Scarlett's Album: Shockingly Good!

I’ve been a fan of Scarlett Johansson ever since The Horse Whisperer. And while her film career since then has not been totally pristine, she’s definitely proven herself one of the most talented young stars in Hollywood, with fantastic performances in Ghost World, Lost in Translation, Girl With a Pearl Earring, and Match Point (we can forget The Island).

The main reason I love Scarlett, however, is that she is the consummate Hollywood hipster… and oh do I love my hipsters. I remember turning down an invitation to attend an art gallery opening several years ago in Hollywood, only to find out later that it was Scarlett Johansson’s party and that she had greeted all guests. It’s one of my biggest regrets, but it underscores the artsy nature of Ms. Johansson, which made me like her even more. Sure, she’s now engaged to Van Wilder himself, Ryan Reynolds (negative hipster points), but she’s also an active campaigner for Obama (positive hipster points) and she’s perfected the 50s-glam combination of cat-eye sunglasses and bright red lipstick (uber hipster!). She also has that raspy, cynical voice that gives her even more hipster cred. Did I mention she was in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation?

Imagine my glee, then, when it was reported last year that Scarlett was planning to crossover to music with an album of Tom Waits covers! Could there possibly be anything more hipsterish for a Hollywood starlet to do? It’s almost as if she’s making a mockery of the Lindsay Lohans and Hilary Duffs of the world, who parlay their acting success into useless pop music as if it were some sort of ingénue rite of passage. This is Scarlett differentiating herself from the Hills stereotype: Lindsay Lohan and friends have probably never heard a Tom Waits song in their lives.

Scarlett has made no secret of her ambitions to transition to the music world. She appeared in then-boyfriend Justin Timberlake’s video for “What Goes Around Comes Around” last year, and then she starred in a lovely Bob Dylan music video for his song “When the Deal Goes Down.” Last year she even performed with The Jesus and Mary Chain at Coachella (for the song “Just Like Honey,” naturally). On May 20 her own album, Anywhere I Lay My Head, comes out, and let me just tell you right now: it’s shockingly good. Not good as in "perfect voice and easy listening" pop good... but good as in "a strangely progressive interpretation of Tom Waits" good...

The album kicks off with the triumphant instrumental “Fawn,” an organ-and-horn blasted revisioning of Waits’ shrieking-string original. The thick wall of sound sets the stage for an album that revels in meticulous instrumentation and jazzy noisemaking, aided in no small part by the producing skill of TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek. The next song, “Town With No Cheer,” introduces us to ScarJo’s voice, which is as musky and low-register and imperfect as we expected (and hoped!) it would be. The third song, “Falling Down,” is also the first “single/video,” which you can watch here to get a sense of the sound.

Scarlett knows she is not Cat Power, and thus she wisely stays close to the melody in her singing. The songs become “new” in the way they are arranged and pumped full of airy, droning electricity and shoegazer ambience. Indeed, the album’s self-defined genre classification—“designer shoegazing”—is totally apropos. This is an album full of atmospheric white noise and walls of synthy fuzz. It’s Tom Waits’ low-fi folk interpreted through an 80s British drug music lens. It’s clear that Scarlett is a huge fan of The Jesus and Mary Chain (I wonder if this predated Lost In Translation, which forever married her to the song “Just Like Honey”?) and she offers a nice 21st-century spin on it here.

The album is strong and cohesive, but there are some definite standout tracks. The title track, a Pharrell-meets-My Bloody Valentine adventure, is a curious little gem. The lovely “Fannin Street” benefits from David Bowie (yes, David Bowie!) backing vocals, and the melancholy “I Wish I Was in New Orleans” utilizes a persistent music box and “sweet little girl” mood to beautifully contrast with Waits’ ragged, frog-in-my-throat original. It’s the song that (perhaps) improves the most on the original. That is, until the next song, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” which employs a drum machine, handclaps, and shimmering keyboard riffs to create what is undoubtedly the album’s best song. Even the one original track, “Song For Jo,” is impressive: an ethereal dream that fits in perfectly with the rest of the album.

This is not the best album of the year, certainly, but it’s an impressive debut—a ballsy effort that actually works, paying homage to one of the strangest (and most awesome!) American songwriters of the last thirty years. It’s an album that will turn a lot of people off, but it’ll also give Scarlett even more of that most precious form of celebrity currency: hipster cred!