Can Scarlett Johansson Sing? Who Cares? Esquire music critic Andy Langer previews this week's new album releases, featuring music from actress-turned-singer Scarlett Johansson, Green Day side project Foxboro Hot Tubs, bluegrass banjoist Abigail Washburn, and the Flobots.


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Can Scarlett Johansson Sing? Who Cares?

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It's that time again. It's Tuesday. It is New Music Tuesday and there's a provocative menu of new samplings out this week. Before we get to the main course, let's sample a few hors d'oeuvres, shall we? From column A, columina (ph), the debut from much buzzed about British rockers the Ting Tings, "We Started Nothing."

(Soundbite of song "Shut Up and Let Me Go")

THE TING TINGS: (Singing) Hey! Shut up and let me go. This hurts, I tell you so. For the last time you will kiss my lips. Now shut up and let me go. Your jeans were once so clean...

PESCA: Wow. From column B, Houston rapper Bun B releases his first album since the death of his partner, Pimp C. It's called "II Trill."

(Soundbite of song "II Trill")

Mr. BERNARD "BUN B" FREEMAN: (Rapping) We might be doing this for Pimp C (Yeah) So pass me a bottle. I'm about to pop the top on it Like a slap over a (unintelligible) model. Turn it upside down And blow it out for my little bro. And pass me another one, so I can...

MARTIN: How about a taste of semi-orchestral, Canadian collective, Islands, returning with their second album, "Arm's Way"?

(Soundbite of music)

ISLANDS: (Singing) Breathe in deep, I want you to. That's why Leon came for you.

PESCA: And a nibble of cute pop icons, Mates of State, with their fifth album, "Rearrange Us."

(Soundbite of song "Help Help")

MATES OF STATE: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, lie down, So we can listen to you. Help, help, can you help, help...

MARTIN: OK, now for the main course, and questions, like why do you have to change your bands' name if you just want to branch out and experiment? What would it sound like to fuse classical music and hip-hop in the same album? Why is yodeling never a good idea? And why, oh, why is Scarlett Johansson trying to sing? Here to answer those questions and others is friend of the BPP and music critic for Esquire Magazine, Andy Langer. Hey, Andy.

Mr. ANDY LANGER (Music Critic, Esquire Magazine): Hey, I would quit this in a heartbeat if I won the lottery, by the way.

MARTIN: I knew it! See, of course.

PESCA: And dedicate yourself to yodeling full time?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: OK, we're going to start with a couple albums of feature people in roles we may not be accustomed to seeing them in. We are going to, of course, get to Scarlett Johansson's album of Tom Waits covers - that's right - in just a minute. But first, tell us why we might recognize the guys in this band called Foxboro Hot Tubs?

Mr. LANGER: Well, the Foxboro Hot Tubs, as we discussed on this show back in December, when they first put up their website, put up six songs for free, and they were sort of these garage-y, retro Yardbirds, Who-sounding tunes that, under the name Foxboro Hot Tubs, had people guessing that it might be a different band. And in fact, the mystery was only a mystery if you'd never heard of Green Day.

(Soundbite of laughter)


MARTIN: Yeah, it's Green Day.

Mr. LANGER: It was Green Day.

MARTIN: Yeah, OK. Before we talk about why the name change, why they need to create a whole new entity, let's hear a little bit from the new record from Foxboro Hot Tubs. It's called "The Pedestrian," and it's from the album "Stop, Drop, and Roll."

(Soundbite of song "The Pedestrian")

FOXBORO HOT TUBS: (Singing) It don't take a genius to be an idiot It don't take a Jesus to save my soul When it's my time and it's my time to go

Pedestrian is what I am, an understated Samaritan Where I go, I go alone As long as I am taking my time...

MARTIN: So Andy, I'll cop to not being familiar with the entire canon of work of Green Day. But from what I do know, that kind of still sounds like Green Day. Is there anything...

PESCA: Agreed.

MARTIN: Is there anything on this album that sounds or would have necessitated the name change?

Mr. LANGER: No. In all fairness, though, the tune that we just heard is one of the ones that's much closer to Green Day than some of the more garage-y...


Mr. LANGER: Sort of proto-punk, early punk stuff that is on this record. That said, no, I - the whole name change thing is a mystery to me because, you know, here's a band that had to decide what to do after "American Idiot," after a real mainstream success, a Grammy-winning success, the record that is build around politics and, you know, 12-minute anthems and these, you know, little mini-rock operas. And they've got to figure out what to do next.

You know, if this is the way, a stop gap, a way of biding themselves some time, then I guess it works. But I don't know why they didn't just put this out as a Green Day record and then come back next time with a record that is perhaps, you know, more thematically-straightforward or more thematically-challenging. You know, this is a set, though, of fully-realized songs, not just side-project songs. So to change the name is...

MARTIN: I mean, is it because Green Day has become a brand? And is there something to this idea that you're not allowed to experiment, once you've become this thing that's bigger than life, that your fans should start forgiving?

Mr. LANGER: Yeah, and I think, you know, they worried about diluting the brand, and, in some ways, I think they strengthened the brand because it makes them, you know, this is a cool side project. This is something they're taking out into the clubs this week, in fact. And when I say clubs, I mean 250- to 300-seat rooms.

And they're going to put tickets on sale the night of the show, which means that they're going to have five or 10,000 kids outside of each of these clubs in these relatively small cities. So they're doing a tour around that only strengthens the Green Day brand, not necessarily the Foxboro Hot Tubs, which they'll abandon, you know, a year from now or a month from now and move on as Green Day.

MARTIN: Plus, it's pretty good marketing. I mean, you know, you create buzz about - and then everyone tries to figure out, oh, it's really Green Day, and then they're kind of cool by, you know - to different people for different reasons, and like you said, it bolsters the original brand name.

Mr. LANGER: Yeah, and what's actually really cool is they gave away the first six songs free back in, you know, in December, then they took them down. And now, if you go to their website, you can buy only the second half of the record. You can buy both halves, but they'll give you the option of just buying the second half. Since you already have the first half, they're not making you buy it twice, which is a nice little gesture.

MARTIN: Nice gesture.

PESCA: My take on this is, if all other bands did this, then we wouldn't be able to look back and say, oh, Neil Young, there's an eclectic artist. Or the Beatles, look how they changed. It would be, oh, "Revolver," that wasn't a Beatles album. "The White Album," oh, that, they recorded under a different name. So there's a little bit of, maybe, being scared of something. I don't know.

Mr. LANGER: Yeah, that sense of history, though, I'm not sure that they're going to, you know, this generation is just downloading songs. I'm not saying that that's a bad thing. I just don't think that people are going to look at it as a big canon of work the same way that you have that interest in the Beatles or in Neil Young.

MARTIN: Let's move on to Miss Johansson, shall we?

Mr. LANGER: Yes.

MARTIN: Let's. "Anywhere I Lay My Head" is the name of the album, and it's apparently - well, it's not apparently. It is a collection of Tom Waits covers, and she's also got on board with her in this project some other folks that are boosting her street cred in the indie world, right?

Mr. LANGER: Yeah, she's got - well, her producer's from TV on the Radio. She's got Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and David Bowie's on two of these songs. I mean, the idea that this album seems sort of designed for pitchfork readers who are predisposed to hating her anyway doesn't make a lot of sense. But then, it makes sense when you hear her voice, because she needs something like this to sort of obscure and to hide the voice itself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I agree. Before we get any further, let's listen to a little bit - a clip from this new album, OK.

(Soundbite of song "Falling Down")

Ms. SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (Singing) You forget all the roses don't come around on Sunday. She's not gonna choose you for standing so tall. Go on, take a swig of that poison and like it, And don't ask for silverware, don't ask for nothing. Go on, put your ear to the ground. You'll be hearing that sound, Falling down.

MARTIN: So that's called "Falling Down" off Scarlett Johansson's debut album, "Anywhere I lay My Head." I mean, if you think of her and Tom Waits and his vocal skills and what he's bringing to the table, it was probably a good choice on her part, because her voice is kind of sounds Waitsonian (ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Yeah, you don't want to do Dusty Springfield covers if you're Scarlett Johansson.

Mr. LANGER: The whole premise is tricky, because Tom Waits songs are tricky to begin with. It's almost as if she set out to fail. I mean, can she sing? Yeah. But memorably? Not really. And what would it sound like without that production? I mean, that's the question, if you take away that camouflage.

MARTIN: I know. Even with, like, that reverb-y thing, it still doesn't sound good. But that's just my opinion.

Mr. LANGER: Yeah, and the other problem is there's just not a lot of passion in those vocals, and these are songs that call for passion, and you know, to call it breathy is kind of generous, you know. There are moments, like there's this one with just a music box where she's singing over a music box, and you know, "I wish I was in New Orleans" is the song. And it's really moody and kind of messy and good. You know, it's her bravest move on the record. And unfortunately, I mean, this thing - like it started off as a curiosity, and it's not much more than that. It's not going to be a keeper, you know? Better than Russell Crowe? Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: You know, Andy, the high priests of indie rock, the poobahs of pop, they're going to mock her. That's what they do. That's what the pitchfork crowd does. But the other side of it is, you know, so what? It ain't a great album, and no one's really going to buy the album. But should it really redound to such shame on the behalf of Scarlett Johansson, who at least picked a good guy to do some songs in the style of? And so she's trying. I think the mockery of Scarlett Johansson, which is inevitably going to happen, I see how it's going to play out before it even plays out.

Mr. LANGER: Yeah, but I'm not sure she's going to be - it's not like she's going to be shamed out of Hollywood. It's not like...

PESCA: We're talking about Hollywood.

Mr. LANGER: A day job, you know? I mean, because if that was the case, Russell Crowe wouldn't be making movies, Minnie Driver wouldn't be making movies, you know, Juliette Lewis wouldn't be around.

PESCA: Right. Shaun Cassidy.

Mr. LANGER: You know, it is what it is, and what it is isn't great, but it's not going to hurt anybody's career.

MARTIN: OK, let's move along, shall we, down the road to a little bluegrass with a classical influence, actually. Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet, who are these people?

Mr. LANGER: Well, Abigail Washburn is sort of this over-educated 23 or 25 year old, whatever she is now, and she studied Mandarin Chinese and is fluent and is also a really accomplished, really terrific, bluegrass banjo player. And so she's taken these two things, the Chinese and the bluegrass, and sort of done an east meets bluegrass deal. She's also played in Uncle Earl, a collective that John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin has produced, so she's got the - her bona fides. And she's now joined up with Bela Fleck.

MARTIN: Legendary.

Mr. LANGER: Who is the legendary, you know, bluegrass banjo player. And so this group has two banjos, a fiddle and a cello, and they call themselves the Sparrow Quartet, and they got together to do a tour of China and ended up coming home and making a record.

MARTIN: Cool, let's listen. Here's a song called "Banjo Picking Lady" from Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quintet.

(Soundbite of "Banjo Picking Lady")

Ms. ABIGAIL WASHBURN: (Singing) Going around this world, babymine. Going around this world, babymine. Going around this world, a banjo-pickin' world, I'm going around this world, babymine.

Going to Tennessee, babymine. Going to Tennessee, babymine...

MARTIN: OK, Andy, I want to get to the last group. So tell me real quick, Abigail Washburn, this album, thumb up, thumb down?

Mr. LANGER: Yeah, thumbs up. It's virtuosic and ambitious without sounding overly virtuosic or ambitious.

MARTIN: Cool, and I should correct myself. I said the Sparrow Quintet. It is a quartet?

Mr. LANGER: Yes.

MARTIN: And oh, yeah, I do have to mention, there is yodeling, and I think yodeling should never, ever happen, and I love bluegrass, but that's just my two cents, people. Make up your own mind. OK, let's move on to the Flowbots, "Fight with Tools." This is a group I have not heard of before. There might be a reason - no. They are fusing two different music genres, right? We're talking about some classical music, and we're talking about a little hip-hop.

Mr. LANGER: Again, generous.


(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I'm a generous kind of lady. Let's listen to a little bit. Here are the Flowbots.

(Soundbite of song "No Handlebars")

FLOWBOTS: (Singing) I can ride my bike with no handlebars, No handlebars, No handlebars.

Mr. LANGER: OK. Got it.

FLOWBOTS: (Singing) I can ride my bike with no handlebars, No handlebars, No handlebars.

Look at me, look at me, Hands in the air like it's good to be Alive and...

MARTIN: Andy, in five words, what do you think?

Mr. LANGER: If Chuck D talks about hip-hop being the black CNN, this is the Cartoon Network.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LANGER: This is ridiculously bad, and it's the big hit song of the summer, so far, on modern rock radio, and it makes me want to hear Nickelback.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's why you make the big money. Andy Langer, music critic for Esquire Magazine. Thanks as always, Andy.

Mr. LANGER: Thank you.

PESCA: See, I think it needed to be said, but that is it for the Bryant Park Project. We're online all the time at I'm Mike Pesca.

MARTIN: And I'm Rachel Martin. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

FLOWBOTS: (Singing) And I can see your face on the telephone, On the telephone, On the telephone...

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