THE VERY last scene of last year’s hit film “Juno” pointed toward one small path in music’s future: star Ellen Page sitting on a stoop, singing a song by obscure boy-girl folk duo the Moldy Peaches. Her leading man, Michael Cera, sang along, but he was really just her backup.
Movie and television stars have always made music -- whether as a legitimate career stream (Rick Springfield), a relaxing side project (Kevin Bacon) or a presumably self-aware joke (William Shatner). But only rarely do thespian efforts in the recording studio make an impact on the shape of pop on a more grass-roots level.
Right now, though, musically savvy ingénues are becoming a real force in the micro-universe of super-groovy music, leaving the fuzz guitar-loving actors of the previous era to labor in the trenches of the KROQ festival circuit. The shift connotes more than the public’s love of a pretty face.
The young actresses proving that they can define trends as skillfully as any blogging boy -- Scarlett Johansson is the latest -- embody new values for an unstable time. When the adorable rock boys Keanu Reeves, Jason Schwartzman and Jared Leto took up instruments, they played into the romance of the band, the dominant paradigm in the sweaty boy-world of post-punk rock. A few rock chicks, especially Juliette Lewis, adhere to this value system, and it’s worked for Leto, who’s now a real (if minor) rock star.
Ingénues such as Johansson take a different approach. They favor flexible partnerships over sworn-in-blood band loyalty and rely more heavily on taste and intelligence than on instrumental chops. Their projects reflect underground pop’s increasing fascination with uncovering historical side streams; rock is only one of many tributaries they explore. And by working outside the musical mainstream, they’re supporting and promoting innovators, creating bridges between pop’s avant-garde and the commercial sphere where red-carpet shots define one’s value.
Ellen Page hipped “Juno” director Jason Reitman to the Moldy Peaches, and the soundtrack made an unlikely media darling of the duo’s female half, hippie-punk mom Kimya Dawson. Around the same time, Natalie Portman grabbed the taste-making mantle from her “Garden State” costar Zach Braff, promoting edgy artists such as Beirut and Devendra Banhart (whom the gossips say she’s now dating) on an iTunes-only charity compilation.
Then there are the singers whose pursuit of credibility expands the teen-pop parameters defined by starlets such as Hillary Duff and Lindsay Lohan. Zooey Deschanel went from caroling in the shower in “Elf” to getting rave reviews for She & Him, her retro-flavored venture with bedroom-pop auteur M. Ward. “Donnie Darko” star Jena Malone has a band, Her Bloodstains, that sounds like Cat Power on mild hallucinogens. In a more adult-contemporary vein, both Minnie Driver and Toni Collette have chosen top-notch mentors: Ryan Adams and Liz Phair guest on Driver’s latest release, and Collette’s band includes violinist Amanda Brown of the late, great Go-Betweens.
Now, sporting the highest concept of all, comes Johansson with “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” to be released May 20 on the Rhino label. Rumors started circulating last year that Woody Allen’s young muse was recording an album of Tom Waits covers. David Sitek, one of the founders of the critically adored New York band TV on the Radio, was on board to produce. Guests would include a host of East Coast-based hipsters, including Antibalas founder Martin Perna, Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner and Sean Antanaitis, the risk-taking multi-instrumentalist from Baltimore’s cult band Celebration. To top it all off, Johansson would benefit from backing vocals by the elegant uncle of all rock aesthetes, David Bowie.
Too ambitious a debut?
ON THE surface, this pairing of Johansson with New York’s art-rock A-team seems nuts. Her best-known previous musical efforts were singing karaoke in “Lost in Translation” and starring in a Justin Timberlake video. She’d proven suitably coquettish on a 2006 recording of “Summertime,” but that Gershwin classic is extremely durable and hard to wreck. The 23-year-old Johansson seemed an unlikely candidate to grasp the veteran song-twister’s musical and lyrical complexities.
“Anywhere I Lay My Head” is, in fact, not a great success. But its ambitions are fairly huge. In fact, it’s really three albums: an excellent Waits compilation that plunges deep into the soil of his catalog; a re-imagining of the Waits sound by Sitek, who delights at the chance to experiment with adding new elements to music that’s clearly influenced his own work; and Johansson’s debut. Had a band name graced the project instead of Johansson’s, it might seem like a greater success; her voice is best understood as an element in Sitek’s wide-ranging constructions, not a central force.
She does claim a few moments. Her plain-spoken delivery on the gilded lady’s lament “Fannin Street,” based on a Leadbelly blues, perfectly complements Sitek’s hymnlike arrangement and Bowie’s solemn backing vocals. The 1976 tear-jerker “I Wish I Was in New Orleans” shows Johansson at her warmest; as a solitary music box tinkles behind her, she lets her low voice settle into sweet nostalgia. And the crazy-kid’s song “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” becomes super-cool dance pop, allowing Johansson to get almost loose.
Beyond these three tracks, however, Johansson flounders. She has no sense of phrasing, plodding along through melody lines that should swing or at least prove somewhat elastic. Her vocal tone is alternately grating and distant. With Sitek’s ideas exploding all around her, Johansson comes off as an increasingly mute presence.
Was this simply the wrong project? Not for Sitek, or even, conceptually at least, for Johansson. Waits is an actor as well as a composer; for 20 years plus, he’s made the case for album-based music as sonic theater. Writing character-driven narratives of the low life and the afterlife, Waits and his partner Kathleen Brennan (often in league with theatrical guru Robert Wilson) have connected the high-art traditions of Dada, Surrealism and Brecht to historical entertainments like vaudeville, blackface minstrelsy and the circus.
This is the same stream TV on the Radio entered into years later, though the band’s electronica-influenced sound is less organic than what Waits creates. (As a producer, Sitek is to Waits as a ghost is to a goblin: His sounds are spookier and harder to grasp, without Waits’ sticky physical presence.)
Waits, like Bowie, is an appropriate father figure for musicians trying to relate to musical traditions they find antiquated; by playing up their weird qualities, Waits found a way to reanimate familiar forms like gospel, blues and old-time country. Strangely, the role-playing his songs encourage, and the vivid scenery his music constructs, make his subject matter feel more real.
A sonic shadow
THE FAIRLY obscure selections on “Anywhere” allow Sitek to rebuild this vivid landscape without invoking too strong a scent of its creator. He startles the ear with synthesizers and effects, where Waits employed clangy percussion and the manic guitars of Marc Ribot and Joe Gore. If only Johansson had the range of her collaborators, she would have been a bigger player in this adventure. Instead, her sepulchral singing often reduces her to a shadow.
Her biggest mistake was letting Sitek persuade her to stay in her lower register. He’s said he hoped to lead Johansson toward the dreamy sound of English dream-pop artists such as Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins. But Fraser is a hugely expressive, emotional vocalist with a broad range. Johansson can’t even approach the bar Fraser set; she keeps getting stuck in the murk of her own chest voice, struggling to maintain her breath. Only when supported by her more powerful backup singers -- Bowie, Sitek’s TVOTR bandmate Tunde Adebimpe, even Sitek himself -- does she break free.
It’s difficult to listen to this album without dreaming of other voices. If only Sitek could have explored the same material with Cee-Lo Green, Sharon Jones, Banhart -- or even Deschanel. Those singers all share Waits’ theatrical bent and have the force and tone to pull off bravura performances. “Anywhere I Lay My Head” might have carried on the legacy producer Hal Willner established in the 1980s with tributes to composers such as Kurt Weill and Nino Rota.
Johansson’s voice might be why “Anywhere I Lay My Head” ultimately fails, but I still don’t fault her spirit. When a famed beauty goes outside her comfort zone, it’s typical to dismiss the effort as vanity and question the motives of her collaborators. Johansson tried something brave and truly difficult with this album, even if she didn’t entirely succeed. And no matter what anybody murmurs, I think Sitek took it on because the project was cool, not because Johansson is hot.
Anyway, this isn’t the first time actresses have been tastemakers on the rock scene. Maybe Johansson will be the next Marianne Faithfull. That deep-voiced beauty, who taught Mick Jagger how to be elegant, played Ophelia in Tony Richardson’s production of “Hamlet” in 1969. She also made some fairly unlistenable music when she was in her 20s.
Faithfull had decent collaborators but lacked the confidence to fully define her projects for herself. After she lived a little (OK, a lot), she found her power and became one of the greats.