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I write this across from my sister, who has recently endured an evil encounter with a giant razorback catfish hovering in the shallows of Long Lake. She is trying to fall asleep with her iPod earbuds in, listening to… Coldplay.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, either musically or commercially. Coldplay, after all, were voted “band most likely to put you to sleep” by a British Travelodge poll, which had all the esoteric music sluts howling with schadenfreude. But it occurred to me that this is the mad genius behind Coldplay: Music you can sleep to.
I was exposed to the music-during-sleep phenomena in my early teens at James “Wiley” McMullen’s home. There, in Wiley-ality, we were fully expected to fall and remain asleep either to constant radio, TV, or video game interference, or to some godawful combination of the three. Pure insanity reigned. But it had a way of driving the party onward to that next two-liter of Mountain Dew and that yet-to-be-reached level of Megaman X. And for all the times I’ve woken up drunk amid the rotten morning-afters of my twenties, none could match the dissolute chaos that prevailed after a caffeinated orgy of high fructose corn syrup, chips and flashing videogames from my early teens. It’s a wonder we aren’t all epileptic.
Now, there were different levels of nocturnal exposure. Sometimes, it was just a DVD menu, with the theme song on repeat, and other times, a tape of old sitcoms we’d seen before. Still other times, an amplifier was all that was left on and hissing in the darkness. Invariably, after a couple hours of real sleep, the parents lumbered downstairs, flicked on both a gurgling pot of coffee and Regis Philbin, who sounded like a mutant on crank as near as we could tell at eight o’clock on a Saturday fucking morning.
Such were the sleeping conditions at the home of James “Wiley” McMullen. But I remember with pleasure those first overnights, sleeping under a musty afghan in a rickety barcalounger, in limbo between sleeping and waking. I remember being drawn to those overnights, like a moth to light.
And in a sense we were moths. We needed that light. We needed to wake up and see Joey from Friends going “how you doin?” at that dark and lonely hour when your friends slept, but you couldn’t. It was comforting. Plus, it lit the way to the bathroom.
Subconsciously, I’m sure we kept the TV on to avoid feeling alone. Think of whenever you were young andy you were put to bed early—for not eating your supper or something—and it would still be light out, though mom had pulled the blinds to. And you could hear from the other side of the wall the muffled voices of your parents. You’d wonder what they were saying while you felt horribly alone.
So I find it more of a compliment to Coldplay that they are the best band to fall asleep to. I haven’t tried it, but I’m sure they’re polite bedfellows.
I knew this was coming and braced myself for the worst. Six weeks after its release, I finally gathered my gumption and listened to Scarlett Johansson’s opus of Tom Waits covers, Anywhere I Lay My Head.
When the news originally hit, many jerked their heads up, wondering what the fuck. The idea seemed, at best, overreaching and, at worst, utterly ludicrous. But of course, it was Scarlett—the hammer and tongs otherwise reserved for such an impostor were still holstered until we actually heard her efforts. Yes. We kept an open mind, albeit a wary one.
Which was a nice sentiment really: Why write off a set of songs just because the singer seeks to accomplish the unreasonable?
Answer: For starters, she has nothing in common with Tom Waits, except some overlapping vocal range. And her voice is bad. But it is not bad because she has a few problems with pitch, and because the melody doesn’t always come through—after all, these qualities appear consistently throughout Waits’ work. Her voice is bad because it has no dynamics, and because her delivery is devoid of character.
Whenever Waits sings, he belts it. Or howls it. Or snarls it. Or blubbers it, but he certainly doesn’t lurk behind his soundscapes with a dump truck on standby to unload all the reverb that’s been piled on his voice. He’s out there, in front, warts and all, for the world either to swallow or to regurgitate with a countenance awash with horror. Naturally, he is the deformed mutant star of his own show.
Scarlett Johansson, however, is not the star of this album. Her voice is too meek, too wooden, too boring to be the main event here. And that made me wonder about her acting career too, because after all the hoopla about her, I still can’t figure out what’s so impressive about her. But I’ll save that for another time….
As for the accompanying music, Waits’ originals strengthen their arguments even after dance-techno beats and ambient synthpads invade. Mr. Waits’ recent embracing of beatboxing notwithstanding, new-fangled digital technology has little place in his songs. When producer Dave Sitek wants the popping and hissing of an old LP, he generates it with a digital sampler, whereas Waits records a skillet of sizzling bacon. Everything Waits records sounds like it came before WW2, but this sounds too much like everything else in indie-IDM-whatever-it-is that reviewers are creaming themselves over these days.
If Sitek had run Johansson through a nightly regimen of whiskey binges, filterless cigarettes and scrap iron, and then sat her down at an off-key piano and had her belt out some of Waits’ classic bar ballads, this album could have been decent. For it would have been truer to what Waits actually put himself through.
Sitek fails to grasp the inherent insanity of Waits’ subject matter and arrangements. Waits’ most recent offering, 2006’s Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, showed the darkness he is capable of delivering. From the chaos and brutality of “Fish in the Jailhouse” (about a prison break riot), to the snarling Cormac McCarthy-esque “Lucinda,” to the dark and menacing necessity of “Heigh Ho,” Tom Waits’ Orphans left his fans with clear picture of the horror that consumes him.
Scarlett Johansson is unable to reproduce even a flutter of that horror. Of course she can’t. Not when she’s 23, engaged, and being voted sexiest woman since Helen of Troy. She is quite limited to the soft side of Waits, which he hasn’t shown much of in the last ten years. She fails to capture that gravel that the man ground himself into, and how could she have? It’s arguable no one could.
That said, at least this album doesn’t put on any airs—that is, apart from the rotten hubris of its very conception. But Dave Sitek doesn’t so much pour toxic waste on these songs as he dumps high fructose corn syrup and Crisco. Which is all wrong indeed.
What gets me is that this album actually received some good reviews. Perhaps some critics imagined Scarlett in a cathedral somewhere singing on bended knee. The reverb suggests as much. Regardless, this album is still a disappointment, especially because many secretly hoped this album would add to their mythic rendering of her. Instead, it proves that Tom Waits was two steps ahead of us two years ago and is still an ineffable figure in popular music, untouchable by the sexiest woman alive.
*Other than his wife, obviously.