It was Friday afternoon and I was excited as I ripped open the package from the promotion company.  Inside was Scarlett Johansson’s brand new CD of Tom Waits covers, “Anywhere I Lay My Head.”  I had never heard Ms. Johansson sing before, but honestly, I didn’t really care.  It was an album of almost entirely all Waits songs.  With just a little honesty and effort it had to be good.  Eagerly, I pushed play and took a look at the song list.  Green Grass, Anywhere I Lay My Head, Town With No Cheer?  Come on, it had to be a winner.  Then I recognized the achingly heart wrenching melody of Fawn coming out of the speakers.  But it wasn’t being played on the uppermost register of a squeaky violin.  Instead, it came pouring out of an organ.  Then I heard drums…a saxophone?  I was not prepared for this.  After listening to “Alice” countless times I was caught off guard.  I skipped forward to Fannin Street, then Green Grass-a song that has been chiseled into my soul.  I let it play and listened thoughtfully.   Of course I wasn’t expecting to hear a coarse chalky voice I associated with those hundreds of listenings.  Then something occurred to me.  I stopped the disc and backed up to Fawn again.  I wouldn’t let myself become a hardened, narrow-minded, purist snob.  And so I spent much of the weekend with headphones firmly implanted in my head trying to wrap my brain around this familiar ship with a different captain at the helm.  It was worth it. There is a lot on this album to listen to.  Scarlett’s voice sounds like a doleful ghost on Green Grass while the banjo and little thumb piano kalimba make you swear you are hearing the bones of some decomposed skeleton rattling around in the breeze.  One of the most attractive thing about Waits’ music is the deliciously weird and always tantalizing orchestration of his songs.  And that is one of the best things about this album. Johansson is joined by TV On The Radio’s David Andrew Sitek (who also produced the record) as well as the band’s Jaleel Bunton and Tunde Adebimpe.  Ryan Sawyer bows vibes and beats out rhythms on toms, dogs bowls and bells and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs contributes on guitar.  Even David Bowie joins in on vocals for Falling Down and Fannin Street.  But since it is Scarlett’s record, she is the one whose name is on the cover and who leads the band.  Her deep, husky voice is a shadow at times.  It looms dark and foreboding at one moment and creeps stealthily like a grave robber at another. However, this is not a solo record by any means.  “Anywhere I Lay My Head” is a perfect example that the sum is greater than the parts.  Much of this record is felt rather than heard and maybe only if the right side of your speakers goes out will you be able to notice that the dog bowl on Town With No Cheer even exists. Together, the band creates a lush landscape full of strange and beautiful atmospheres. The instruments live on their own while, at the same time being part of a larger scene.  Take for example, I Wish I Was in New Orleans.  The only instruments on this track are Sean Antanaitis’ home made music box and Johansson’s voice.  Probably the most remarkable track on the album, I couldn’t help but playing it over and over after I first heard it, each time loving it more.  Antanaitis punched something like 300,000 notes into seventeen feet or so of paper and fed it into the music box which he attached to a guitar and cranked away.  Ideas like that are sure to do The Black Rider proud.And really, that is the theme of this record for me.  There is a brood of originality and creativity nestled within Waits’ already painted tableaus.  The most difficult aspect for the band to tackle, I imagine, must have been to stay true to the desultory, spontaneous yet coherent nature of the music while injecting it with their own voice.  And they do indeed, manage to carve out their own sound into the monolithic Waits juggernaut.To learn more visit:

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