Johansson Scarlett as Tom Waits for Decent Tribute

by Brendan Strong

I gave the streaming a chance. I decided, after a couple of listens, it’s just not for me. And I don’t think it does anything for the Tom Waits songbook either.
It’s dreary, really. As I mentioned in the last post – it’s all movie-type atmosphere meeting over-produced ‘sound scapes’, which no doubt are an attempt to ‘reinterpret the raw, manic power of Tom Waits vibrant percussion, bizarre instrumentation and legendary voice’. This is my own quote, and I know it’s a pile of crap. It’s marketing crap, made to build something up that (frankly) doesn’t require building up. In fact, that quote belittles Mr Waits’ work – much like this album.
It’s hard to know what this album is ‘for’. Some years ago, there were a couple of tribute albums released. Some songs on them were good, others were pretty cool indie bands doing a garage-type-cover of Tom Waits work. Which means they tried to sound like Tom Waits. Big mistake. Tom Waits sound is unique, so trying to copy it makes it less than it is. However, criticism of those albums aside – they were an attempt for a range of musical acts to pay tribute to someone they felt was a big influence on their lives. I’m sure there was an attempt to raid legacy copyright license value also (all the songs were from the Asylum/Elektra recordings). Another affect the albums would have had was to introduce Tom Waits’ music to a different fan base – fans of the acts involved on the albums.
But what is the Scarlett Johansson album for? Is it a tribute? A re-exploration? An attempt to foster new fans? If it is any of these, it has failed, I’m afraid. Here’s why:
If it were a tribute, it is lost as such. The dull thuddery of electronic over production, stretching like a duvet upon which the pillowed tones of Scarlett Johansson’s voice sleepwalks through the songs do nothing for them. I can see that it may be an attempt to pay tribute to Tom Waits by being really original – so original in fact as to try and produce an Anti-Tom Waits album (pun intended for those who care). Tom Waits writes songs that are brats – they kick against the pricks of formulaic songwriting in contemporary pop music. But their treatment with Scarlett Johansson (more correctly David Siteck of TV on the Radio) is to “formulate” them – to make them sound like something that has been studied, analysed, sterilised and rehabilitated so they can make a useful contribution to current pop music. Unlike Tom Waits songs, you can predict what’s coming next. One point I made last night that still sicks in my craw is the how percussion works. I like the way percussion does two things in Tom Waits songs – 1, builds cadence then 2, punctures it. This is part way to the ragged feel of the songs and provides that whole ‘what’s happening now?’ feeling that you get when you listen. The songs I’ve heard from Scarlett Johansson also do two things with percussion: 1, build cadence and then 2, reinforces it. Much like the cymbal crash at the end of a crescendo in a movie score (which I’m not against, by the way – it works in movies, just not in Tom Waits songs).
So, is it a ‘re-exploration’ of Tom Waits’ music? No. Because these songs start to sound formulaic. That’s not an exploration. At best it’s a mapping out, so that the next set of tourists that come along can find the English-Speaking Tour/Irish Bar/MacDonald’s without too much effort.
How about an attempt to foster new fans? Well, this is an odd one. Firstly, why would any big star go to the bother of undertaking a project just to promote the work of another? Unless your Mark Linkaus of course, and you feel your friend isn’t getting the exposure they deserve.
Outside the question of recording an album for the betterment of Tom Waits – there’s the question of whether it would even work. I’m not convinced that fans of this album would necessarily be fans of Tom Waits albums – as I mentioned before, this is the polar opposite of a Tom Waits album. Which makes it all the more painful. That and the idea that there will (definitely) be people walking round in the Autumn barking on about this gravelly-voiced hobo who did a terrible job at covering Scarlett Johansson’s album…

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