Scarlett's vocals pretty ho-hum

The Baltimore Sun


Scarlett Johansson

Sun Grade: C+

Film actress and critical darling Scarlett Johansson started nurturing a career in music two years ago. She appeared on Unexpected Dreams: Songs From the Stars, a 2006 charity album, crooning the George Gershwin standard "Summertime." Soon afterward, Rhino, the label that released the CD, approached Johansson with a recording contract.

For her debut release, the blond beauty decided to do a concept album. Well, sort of. Anywhere I Lay My Head is a suite of Tom Waits songs that loosely centers on traveling. But Johansson is not the star here. Producer and Columbia native David Sitek, perhaps best known for his challenging work with TV on the Radio, often dazzles with haunting, plinking arrangements that echo and drift. He reimagines Waits' songs as soft, dreamy synth-based floaters, eschewing any hint of the singer-songwriter's typically clanking approach.

Sitek also uses Johansson's amber voice as another instrument, sometimes burying it in the rippling music. As a singer, the actress lacks personality. Johansson's voice, often low and sometimes seductive, is inexpressive throughout. She doesn't exactly sound bored, and she sings in tune. It's just that she adds no color or texture to her vocals, letting the music do all the work. Her approach clicks on "Song for Jo," where the narcotic music and vocals become one. The sun-kissed synth-pop of "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" vaguely recalls Debbie Harry's sexy deadpan performance on the Blondie classic "Heart of Glass."

Elsewhere, Johansson just melts into the music, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Suggested downloads: "Song for Jo" and "I Don't Wanna Grow Up"


Donna Summer

Sun Grade: C+

In clubs and on the radio 30 years ago, Donna Summer was inescapable, dominating dance floors and the pop charts with inventive hits that remain untouchable. The list is long: "Love to Love You Baby," "Spring Affair," "I Feel Love," "Bad Girls" and others.

On Crayons, Summer's first album of new material in 17 years, she sounds amazing. At 59, the pop diva still sings with the vibrancy that charged her classics so many years ago. Her voice has deepened a bit, but it's stronger and more full-bodied than it was in the late '70s -- if you can believe it.

However, the new material doesn't always serve Summer's talents. She collaborates with an array of young, of-the-moment writers and producers, including Greg Kurstin (Lily Allen, Pink), JR Rotem (Sean Kingston, Rihanna) and Lester Mendez (Shakira, Santana). But the varied approaches make for a frustratingly uneven album.

Summer, who has been a pop chameleon throughout her career, manages to invigorate the 12 cuts with that awesome instrument of hers. But the arrangements feel a bit thin at times. The album's first single, "I'm a Fire," has already topped Billboard's dance charts, and it's a standout on the CD. "Fame (The Game)," a pulsing rock-dance concoction with a sobering lyric about the trappings of stardom, also sounds like a promising club smash.

Crayons certainly doesn't displace such Summer masterstrokes as Four Seasons of Love, Once Upon a Time or Bad Girls. Though lacking cohesion, the CD is not at all an embarrassing effort. If anything, it shows that Summer has lost none of her celebrated vocal power. There's still a stunner in her somewhere.

Suggested downloads: "I'm a Fire," "Fame (the Game)," "Crayons" and "Drivin' Down Brazil"

Also anticipated

Post-grunge band 3 Doors Down releases a self-titled album, the follow-up to 2005's platinum-selling Seventeen Days.

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