Album: Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson, Break Up (Atco/Rhino)
A musical diversion that doesn't get lost in translation
Sunday 06 September 2009
Anyone who had last year's Anywhere I Lay My Head, Scarlett Johansson's elegantly sombre and surprisingly engaging album of obscure Tom Waits covers, marked down as a Hollywood dilettante's vanity project, is way off target. Turns out the girl with the cushion-lips who played the girl with the pearl earring is actually serious about this music thing.
To complicate matters, Break Up was recorded in 2006, two years before Johansson's official debut, with New Jersey journeyman singer-songwriter Pete Yorn. As though in defiance of his all-too-tempting surname, Break Up is a perky and wakeful thing, consisting mainly of breezy indie-pop shot through with California sunshine, more the Lemonheads meets the Mamas and the Papas than the pair's inspiration, Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot. A brief nine-song fling, this compact and bijou collaboration works worst when it's overreaching itself – a slightly pointless cover version of Chris (Big Star) Bell's "I Am the Cosmos" – and best when it keeps things understated (the Yorn-penned "Clean", which finds the pair declaring "Would you talk to me?/ I want everything to be so clean").
Johansson has yet to fully find her own voice, and instead employs a smoky Winehouse twang, but it meshes nicely with Yorn's laid-back drawl and breathy falsetto. Lyrically, it can err on the side of laziness (witness the blatant Beatles steal of "While I'm away I write home every day" in the single "Relator"), but there are flashes of wit (see the line "Here I go again, late for another passing train", which I take to be a subtle contemplation of suicidal thoughts).
What's in it for the duo to have this shelved artefact brought to light now? Johansson says "I always thought of it as just a small project between friends, but it perfectly captures where I was in my life at the time." She also gains a little credibility by association. Yorn gets heard by about four times as many listeners as usual. And he gets to make a reference to "You going down on me..." Which is, frankly, just showing off.
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