- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2008

Let Bruce Willis blow his harmonica; let Kevin Bacon bond with his brother on the road. There are even, it’s true, rare instances of pleasant appreciation, such as for the punk panache of Juliette Lewis, the rootsy comforts of Minnie Driver and the off-kilter charm of Zoey Deschanel.

Scarlett Johansson, who this week released an album of covers of singer-songwriter Tom Waits titled “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” presents a complicated challenge to the prevailing assumptions of easy dismissal.

On the one hand, it is something of a technical disaster. Miss Johansson is far from a sturdy vocalist, with a low-for-a-girl register that sounds like Sinead O’Connor singing drearily in the shower after a very, very long night.

Critics, already cool to actors’ moonlighting musical projects, pounced even before the album’s official street date.

Associated Press opened with this cat-scratch: “Memo to lovely, young actress: Just because you’re a performer who looks beautiful on camera does not mean you can sing. Do not be fooled into releasing a record. Seriously, don’t.”

The audio blogosphere has been especially savage, catching a naive-sounding Miss Johansson unawares. “Why is it that people are so mean on the Internet? They’re angry - really angry,” she told the Times of London. “They write things in language that I would never - could never - use. All that hatred and spite.”

Welcome, Scarlett, to our 21st-century reindeer game.

The almost gleefully harsh judgments aren’t off-base; given Miss Johansson’s fallback celebrity, they may not even be unfair.

Yet, this is where the on-the-other-hand complication sets in.

See, Miss Johansson has, if not an accomplished singing voice, a well-cultivated artistic sensibility. These are not Tom Waits covers so much as radical deconstructions; they’re recognizable only on their own terms.

The 23-year-old actress enlisted the supervision of TV on the Radio member and indie-rock producer extraordinaire David Sitek to envelop her vocal tracks in a warm bath of Kate Bushian atmospherics and jangling percussion.

But “Anywhere I Lay My Head” is one of those great concepts in which ambition outstrips rudimentary talent. As keen as Miss Johannson and Mr. Sitek may have been to reinvent Mr. Waits‘ songs according to their own singular vision, the fact is that the project wouldn’t have worked, if it works at all, any other way: Miss Johansson simply doesn’t have the vocal chops to sell the songs straight.

The characteristically vicious Pitchfork Media, splitting the difference, gave Miss Johansson a decent notice; it called “Head” an “anti-vanity project.”

For that, Miss Johansson may not deserve acclaim - but she does, at least, merit our continuing admiration.

If it’s nothing else, “Anywhere I Lay My Head” was a risk. It was a risk, foremost, to the cool, impermeable persona she honed in 2003’s “Lost in Translation” and maintained in middling movies including “The Other Boleyn Girl” and “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”

Paris Hilton had nothing to lose when she released “Paris.” Who really cared how it sounded? The point was to issue a new product bearing that famous brand name.

Miss Johansson, conversely, did have something to lose.

Gone, at least temporarily, is the mysterious, unapproachable starlet; here now is Scarlett Johansson, the foolhardy twentysomething who sings perhaps even worse than the average jane.

Compared to celebrities close to her in age - Miss Hilton, Miss Lohan, Britney Spears - Miss Johansson has been a fine wine to their canned domestic beer. She guards her privacy jealously. She tries mightily to deflect the attention of tabloids.

Since her revelatory performance in “Translation,” she has entered the orbit of filmmaker Woody Allen, helping revitalize his career as much as he has lent gravitas to hers.

She chooses acting projects with the same fearlessness that she brought to “Anywhere I Lay My Head.”

There’s a word for such a personality: artist.

Speaking of artists, we ought to let them fail from time to time.



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