Archive | March, 2013

Scarlett Johansson Doesn’t Sound Like Tom Waits Anymore

24 Mar

 

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The credits roll in Chasing Ice, Jeff Orlowski’s Sundance award-winning documentary about Earth’s rapidly changing ecosystems, and over vast, time-lapsed landscapes and photos of falling glaciers set to the Ken Burns’ effect, comes a sorely melancholic and distinguished croon, channeling Etta James and Billie Holiday-a voice that most likely never had a brief stint in narco-pop, never once sang in an octave so low that only Tom Waits himself could make out some of the notes. Oh, wait.

Scarlett Johannson, who, among classic good looks, big lips and other body proportion-related phenomenons is known for her Lauren Bacall speaking voice, was a blip on the musical radar with, “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” a Tom Waits cover album she released in 2008 that confused listeners everywhere. Mostly, though, the world breathed a sigh of relief, and subsequently sent out a “na-na-na-boo-boo” to Johannson, in, ‘See, you can’t be good at everything,’ fashion. But the world was wrong.

The track in Chasing Ice, “Before my Time,” written by J. Ralph and performed by Scarlett Johansson and Joshua Bell is a redolent echo of adolescence lost and love forgotten, or, in keeping with the theme of film, cataclysmic carbon footprints. It received an Oscar nomination, broke a few hearts and completely dispelled the notion that Johansson can’t sing. In fact, J. Ralph personally chose Johansson to perform the song because she has what he calls a, “word-class voice,” adding that she could have led an equally successful career as a vocalist as she has as an actor. If that’s the case, though, what’s taking so long to find her niche in the music world?

Johansson took another stab at recording an album in 2009 when she collaborated with Pete Yorn on his album, Break Up. Unfortunately, the album hardly showcased her voice at all as it was lazily recorded on a few afternoons, according to Pitchfork. Yorn puts Johansson’s vocals through a filter most of the time, and although she’s exploring a higher range and sounds perfectly on point, it’s Zooey-Deschanel-esque uninspired and cutesy, which is such a drastic about-face away from the  direction of her solo album. She sounds more like a tool to beef-up each track than an integral part of a duet.

When you think about it, “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” wasn’t the most unbecoming album for Johansson’s image and, more importantly, her voice. “Song For Jo,” the only original song off the album, harkens back to the feminist/grunge-era Liz Phair and the almost-out-of-her-range, frothy, guttural track, “Glory” off Exile in Guyville. It’s no secret that Liz Phair used to kick some serious ass in the 90s, using her deadpan to signal how little of a damn she gave.

Johansson, on the other hand, was perceived as stagnant and dry in her musical stylings circa 2008.

In “Before my Time,” Johansson utilizes her brighter, more feminine vocal register, while still maintaining the lonely, smoky crackle with which each note withers and dies. At long last she is emitting the emotion that most of her on-screen characters seem to conceal. Instead of falling asleep to her voice, we’re shedding a slow, silent tear or two.

Not to downplay J. Ralph’s achievement with the composition, but “Before My Time,” is much more digestible than anything Tom Waits ever did. Therefore, Johansson’s involvement is better received than her attempt to recreate something so anti-mainstream, so lacking in form. Refreshing as it is to applaud unaltered, clean vocals (Ralph didn’t put any effects on Johansson’s voice) it’s worth a moment of hesitation before we boo an artist’s attempt at something challenging and unconventional.

-RR

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