Scarlett Johansson has been getting a lot of shit lately, not just for being absent at the premiere of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but for her new album, Anywhere I Lay My Head, which consists mostly of Tom Waits covers. The critical maligning isn’t without merit; the album is kind of terrible, despite being produced by Dave Sitek and Ivo Watts of 4AD. However, she can just add “singer” alongside her credentials as “actress,” with the quotations being essential. I thought we already figured out she couldn’t sing when she did a hackneyed karaoke version of The Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket” in Lost in Translation, but I suppose not. Johansson isn’t the only actress these days trying her luck at music, as Zooey Deschenel, that cute actress who juggles respectable projects (All the Real Girls, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) with trash (Failure to Launch, The New Guy), has released her own singing project alongside M. Ward, under the moniker She & Him. She & Him’s album isn’t as bad as Johansson’s, but it’s just as forgettable, combining alt-country with Deschenel’s interesting, if not striking, vocals. The words “don’t quit your day job” keep fluttering through my head.
However, not all actress-turned-singer endeavors have been as ill-conceived. Many aren’t aware of Milla Jovovich’s musical career, back in the days when she was still known as Milla and not being cast as the perfect being. She released her first album in 1994, entitled The Divine Comedy, and surprised most of her fans with a laid-back, acoustic, melodic recording. Critics tossed it off, similarly to Johansson, but it surprisingly stands up well today. She still sporadically records music under her full name. Check out “The Alien Song (For Those Who Listen” for a fine example. Also, God bless Juliette Lewis, from her PJ Harvey covers in Strange Days to forming Juliette & the Licks, she'll always have a spot in my heart.
Oh, the covers album. It seems essential for most artists to release one, even if it’s just to show off their good taste or out of laziness in recording new music. 2008 has become a fine case-and-point of the varying effects of the cover album from known artists, with Cat Power’s Jukebox and Adem’s Takes sitting on opposite sides of the spectrum. Though relatively unknown, Adem released his third album this year with little hoopla, and when I got it, I was unaware that it was a cover album. I looked at a few of the tracks and thought, “Oh, awesome, he’s got a PJ Harvey cover on here. Wait a minute…” Cat Power, the musical alter-ego of Chan Marshall, released her second covers album in January, a bluesy tribute to the artists who inspired her. For Adem, Takes serves the same purpose, with covers ranging from Harvey, Björk, The Breeders, Low and even Aphex Twin. The fact is that, unfortunately, none of his covers are that remarkable, outside of his acoustic rendering of Bedhead’s “Bedside Table” and Pinback’s “Loro.” And what’s worse is that the songs lack cohesion and feel like a decent bout of karaoke from the artist, which is probably the biggest fear of musicians releasing a cover album. It doesn’t help that Adem and I obviously share nearly the exact same taste in music, as he covers personal bests (in my not-so-humble opinion) of Björk (“Unravel” off Homogenic) and Pinback, the former almost unlistenable.
For Cat Power, her covers don’t stand as a useless nod to her favorite artists; Jukebox actually allows her to grow as an artist and vocalist. From the opening track of “New York,” the album beautifully flows into Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man,” re-titled “Ramblin’ (Wo)man,” one of the album’s highlights. Jukebox allows for Marshall to explore, whereas Takes allows Adem to coast.
It’s no secret that I admire PJ Harvey to a limitless extreme (hell, I mentioned her in every single segment here). White Chalk was easily the best album I heard all last year, and she continues to amaze me with everything she releases. However, I’d like to point your attention to one song of hers, “Memphis.” Released as a B-side on the “Good Fortune” single off Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, “Memphis” is important for one drastic reason; it’s the first song where PJ sings in her own voice. Now that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but let me go on. Notoriously averse to the scrutiny of tabloids and music journalists, Harvey has kept her personal life under lock-and-key, occasionally offering bits to slip, like her relationship with Nick Cave, though most of her other romantic flings remain under question, particularly that with Vincent Gallo. “Memphis” is sometimes listed as “Memphis (For Jeff Buckley,” as it’s no secret that the song was written for the late singer-songwriter. As she’s stated in numerous interviews, her music is works of fiction, and as any fan will tell you, image is an ever-changing facet of Harvey’s artistic statement. One critic, who’s name I forget at the moment, described her as a more subtle David Bowie or Madonna, reimagining and envisioning herself with each album; you might notice not only a change in her music videos by the album, but her dress and hairstyle can always be attributed to one of her albums. With “Memphis,” Harvey removes the fictional, artistic personifications and actually begins to sing in “her own voice.” It’s a requiem for Buckley, whom Harvey may or may not have dated during her recording of To Bring You My Love, and it’s the first time we hear Polly Jean Harvey, as opposed to PJ. “Memphis” is unfiltered Harvey, and it’s remarkable outside of being notable.
Here’s my current playlist.
Milla – The Alien Song (For Those Who Listen)
PJ Harvey – Memphis
Cat Power – Metal Heart
LCD Soundsystem – Get Innocuous
Sufjan Stevens – Star of Wonder
Kaki King – Life Being What It Is
Goldfrapp – Happiness
Slowdive – Slowdive
The Smiths – Hand in Glove
Beirut – Cherbourg
The Breeders – Divine Hammer
Cocteau Twins – Otterley
The Verve – Virtual World
The Radio Dept. – I Don’t Like It Like This