Thursday, May 22, 2008

Scarlett Johansson’s debut CD is a dud

This has been a depressing couple of weeks. Scarlett Johansson has broken my heart twice.
First came word that she is engaged to “Van Wilder” star Ryan Reynolds, making her even more unattainable than she was before.

It doesn’t help that I’ll always think of Reynolds as Billy, the clueless hanger-on who mostly annoyed the older teens on the Nickelodeon soap opera “Fifteen.” (Now you know my guilty-pleasure viewing back when I was in college.)

Now comes the release of her first — and, with any luck, last — album, a collection of Tom Waits covers titled “Anywhere I Lay My Head.” And while it isn’t an embarrassment on the order of Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time” or Don Johnson’s “Heartbeat,” it pretty much confirms my theory that singers have an easier time becoming actors than actors have becoming singers. (For the record, I dispute the notion that Jennifer Lopez is either.)

The compact disc arrived in stores Tuesday, but anyone who has already heard streaming audio of it online knows the bad news.

It isn’t that Johansson can’t sing, although she can’t. Waits isn’t exactly known for his vocal range, either. A music critic once colorfully described Waits’ voice as “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” So, Johansson’s breathy delivery — she sounds like she’s been downing bottles of cheap scotch and smoking menthols since she was 7 — should be up to the task.

It’s that everything around her sounds worse than she does. Either this is the most overproduced Tom Waits album in history or it’s the most underproduced pop album. In any case, the end result sounds like Johansson singing karaoke in that bar in “Lost in Translation.” That’s fine for a movie role, but terrible for an actual album you expect people to buy. Listening Post blogger Eliot Van Buskirk compares Johansson’s effort to the Cocteau Twins. Yeah, I could see that. If, of course, the Cocteau Twins recorded all of their albums while doped up on Valium. If there is one word that sums up “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” that word is “lazy.”

The blame rests squarely with the album’s producer, TV on the Radio’s David Sitek, who lays on the syrup so think that even Johansson’s backing musicians get stuck. Seriously, I’m not sure any producer has ruined an album like this since Phil Spector got his hands on “Let It Be” or David Bowie took the edge off The Stooges’ “Raw Power.”

Speaking of Bowie, he shows up on “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” too, although his backing vocals at least don’t make matters worse.

Ultimately, Sitek’s approach fails to live up to the material because the combination of Johansson’s voice and Waits’ jaded, jazzy lyrics should work. If Ben Folds can make William Shatner sound good, then anything is possible.

If there is any saving grace to “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” it’s that no song is so campy that it’ll end up on a Dr. Demento compilation CD. And with any luck, Johansson had gotten the singing bug out of her system so she can go back to doing what she is good at — making movies.

Speaking of which, Johansson is starring in yet another Woody Allen movie, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” with Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem. It’s scheduled to open in late summer, and it better be worth the wait.

I don’t think I can take Scarlett breaking my heart again.

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