Review Summary: Scarlett Johansson deserves kudos for attempting to make an interesting art-rock record of Tom Waits covers, but the end result is a definite disappointment.
Scarlett Johansson isn't trying to prove to the world that she can sing as well as she can act. "Anywhere I Lay My Head," a collection of Tom Waits covers (and one original), comes off as more of an affectionate tribute to a legend than a 'look-at-me' foray into music by the talented actress. Unfortunately, thanks to unaccessible production and a general lack of emotion, the record falls well short of it's mark.
Johansson deserves kudos for not attempting to parlay her well-deserved successes on the silver screen into a mega-bucks pop record like other Hollywood stars have done. "Anywhere I Lay My Head" definitely reaches for an artistic ideal well beyond the goals of any David Hasselhoff, Lindsay Lohan or Jamie Foxx album.
The record runs into trouble with the limitations of Johansson's vocals and the overwhelmingly obtuse production by TV on the Radio's David Sitek. Sitek claims he was shooting for a "Tinkerbell on cough syrup" sound, and that's exactly what every song on the record displays. Chimes and music boxes tinkle above a few tracks and every syllable of Johansson's smooth alto is layered with echo.
Sitek's production regularly falls into the same mistakes. Every song seems to occupy the exact same head-space. Sparse percussion languishes below clashing layers of distorted wind instruments and drunken piano. Too often, the background dominates the vocals. The album feels too much about the production and not enough about the singer. This is good and bad. Johansson's vocals are pleasing enough. She can carry a tune and her voice has a classic smokiness that meshes well with the production scheme on paper. On the record, however, she sings with absolutely no emotion. Every line is delivered flat, unfeeling and way too low in the mix.
The first single, "Falling Down," shows the only hints of attitude on the album, an edgier quality creeps into the margins of Johansson's voice and we feel something real there. Too bad it's so fleeting. On "Who Are You," the din of backup singers and swirling ambiance drown out Johansson's delicate crooning. "I Wish I Was In New Orleans" and "Town With No Cheer" feel completely detached. Who is this singing Tom Waits' melancholic laments? Johansson just can't sell the anguish that is so evident in Waits' growl.
At best, "Anywhere I Lay My Head" falls just short of a legitimate exploration of a legend's back-catalog. At worst, Scarlett Johansson just doesn't have the chops to carry the overly-ambitious record. Either way, the album will do little more than satisfy your curiosity.