By Allison Stewart
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
It's possible to listen to all 40-plus minutes of actress-turned-singer Scarlett Johansson's debut disc, "Anywhere I Lay My Head," and still have no earthly idea what she actually sounds like.
A collection of respectably obscure Tom Waits covers produced with a heavy hand by TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek -- who apparently never met an overdub, pump organ or distortion delivery device he didn't like -- the album is ultimately too ethereal for its own good.
Most every track filters Waits's sepia-toned, Charles-Bukowski-at-the-circus style dissolute folk through an echo chamber of 1985 shoegazer reverb, with Johansson's possibly quite lovely voice buried underneath, like an afterthought. The end result is strange but not unpleasant. It's like what would happen if Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval decided to release a solo album assembled by a group of carnival barkers and hobos.
Singing in what seems like an awfully low register, Johansson floats, swans and sighs her way through these tracks (all Waits songs, except for one like-minded original), her voice scrubbed of affect. Every song is like every other song, even the ones that sound different (such as the exercise in Spector-y early '60s pop "Fannin Street") or have David Bowie on them ("Falling Down").
There's a strange flatness, a dislocated, underwater quality to these songs that seems to subvert their original intent, that's as far from Waits's swallowed gravel delivery, his exaggerated sentimentality, as it's possible to get and still be in the same universe.
DOWNLOAD THESE: "Anywhere I Lay My Head," "Falling Down"