Nouveau synth-pop and shoegazer drones mightn’t seem like the wisest bedding for Tom Waits’s compositions, but Scarlett and Sitek know exactly what they’re doing.
Scarlett Johansson’s debut erroneously flagged an album of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan standards supper club torch treatment.
In fact, Anywhere I Lay My Head is no such thing. Featuring contributions from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner on guitar and David Bowie on backing vocals, this is a deeply thought-out collection of innovatively arranged Mr and Mrs Waits standards hatched in collaboration with TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek.
As if to flaunt the seriousness of the project, the opening ‘Fawn’, is an instrumental fanfare that invokes Jon Brion, Hal Willner, Brian Wilson and John Zorn. The remaining song selection drawns on some of Tom’s toughest and most lachrymose material, including ‘Town With No Cheer’ from Swordfishtrombones, ‘Anywhere I Lay My Head’, the tearjerking hobo showstopper from Raindogs, and ‘Who Are You’ from Bone Machine. All are approached with oodles of imagination and soul.
True, Scarlett is no Maria Callas, but she makes her limitations work for her. The most obvious touchstones are Nico (partcularly the ice-sculpture masterpiece Marble Index) and Marianne Faithfull’s combination of blues grit and Teutonic electronica on Broken English.
Nouveau synth-pop and shoegazer drones mightn’t seem like the wisest bedding for Waits’s compositions, but Scarlett and Sitek know exactly what they’re doing. These atmospheres evoke raindrops on motel windows, Louisiana crickets, stacked saxophones, distressed MBV guitars and slo-mo big band swing. ‘Fannin’ Street’ and the title tune are 14-carat heartbreakers, ‘Green Grass’ is Brecht’s Baal revisited, and ‘I Wish I Was In New Orleans’ a haunted heart-shaped music box. That the sole original composition ‘Song For Jo’ holds its head up in such company is testament to a burgeoning songwriting talent too.
There’s but one misstep: a version of ‘I Don’t Wanna Grow Up’ that recalls Patsy Kensit and The Pet Shop Boys rather than the Ramones’ definitive cover. But that’s not bad innings for a project that was heralded as an embarassment before a note was leaked.
Frankly Scarlett, I do give a damn.
Key Track: ‘Fannin’ Street’