone. Similarly, pianist Holly Cole’s tribute, which is entitled Temptation, placed Waits’ songs inside a jazzy framework, and the outing was credible because Cole tackled compositions that reflected her own musical interests.
Over the last few decades, hundreds of versions of Waits’ songs have been recorded. These range from the Eagles’ cringe-worthy cover of Old ’55 to Rod Stewart’s half-baked (but wildly popular) rendition of Downtown Train. One doesn’t have to look very far to see either the influence that Waits has had or the respect that he has garnered throughout his career.
Given the idiosyncratic and immensely challenging nature of Waits’ oeuvre, it is natural to ponder why Johansson chose to record the songs on Anywhere I Lay My Head. She is a fine actress who already has played some interesting roles in film. Not one to rely exclusively on her undeniable physical beauty, she obviously realizes that youth and sexual appeal are transitory. Johansson also seems to enjoy pushing herself to move beyond what the public expects.
Regardless of her reasons, all of this begs the question of whether Anywhere I Lay My Head is any good. The short answer is that it’s not very good at all. Yet, while listening to Johansson’s renditions of Waits’ songs, it is easy to hear what she and producer David Andrew Sitek had in mind. Sitek, whose collaborators from TV on the Radio lend a hand throughout the collection, was apparently the one who developed the album’s concept. As Sitek explains in the liner notes for Anywhere I Lay My Head, he had a dream in which he imagined Tinkerbell singing Waits’ material while under the influence of cough syrup. With this in mind, he approached Johansson with his idea.
Johansson, then, doesn’t necessarily deserve the blame for devising Anywhere I Lay My Head. It’s not an ill-conceived vanity project to showcase her sub-par vocal abilities. Perhaps, Sitek was committed to the project by the time he realized that Johansson didn’t have the chops to hold up her end, and maybe, just maybe, this is what motivated him to frame Waits’ songs with dreamy, textured settings.
Whatever the case might be, the most frustrating aspect about Anywhere I Lay My Head is how Johansson’s vocals are treated. They are buried so deeply into the mix that it sounds like something is wrong with the CD itself. In fact, the whole vocal channel has been submerged so completely beneath Sitek’s arrangements that ironically one spends a lot of time struggling to hear Johansson sing, which has the effect of drawing even more attention to the deficiencies of her voice.
One can say this about Anywhere I Lay My Head: Scarlett Johansson not only sounds sincere, but she also sounds like she had a lot of fun recording Waits’ material. Surely, she realized the risks she was taking as well as the ridicule she would face in the wake of tackling these challenging compositions. Yet, she persevered. If she had opted instead to tackle tunes by Madonna or The Beatles, would the press have been as vehement as it has been? Probably not.
In the end, Anywhere I Lay My Head is a harmless bit of fluff that does nothing to elevate Johansson’s reputation. Perhaps, one day, she will try again, and, of course, it’s always possible that the album could be worth hearing. As it is, though, Anywhere I Lay My Head is recommended only for curious fans of Scarlett Johansson and followers of Tom Waits who simply must collect everything related to him.
Of Further Interest...
Anywhere I Lay My Head is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box