Sunday, May 9, 2010

Anywhere I Lay My Head


Band: Scarlett Johansson
Album: Anywhere I Lay My Head
Best song: "Town with No Cheer" is admirable
Worst song: "Song for Jo" is terrible.

Mitch Hedberg was an outstanding comedian, a stoner-generation's Steven Wright. One of my best jokes was about how he'd been asked to write a screenplay by some Hollywood folks because they'd seen his standup act. He then compared it to a chef: "You're a good cook, but can you farm?"


At some point, as a society, we'll stop caring when famous people consider themselves multi-talented. Singers try to act, athletes try to sing, authors play in rock bands, the list goes on and on. This is not to say that they can't multitask, mostly because many famous people skills end up working well for other famous people jobs. Case in point: our 40th president was an actor of some renown before he became a politician.

(Though, admittedly, politics is different than governing. Reagan was a masterful politician and was, uh, questionable as someone who actually, you know, governs and makes decisions.)

Nevertheless, models work as actors because we generally want our actors to look nice (Paul Giamatti aside). And, as long as the material isn't anything to be truly explored, any pretty can stand around and look wistful. And those spawned from musical theater, almost undoubtedly can sing. I have no doubt Nathan Lane could probably put out a decent album of standards.

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In fact, "looking good" v. "singing" is a better analogy than anything involving acting. Either you look good or you don't. Either you can sing or you can't. While one can refine one's skill set, no amount of hard work (or stylists, in the case of looks) can make a tone-deaf (or ugly) person into a singer with chops (or a model). You can teach great-looking people how to act (bestill my heart... Penelope Cruz), but you can hardly make Paul Giamatti look good.

Which brings us to Scarlett Johansson. She's a beauty, no doubt, but she's hardly a singer. She tries and tries and tries. I imagine she's hired voice coaches. Anywhere I Lay My Head is -- save for one song -- all Tom Waits covers. Good songs. David Bowie helps with backing vocals. I have no doubt she got some great arrangers to rearrage Waits' songs. She most certainly had an autotuner, using it to its original purpose (to make off-key singers go on key).

But, her voice is pretty mediocre. It has no texture whatsoever. Her smokey, sexy low voice thing works when she talks but it gets real old real fast on the record. "Fannin' Street," for example is a dirge. She can hardly hold the tinkly melody of "I Wish I Was in New Orleans." It's not pretty, though, she clearly is.

In a way, it's like that Susan Boyle woman. She's got a lovely voice, but isn't pretty. It's not just that she needed a makeover. It's that she's unattractive. That's OK; a lot of people are unattractive (myself included). That's OK. But, she's superlatively skilled and sold a lot of records because her voice is beautiful and powerful.

You can't make someone a good singer, just as you can't make someone pretty. God help us when Ms. Johansson releases her next album. Allegedly, she's going to write all the songs on it. Yet another skill she doesn't have.