Nominated for two Oscars in one year across two categories, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, Scarlett Johansson’s never been a bigger celeb than she is right now. Splitting her time between the Marvel ultrablockbuster industrial complex and more mannered mainstream-adjacent indie movies, she’s easily one of the most recognizable and prolific actors in Hollywood. She also has stepped in it several times recently, drawing the ire of critics for her sometimes questionable track record of accepting roles playing marginalized people. Safe to say her judgement isn’t always super great, an extremely successful showbiz career pockmarked by a few unusual and confusing choices.
Back in 2008, Scarlett was embracing her position as an indie crossover success, having recently working on pictures with folks like Brian De Palma, Woody Allen, and Michael Bay. When you’re that successful, that buzzed-about, I feel like it’s pretty easy to get your pet projects funded. In most cases that means the production of an intensely personal indie film or the creation of a non-profit that has some connection to a cause you’re passionate about. Scarlett had another idea: channel her love of bourbon-soaked, monster-voiced singer songwriter Tom Waits into an collection of indie pop songs.
The indie rock world was several years into its clumsy merger into the mainstream, a newfound embrace of commercialization thanks to approximately one million factors, including the internet, iPod commercials, the increased popularity of music festivals, and The OC. TV on the Radio was one of the hottest acts at the time, and multi-instrumentalist/founding TVOR member Dave Sitek was the indie producer du jour, lending his hand to records from indie big leaguers like Yeah Yeah Yeah, Foals, and Liars. He was tapped by Johansson to help shape her new endeavor, and honestly, did a pretty solid job.
The album is densely layered, with Johansson’s vocals often buried pretty deep in the mix behind a wall of sound full of sounds wrung from an eclectic array of instruments. The liner notes credit various contributors with work on everything from the guitorgan, a rainstick, and a dog bowl, the mind reels when imagining the scene at the studio as they crafted these backing tracks. While her vocals aren’t especially compelling or memorable, they contrast well with the swirling mass of wild sounds Sitek conjured. Plus, they were able to nab David Bowie for backing tracks on a couple of tracks, and it’s always nice to hear our old friend David singing against a more modern backdrop.
For those familiar with Waits’ work, there’s a weird flattening effect that many covers of his songs suffer from. This ironing out of his idiosyncrasies can highlight his talents as a songwriter, but also loses some of what makes his work so singular. While no one was clamoring for a mid-tempo 2000s-era indie rock version of these songs, it’s an admittedly interesting starting point to work from.
As far as celeb vanity project bands go, this one’s near the top of the heap; compared to Russel Crowe’s post-grunge nonsense with 30 Odd Foot of Grunts or Jada Pinkett Smith’s insane rap rock band Wicked Wisdom, it’s pretty good! The album’s an easy, if forgettable, listen, harkening back to the halcyon days of the mainstreaming of indie rock.