Thursday, September 17, 2009

Come Together

Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johansson: Break Up [Atco/Rhino]

Historically, when a popular young actress like Scarlett Johansson decides to break into the bright, shiny world of music, the results usually fit somewhere between forgettable and disastrous. Thankfully for Johansson, her first release, a Tom Waits tribute album, was mostly on the forgettable end of the spectrum.

Thus, when word came out that indie singer Pete Yorn had hooked up with the starlet to record a duets album (supposedly based on a dream Yorn had), ripples of trepidation and malaise were sent throughout the music community.

One of the most pursuant criticisms of Johansson's musical debut was her voice. She's been called "flat" by some nicer critics, "tone-deaf" by some less nice ones. For me, I found her voice pleasant enough, if lacking in significant depth or range. But I can't help noticing that, in all of her films of late, her speaking voice resembles Tom Waits more than her singing voice ever could.

Thus the buildup for Break Up was similar to the awkward tension that accompanies an alcoholic going to Las Vegas for the weekend. Deep down you want to stage an intervention before it happens, but it's easier to pretend everything's going to be alright and they'll be home safe.

Thank goodness, it seems that Johansson has returned home alive and well.

In the first track, the ultra-catchy, dance-hall themed "Relator," Johansson is singing right there next to you, right into your ear, and the results are almost night-and-day compared to her previous musical work. Perhaps it's the fact that these songs were written with her in mind, perhaps it's simply working with a veteran recording artist like Pete Yorn, but for whatever reason, Johansson buys a lifetime of musical goodwill in one song.

Well, that's not entirely true. It would be wonderful to say that every song on Break Up has the same quality as that initial surprise, but frankly there are still some rather glaring issues. The first major stumbling block comes in track three, "I Don't Know What To Do." From hearing this, it's hard not to make comparisons to She & Him, the similar musician-actress combination of M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel. Here, Johansson's voice smacks of Deschanel's cutesy quality, while the song's structure, and even the production style basically mirrors that of She & Him. I'm not necessarily accusing them of ripping off another duo, but there's a definite case to be made.
This is followed by two mostly enjoyable tracks, the initially flat but ultimately worthwhile "Search Your Heart" and "Blackie's Dead" which features a warm chorus.

Yet the album doesn't regain the epiphany-inducing impact of its beginning until the final two tracks. First there's the vaguely '90s soul of "Clean," which does a beautiful job of harmonizing two fairly nondescript vocals. And finally, there's "Someday," which, despite (or perhaps thanks to) Pete Yorn's wavering voice, is a wonderfully soft, heartfelt ballad that avoids becoming overinflated.

Overall, there are more positives about Break Up than negatives. Unfortunately, that's not saying a great deal, as the "album" features only 9 songs and clocks in at just over 25 minutes, a pathetic length for an EP, let alone a full-length release. Whether Johansson should make another album is debatable. I guess all we can hope is that she takes the criticism she's gotten up to this point with dignity and respect and really weighs her strengths and weaknesses.

Let's just hope she never makes another tribute album.

-Christian J. Hagen
This review was previously published by the Minnesota State University Reporter.


Caspar said...

I know I'm always going to be pretty much on my own with this, but I really like her Tom Waits album, you know. I like her being so obstreperous and awkward on it; this sounds like it might be a bit shiny.

Amanda said...

You're not alone, Caspar: I'll take dreamy, firefly-drenched swampland over toe-tapping sunshine any day.

Sean said...

It's not often that I come across a word I've never seen before, but Caspar's comment marks my first encounter with obstreperous. Well done, sir.

Felicia said...

I think she should probably just go away. That goes for both musically and theatrically.

Sean said...

I just finally listened to the songs, and I think that you're right on regarding "Realtor"; a really good song. The other song isn't great, but it didn't offend me, either.

nateraabe said...

Nice review. This album was recorded a while ago. I believe 2006...before the Tom Waits and She and Him. So there was no way they ripped them off.