Doing justice to an artist with the gravitas of Tom Waits is a challenge for any singer, much less a 23-year-old actress making her musical debut. But that's exactly what Scarlett Johansson and her hip rock cohort attempt on Anywhere I Lay My Head, a collection of 10 Waits covers and one ill-advised original. (Sorry, Sco-Jo, but offering up your first set of lyrics next to a bunch of Waits masterpieces isn't the wisest move.)
When it works the results are surprisingly interesting, largely due to the "Tinkerbell on cough syrup" production of TV on the Radio's David Andrew Sitek, whose expert touch makes tracks like "Falling Down" and "Fannin Street" (complete with completely unnecessary David Bowie cameos) sound something like Phil Spector 45s played at 33-1/3. The album fails, though, when Johansson digs into the heavier aspects of Waits' oeuvre—hearing her stumble over the lyrics to "Town With No Cheer" ("There's nothing sadder than a town with no cheer/Voc Rail decided the canteen was no longer necessary there") is downright painful, especially with its Nico-meets-Kathleen Turner vocals.
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The fresh-faced Johansson fares much better on the more playful material, like a bubblegum disco take on Bone Machine's "I Don't Wanna Grow Up," but it's somewhat telling that the album's best track is the opening instrumental, as the Yeah Yeah Yeah's Nick Zinner, Celebration's Sean Antanaitis and a wailing horn section breathe new life into the funereal "Fawn," the closing track from 2002's Alice.