Last year, Scarlett Johansson released her debut album, Anywhere I Lay My Head. It was--unlike MOST albums rush-recorded by today's actresses and it-girls (see: Lindsay Lohan, Hilary Duff, Paris Hilton)--actually a quite credible piece of work. It consisted almost entirely of covers of songs by cult legend Tom Waits; it featured contributions by members of Brooklyn buzz bands TV On The Radio and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the one-and-only DAVID BOWIE; it followed up Scarlett's live debut singing with the Jesus & Mary Chain at Coachella; and it received solid reviews from indie tastemakers like Pitchfork. (One scribe for the British music mag NME even declared it one of the best albums of 2008.) So yeah, it wasn't exactly like, say, a Heidi Montag album...
...but judging from the nasty way people in the blogosphere responded to Anywhere I Lay My Head, it might as well have been a Montag CD. ScarJo's many detractors were extremely unkind, prematurely dismissing the album (which ultimately only sold about 25,000 copies worldwide) as yet another vanity project from yet another tone-deaf, Autotunes-dependent, overhyped and overprivileged starlet. Scarlett's musical attempt was rather unfairly ridiculed with a viciousness usually reserved for critiques of, say, Madonna's acting--and like Madonna, she was encouraged by "fans" not to quit her day job.
I personally feel something was (pun intended) lost in translation here. I suspect that such biased naysayers didn't even bother to listen to Anywhere I Lay My Head, or that they'd already made the decision to loathe it before they even pressed Play. True, Scarlett's voice on the record wasn't exactly Celine/Mariah-esque, but it had nicely smoky, Nico-ish quality to it that suited the music (ScarJo was singing TOM WAITS SONGS, after all). I honestly beileve if the same album had been released by some other raspy-voiced indie ingénue like Cat Power or Jenny Lewis or Feist, hipster types everywhere would have raved and swooned over it.
So after the violent public reaction to her first album, I naturally assumed that Scarlett would abandon all her musical aspirations and go back to making movies, nesting with Ryan Reynolds, and raising the blood pressure of Woody Allen. But no. Instead she has bravely returned to the music scene, this time with another very credible collaborator: singer-songwriter Pete Yorn.
Scarlett and Pete are now releasing a duets collection titled Break Up--originally recorded in 2006, after Pete was inspired by the 1960s collaborative albums of French songman Serge Gainsbourg with another famously curvaceous, beestung-lipped, sex-kittenish thespian, Brigitte Bardot. While songs from the album have leaked online over the past couple years, Break Up is now set to finally come out September 8, and its first official single and video, "Relator," was released this week.
And it is good. It is very, very good:
More upbeat than Scarlett's previously released solo material (and more upbeat than most of Pete's solo work, too), "Relator" is a cutely powerpoppy, alt-countryish ditty that showcases ScarJo's raggedly Winehouse-like voice at its husky best. It's also one of Pete Yorn's best compositions in years (he penned all the songs on Break Up, except for a most-welcome cover of "I Am The Cosmos" by late Big Star guitarist Chris Bell).
Hopefully "Relator" will help Scarlett Johansson be taken more seriously as an actual singer and musical artist. When so many singing actresses see an album as just another piece of "branding" product and another component of their marketing plans--along with a requisite perfume, clothing line, workout DVD, Candie's shoe, and reality show--it's refreshing to find one that takes music seriously and actually tries something different.