Scarlett Johansson

Anywhere I Lay My Head

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As an actress, Scarlett Johansson often gives herself over to being an object of fantasy -- not necessarily in a purely carnal fashion, but something rather more complicated: wish fulfillment for her directors. Sofia Coppola turned Scarlett into a romanticized version of herself, Woody Allen was comfortable casting her as both a lethal sophisticated seductress and ditsy bombshell, while even Michael Bay turned her into some kind of empty cloned sex kitten. Given this history, perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that her debut album, Anywhere I Lay My Head, is an extension of this pattern, as Dave Sitek -- pivotal member of TV on the Radio, producer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Foals -- helps turn Scarlett into a 4AD diva, partially with the assistance of Ivo Watts, who helped sequence the album. And yet, it is a surprise that she gives herself over to Sitek so willingly that it's impossible to tell what parts of the album were driven by Johansson and what parts are wish fulfillments from Sitek, who seems to be bent on creating his own dream pop fantasy. Certainly, Anywhere I Lay My Head is not strictly a Tom Waits tribute, as the songs are rearranged so drastically they're only used as a vehicle for texture -- dense, crawling texture, occasionally recalling the junkyard percussion of the Waits of Swordfishtrombones ("Green Grass" retains that same clattering kalimba rhythms). By leaning so heavily on music Waits made after his 1983 avant makeover -- all but one of the ten Waits songs here date from after 1983, and the spooky music box revision of "I Wish I Was in New Orleans" brings it firmly within the Waits' junkyard -- Scarlett and Sitek only enhance the suspicion that this is a creation of an idealized '80s underground fantasia, an ideal soundtrack for a Sofia Coppola movie where it would sit alongside the Jesus & Mary Chain and Kate Bush. All this hazy '80s fantasy is in line with Sitek's TV on the Radio -- not as dark or majestic, but inescapably his work -- and it overwhelms Johansson's singing, not because she's a shrinking violet, but because Sitek's signature is so indelible. He has a gift for provocative, haunting arrangements, yet this gift does not match Johansson's voice. All soft, seductive curves as an actress, she's surprisingly deep and brittle as a singer, fighting instead of floating against Sitek's textures, tension that's as intriguing as it is fatiguing, as the music never settles into the warm, narcotic lullaby it so yearns to be. And so, Anywhere I Lay My Head doesn't quite work, but it can't quite be dismissed, either: unlike so many actor-turned-singer records, there's not a hint of vanity to this project and it's hard not to marvel at its ambition even as it fails.

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