BLOG: YTC_Hollyweird: Episode XIV: Tom Waits For No Man

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In the short term, the YTC podcast can currently be found at http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/blogs/youtotalcult/

BLOG PIC

The blog below was under an older name of Hollyweird. I have kept the numbering the same so that I could keep track of my posts, but this is where it all begin back in the heyday of 2012…

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Today’s entry was supposed to about a somewhat obscure Anime. But then something mysterious happened. Or, more accurately as of this time of writing, something mysterious is still happening. Musician of madness, Tom Waits has announced a ‘surprise’ will be revealed on the 7th August 2012.

Tom Waits probably dresses like this when he buys milk

Internet rumours are rife that it will be a world tour, but for all we actually know he will in fact just chose to return to his home planet on that date. Whatever Waits’ revelation is, I’ve personally been on quite a Waits-kick lately, so the news made me re-think this entry.

Now it would be simple enough to write about Waits own film career. He’s acted for years- subtly and believably in Short Cuts, over the top and cartoon-ish in Mystery Men, camp and crazy in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and many, many more. In fact I could write a whole entry just about his work with Jim Jarmusch, where he served as as both an actor and as a composer. But do you know what is even weirder than Tom Waits? What is downright Hollyweird?

Well, how about a modern sex-symbol using a low-octave voice on nu-folk cover album of Tom Waits material?

Well in 2008 Scarlett Johansson did just that.

 

File:Scar jo anywhere album cover.jpg

Scarlett has been on my radar for sometime- and no not because of the boobs. (Though to be fair she probably stayed on my radar due to the boobs). I took notice of her before her sex-kitten phase, back in 2001 when she was cast in Ghost World. ThisDaniel Clowes comic- adaptation by Terry Zwigoff is one of my favourite films. Johansson’s snarky performance in it, opposite a never-better Thora Birch, certainly displayed that she could be an actress to watch out for.

Daniel Clowes signed my DVD. By why he did it coming out of her breast is his business.

 

Even though it can certainly be claimed that she has coasted through a lot of bad films on a lot of bad performances since then, I always suspected that there may have been something deeper to Scarlett in order for her to work so well in Ghost World. Even so, I was certainly a little gob smacked to walk into a record Shaftesbury Avenue’s Fopp four years ago and see her on a Tom Waits tribute CD starring back at me.

Naturally, I bought it curious how much of a car wreck it may be.

I was then in for an even bigger shock than finding the album existed; it’s shockingly a really solid album. Even the one original song by herself fits in nicely. Unexpected to say the least.

What Johansson manages to do is actually put her own stamp on all of the songs. Some tracks work better than others, for sure. But anyone familiar with Tom Waits songs will know that both his compositions and his voice really can’t be imitated nor matched. So the only option for a cover artist is to try something new. This of course is rarely a good idea since the cover will then be put up against the original-genius of Waits’ own versions, so it’s almost certainly a no-win scenario. The fact Johansson manages to be the exception to the rule here and to successfully find her own feet is really quite remarkable.

Dear/Deer in the headlights

The key to this success seems to be that Scarlett adopts the role of a story-teller, much like Waits himself does. All those years acting have most likely helped hone this ability, or at least I am telling myself to justify the fact I once paid to sit through like The Spirit. Adopting a husky-raconteur position allows her to just tell the tales via the lyrics, which are then meshed with key-collaborator Dave Sitek’s own work. Sitek’s main push is on Louisiana folk music and heavy electronic production techniques to wash all over all of Johansson’s voice. In truth, I suspect the production is so thick to disguise the fact she can’t exactly hit notes. However the ultimate effect is a complimentary one; The music is like a dense suit of armour that fragile lyrics float on through revealing the core of her/Waits’ Id.

Nick Zinner

This extra- thick production work also feature David Bowie and the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner. Not too shabby as guest appearance go. Here’s Sc-Jo’s comments on this, displaying a keen awareness of the ‘otherness’ that Waits material requires;

It was like a fantasy. In the beginning, when I first conceived of the album as Waits covers, I wanted to do this song “Never Talk to Strangers”, which is a duet that Tom does with Bette Midler. And I thought “God, it would be great if Bowie could sing Bette’s part and I could do the Waits part.”

This album is not going to be for everyone. It does take a combination of liking folk arrangements, Waits lyrics and a Nico-esque voice. But for myself it was a most pleasant surprise. During my research for this entry, I found a review that sums it up rather well. Allmusic reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine, gave the album 2 ½ out of 5. he commented that Johansson was “surprisingly deep and brittle as a singer… it doesn’t quite work, but it can’t quite be dismissed, either: unlike so many actor-turned-singer records, there’s not a hint of vanity to this project and it’s hard not to marvel at its ambition even as it fails.”

Meh, judge for yourselves:

So in short; the astoundingly beautiful Scarlett Johansson loves Tom Waits, portrays a Marvel character, stars in one of my favourite films and is now divorced. Does anyone know where I can get a cheap engagement ring?!?!?

 

Next time really will be about an Anime. Probably. (Possibly).

 

Thanks for reading.

MJ