My significantly better half Clare (Bless ‘er) bought me Scarlett Johansson’s new album of Tom Waits’ covers this week, Anywhere I Lay My Head. Now, I’m a bit of a unrepentantly obsessive Tom Waits fan (you noticed?), so when I first heard about this project I was more than a wee bit sniffy. Over the years, I’ve heard many, many, many cover versions of songs by the Great Voice of Gravel. A few have been sublime (Springsteen’s Jersey Girl and T. Bone Burnett’s Time spring to mind), most have been all right-ish to goddamn mediocre (The Ramones I Don’t Wanna Grow Up and The Eagles’ Ol‘ 55) and then there’s Rod Stewart’s take on Tom Traubert’s Blues. It’s at the bottom of the pile by a nautical mile and the less said about it the better.
If that wasn’t enough, I also have an innate problem with Hollywood A-Listers who want to sing songs. This is a generational thing, I know: for my parents, it was de rigeur for the Hollywood elite to have the innate capacity to act, sing, dance and possibly shit through hoops at twenty paces. I, however, have always been hampered with post-Method school expectations: actors should act, rock stars should rock and never the ‘twain should meet. Unless it’s Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth, or possibly William Shatner’s Rocket Man.
The prospect of a contemporary Bright Young Thing – talented though she may be – tackling the oeuvre of my all-time favourite recording artist bar-none did not fill my heart with giddy anticipation. “What next?” I wondered aloud, and possibly a bit too aloudly. “Keira Knightly releasing an album of Captain Beefheart covers? Jessica Alba Singing the Best of Billy Bragg? Gwyneth Paltrow doing Coldplay?”
Well, I needn’t have worried. Ms Johansson’s album is an absolutely marvellous thing of beauty that radically reinterprets and almost reinvents songs that have been hard-wired into my frontal lobes. Produced by the mighty TV on the Radio‘s Dave Sitek – and featuring guest vocals from none other than Mr David Bowie of Brixton, London – it’s one of the best dedicated covers albums I’ve heard since, oh, Jeffrey Lewis’s 12 Crass Songs and has been on heavy rotation on my tinny but temperamental car stereo for most of this week.
Like all good covers albums it reinvents and sometime reinvigorates the source material. The wistful, heartbreaking Small Change track I Wish I Was In New Orleans is turned into a musical box accompanied lullaby, whilst Bone Machine’s swaggering singalong I Don’t Wanna Grow Up is transformed into the bastard offspring of New Order and the Pet Shop Boys. It shouldn’t work and I shouldn’t like it, but it does and I do.
Clare’s favourite is the title track (as she said literally moments ago: “Listened to it, picked my favourite, stuck with it”), but I’m torn between I Wish I Was In New Orleans and I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.
Says it all, really.