Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Big Laydown

It started in late 2006, with the curio announcement that Scarlett Johansson- yes, that Scarlett Johansson- was to make an album. What’s more, she was to make an album of Tom Waits covers. Eye rolling turned into a sustained level of interest, which was piqued with the accompanying details. Dave Sitek, musical backbone of the adored TV on the Radio, had been tapped to create a backdrop for the assuredly surreal sounds to come. Cameos and collaborators piled up with each infrequent press release, along with rumors and gossip, whisperings of Ziggy Stardust sightings in the bayou, and speculation as to whether or not Johansson could actually, you know, sing. More than a year and a half later, Anywhere I Lay My Head arrived.

The average music fan has probably heard some of mostly the same criticisms. The record certainly has its rough spots, and yeah, the lows are pretty low indeed- especially the painfully-obvious music box on “I Wish I Was in New Orleans” and the hideously juvenile dance track train-wreck that is “I Don’t Want to Grow Up.” But it is also true that the highs are actually quite close to… stunning. Sitek’s now-trademark percussive drone, highlighted by string and woodwind flourishes, pair beautifully with some of the melodic highpoints of Waits’ career, which manage yoke the sometimes meandering and abstract tendencies of Sitek’s own band to some plain perfectly-written songs. While Johansson’s immature contralto stands out repeatedly in the record as a glaring point of weakness, it is, at the very least, an interesting diversion in places and occasionally manages to reach peaks simply not suggested possible by her previous known work at the mic.


It turns out, that we could reverse the billing on the closing duet “Who Are You” and have a decent case that Tunde Adebimpe alone would have made this a terrific TVoTR release. Consider his tracks as nothing more than a collaboration between him and Sitek, and we could easily extrapolate Bowie's sample into an album we’d call at least 3.4 times better than Heathen and proceed to argue its relative merits alongside Scary Monsters as his last good albums. In all actuality, pretty much the entire first half of the album (up to and including the co-written Johansson/Sitek original) is an unqualified success. Johansson’s taste in covers material is vindicated by some long-overdue attention paid to a couple of Waits’ should-be classics. The Brooklyn all-star backing band cameos (members of TV on the Radio, Celebration and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) exceed their ill-defined expectations and produce some great instrumentals. Bowie remains convincingly Bowie-like (in shades of Lou’s “Satellite of Love” no less) and Sitek absolutely produces the shit out of everything. Then we drink some lemonade, maybe watch Manhattan again, and head home happy in the early summer night.

Yet although most reviewers have claimed pretenses wanting to of give the album a fair shake, everybody seems to hedge against venturing any kind of strong sentiment as to the ultimate quality of these eleven tracks. The resulting critical response has come in deceivingly mediocre ratings and disingenuously superficial assessments. No attempt is made by anybody to reconcile the phenomenon of why this album, once a nexus of fairly intense fetishism by more than a few people, has been met with such absolute indifference upon its arrival. Given the principles involved and lopsided results, it seems that there would be at least a little spirited debate about Anywhere I Lay My Head. Yet a glance around the media reveals that it’s not just that the major outlets aren’t into it, but the fact is that nobody seems to be into it, and the question of why has consumed me...

Right around the time that anticipation of the Scar-Jo record had mounted, another musical debut by an indie-crush-worthy actress arrived with little fanfare. She & Him is a collaboration between Zoey Deschanel, she of healthy filmography and radar-straddling profile, and M. Ward, he of notably consistent (and Pitchfork-approved) folk-inflected solo career. The two have produced, by all accounts a lovely little collection of songs entitled Volume One, consisting of both covers (by the likes of key Ward influences Smokey Robinson and the Beatles) and originals credited to Deschanel and produced by Ward. With a studio band assembled by Ward and featuring members of the Decemberists and Devotchka, the duo manages to recall the pop highlights of obvious idols Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline. Despite a few missteps, like the poorly-placed slowdown of “Take it Back” and a completely useless afterthought of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” (seriously), the album is full of affecting, hook-filled songs that know when it’s better to quit than risk going too far out of their depth.

At a loss for explaining the different receptions for Johansson’s and Deschanel’s respective efforts, my mind wandered among a number of possibilities. Obviously, the subject of novelty in music has been on my mind recently. When and why a given project may be dismissed out of hand while another is celebrated for whatever reasons still evades me. What I have come to understand, in a very “hipster-bashing is a totally hipster thing to do” kind of way, is that coolness-as-commodity requires a level of sub-cultural protectionism. This is often taken (rightly or wrongly, but mostly rightly) as exclusionary and elitism by the world at large. And, for people who spend as much time listening to and thinking about music as I do, the single biggest conceit we seem to make for our obsession is the lonely life of being a definitive arbiter of our own tastes.

Of course, these standards become compounded by the fact of indie-rock being a still largely male-dominated society, begging the engagement of forces beyond rationale, and sometimes bordering on misogyny. Scarlett was everybody’s dream girl from Ghost World through Lost in Translation. Now we respond to the unmistakable signifiers of her being finally and totally co-opted by the mainstream: appearing in lousy Bruckheimer summer blockbusters, going bicoastal (and unabashedly “Hollywood”) and, most painfully of all, dating Ryan Reynolds. As such, these recent albums are more than anything a referendum on the state of the people who made them. Anywhere I Lay My Head isn’t especially bad, but the collective yawn it has elicited is our final proof that Scarlett Johansson just isn’t cool anymore. Divorcing our opinion of the woman’s work from any ability to care about it is the only mechanism we have to protect ourselves from the fact that such an undertaking high likelihood of being an abject failure. To invest ouselves now risks seeing Scarlett make a joke of herself- and, by extension, us- in the most demoralizing way possible: on the E! Network between comments about her upcoming role in yet another shitty (and profitable) movie.

It is now abundantly clear that only thing Ms. Johansson could have done to change anybody’s opinion of her record was to be less famous when she made it. In the hands of an unknown (preferably male) quantity, we’ll not only forgive such a “novelty” project, but applaud it heartily, as in the case of the Dirty Projectors, whose Rise Above was a fixture on every cool kid’s favorites of 2007 list. A collective based in the consensus Center of the Universe (Williamsburg, apparently) has every advantage to produce- without fear of reprisal- a Black Flag covers abomination that remains, nine months after its release, as flimsy and frequently unlistenable as it did the first time I ignored it.

Likewise, Deschanel gets a pass for essentially being so far out of the greater public consciousness that it doesn’t matter when she fails. And she inevitably will fail. Volume One, for all its pleasant moments isn’t exactly announcing itself as a definitive work of an assured new voice to take the medium by storm, though Deschanel’s prominent role in M. Night Shyamalan’s forthcoming The Happening promises to be a debacle enough to ensure that she’ll have the chance to produce a few more volumes of She & Him to try for something even better. And you know what? I’ll bet they’ll be pretty good, too. If only the poor movie star would be afforded the same chance.

5 comments:

Matt said...

Nice piece. Very well crafted.
I've been half-attention following the hype on this record, but for the most part figure I'd let the music speak for itself.
What I noticed most was that the outrage (at least from the few pieces I read) were more that anyone, much less a famous anyone, was attempting to cover Waits, as if his catalog was some sort of holy relic, untouchable by all but the purest. Yet the Ramones get a pass for "I Don't Wanna Grow Up"? All they did was turn it into a generic Ramones song! (As for Scarlett's version, I keep hearing "White Lines (Don't Do It)," as the music begins.)
For the most part, I think it's a pretty decent collection of covers, but I think the Sitek production is a bit overwelming. It sounds like pretty much every TVotR song I've heard, with the vocals too deep in the mix and about three too many overdubs per number. And yeah, the music-box tinkles on "...New Orleans" is a bit trite, eh?
As for Scarlett's voice/ talent? I hear Sinead O'Connor. Seriously. I was listening to a batch of Sinead doing cover versions shortly before I first listened to "Anywhere I Lay My Head" and they melded together so well as to seem by the same artist. I've not seen one other person who's said this - in the few articles I've read about the cd- so it may just be my messed up way of hearing things that is responsible for this. It wouldn't be the first time!
Anyhum... I didn't think I'd write so much, when all I meant to say came out in the first sentence. Since those words are all the way up there, let me repeat:
Nice piece. Very well crafted.

Brendan K. said...

Thanks Matt. I definately think that the Waits-as-sacred-cow thing is a very pronounced aspect to the Scar-Jo backlash. Another draft of this had a part tying it into the cool/uncool binary, but it sort of didn't add much. Put shortly: Waits is very cool (and only getting cooler as he ages) while Johansson is on the opposite trajectory. The single-easiest stance that you can take is to insult Scarlett by complimenting Waits.

It's not as though the man is un-coverable. You mention the Ramones (and I argue that their greatest skill was making the same song over and over again yet making you still want to hear it again), but there are obviously others. I'm not a huge TVOTR fan, so I think the first half of the record is among the best things Sitek has done. But parts of the second half really are just abysmal. Scarlett's just not much of a singer. Does this make this a novelty? Dunno. But I still can't abide the backlash. I digress/repeat myself, so I'll just go back to the first line.

Thanks, Matt.

Matt said...

You mention Tom Waits as being cool (which he is) and getting cooler (which I' pick bones at)...
I don't think Tom Waits is getting cooler. I think he is coasting on whatever cache he built up late 80s/early90s...
I've been a faithful accolyte, devouring Tom's releases on release day, since about '87-'88 (when I first DOVE into love for he. I first heard him '83-'84, and have been a fan since then)...
So, even though he (I hope to witness, live, myself one day) brings a whomp of a live thing, I think it's just the "babtise me" fans that believe it's as good as it ever was.
What it looks like to me (alas, from afar) is the TW show "Step right up!", because he -Tom- realizes that now is his magic time... the moment when his particular brand of whatz-itz gets respect.
It's almost the inverse of how Zappa judged his timing, so 'bless TW for it!

Matt said...

Erg.. And then I just reread that, and see it looks like I'm trying to pick a fight or something... No, I'm not...
A couple-a beers in my system and I'm type-ee...

Brendan K. said...

No, no. It's perfectly alright. But I feel like I should point out that oen of my overarching points is that the quality of output is put aside in factoring the relative coolness of these people. You can argue that Waits is not producing music as good/cool as he used to, but I think that over the last decade he's segued from his schticky beat poet thing and into an elder stateman of weirdness that most people respond to. The fact that I WOULD argue with you (my favorite TW record is "Small Change", but he hasn't made a bad record since the early 90s) is secondary to the fact that it's okay to defend him because he is cool. Scarlett doesn't get that consideration.